Mar 232012
 

Dutch Babies from bibberche.com

My girls are not the type to grab the box of cereal and milk, and call it a proper breakfast, even on the school mornings. If my alarm miraculously fails to scream the most obnoxiously repeated sound in my ear at the proper time, I have to go for the emergency cereal box and offer it to them, feeling inadequate and very guilty. But usually I make them omeletes, sunny-side-up eggs accompanied with a half of a grapefruit and some cottage cheese, french toast with raspberry sauce, roasted red peppers sauteed with cream cheese, slow-cooked oatmeal with brown sugar, dried cranberries, and cinnamon, crepes filled with apricot jam or Nutella, sauteed chicken livers, and their favorites, Dutch Babies.

They were not born this way, of course. I managed to create a few monsters out of perfectly normal girls raised in the heartland of America. They could have been just like thousands of their peers who truly enjoy a visit to McDonald’s and always order from the children’s menu in a family restaurant. They would not have looked at me as if I were speaking Swahili when I mentioned Hamburger Helper or Rice-a-Roni. They would not have writen in their first grade class cookbook of favorite meals that they first unwrap the toy, then eat a few fries, and toss the burger away, as my oldest did (not the best literary piece, I know, but it made me smile with pride and stop feeling guilty for not taking her to fast food places more often).

They decided early on that they liked real food, because I fed them real food. I did not buy the jars of baby food. Instead, I mashed my own vegetables, strained soups, blended stews, and cut up everything really tiny, perfectly sized for an army of Liliputians, and they learned to eat everything we ate: spicy food, sauerkraut, prosciutto, moldy cheeses, and even offal.

When we were planning her sixth birthday, Zoe asked if she could have mussels instead of ubiquitous pizza. I dissed the idea as impractical as most of her schoolmates would not have touched the mollusks from a mile away. I compromised with make-your-own pizza party, which the girls loved. Anya’s favorite dish is bouillabaisse, and she dreams of a day she can enjoy it al fresco somewhere in Marseilles, as she describes every detail of that extraordinary culinary experience as if it were happening right now. Nina devoured every morsel of caviar they served on the Volga cruise Father took her to a few summers back, and now eagerly awaits her twenty-first birthday so that she can enjoy the caviar and champagne tasting they offer at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

My ex-husband was flabbergasted when Nina asked for a platter of steamed crab legs instead of a grilled cheese sandwich and fries, counting the bills in his pocket and calculating the difference. She was only five at the time. None of them would eat the lunch provided by school if they had a choice in the matter. They like the crusty, Tuscan-style bread and ciabbata rolls instead of plain, white, soft bread wrapped in plastic that endures for months on the shelf without changing one bit. (We named it duck bread because we used to feed the ducks with it when we lived in the house on the lake in Ohio.)

Fresh from the farm eggs from bibberche.com

They have developed very refined tastes and even though it is hard for me when they whine if I offer Kraft’s Mac&Cheese for lunch (the stash is definitely Husband’s, along with many other extraneous and suspicious looking food products residing in boxes), and only halfheartedly accept a quesadilla when I refuse to whip up a gourmet sandwich much more to their liking, I cannot help but be proud.

My three girls will be able to survive on any continent, in any environment, and they will never have to be hungry because they are afraid to try something new. Their eye might sometimes wonder to the bag of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, but they know that they will enjoy more the tiny, crispy, flaky pastries or cheesy crackers I make for them occasionally.

To feed them this way costs much less and takes just a tiny bit more time out of my day, which is an investment I am not regretting. They have always been eager to help, and even though it drives me crazy when they take fifteen minutes to peel a potato or cut the onion, I invoke my inner mantra and meditate while they play with food, learning more and more every day.

I know that I am doing it the right way when I spend half an hour guiding my twenty-year-old through preparing Salmon En Papillote utilizing nothing but text messages on iPhone. She knows the elemental things of cooking and I supply the flourishes and details. Too much tomato, not enough lemon, and it really would have tasted better with cheese, she says. I smile, warmed by the sense of accomplishment. She knows what she likes, she is willing to experiment and change, she embraces creativity and refuses to conform. (I still would not add cheese to this dish, though).

Nina from bibberche.com

I don’t know what I’ll come up with for tomorrow’s breakfast. But this morning they each ate a whole, big Dutch Baby, all golden and puffy, dusted with powdered sugar, soft and yielding, exquisite in its simplicity. They planted big, wet kisses on my cheek before they sauntered off to school, thanking me for the best breakfast ever. And that always gives me more energy and strength than an extra big serving of Turkish coffee that awaits me at the table.

DUTCH BABIES

I make one batch, divide it in two and bake one after the other, as I have only one cast iron skillet. If you have two (I envy you!) but you can bake them together.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • pinch of coarse salt
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp butter
  • powdered sugar for dusting

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 500F. Place an 8-inch cast iron skillet in the oven.

Mix together milk, eggs, vanilla, sugar, and salt until combined. Slowly add flour and mix until incorporated and no more lumps show.

Add 1 tsp of butter to the hot pan, pour half of the batter into the hot skillet and bake for 10-15 minutes until puffed-up and golden. Remove the pancake to the plate using a big, flat spatula and dust with powdered sugar.

Repeat the process one more time.

Mar 132012
 

Orange Cake from bibberche.com

I decided to deliver my first daughter in Serbia rather than in the U.S., which might sound like an illogical choice. But Father was an ObGyn, Mother would be there to take care of me and the baby when it arrived, and my friends would fill my batteries depleted of energy after the months of my voluntary exile.

In America I was a perfectly legal alien, a proud owner of a pink green card, able to work and pay taxes, but unable to vote and get social help. As we could not afford any type of medical insurance and I could not apply for Medicare, the most practical choice was to go overseas.

Everything was as I predicted: Mother pampered me and prepared my favorite meals; Father sequestered me into a room with the door closed to advise me on pregnancy matters; my friends took turns accompanying me on long walks in the park that inevitably ended with a short rest in one of the outside cafés, drinking Schweppes Bitter Lemon or tasty European Iced Coffee.

When she finally decided to emerge, my baby girl was more beautiful than I hoped, and everyone doted on her. I heard from my (first) husband in America that the phone had been cut off, that he could not pay the bills, that it was not fair of me to have abandoned him. I listened, bit my lips, shrugged my shoulders, and decided to stay where we were safe until he grew up. Once I became a mother, my priorities shifted.

I started teaching English in a high school, all those pounds that miraculously appeared in the last two months of pregnancy started to melt away, and I attended my tenth high school reunion illuminated by the halo of new motherhood, happy, excited, and looking forward to each new day.

Oranges from bibberche.com

Just picked California oranges

In June the rumors of UN Sanctions and NATO bombing started, and I was scared. The panic was spreading, and even though I knew I was going back to uncertainty and hardship, I bought the train tickets to Germany, where my sister lived with her husband, and left my country again, watching my family and friends run after the speeding train and waived, drowning in tears.

I borrowed enough money from my sister for a one-way ticket to America, and arrived in Detroit on a hot, muggy night in August, with nine-month-old Nina strapped to my body, hauling two suitcases behind me, barely able to keep my eyes open from exhaustion. My husband waited for me at the airport, and after we embraced and he got a good look at this new creature in his life, perplexed in thought that it belonged to him, asked me for $5.00 for airport parking.

That night I just dropped the suitcases at home and went to the store to buy milk and diapers. If my heart had not already been broken into a thousand pieces, I would have panicked. For the next three months I moved as if in a dream, answered the calls from collection companies and learned what happens when you stop paying the bills. I often went to the store and bought one apple and a container of chicken livers, the best I could afford for my daughter, and I ate broccoli from the garden my sister-in-law planted while I was away.

We still could not get any help as I was not a citizen. I could not work, because we could not afford to pay a baby-sitter, and what little money I managed to earn on the weekend working in a restaurant was not even enough to keep the light on and diapers coming. And then, in November, Mother arrived, and like a fairy, spread her magic dust all over me and Nina. I went to work full force, six, seven days a week, pulling double shifts and marathons, comforted in thought that my baby was in safe hands. I lived in the restaurant, coming home only to shed the food grime off my body in the shower and lay prostrate on the floor, while Mother massaged my cramped legs and shoulders, but no one was hungry any more.

Years went by, and those days are living in my memory like anecdotes. My ex-husband is a chef in a nice seafood restaurant in Southern Florida and he often sends crates of crabs to us. He loves his daughter, but I brought us up from the bottom, running on pure instinct and thinking only of her survival.

Orange Cake from bibberche.com

For a long time I forgot about hunger and the moments of desperation that kept me awake night after night. And then the recession struck and in one horrifying swipe erased our life in Ohio as we knew it. Everything we had disappeared almost overnight, and we showed up in California on a beautiful August day penniless, in a rented SUV, as our van died in western Illinois, just before the St.Louis arch appeared. Our kids got on the bus available only to poor kids and ate subsidized lunches. We barely had any household items as we could not afford to bring them over from the storage unit in Ohio.

Unable to cope up with the incessant barrage of bad luck, Husband fumbled and lost his footing, allowing despair to take over. Day after day, I woke up at 5:45, donned my uniform, and walked through the mall to a diner, hiding my tears and worries behind smiles as I greeted my customers and made them feel like the world was one happy place, one pancake at a time. And even though money was not really rolling in, in a few months we bought the car, brought our furniture from Ohio, and fed not only our girls, but their little Mexican friends whose father left them with a mother who could not speak English.

The pressure was still on, but that gnawing feeling right below my sternum stopped from time to time and I allowed myself to relax. For three years I made the same trek through the mall and back, not looking around, aware that all of those beautiful clothes and shiny boots were out of my reach. But we were not hungry.

I left for Serbia last summer only to find out the night I arrived that Mother is seriously ill. I spent four months there taking care of her, crying hidden in the corners, not ready to see her so weak and fragile, this woman who carried my whole world on her back for years. It broke my heart to have to leave her, but my girls were in America way too long without me. A month after I returned we moved again to this beautiful town on the ocean, and I felt that I finally belonged for the first time since we arrived to the west coast.

Beach from bibbercheThe girls liked their new school and I started making friends and exploring ethnic stores and farmers’ markets. We bought bikes and I oiled an old pair of rollerblades. I placed badminton, tennis rackets, and volley ball in the corner of the kids’ room for easy access and made daily pilgrimages to the beach just a few blocks away. Life could not look rosier from where I stood, perched on the wall overlooking the blue expanse of the majestic ocean.

But the Fates were not done with us. It happened again, the panic, the despair, the sleepless nights, the feeling as if a baby elephant were taking a nap on my chest. The hunger looms again, showing its ugly head between fluffy stuffed animals, grinning victoriously, as if challenging me to a duel. But all I need to do is look at the two pairs of differently shaped blue eyes to know that I will prevail once again. And this time I intend to fight to the end, to press the “delete” button and erase completely that sneering impostor that threatens my little family.

Yesterday I watched a video of Anthony Robbins interviewing a Holocaust survivor, a 107 year-old woman who came alive from the Terezin concentration camp smiling, holding her young son by the hand. She continues to smile every day. She finds life beautiful and considers it a present. She does not perceive her hardships in the camp as terrible, but as an experience which only made her richer. She thinks that when she laughed with her son in the barracks, he forgot there was no food.  She does not hate anyone, but greets each morning with a sense of wonderment. And then she goes on to practice piano for three hours.

For a long time I just sat there, unable to form a cohesive thought, embarrassed by the moments of self-pity I allowed to creep into my stream of consciousness. And then I decided that I will not let my girls see worry in my eyes, that I will greet them with a wide-open smile reaching all the way to my eyes every day they burst through the door, filled with teen excitement and angst. I will go out into the world and once again conquer the ugly with the indomitable strength of motherly love. And we will never be hungry again.

Orange Cake from bibberche.com

My dear friend brought me a paper bag full of oranges from her neighbor’s yard. I could not think of a better way to bring smiles to my daughters’ faces and brighten our home than to make this beautiful cake I saw at one of my favorite blogs, Life’s a Feast. Jamie is an American, married to a Frenchman, and lives in the quaint (at least to me, as I have never been there) city of Nantes. She is my sister by pen, and we connect as if we were separated at birth.

I love her writing and I love her food. You can feel the love she pours into everything she makes for the men in her life – her two smart sons and her talented husband. Every time I visit her blog I stare longingly at the perfect delicacies she bakes and wish that I could whip out something as good. And this time I did. The cake was moist and buttery, infused with the bold scent of orange zest, with freshly squeezed juice offsetting the sweetness. It was like a ray of sunshine, like a gift from a Candyland store, simple, and yet unbelievably satisfying. Dusted with some powdered sugar and sprinkled with some more bright specks of orange zest, it was the perfect after-school snack.

ISABELLE’S ORANGE CAKE (adapted with permission from Life’s a Feast; for original recipe click here)

Ingredients:    

  • 4 medium oranges, scrubbed and dried – if they come from your neighbor’s tree you can be less vigorous) – you may need more or less, depending on how juicy your oranges are, but you should end up with 2/3 cups of juice
  • 200 g (7 oz) granulated sugar
  • 230 g (8 oz, 2 sticks) unsalted butter, sliced into chunks
  • 4 large eggs
  • 200 g (7 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 1 ½ tsps baking powder
    Orange Syrup:
  • 2/3 cup freshly squeezed and strained orange juice, about 4 medium oranges (that’s how many it took for me to get 2/3 cup of juice that the recipe asks for)
  • 2 Tbsp granulated sugar
Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Butter a round cake pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, butter it again and sprinkle it with some flour. Shake the excess off.
Zest the oranges, trying to avoid the bitter white pith. You should get about 1 and a half tablespoons of zest. Cut the oranges in half and juice them.
Heat the butter on low temperature until almost melted, remove from the stove, and let it cool.
Combine flour, salt, and baking powder. Pour the butter into a bigger bowl and add sugar. Whisk vigorously until well blended and creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing until completely incorporated. Add dry ingredients in thirds, mixing after each addition until there are no more lumps. Stir in the zest and the juice and mix until combined.
Pour into the prepared pan and bake 30-35 minutes until the middle is barely set (I needed and additional 5 minutes) and to surface is golden. Let it cool and serve at room temperature, dusted with powdered sugar and grated orange zest.
Mar 092012
 
On the Adriatic Coast from bibberche.com

My Nina is as old as I am in this photo. I need a shot, STAT!

I proved many times, not always with pleasant consequences, that certain skills, once learned, always stay somewhere in our brain-warehouse, maybe hidden and dusty, but easily reached and polished: bike riding, nursing, roller blading, skiing (on this one, my body knew exactly how to move, but my muscles refused to cooperate and time after time I ended up looking more like a snowman than a ski-bunny)…

But, I was so immensely impressed by my little gray cells’ capacity to pull the long-forgotten images from one end of my spinal column or the other when I was confronted with freshly defrosted whole, not yet cleaned heap of viscous, slimy and pretty scary looking baby squid.

As soon as I reached for the refrigerator door to fetch the cephalopods, Husband left the house to go to Home Depot, because we urgently needed a replacement filter for something. Right.

I tried to get the Beasties, our 12 and 13 year old daughters, to help – the older one made faces and faked gagging, and the younger grabbed an innocent specimen, named it Cthulhu, ran around the house with it and asked if it could be her new pet (I guess it can join a dead grasshopper-pet and a potato-pet that sleep very close to her). I gave up and shooed them away. My santoku in hand I started…

Some time ago (has it been that long?) in my college junior year, my roommate’s boyfriend’s cousin Drakče came to visit us on a furlough from serving army somewhere on the Adriatic. This continental boy learned how to fish, clean, gut and eat anything that swam around, and brought some fine squid with him. A small group of friends gathered with promises of free and delicious food, but first, we had to go through a tutorial on how to clean these gross-looking things. It took some (and then some more) alcohol for fortification, but when we embarked on this voyage, we were soon mesmerized and pleasantly surprised as how easy it was. By the last one, we felt like huffy, grumpy and not-too-freshly-smelling fisherman from any Mediterranean port – proud and convinced that the next day we could look the fish monger straight in the eyes and give him a secret shake.

Over the years I kept meeting squid – fried, sauteed, grilled, stuffed, in salads, in risottos, but never again did I have to clean another one. Until today. And it all came back. I missed my friends, I missed being 20 (and no, I didn’t forget the most important part of bracing myself for the deed with a cocktail), but the end result was as spectacular and awe-inspiring as back then.

Patiently awaiting my expertise

heads off

gutted in one clean sweep

the last thing out, cartilage

all queued up for a hot date (after being skinned, of course)

no, these would not make the most desirable prom date

If you are afraid that the next posts are going to be tutorials on gutting the fish, killing and plucking the chickens or skinning a hog, you can relax;  apart from rinsing and de-bearding the mussels I am completely ignorant of the processes necessary to transform fully functional grazers/swimmers/fliers/waders  into neatly packaged squares available in the supermarkets.

And, no, these beauties did not go anywhere. They ended up in a nice aromatic bath of minced garlic, lemon juice, chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and olive oil, where they luxuriated for 30 minutes, while the cast iron grill pan was slowly warming up. They accepted the heat with sizzle, sunbathed for 1 minute, turned on their backs, just to get the char lines, and off they strutted into a bowl, all their own. They were accompanied by a simple pasta with sauteed onions, red peppers, salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes – my squid like it hot and spicy! – a salad and a ramekin of marinade (I remembered to dish some up before the squid jumped in).

Mar 062012
 

Gnocchi from bibberche.com

One of the most important lessons I learned in my childhood is the lesson on frugality. My parents were born just before World War II erupted and had to live through the years of scarcity and food shortages during the war and for several years after. The country was destroyed, having met with the destructive might of both Axis and Allied forces, and it took a couple of decades for the population at large to stop feeling the hunger pangs.

In the seventies and eighties, while the three of us were emerging from childhood into adolescence,  life in ex-Yugoslavia was pretty idyllic for  most people (at least from our young perspective). Mother stayed at home with us, forsaking her career as a teacher, while Father was mostly absent, delivering babies, performing surgeries, and celebrating happy outcomes with numerous friends and acquaintances in restaurants and taverns all over the province.

We were not lacking anything, yet our parents insisted on keeping a tight budget on everyday expenditures. We didn’t go to the yearly clothes-buying pilgrimages to Trieste in Italy in the early 80s, like most of our friends, or later to Istanbul, Turkey, when Italy became too expensive. We learned how to sew in grade school, and most of the clothes we wore we made ourselves using an old foot-controlled Singer machine. We labored under the hawk-eyed criticism of  our Mother, who had learned to sew at age five, taught by a stern German hausfrau obsessed with the tiny details on the road to an elusive perfection.

All the sweaters Mother knitted were unravelled after we outgrew them, the yarn washed gently, and wound again into tight balls, ready to be transformed into another thing of beauty (as an Art teacher, she enjoyed the craft, and her unique creativity is unsurpassed).

The couches were reupholstered into something completely different and new. The tables and chairs were stripped and re-stained. The curtains and drapes Mother made herself, moving from the bright orange and brown hues of the seventies, through the Miami Vice pastels of the eighties, to the earth tones of the nineties.

We repurposed everything: supermarket plastic bags lined the trash cans; small glass jars holding mustard were turned into serving glasses for the family; emptied whiskey and vodka bottles held Mother’s special tomato and vegetable sauces; smallish, 250gr or 500gr jars were used to house those rare and hard to make homemade jams and preserves, like wild strawberry, rose, or  fig; yogurt and sour cream containers were for storing the daily leftovers.

We learned domestic alchemy from Mother… how to make something out of nothing. We developed a healthy approach to not wasting food. We grew up to be creative, imaginative, and frugal adults.

I arrived to my new home in the U.S., armed with this knowledge. In the land of plenty, I still reuse plastic containers, glass jars , and supermarket bags. Leftovers are transformed into meals of a completely different nature, the refrigerator is always full, and the box freezer is entering its tenth anniversary (we had to make an emergency trip to BestBuy to get it when a Serbian friend gifted us out of the blue with half of a freshly butchered Amish pig and plopped it on the kitchen counter).

I do a weekly inventory of the refrigerator, pantry, and the freezer, and make a meal plan for the week based on work and school schedules, and children’s activities and parties. College Kritter usually e-mails her special culinary requests several days prior to arrival at home for the weekend. I also research the weather forecast and take advantage of any cloudy, or less then 75F day (a winter wonderland in Southern California) to make a stew, a braised dish, or anything with sauerkraut. Based on all of these variables, we will go grocery shopping.

I try to include different foods and various cuisines, utilizing fresh produce and  healthy ingredients (yes, lard is healthy!). Mother was willing to accommodate all of our preferences, wishes, and cravings as long as they fit her master plan. I try to follow the same trend. The menu is not set in stone. Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking what I planned. Sometimes the chosen fresh produce does not look that fresh, and substitutions have to be made. Sometimes nobody feels hungry, and we just graze.

The finances are tight, and we do not eat out. But I pride myself on offering my family the freshest and finest ingredients so that they do not notice the budget. It gives me enormous satisfaction to expand their horizons, to introduce them to the unusual, to let them taste something wonderfully different. The gifts from Nature (you can tell I am digging life in California with that capital N in Nature!) transformed by my hands, leave every morsel as good as it can be. I try. I really do.  My parents had it worse in those uncertain war years, but as we cope with this recession, I hope to instill the same love of good food in my children as my parents instilled in us, always remembering that frugality is the basis of it all.

Gnocchi ingredients from bibberche.com

We had two baked potatoes left from the day before which were not enough to turn into twice-baked potatoes for a family of four. The cream of potato soup, as much as I love it, did not really fit with my plans to lose a few extra pounds. They were definitely destined to become gnocchi, these wonderfully soft potato pillows that give themselves thoroughly and with abandon to various sauces, transforming with each additional layer of flavor, leaving you content in the most wonderful carbohydrate daze.

As I had dinner already planned, I left the gnocchi in the freezer to await their chance to shine.

POTATO GNOCCHI

Ingredients:

  • 2 large Idaho potatoes
  • 1 large egg
  • ½ tsp coarse salt
  • ¾ cups all-purpose flour

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 425F.

Wash and dry the potatoes. Wrap them in aluminum foil and place directly on the grate in the oven. Bake for 45 minute until fork-tender. (If you have leftover baked potatoes, just warm them up in the oven for 5 minutes, as the gnocchi are much softer if the potatoes are warm.)

Remove the foil and allow potatoes to cool slightly, just enough so you can peel them without burning your fingers. Pass them through potato rice if you have one. If not gently press them with a fork until mashed.

Place the mash on a counter and make an indentation in the middle. Break the egg in the hole and beat it slightly with a fork. Sprinkle the flour and salt on top and gently fold the potatoes outside in, over the egg and flour, mixing gently. Knead lightly just until incorporated. You should not overwork the dough, as the gnocchi will be tough.

Cut the dough in four pieces and roll each piece  into a snake about ¾ inch thick (I find it  easier to roll it on a counter that is barely dusted with flour – just enough so that it does not stick to the surface.)

Using a knife, a pizza cutter, or a mezzaluna, cut pieces an inch in length and place them on a flour-dusted tray.

When all four pieces of the dough are rolled and cut, press each little piece against the fork tines with your thumb lightly, so the get ridges and curl inward. Place the gnocchi back on the flour-dusted tray.

(You can freeze them at this point by placing the tray in the freezer until they are completely frozen. Remove them from the tray and put them in a Ziploc bag.)

How to cook the gnocchi:

Heat a big pot of salted water until it boils. Once the water is vigorously boiling, put about 20 gnocchi in. They will sink to the bottom, and as they cook, they will float to the top. Once they are all the way to the surface, take them out using the slotted spoon and place them into the prepared sauce of your choice.

Mar 032012
 

Cristina Ferrare's Potato Plates

I started my blog thinking that I managed to hide myself in a cocoon of obscurity, buried behind the computer monitor and  printer, in a dark room that rarely saw a beam of light. Facing the blank page was a challenge I accepted eagerly, filling the space with words and continuously chasing the elusive tail of the adrenaline rush. I chuckle when I compare the process of writing to a vigorous downhill ski run, but there is the sense of anticipation, a moment of getting it all together, followed by an initial rush, accelerated heart beat, and an almost blissful sense of calm, relief, and accomplishment once your fingers stop touching the keyboard and your feet finally remain in one spot.

I love to ski and I love to write, but lately, skiing has lost in the game of priorities, leaving me to live my most adventurous moments through fighting the sterile whiteness of my computer dashboard. Inadvertently and with no intention, I floated above the desk and became visible, a wallflower becoming three-dimensional, unable to conceal its petals as the veil of invisibility (Where is Harry Potter when you need him?) slips away.

Skiing is a solitary experience, but I always felt better if there was a friend on the chair lift with me, someone to share a a few slices of lemon dipped in sugar I kept in my pocket before the drinking spots appeared on the slopes. We’d start from the same point, take our time, or rush through, weave through the trees, or find a stretch of untouched, virgin snow, slicing through the powder surrounded by that uncanny and utter silence that you can feel only in the winter on a mountain. We’d meet at the end of the slope, adjust our sunglasses and hats, and move on, cheeks flushed, eyebrows covered with ice, and hearts slowly returning to normal rhythms, following the swooshing sounds of the skiis.

Cristina Ferrare's Cookbook from bibberche.comFor years, I did not need anyone to follow me on my writing expeditions and keep me company, but it felt good to find an understanding soul waiting for me at the next turn offering an extra nudge, a virtual lemon wedge dipped in sugar. But as I kept on publishing my blog posts, the encouraging words and helpful advice appeared from nowhere, and I found myself in a world completely foreign, filled with friends who knew exactly what I was feeling, and happy to sit by me on my imaginary ski-lift chair, warming my frozen hands and offering a caramel to make me feel better.

So many things happened to me since I moved from Ohio to Southern California. Not all of them were great (in fact, many of them have been heart-wrenching experiences that left me utterly destroyed and despairing, dreading every new sunrise), but many brought me exhilarating moments that made me feel as if I were capable not only of walking on the beautiful expanse of the majestic Pacific, but also on clouds, if they ever appeared to mar the uninterrupted blue of the California skies.

It slowly dawned on me that writers can be social creatures. Yes, we are all introverts who fight our inner demons every single day and force ourselves to leave the happy place we made in our dimly lit, but very comfortable caves, hidden from the outside world, to journey forth and face the scary and forbidding world full of strangers. But if you give it aJoy the Baker Cookbook fro bibberche.com chance, it is not a scary place at all. In fact, it is a world that allows wallflowers to bloom and detach themselves from their invisible spot. It is a world where awkwardness is not met with ridicule and meek smiles are not extinguished with frowns and rude comments.

I found that world in Southern California, and even though I have not managed yet to get to the wineries of Napa and Sonoma, I have gotten inebriated many times on laughs, stories, energy, and an inevitable glass or two of bubbly. Every time I see there is an event our blogging group planned, I get that tingling, wonderful warm sense of anticipation, and I almost feel the frigid mountain air beckoning and promising the best run ever.

Last Saturday we gathered in Orange County in Todd and Diane’s studio. I don’t think that I have to do an introductory speech for this talented couple that share their soulful, emotional, and warm work on the blog White on Rice Couple. During their presentation we were all silent, and many eyes glistened with tears. They talked about their vision, showed us a series of truly inspirational and encouraging photos and videos, making us all feel welcome, strong, unique, and capable of telling our own story in our own personally crafted voice. After the first moments of awkwardness, I felt an enormous jolt of adrenaline, and after we all stood up, still dazed, trying to take in everything we heard, I felt alive and strong, able to tackle my most insidious demons and face my worst fears.

KitchenAid Luncheon from bibberche.com

But the day was just beginning. After we walked around, saying hello to the friends we had met before, and shaking hands to the ones who were strangers, boosted by deliciously strong coffee and refreshing mimosas made with hand-squeezed orange and grapefruit juices that flowed from the spouts of two magnificent-looking KitchenAid mixers, nibbling on light appetizers set out to tease our palates, the main part of the show commenced. Todd and Diane wanted to bring the community of food bloggers and aficionados together and they did a wonderful job with that.

But we also experienced a touch of fairy dust when we met Cristina Ferrare, accompanied by her daughter Alex, and Joy Wilson (akaCristina Ferrare from bibberche.com Joy the Baker). I met Cristina and Alex for the first time in the line for the bathroom, and they were both warm, genuine, and real. I shook hands with them, and did not feel  like I wanted to be devoured by a precipice.  I felt no fakeness, no pretense, no haughtiness, no mightier-than-thou vibes. Of course I was smitten, as I get smitten every time I encounter sincerity and kindness in people I consider more popular than me. Alex is also glutten-free and  (as our Zoe is Type 1 diabetic and we always worry about the possibility of Celiac disease) I am looking forward to reading her brand new blog Against the Grain.

Joy Wilson from bibberche.comI met Joy last April at Camp Blogaway. OK, I did not really meet Joy, as I was too shy to approach her and even say “Hi!”, but just like Husband counts all the airports he ever landed at as bona fide visits to foreign countries, I can count a slight wave I managed to throw her way as a definite “I know her.” I felt all kinds of trepidation when I brought her cookbook for her to sign (and I have to say that I was astonished when I saw that both Cristina’s and Joy’s books were in our swag bags). I could see that once upon a time she used to be a wallflower that managed to detach itself from its hidden spot in the corner. She has become a butterfly with its tropically colored wings spread wide, and only a faint trace of her shyness lingers, just enough to give me hope and remind me that there is a thing called metamorphoses. She is beautiful and nice. And I really like the combination.

Cristina, Alex, and Joy presented some of their recipes to us, while we shoved and pushed to getAlex Thomopoulos from bibberche.com the best photo, raising our iPhones high above bobbing heads, closing our eyes and praying to the gods of photography to pull a miracle, while apologizing to our neighbors for usurping their private space. My efforts were short-winded, as I spent more time talking, munching, and drinking than taking photos for posterity. But I pride myself on getting out of my comfort zone and using my iPhone, at least.

Once I got home, I spent some time inhaling the fresh-off-the-press smell of the two books, and I perched them on the counter next to Doree Greenspan and Rick Bayless, anchored by a tortilladora I bought in Valladolid, Mexico. They were in good company, but just ogling the pretty covers was not enough.

My girls were on their way home from school and I knew they would run into the house crying for food like newly hatched birds. And I knew they would love the special snack I had made for them, taking the ideas from the the dish Cristina Ferare made for us. Of course, I decided to do it on the spur of the moment and the ingredients were very much an improvisation, but the theme is there. In her original recipe, Cristina calls for smoked salmon, creme fraiche, red onions, and scallions on top of her beautiful and so creative potato plates.

Cristina Ferrare's Potato PlatesI gathered what I had and what I thoughtwould work. Potato plates were delightful and easy to make. Out of one big Idaho potato I managed to make eight potato plates, each consisting of several almost transparently thin slices, even though I did not have the beautiful and shiny KitchenAid food processor to aid me and had to use my really scary mandolin.  Once the potato plates were baked, I topped them with some thinly sliced smoked ham, placed a dollop of sour cream and horseradish sauce on top, dotted it with small dice of red pepper and a few thyme leaves, some freshly ground pepper, and a few drops of good olive oil.

You can find the original recipe for Potato Plates with Smoked Salmon and Creme Fraiche in Cristina Ferrare’s beautifully photographed new book Big Bowl of Love. They were so good and my girls went through the whole pan in minutes, so I had to make another batch (using just one more Idaho potato).

Christina Ferrare's Potato Plates

I cannot wait to make Alexandra’s Zucchini and Cucumber Carpaccio which she prepared for us on Saturday (also included in the book), already accepting the fact that my experience will not include that friendly and witty banter between mother and daughter.

I have already made many of Joy’s recipes from her blog (Pull-Apart Cinnamon Bread is still one of my favorites), but Swiss Meringue Frosting seduced me with its soft, billowy, and smooth texture. I failed to take the photos of the cupcakes I made and decorated with it, but the girls did not leave one single crumb on their plate. The images of cupcakes and frosting are already dancing in their heads, but I am not afraid, as I have Joy’s beautiful book  to help me along the way.

Todd and Diane opened their home and their hearts to us, generously sharing with the community a world of beauty they face every day, a world they made beautiful by searching deeper and looking beyond the obvious, scratching the surface and uncovering the essence of people that wander into their view finder.

Cristina Ferrare's Potato Plates from bibberche.com