Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Spring broke

Spring is a time of awakening, a time of renewal, a time of raising your hand and volunteering for activities you frankly have no business doing.

My role as the Easter Bunny at the annual neighborhood egg hunt last Saturday probably falls into that last category. Then again, when you’re 45 years old and want to participate in an event whose target demographic is the ten-and-under set, sneaking in under cover of an animal suit is pretty much your only option.

This was my fourth year in the bunny suit, so I know the ropes. That turned out to be a good thing because this year, for the first time, I had no handler. I was all set to fire my agent for negotiating a lousy contract until I learned this year’s hunt would feature a mimosa bar. Our neighborhood civic association has limited funding, and I could hardly argue with the decision to throw its resources behind such a crucial strategic initiative. And at least this year I had a viable explanation for staggering around the park. Once I had met, and possibly exceeded, my contractually-established service levels for inflicting trauma on unsuspecting little kids, I went home and turned my attention to making, or attempting to make, pizza gaina.

For the uninitiated, pizza gaina — Italian for “call your cardiologist” –is not your typical tomato sauce/mozzarella number; it’s a pie that consists of several pounds of meat and cheese, plus eighteen eggs, all encased in dough. Pizza gaina is an indulgent dish served on Easter to celebrate the end of Lent, a period of sacrifice that, for Italians, traditionally meant skipping meat on Fridays. It’s also an efficient dish: with just a single slab, you can catch up on all five weeks’ worth of missed meat. But there’s a reason Italians only eat pizza gaina once a year: it’s a royal pain in the rear to make.

I knew making pizza gaina was tough, having watched both my father’s mother and my mom make it year after year. Both Nana and Mom turned out consistently fantastic pizzas, but only after laboring over the dough for hours and then stressing the entire time the pie sat baking in the oven. If it baked for too long, the filling would be fully cooked but the dough would burn. If it didn’t bake long enough, an oozy mess might await when you went to cut it. And no matter how long you baked it, the pizza might display classic Italian stubbornness and refuse to come out of the pan. As further proof of the difficulty of the task, my sister Suzi, who does pretty much everything perfectly, tried to make pizza gaina a few years ago and nearly burned her house down.

I knew all of this, and yet I volunteered to make the pizza gain this year anyway. Mom and Dad were two days out from their move –hardly an ideal time for a major culinary undertaking –so I figured I would try to carry on the tradition. In case you’re inspired to do the same, or to start a new tradition, here’s the recipe Mom gave me, with minor adjustments.

DOUGH: 

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cake of yeast

Mix flour, salt and pepper in a large pot. Add eggs. Mix yeast with one cup warm water. Add to dry ingredients and work well. Grease pot and dough. Cover and let rise ’til double, approximately one hour, and then punch down and shape. Return after one hour to find your particular dough does not believe in Easter, because it has not risen. Punch it anyway, then throw in the trash, where it lands like a flour cannonball.

wrecked dough

What atheist dough looks like before you catapult it into the trash.

Drive to grocery store for replacement yeast, because the only other yeast you have on hand is in a six-pack of beer. Return home and repeat first six steps, doing celebration dance at the sight of the risen dough.

Let stand 20 minutes. Roll to fit over greased 9 x 13″ pan –a roasting pan without the rack usually works–well enough so the top can be sealed. “Well enough so the top can be sealed” means you will roll the dough to the point where it’s so thin you can read the classifieds through it and then maybe, just maybe, it will be long enough to make a complete seal across the top as you fold it over. To be continued, because we Italians believe in suspense.

FILLING

  • 3 and 1/2 lbs of ham, cubed
  • 1 and 1/4 lbs muenster cheese, cubed
  • 18 large eggs
  • 1 cup grated Italian cheese (such as pecorino romano)

Scramble eggs well. Add rest of ingredients, mix well, and pour into pan. Cover with remaining dough, attempt to seal in the filling by pinching dough around the edges. Glance over at countertop and discover “rest of ingredients” apparently did not include the cup of Italian cheese, because it’s still sitting on top of the cutting board where you grated it. Carefully peel back the dough you just sealed, sprinkling expletives liberally as you go, and dump in forgotten Italian cheese. Attempt to stir contents with one hand while holding up the dough lid with the other. Attempt to reseal dough. The dough lets you know what it thinks of this process by refusing to seal in one corner.

Bake at 350 degrees on lower rack in oven until brown – 1-1/2 to 1 -3/4 hours. Before putting in oven, pierce top with fork. Curse yourself for being the kind of person who stupidly does not read the whole recipe before starting to cook because, if you had, you might have noticed that, from an order of operations perspective, the instruction to pierce the top should have come before the instruction to bake at 350 rather than after. Consider removing pizza to pierce it but decide you’ve already angered the dough enough for one afternoon.

After 15 minutes, turn on oven light to monitor progress and discover filling has begun to leak out of the unsealed corner and to pool atop the dough. Turn off light and resolve to wait an hour before risking another peek. Return to this:

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Stop yourself from thinking, “It could have been worse,” because it still has time to get worse.

Remember Mom’s advice to lay a sheet of aluminum foil loosely on top for the last 15 minutes if browning too quickly. Discover you have no aluminum foil. Curse as you search for acceptable substitute and find only a silicone baking sheet liner. Place silicone liner atop dough and hope for the best.

Remove pizza, which appears done after 1-1/2 hours. After removing from oven, let stand 5-10 minutes and invert on rack. Or invert 90 % of it, because 10% decides to stay bonded to the pan.

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Conduct a visual inspection of the inverted 90% and discover it’s oozing filling in a way that reminds me of how the Cutlass 88 Oldsmobile we had in the early ’80s used to leak oil.

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Brainstorm ways to reunite the inverted 90% with its family back in the pan so that it will eventually emerge as an intact whole. Google “Is duct tape edible?”

Resign yourself to placing the mostly empty pan on top of the inverted 90%, returning silicone liner-covered pizza to oven, and hoping the entire big mess will, like a sitcom, find a way to come together in the last 5 minutes.

Remove pizza from oven, wait 10 minutes, and voila!

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Spend 3 minutes lamenting your Italian heritage. Had you been half-French, you would have quit at the quiche stage and wouldn’t have troubled yourself with dough lids or pie inversion, meaning you’d be on your second glass of wine by now.

Let the pizza (and you) cool for several hours. Cut into inch-thick slabs and stack on a plate such that the pieces that look like they’ve been attacked by the Easter Bunny are hidden under a pile of pretty ones. Pass it all off with arrogance when your parents show up on Easter morning, and beam when they tell you your grandmother would be proud.

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Finding consolation in a console

My parents have embarked on a major downsizing project, an exercise in sorting through both the tangible stuff and the memories that have accumulated in the house they’ve lived in for the past 45 years.

That house, a center-hall colonial, may seem like standard-issue suburbia– half-brick/half-siding with four bedrooms and two baths upstairs, family room, kitchen, living room, dining room and powder room on the main level, and a basement — but it’s really a family treasure chest in disguise. And boy, has that house worn some disguises.

Built in 1972, the house made its debut in Orange Hunt Estates clad in pale green siding with forest green shutters, its second-story overhang propped up with a set of square, pale green pillars. The front door opened into a foyer covered in whitish wallpaper with an ornate floral pattern in olive green and gold. If you left that jungle and headed to the left, you entered the family room, which welcomed you by rolling out the multi-colored shag carpet, with patches in various shades of brown, black, rust and mustard. That carpet not only camouflaged a multitude of spills but tolerated years of me and my siblings horsing around, playing board games with our friends, building card houses, watching sitcoms on our rabbit ear-antennae’d TV when we were allowed to (which was infrequently), and tearing open presents on Christmas morning.

A mustard-colored recliner Archie Bunker would have envied sat in one corner of the family room, complemented by a hanging lamp whose shade, as I recall, was white with multi-colored spots. Dad liked to read The Washington Post in that chair, and all of us liked to curl up there when it was vacant. The pièce de résistance in the family room, furniture-wise, was a sofa covered in an off-white nubby fabric patterned with vertical green stripes of varying widths. The sofa lent itself to naps, in part because it was the most comfortable piece of furniture in the history of furniture but also because the color scheme in that room made you want to lie down and close your eyes in self-defense. I don’t remember Mom spending a whole lot of quality time in either the recliner or on the sofa, probably because she was too busy making sure we kids didn’t kill ourselves or each other, but I digress.

If you’d headed right instead of left when you walked through the front door in 1972, you’d have found yourself in the living room. It also had a shaggy carpet, but in a neutral monochrome to let everybody know that it had some class. An octagonal wood combination table/cabinet sat on that carpet, flanked by two wingback chairs that, in a decorative leitmotif, bore the same green-and-gold floral pattern as the foyer wallpaper. In case you’re wondering what lived inside the octagon, Mom and Dad stored the liquor there. With four kids spanning eight years, I can understand their wanting ready access to booze.

The living room led to the dining room, whose early decor I don’t really remember because of a glorious console stereo that sat against one wall and stood out from everything else. Six feet of wooden chic, the console held a turntable, an AM/FM radio, and a whole lot more. That console was Christmas, giving us the smooth sounds of Johnny Mathis’s “Winter Wonderland” while we decorated a tree we’d cut down at a farm in the Virginia countryside. The console let our family follow Barry Manilow on countless musical trips to the hottest spot north of Havana and comforted us with the knowledge that Barry couldn’t smile without us. When Barry and Johnny weren’t hogging up the rotation, Simon and Garfunkel and Billy Joel made regular appearances on the turntable, too. Then the ’80s came and the console gave us Hooked On Classics, because it knew the only thing that could make Beethoven’s Fifth sound sound better was a disco beat.

 

The house changed disguises over time: wallpaper came down in favor of neutral paint, the incomparable green-striped couch was swapped for something bluer and prettier but not quite as comfortable, the shag carpet made way for plush brown in the family room and a nice Persian rug in the living room, and the square columns yielded to round white ones. We also got a piano, which meant the console stereo was stereo3relegated to the basement. But that didn’t stop it from cranking out the songs we lived by, songs that made us dance, sweat, swoon and laugh. Long after new-fangled technology like boomboxes, CD players and shelf systems had arrived and doomed the console to obsolescence, I still regarded it as a monument to my family’s happiness and never tired of seeing it.

The minute I realized Mom and Dad were serious about downsizing, I lay claim to that console, and I moved it into my house last weekend. It lives in the basement, just like it did my parents’ house, and it’s still home to songs by Sinatra, the Kingston Trio, and the Village People, as well as soundtracks from the Muppet Movie, Grease and Annie, and albums like Free to Be You and Me and The Stranger.

Sure, it needs a new needle and hasn’t cranked out any tunes in a while, but that console can still crank out dozens of happy memories just by keeping me company. If that’s not a family treasure, I don’t know what is.