Archive for January, 2011

For some years now I’ve thrown a party for my friend Laurel’s birthday. She chooses the theme, and Hazel and I figure out how to execute it. The guest list has gotten smaller over the years but the parties have gotten more elaborate–despite the fact that each year we begin by saying, “Let’s do something simple.”

I don't think we'll have room for croquet--but we will certainly play games.

This year seems to be following that well-trodden path. Laurel requested a game night, with perhaps a dozen friends. We’ve done game nights for Laurel’s birthday before. They’re always fun. But because we have done game nights before, we’d like to do something fresh. You know, to make it more interesting for both the guests and the party-throwers.

Now, Laurel’s birthday is the day after Valentine’s Day, so it’s easy to slip into a habit of using hearts in the decor. And this time she said, “Maybe we could use the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland?”

Ah, the magic words that create the theme for a party: Alice in Wonderland. Hearts. Games.

We’re thinking hard. We’re finding inspiration everywhere–from the original Lewis Carroll books Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, from the Disney film, from a delightful website Mel found called Lenny’s Alice in Wonderland, from many other places.

On Saturday morning Hazel and I browsed through the floral supply houses that surround and supplement the Los Angeles flower mart, taking notes and photos and periodically succumbing to an irresistible item: fabulous ribbon, the perfect glittery hearts for a centerpiece, a couple of items that we will turn into the perfect invitations….

Somehow, when Hazel and I collaborate, we don’t do simple.

This is going to be fun!



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A Brief Lull and Then…

We leap in again.

We’ve been entertaining pretty steadily since the beginning of November. I attended my last holiday party this past Saturday, a lovely and lively gathering at Chris Valada and Len Wein’s new home. Gorgeous house–and how nice that Chris finally has a kitchen worthy of her talents! Check out her blog, In the Kitchen, for a glimpse of it.

But Hazel and I are a little bit tired, so we’ve cut back on posting for a week or two. However, we are beginning to plan a birthday party for mid-February. Ideas are percolating. It should be fun.

And we’re going to do a week’s worth of posts on flower arranging, starting next week–assuming Hazel has recovered from the plague. I mean, from her cold. (Thanks, Allis!)


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Many years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I went to Los Angeles City College, hoping to get my college career off the ground.

One of the requirements for getting out of LACC with a degree was a class called Health. In this class we were to learn about cleanliness, nutrition, rest, and even a little about sex — things many of us learned from our parents long before reaching the college or even the junior college level.

Most of the Health instructors were PE teachers and coaches who were as little interested in spending two hours a week in this class as most of the students were. You could get a passing grade or better by showing up, staying awake, and not causing any trouble.

When I took this class, my instructor was a tall, thin gentleman named Edward Doodah. (I have no idea whether I am spelling his last name correctly, but that was how even he pronounced it.) Mr. Doodah was kind of remarkable because he believed in everything he said and had a serious enthusiasm for telling you all about it. I sat through his lectures about smoking, drinking, and sex (“a moment of pleasure, a lifetime of regret!”) while drawing pictures of the starship Enterprise on my notes. I certainly never expected anything he said to us to be relevent to me years later — but something is.

One of the foods he recommended was ak-mak crackers. Back then, in my early 20s, my interest in healthy crackers floated somewhere near my interest in going to bed early. I never even bothered looking for them at the store.

Decades later I was surprised to observe that ak-mak crackers were available at Trader Joe’s. The blue and yellow box informed me that ak-maks are lower in carbs than most other snack crackers and have very little fat. Being older now, if not wiser, the fat and carb content of my food is a concern, so I thought I would try the crackers. I found them to be crunchy and delicious, appropriate as the foundation for many less-healthy toppings. I commend ak-mak to you even if you don’t have my concerns for carbs and fats.

I passed Mr. Doodah’s class despite my lack of interest in most of what he said. These days, eating ak-mak crackers is the only advice of his that I continue to follow. I’ve even had sex occasionally, and I have never regretted it.


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Saturday was my sister Hellen’s birthday. Her husband called to ask if I wanted to join them for sushi, and of course I said, “Well, yeah!” Off we went to our favorite sushi joint, which just happens to be midway between their house in the mountains and their son’s apartment in LA and– very conveniently– right around the corner from my house. My nephew Will and his fiancée were to join us, but they still hadn’t arrived by the time we were on our last roll. They finally made it just as the host seated someone else in their places. So they decided to order to-go and join us at my house, a mere three blocks away. I left while they waited for their order and decided on the way home to make my sis a birthday cake.

We all know you can’t make a birthday cake in that short a time, but I have a fabulous molten chocolate souffle recipe that takes about half an hour to make. Lucky for me, I had a 17-ounce bar of semisweet chocolate from Trader Joe’s but not quite enough eggs, so my sister Dee ran down to the 7-11 and grabbed a dozen eggs. In the five minutes it took her to get eggs, I had the chocolate and butter already melting in the double boiler .

She got back and I separated the eggs. I had it assembled in just a few minutes and in the oven before the rest of the group arrived. So, in case you need a quick but terrific dessert, here’s the recipe:

Molten Chocolate Cakes (4 servings)

5 ounces bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1 tbls Frangelico

2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
5 tbls sugar
1 tsp vanilla
large pinch of salt
1 tbls flour

1/2 cup chilled whipping cream

Generously butter 4 soufflé dishes (3/4 cup) and arrange on baking sheet. Stir chocolate and butter in heavy saucepan until smooth and stir in Frangelico. Cool 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Using electric mixer beat eggs, yolks, 4 tablespoon sugar, vanilla, salt in medium bowl until very thick ribbon falls when beater is lifted (about 6 minutes). Sift on flour and fold in. Next, fold in chocolate mixture and divide between dishes, filling completely. (This is a great recipe for dinner parties because it can be made a day ahead. Cover loosely and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before baking; failing to do so will result in flat souffles — never a good thing!)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake cakes until tops are puffed and dry and a tester inserted into the center comes out with moist batter still attached, about 15 minutes. Cool cakes 5 minutes.

Beat cream and 1 tablespoon sugar in small bowl until firm peaks form. Top cakes with whipped cream and serve warm.

I doubled the recipe, but I needn’t have; it was way too much after sushi! I own a dozen clear 3/4 cup soufflé cups, but I think I need to buy a set of even smaller ones so I can make a single recipe and not end up throwing out eight half-eaten soufflés. Oh, yeah, and I need to buy some dang birthday candles; apparently I don’t own any!


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When my guests walk in the door, I want to greet them with a hug and a smile, great smells of the meal to come and some low-key but always memorable music. We all have different tastes: top 40, rock and roll, oldies…you name it. There’s plenty out there. In our family we love most everything (okay, we do draw our lines in the sand, but I won’t cover those here). All of my brothers play an instrument or three, as do my sisters Amie, Della and Dee.

But if your parties don’t have live music available, your MP3 player can be your best friend. I make iPod playlists, but I also have stacks and stacks of CDs, so whatever suits me the day of my party works.

When I go to a party at my sister Hellen’s, the musical gamut is run because she has lots of younger folks in her house, so you can hear a Sublime CD right after Emmy Lou Harris, Tom Petty following Lyle Lovette or Robert Plant’s newest–all super choices, although they can get loud. My brother Sonny will get you anything from Motown to George Jones to Lightnin’ Hopkins. Della has introduced me to some super music, so you never know what you’ll get at her house, but you can bet it will be good.

Laurie leans toward classic Ella Fitzgerald but is always sensitive to her guests and the style of the party. Me? I’m fairly eclectic in my musical tastes, but for a party, I’m pretty stuck on my background music choices. If it’s my annual Wisteria Tea, I usually have Stephan Grapelli and Django Rheinhardt playing. If it’s a dinner party, you can often hear a mix of Grapelli & Rheinhardt, Charlie Bird, Eartha Kitt and Billy Holiday.

So instead of a recipe today, I’m giving you some jazz essentials for a dinner party. Music that is timeless and almost everyone enjoys; even your teens can find some redeeming qualities in it (OK, maybe it’s only my teen friends; I must admit to being thrilled when my 12-year-old niece Liv asked for a copy of an Eartha Kitt CD).

Great music for a dinner party.

So here we go:

Eartha Kitt – Miss Kitt to You or the Legendary Eartha Kitt
Billy Holiday – Jazz ‘Round Midnight (but there are plenty more!)
Charlie Byrd Quintet – Du Hot Club de Concorde
Miles Davis — Kind of Blue
Dave Brubeck – Time Out
Ella Fitzgerald – Dream Dancing is my favorite but you can’t go wrong with the Cole Porter Songbook or the Gershwin Songbook, but, really, the list of great Ella recordings is endless!
Django Reindhardt — Djangology
Nor can you go wrong with Great Ladies of Jazz and Great Ladies Sing the Blues, both compilation albums, and every song on them is a winner. These picks are all timeless and fun and most everyone will enjoy them.

Add to it with a few modern(ish) albums. I love Cover Girl by Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis, Rosanne Cash’s Somewhere in the Stars and The Mavericks Music for All Occasions.

You can mix up your music, as I did for a Bunco Night fundraiser for 100 with a five-hour playlist to please every age, or you can tailor it to your smaller group. It is lots of fun making playlists but a lot harder to make a compilation that pleases everyone.


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Not Available in Any Store

My father repaired airplanes in the Philippines during World War II. Apparently, when not defending liberty, there wasn’t much to do. Years later he told his wife and kids that he spent a lot of his free time getting drunk with his buddies, Gilhoolie and Barselow.

Wine made by Mel's brother--as hard to find as it is to believe

I always found Dad’s story exotic and a little hard to believe because when I knew him he was not much of a drinker of alcoholic beverages, nor was my mother. We realized how little they drank when we found some old liquor bottles in a closet that were empty even though they had never been opened. Dad said these bottles were from his wedding to my mother and that the alcohol had evaporated right through the seals. I have since come to wonder if such a thing is even possible, but there the evidence was.

He drank in front of his children only once that I recall. I was ten or so years old when he brought home a can of Schlitz (The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous) and gave a splash to each kid. My mother had some too, though she was even less a drinker than my father.

Contemporary society might see my father’s actions as grounds for arrest, but my brothers and I agree that feeding us an ounce of beer at that tender age was one of the smartest things Dad ever did. Instead of making us into child drunks, his actions had exactly the opposite effect. Whatever mystery alcohol might have held was gone in an instant. We knew what it tasted like, and we thought it was dreadful.

Which is why it is all the stranger that my middle brother has taken up wine-making as a hobby. I don’t know whether the country around Portland, Oregon, is considered good wine country, but that is where he has planted the grapes that go into an operation he calls Ten Row Vineyards. (He wanted to call the operation Chateau Raff Distributing, after the wholesale ice cream company our father owned during most of our youth. But he could not get the other partners in the vineyard to agree.)

Every year Ten Row turns out a few cases of wine that the owners share with friends and family. Not long ago Brother sent me two bottles of his best, a red and a white. I haven’t tried the white wine yet, but I liked the red quite a bit — a simple little domestic, but I admired its presumption.

Still, drinking wine made by my brother does have its surreal quality. I started drinking wine only after I moved to Oakland in my early twenties and fell in with a bunch of Unitarians. I don’t know when Brother started drinking, but it was certainly after he left home.

I have gotten used to thinking of myself as a light drinker, but I don’t see Brother often enough to get used to his drinking habits. I do know that I continue to be surprised when I think about drinking wine he made. It probably would have surprised our parents too. Whether either one of them would have tried to product is anybody’s guess.


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Tough Bananas

Let me just say that Hazel hates bananas. If she were in charge of banning foods, bananas would disappear from the planet. I don’t hate bananas, but I don’t love them either. So it is just possible that our hearts were not in it when we decided to make bananas foster on New Year’s Eve.

Okay, it wasn't bananas foster--but it was pretty darn good!

It was a last-minute request from our sister Margaret; Hazel had most of the ingredients–not, needless to say, the bananas–and I grabbed my copy of Lee Bailey’s New Orleans, found a recipe for a bananas foster shortcake and figured we could work with that.

It was not a success. We ended up with about a quart of butterscotch sauce that we could not flambe– and tough bananas. I didn’t even know it was possible to make bananas tough.

Sometimes, though, salvaging a failure can result in something pretty delicious, even if it isn’t what you had in mind to start with. We served that butterscotch sauce warm over ice cream, along with decadently chocolate cookies, and we were all happy.

Those tough bananas? Hazel has a compost pile and marauding raccoons, so the bananas didn’t go to waste either.

Here’s the recipe for the butterscotch sauce. It’s great. Skip the bananas.

2 cups heavy cream
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup rum

Bring the cream to a simmer and stir in the brown sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the salt, vanilla and rum. You can either continue to simmer it to burn off the alcohol, or you can serve it immediately. But don’t bother trying to flambe it–it won’t happen.


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