There’s this ridiculous game I play to try and keep my memory sharp. I make my grocery list at home and then purposefully leave it behind to see if I can remember everything on the list.
My husband will cringe if he reads this because he now knows why he constantly has to stop for one or two items on his way home from work at night.
I decided it would be best for holiday harmony to take my list with me to the grocery store on Christmas Eve to buy what we needed on the very first trip for our favorite Penne with Prosciutto and Fontina.
My under-18 family members had added their own sneaky requests to the list, so I thought I’d better read over it one more time while the cashier scanned the groceries. I vaguely noticed that a man had walked up to start bagging the groceries, but I didn’t pay any attention to him.
The next thing I heard was the grocery bagger saying three words that I could not understand. I looked up with a puzzled, distracted look in my eyes only to be snapped to the moment because of the intense look in his own eyes. Without a word, he was pleading with me to understand what he was trying to say.
He was hearing impaired, which had affected his speech.
His left hand held a plastic bag, and his right, paper. He said the three words again quickly, and I realized that he was asking me, “paper or plastic?”
Walking out to my car, I kept thinking about the man and how many thousands of times in his life he has needed to speak – only to have been misunderstood.
Answering a phone. Reading aloud in class. Trying to get a job. Trying to fall in love.
I imagine after enough times of not being understood, you probably quit opening your mouth after a while. Or worse, your heart.
You and I may not struggle to speak, but we struggle to be understood all the same. If you think about it, every word ever written and every word ever spoken has had this one purpose in mind: Put yourself out there, and hope somebody gets where you’re coming from.
I understand. These are two of the most gracious, compassionate words you could ever give to someone. I only know this because they’ve been given to me.
Christmas Penne with Prosciutto and Fontina
4 cups Béchamel Sauce (see recipe below)
½ pound thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into thin strips
1 cup freshly grated Fontina cheese
½ teaspoon salt, more to taste
Pinch of white pepper, more to taste
1 pound penne, cooked until tender but still very firm
4 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs (I use a sourdough baguette to make mine.)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
Preheat oven to 425°F. Spray a 9×13-inch baking dish with cooking spray, like Pam. In a medium saucepan, reheat Béchamel Sauce if needed. Do not let boil. Add the prosciutto, ½ cup Fontina, ½ teaspoon salt and pinch of white pepper. Set aside.
Stir in cheese sauce into prepared penne. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. Spoon into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining Fontina, bread crumbs and diced butter. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes or until top is brown and bubbly. You can prepare up to 8 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate, but uncover before baking.
For the Béchamel Sauce:
4 cups whole milk
½ large white onion
3 bay leaves
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt, more to taste
Pinch of white pepper, more to taste
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg, more to taste
In a saucepan, gently heat milk with the onion and bay leaves. Let steep for 30 minutes if you have time. You can omit the onion and bay leaf and just warm the milk. It will still work fine. Don’t let the milk boil. Remove onion and bay leaves before going to the next step.
In a two-quart saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour, whisking until smooth, about 90 seconds. Gradually add warm milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly until the sauce is thickened, smooth and creamy. This took me about 8 minutes. Do not let the sauce ever come to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in salt, white pepper and nutmeg. Taste and add more seasonings if desired. You can make this up to 3 days in advance. Cover and store in refrigerator.
It was supposed to be funny. I get that. But I didn’t think Jimmy Kimmel’s “I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy” video prank was funny one bit. OK, the end was kind of funny; I’ll give you that.
Maybe I didn’t see the humor because I’m a mom and have spent half of my life trying to stop all people under 18 from crying. And I have to wonder about any parent who would play a joke on their child that makes them cry — and then send the video of them crying to be played on national TV. Forget the dentist money from all that candy eating, jokesters, your kiddos are headed for therapy.
Once I got over the parents’ behavior, I watched dumbfounded that the kids were crying that hard over lost candy. Then I realized something. I may be 40 years older than the children in the video, but there’s not a lot of difference between how they act when they don’t get something they want and how I feel inside. I’ve just learned how to draw the public curtain on my discontent.
That was Halloween. It’s now Thanksgiving, a time when we focus on being grateful. But I’m not sure we are any more content with our lives than we were last week, last month or last year. And I don’t think discontent and gratitude can live in the same heart. At least, they don’t get along very well in my own.
I’ve always somehow connected contentment with loss or learning to live with less than you really want. When the Apostle Paul said “Be content in all circumstances,” he had just been beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, abandoned and left for dead. What else does the guy have to cling to?
But what about when life is going well? What about when my circumstances are better than most? I have a good life, and I know I haven’t looked around and thought, “Well, I’ve finally gotten there. I am content. I have enough.”
One of my sons is studying Shakespeare this year at school, and I was reminded of a scene in Henry VI when two gatekeepers come upon the king. The king is dressed in regular clothes and is out in the country, away from the palace. The gatekeepers aren’t sure whether to believe the king is the real king, and they ask him, “But if thou be a king, where is thy crown?”
King Henry VI answers,
“My crown is in my heart, not on my head;
Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,
Nor to be seen: my crown is called content:
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.”
Seldom kings enjoy. That last phrase kills me.
I have richly been provided everything I need for my enjoyment. And I hope that is enough.
Here’s a recipe for my favorite childhood candy, the kind I threw a fit over every holiday season.
Peanut Butter Balls
3/4 cup smooth peanut butter
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
In a large bowl, whisk together the peanut butter, butter and vanilla until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and stir until really stiff. You might need to use your hands to knead and make a smooth dough. Roll into small balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill baking sheet in refrigerator until firm, about two hours.
After chilling, microwave chocolate chips and oil together in 20-second intervals, stirring after each interval. Repeat until melted. Make sure you use a bowl that makes it easy to dip the balls into the chocolate.
Using a fork or sturdy toothpick, dip each ball into the melted chocolate and return to the baking sheet; repeat until finished. Place the pan back in the refrigerator for 2-3 more hours to allow chocolate to set. Store, covered, in the refrigerator.
To make the drizzle decoration, reheat any leftover chocolate chips in the microwave for a few seconds and then quickly spoon into a small Ziploc plastic bag. Using scissors, carefully cut off a tiny corner of the bag and drizzle melted chocolate over the chocolate balls. You can drizzle before the chocolate has completely set on each ball.
Growing up, we only had one television in our house. My parents believed that nothing good could come from allowing my three siblings and me separate TVs (or a separate children’s phone line, but that’s a woe for another day). “Garbage in, garbage out” was one of my mother’s favorite lines as she turned off the television when we were trying our hardest to watch Fantasy Island.
In our traditional family, one television simply meant everyone watched whatever my father wanted to watch, which was PBS or baseball. To this day I can close my eyes and still see Phil Niekro playing for the Braves or hear William F. Buckley, Jr. tossing huge words around on his program, “Fringe Line,” as I called it when first learning to read.
Baseball has been around me my whole life. My father played college ball, and I was my brother’s “batgirl” for his Little League teams. Before my husband and I were married, he was coaching baseball teams just for fun. And both of our boys have played the game off and on for years; one is now back in the swing of things for his freshman team.
The men in my life love this game, and although I don’t share the same level of passion (or patience or understanding), I love to experience baseball through their excitement. However, I confess that when I heard my husband chanting “Napoli” in our house the other night, I thought maybe he was surprising me with a trip to Italy. I ran from the laundry room with my own level of passion and excitement only to discover that his Napoli is from Florida and wears a catcher’s mask.
Once I got over the initial disappointment, I discovered there’s a lot to like about Mike Napoli. Not only is he one of the main reasons the Rangers are in the lead right now, he seems to be a good sport too. This summer, he lost a bet with a friend over who would win the NBA Championship. Losing meant he had to let the friend choose his “at-bat” music for one game.
Against the Orioles one July evening, Napoli walked to the plate again and again to the tune of “Man I Feel Like A Woman” and “I’m Too Sexy.” Needless to say, he never got a hit that night, at least from his bat.
And Napoli has his mom’s name “Donna Rose” tattooed on his forearm. I feel instant love for a boy who loves his Mom enough to tell the world. In the video you can watch here, Napoli gives credit to his Mom for getting him where he is today; they have a sweet relationship.
So tonight, as we watch the Rangers hopefully win their first MLB World Series Championship, my family will be cheering them on Napoli-style. No, I’m not talking about the prepackaged, perfectly portioned chicken and potatoes the catcher supposedly eats to keep his weight down and strength up.
I’m talking about pizza. Napoli, Italy, may hold the 16th-century title as the birthplace of pizza, but tonight, we’re bringing the winning pizza to our home plate where it belongs.
And really, isn’t pizza as American as apple pie and…baseball?
1 cup warm water
1 1/2 ounces fresh yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup crushed tomatoes, preferably Cento brand
8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced into 12 equal pieces
8 leaves fresh basil
Combine the water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl and stir until dissolved. Add salt and 1 cup of the flour and mix with a wooden spoon to make a loose batter. Add 2 more cups of the flour and stir with the spoon for 2 to 3 minutes to incorporate as much flour as possible. Bring the dough together by hand and turn out onto a floured board or marble surface. Knead for 6 to 8 minutes, until you have made a smooth, firm dough. Place the dough in a lightlyoiled bowl and cover with a towel. Set aside to rise in the warmest part of the kitchen for 45 minutes.
Cut the risen dough into 4 equal pieces and knead each portion into a round. Cover again and let rest 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place a clean pizza stone in oven to preheat. Dust a clean work surface lightly with flour. With your fingers and palms, flatten one of the dough rounds into a 10-inch oval about 1/4-inch thick. Spread 1/4 cup of the crushed tomatoes evenly on entire surface of dough, leaving 1/4-inch of dough to form edge of pizza. Put three slices of mozzarella on top of tomatoes. Rip 2 leaves of basil into smaller pieces and sprinkle on top of mozzarella. Slide pizza directly onto pizza stone and bake 15 to 18 minutes, until edge of pizza is golden brown and cheese is bubbling. Repeat with remaining 3 dough balls and serve hot.
NOTE: You can also top with crumbled, cooked Italian sausage, slivered yellow onions and sliced Portobello mushrooms.
Easiest Ever American League Apple Pies
For the crust, if not using ready-made:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
3-4 tablespoons cold water
Sugar for sprinkling, preferably Turbinado or large crystal variety
For the filling:
3-4 apples, roughly chopped
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ stick butter, cut into cubes
2 tablespoons melted butter for brushing crust
For the crust (if not using ready-made):
Heat oven to 400° F. In a food processor, combine flour, salt and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Add butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until the dough comes together but is still slightly crumbly (you should use 3 to 4 tablespoons total). Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead gently. Shape the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for 20 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 12-14 inch circle. Place it in an 8- or 9-inch cast-iron skillet, allowing the dough to hang over the edge.
For the apple filling/assembly:
In a bowl, combine apples, sugar, cornstarch and spices. Mix until apples are thoroughly coated. Fill the pie crust with the apple mixture, piling it high in the middle. Gently fold the dough edges in towards the center. Dot apples with butter pats and brush the crust with melted butter. Sprinkle sugar over apples and crust. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until crust is brown and sugar has melted. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.