Game-day Pizza Dip

Game-day Pizza Dip

With the baseball play-offs just around the corner, and football moving full steam ahead, I’m sharing with you a no-fail pizza dip recipe that the men in my life, and their buddies, love. It brings back wonderful memories of boys huddled in my basement or family room cheering on their favorite team.

As you can see from the ingredients, it’s not meant for those who are watching their waistline or their cholesterol. But everyone else will love it! I’ve served it countless times, and it’s inhaled so quickly, I usually double the recipe.

I’ve tried to be as clear as possible in the steps below, but I write romance novels, not cookbooks, so contact me if you have any questions!

This recipe can easily be doubled, but you will need two pie-plates.

Preheat oven to 350

Spray a pie-plate with non-stick cooking spray

Mix with an electric mixer:

1 lb of softened cream cheese (not lowfat)

½ cup sour cream (not lowfat)

¼ tsp garlic powder

1tsp oregano

Spread cream cheese mixture over the bottom of the prepared pie plate

Add:

Gently spread ¾ cup of pizza or pasta sauce over cream cheese mixture (I always use pasta sauce)

Next add, in the following order:

¼ cup of chopped onion (I usually add a bit more)

¼ cup of bell pepper (I usually add a bit more)

2/3 cup of pepperoni, thinly sliced and the rounds cut in thirds**

(Can be made earlier in the day, up to this point, covered and refrigerated. Add 5-10 minutes of initial cooking time)

Bake uncovered for 15-20 minutes, then sprinkle on shredded mozzarella (about 1.5 cups, and return to oven until cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve warm from oven with tortilla chips and plenty of napkins.

**You can add other toppings like olives before you add the pepperoni.

Contact me for a copy of the recipe.

Enjoy, and let me know how it turns out!

Orzo With Dried Cherries and Almonds Recipe and a Memory

Cooking and baking are activities I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. They engage all the senses, and if you’re feeding family and friends, they engage your heart too. Our favorite recipes, well mine at least, almost all have a warm and fuzzy memory attached to them. As I watch my parents become more frail, more forgetful, I’m reminded of how important it is to document the special moments in our lives, otherwise, one day they’ll slip away with us, gone forever. So each Thursday, I’m planning to post a recipe, along with a memory, on my blog. It will be a dish relevant to the season, tried and true, with love from my kitchen to yours.

Whenever I’m asked to bring a side dish to a summer cookout, Orzo with Dried Cherries and Almonds is one of my go-to dishes. It can be made ahead, transports well, and can safely sit out of the refrigerator for a long time. Plus, almost everyone loves it.

My oldest son went to college in Minnesota, and for graduation weekend the seniors on the football team, of which he was a member, decided to have a cookout for family and friends. The guys on the team would provide the meat for the grill, and their families would bring side dishes, drinks, dessert, and paper goods. It sounded like a wonderful idea to have everyone together one last time.

When my son called to tell me about the plan, I offered to bring dessert, paper goods, or drinks. Normally I would have been happy to bring a side dish, but we lived in Rhode Island at the time, approximately 1400 miles from Minnesota, and we were flying in for the graduation. “Uh, actually Mom, we’re all set with those things. I signed us up to bring a side dish. There will be about three hundred people, maybe more, at the cookout.” In case you don’t have boys, us means you here.

Schlepping a side dish for three hundred people halfway across the country, really? I thought it in my snarkiest voice, but I didn’t say it. He was my first born, and for twenty-one years I’d already done so many ridiculous things to ensure he was happy, safe and felt loved. This would be just one more absurdity to add to the ever-growing list.

After hours on the phone trying to find a place near his college where I could purchase a large quantity of a “side dish”, I gave up. I looked at my husband, “I’ll make a recipe that can be easily multiplied and travels well.” We’d been married a long time, so he did what any sensible, experienced husband would have done: he kept his mouth shut. I knew exactly what he was thinking, anyway.

I turned to my trusty Orzo with Dried Cherries and Almonds—it was a big hit. It traveled well in four enormous Rubbermaid containers stuffed into two large duffle bags. The bags were so heavy, my husband, and my seventeen-year-old son who was mortified by the whole thing, had to carry them through the airport to security. They put the bags on the conveyor belt, and I agreed to take full responsibility for seeing them through security. And that’s where I had a Rhode Island moment.

The young, male TSA screener questioned me about the contents of the bags. “It’s orzo that I made for my son’s college graduation party. It’s for a cookout they’re having.” The TSA screener nodded, and waved me on without blinking an eye. I chuckled to myself—he must have been a first-born child.

Orzo with Dried Cherries and Almonds

Four servings

1 cup of orzo

¼ teaspoon of saffron threads, crumbled **

2 teaspoons of orange zest

3 Tablespoons of fresh orange juice **

4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3-4 scallions white and green parts, sliced thin

½ cup dried cherries

¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted (take the time to toast them, it’s worth it)

salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large saucepan, add the orzo and the saffron to 6 cups of salted boiling water. Cook for 8 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Drain, and let the orzo sit in the strainer to dry a bit.
 

2. While the pasta is cooking: In a small bowl stir together the zest, orange juice, and salt and pepper to taste, adding the oil in a stream, whisking until it is emulsified. Set aside.
 

3. In a serving bowl toss the orzo (drained well, but still a bit warm), with the dressing, the cherries and three-quarters of the green onions. Just before serving, add the toasted almonds and the remainder of the scallion, taste for salt and drizzle on up to an additional tablespoon of orange juice, if you have any left. Serve the orzo at room temperature.

Can be made a day or two ahead, refrigerated and brought to room temperature before adding the nuts and scallions. If making it more than 24 hours in advance, don’t add the cherries until the day you serve it otherwise they absorb too much liquid. See note below about saffron.

**If you’re making this in HUGE quantities, you can use “freshly squeezed” juice from a carton to make your life easier. There’s no good substitute for saffron, and it can be a very expensive spice to buy at the regular grocery store, but if you have an Indian or Spanish grocery store nearby, it will be much more reasonably priced.

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

 

The Heroine Bares Her Breasts After Breast Cancer: How Do You Write It?

When people learn that I’m publishing a romance novel where the heroine is a breast cancer survivor, what they always ask about is that moment when she first bares her breasts to the hero. How did you write that, they ask? Was is it hard to write?

Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult to write, because by the time the scene came about, I knew exactly how much the hero loved her. I knew exactly how he’d respond. As for how I wrote it, I’ll give you a glimpse. The following scene takes place after Cassie and Drew talk about what her life was like after the diagnosis. He’s known now for a couple of weeks that she had breast cancer while they were apart, but she’s just shared more of her feelings about that time. This is what happens next:

“Cassie,” he pulled her tighter against his chest and rocked with her on the sofa until they both were breathing normally again.

“Then I went to work for my dad, and that’s when I met Ned. Some days I could scarcely believe a decent guy wanted me… You know the rest.”

Yeah, he knew the rest, but there was one more piece, one enormous piece. The elephant was still in the room, sprawled out in the corner, taunting him, taunting her, and taking up too much valuable space. He wanted it out, banished forever. Not just for him, but for her too.

“Cass?”

“Hmmm?”

“Will you let me see your breasts?” he asked quietly, then felt her tense. “You’ve shared so much with me tonight, please share the rest. Do it for both of us.”

They sat on the sofa, with her in his lap, for a good five minutes, maybe longer. It felt like five hours. Neither of them spoke, neither of them moved.

Then with unsteady hands, she began to fumble with the top button on her shirt. But her fingers were thick and heavy, and she was on the precipice of tears again.

“Will you let me help?” he whispered.

She nodded.

And with hands almost as unsteady as hers, he gently moved her to the plush rug in front of the fireplace, and he lay down beside her. Kissing her, caressing her face, her arms, and her back with shaky hands.

He met her eyes, and with her face awash in trust laced with fear, she nodded again.

His clumsy fingers finally freed the first small button, and his lips found hers. He captured her mouth again and again while each button was slipped from its tether. His tongue stole into her mouth, exploring, distracting, leading them both to a safe, familiar place.

He brushed his hand over her damp forehead. “Sweetheart, this isn’t a prelude to sex. It’s about getting comfortable together after a long time apart.”

She nodded, but he could feel her fear, smell it seeping from every pore.

She hadn’t been this scared the night he took her virginity, and more than a small part of him wanted to stop, button her shirt, and simply hold her for the rest of the night. Hold her for their rest of his life. Save her from the embarrassment, save himself from the pain. But their relationship wasn’t going anywhere until they’d moved past this difficult moment, and they were so close he could see daylight on the horizon.

Nothing about this was about the physical—it was all emotional. She needed to know that he wouldn’t reject her, and he needed to know he was a man, the man she needed. Her breasts had become the physical manifestation of all their fears, all their worries.

“Do you remember the first time we made love? When I promised to go slow, that I wouldn’t hurt you?”

She nodded. He was acutely aware that she hadn’t uttered a single word since he’d asked to see her breasts.

“Did I keep my word?”

She nodded again.

“I had no freakin’ idea what I was doing.” He kissed the bridge of her nose. “My self-control is better now, and I promise we won’t do anything that hurts you. Anything you don’t want to do. You stop me if it gets to be too much.”

Before he opened her shirt, he pulled his off. “We both need to get to know each other again. My body’s changed too.”

He gently pulled aside the fabric, and trailed barely-there kisses over her neck, moving slowly to her décolletage where it met the tops of her breasts. In no hurry, he allowed his tongue to linger, gliding over the tender skin until her hips lifted off the floor.

When she shrugged the shirt off her shoulders, signaling him to continue his exploration, he gasped at the intricate purple lace covering her breasts, gently tracing the contours, first with his finger and then with his tongue. He rested his index fingers over the tiny clasp in front, placing a small kiss there before meeting her eyes.

She nodded, her expression was becoming more relaxed, and he saw a faint light in her eyes beginning to break through the clouds.

His heart was beating so fast he was practically panting. Struggling to control his breath, he ran the point of his tongue over the sensitive skin surrounding the tiny clasp before freeing it.

He kept his eyes locked on hers while his fingers eased the clasp open. Deathly afraid of doing something that would hurt her, upset her.

When her bra fell open, he lowered his head to reach one firmly beaded nub, and with a feather stroke, he circled his thumb around the other. Alternating between her mouth and her breasts, he lavished attention on every inch of flesh.

Tasting.

Lapping.

Arousing.

Soothing.

Her heart galloped wildly while he ran his tongue over the scars, accepting them, loving them the way he loved the rest of her. Her eyes were closed, but a small tear found its way out the corner and slid down her cheek toward her ear.

 

I hope this excerpt answers some of your questions, and gives you a sense of their love. The entire novel isn’t about the aftermath of breast cancer; it’s simply a piece of Cassie and Drew’s story. Please feel free to contact me with any thoughts, or questions. I love hearing from readers!

Back-to-School

August is beginning to wind down and back-to-school is in the air. Last night I went to pick up some school supplies, not for my own children, they buy their own supplies now, but to donate as part of a program that supports both inner city and rural schools in my area. I’ve always loved the new school year with its nerves and excitement all wrapped up into a tight little bundle that makes it difficult to fall asleep, and the promise of new beginnings, fresh and crisp like a September morning.

My own most special back-to-school memory involves my maternal grandmother whom I called Vovó. One Saturday, before I started kindergarten, we rode the bus downtown to a well-known children’s clothing store. This was a time before the mall, Walmart, and Target had come to the area. It wasn’t the kind of store where my family normally shopped, and I certainly had never been there before that day. Most of my clothes were either homemade, or hand-me-downs, always clean and pressed, functional, but rarely fashionable.

My grandmother was a stitcher in a factory, and my grandfather a foreman at a fish plant on the docks. While they were a far, far cry from wealthy, they were slightly more well-to-do than my parents, who in their mid-twenties had two children and another on the way. My dad was a construction laborer and my mom worked in a factory that made children’s pajamas.

I was the oldest grandchild, so I’m guessing that it must have been one of my grandmother’s co-workers who instructed her about proper school attire and where to purchase it. A pretty saleswoman helped Vovó choose dresses for me on that Saturday morning. I stood on a table modeling each one, twirling happily in front of a three-paneled full-length mirror, like the belle of the ball instead of the peanut with a bad haircut that my mother had given me. I’ll never forget it. It was my fairy princess moment, and my heart swelled with every dress I tried on.

Vovó bought me five dresses that day, one for each day of the week. Five dresses! Can you imagine? She returned to that store each week, on payday, probably for months, to pay-off the back-to-school shopping spree. That’s how they did credit in small towns then.

After shopping, we stopped at the Woolworths’ lunch-counter, another first for me. Eating out was a luxury that my family couldn’t afford. I sat tall, on a chrome and red barstool that spun, my feet dangling in the air, and ordered a tuna salad sandwich on toast. It came, sliced diagonally with a few slices of sweet pickle on the side. I couldn’t have felt any more important if I’d been having tea and crumpets with the queen. For dessert we shared an ice cream sandwich, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream, sliced into a perfect square, tucked between two waffles. What a day!

Decades later, I still remember every vivid detail as though it were yesterday. I also remember how special and pretty I felt when I wore those brand new dresses to school. Every time I look at my kindergarten school picture, in my favorite red dress with my pixie cut and crooked bangs, I grin shamelessly while the warm memories flood me.

So as I meandered through the aisles last night, tossing school supplies in my cart, I didn’t bother with the inexpensive but functional, instead I threw in snazzy pens and notebooks, with lots of glitter and style. The hippest binders I could find, and markers that did all sorts of really cool things, along with backpacks that would be the envy of any privileged suburban kid. Because rich or poor, every child should feel special on the first day of school.

Breast Cancer and Romance

All the books in the Meadows Shore series end with either a happily-ever-after or a happily-for-now, and, are for the most part, light and fluffy entertainment. They won’t win a Pulitzer, and the great romance writers, such as Austen and Brontë, are in no danger of being dethroned, not by me anyway. They are pure fantasy, simply intended to sweep a reader away from the dull predictability and burdens of life for a brief time. They are meant to be read indulgently, on a Sunday evening curled in front of the fire, in a cavernous tub surrounded by exotic smelling bubbles, perhaps, even, on a glorious summer afternoon under the sprawl of an ancient oak while a gentle breeze skitters across the freshly-mowed lawn. Or more likely, if you’re like me, they are the distraction of choice, used to while away the countless hours spent waiting at the doctor’s office, car repair shop, and endless team practices.

I have a good sense of what my writing is, and what it isn’t, still, in every book, I can’t help myself from sneaking in a problem or two, the kind that impact non-fictional characters living in the real world. I hope, ever so humbly, that I might shed a ray of light over some issue that makes our human journey more perilous, weighing us down as we navigate life. They’re familiar issues, but I try to frame them in ways that we don’t normally think about. Domestic violence, learning disabilities, jobs that require you to sell your soul, secrets, adultery, PTSD, unplanned pregnancy, drug-abuse, and mental illness, either have, or will, make an appearance in the series. In Petite Madeleine, it’s cancer that rears its ugly head. The heroine, Cassie, is a young breast cancer survivor.

In my opinion, even the writers of mindless fiction have a responsibility to tell their characters’ stories in, well, a responsible way. Easier said than done. Cassie is one of the more challenging characters I’ve written, keeping me up at night worrying that I’ve done her, and all other survivors, justice.

Every breast cancer survivor, for that matter every survivor, has a unique story to tell. While there may be some common element, like courage, every one is different. Quite honestly, it wouldn’t have been quite so difficult to have written the story of an older survivor, forty, fifty, even that of a sixty-year-old. I could have written those stories without laying awake at night. We all know those stories, they’re no less tragic, but they are achingly familiar, because even if cancer hasn’t ravaged our own bodies, it has taken a toll on our mothers, aunts, sisters and friends. No one is immune, and most of us know cancer well, more intimately than we’d like.

But what about a twenty-one-year-old survivor on the threshold of adulthood? Still struggling with body image, her sexuality just beginning to mature, and her identity just starting to take shape. One without a steady partner, compelled to explain scars and the effects of potent cancer treatments to every new boyfriend. Forced to think about death, when her life is just beginning. It’s painful to think about.

Petite Madeleine isn’t a biographical sketch of a young woman’s battle for life, it’s a romance, a second-chance-at-love romance, and there’s a hero to be considered, too. He’s a good guy with real emotions and fears; at least that’s how I meant to write him. How does he feel about all of this?

For an answer, I went to my husband, a loving, caring man, a kind and decent human being, and a physician, for an honest male-perspective. I got much more than I bargained for on that day, and in an odd, and unexpected way, I learned a lot about our relationship, and the depth of his feelings for me. When I asked, he paused for a bit, and with some hesitation and more seriousness than I usually see in him, he answered: “You’d want to reassure her that nothing has changed, when really everything has.”

It broke my heart to watch his pained expression, and to listen to what he had to say. He wasn’t talking about physical changes, but the terrifying changes that occur when mortality comes crashing down, threatening the life and the love you’d hoped would last long past twilight. This story barely touches on all we talked about, but some of the feelings are reflected in the book.

I have done my very best to write Cassie and Drew’s story in a way that honors and respects all survivors and those who love them. It became immensely personal along the way. More than anything, I wish I had the power to write away everyone’s problems, but I can only write hope. And I do hope, that when you read the story, you are left with a smile on your face and a belief that all things are possible.

A Bittersweet Mother's Day

In the US, we will celebrate Mother’s Day on Sunday. It seems only fitting that my May blog post should in some way commemorate this special day. I contemplated writing about it from both a daughter’s perspective, and a mother’s, but somehow neither felt quite right. In truth, this year I’m a bit unsettled as the day approaches.

An old friend buried her oldest child last week. He was twenty-three. A handsome, smart, kind and generous, twenty-three. It’s difficult to imagine a young man loved more by his family and friends. He was blessed to be born into a wonderful family, to a selfless mother who put family, friends, and faith at the center of her world. A world where nothing was more important than her children.

I imagine my friend placing a loving hand gently over her expanding belly each day her child was cocooned safely inside. And I imagine her with a big smile on her face, and one in her heart, while she held her hand over the taut skin, waiting for a small kick or a tiny ripple. I didn’t know her then, but I’m sure that’s just how it was. She loved her son fiercely, and she still does.

On Sunday everyone will tip-toe around her, some will act like it’s just another day, and still others will pretend that her oldest child never existed. They’ll rationalize their behavior as something they’re doing to protect her feelings, but they’ll be doing it for themselves. And who can blame them, because the thought of losing a child pains us beyond words.

There are so many questions, and so few answers, none that are satisfactory. None that even come close. But one thing is certain: she didn’t bury her motherly love with her child. She might not be able to hold him in her arms again, but she holds him in her heart. Just as I’m sure every mother who has lost a child, forever holds them in her heart.

So on Sunday, if someone close to you has faced this unthinkable tragedy, it doesn’t matter how long ago, summon your courage, and I’ll summon mine. Let's mark the day, not by forgetting, but by remembering. Maybe the traditional happy Mother’s Day greeting is inappropriate, but surely we can all find a few warm words or some small act to help her smile through her tears.

Avó Angelina’s Arroz Doce

Rice pudding is a dessert that can be found in almost every culture and in nearly every corner of the world. Most versions of the dish contain rice, a sweetener, liquid such as milk, and spices or other flavorings. Arroz doce, sweet rice, is the Portuguese version of this humble treat. It’s denser and richer than many others, sometimes almost sliceable, like a piece of custard pie.

Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed arroz doce at almost every imaginable occasion, Christmas, Easter, first communions, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, wedding showers, and after funerals—the list goes on forever. There is no occasion, happy or sad, that can’t benefit from a serving or two of luscious sweet rice.

Arroz doce stirs both joyous and bittersweet memories in me. It was the last food I prepared for my mother-in-law before she passed after a long illness, and it’s a treat I sometimes make for my dad who suffers from dementia. While he seldom remembers what he ate for breakfast that morning, the taste of sweet, creamy rice on his tongue reminds him of his mother’s pudding and of less stressful times—I can see the pleasant memories flood him when he takes the first bite. And if I’m being just a bit honest, I also make it for him because I know how proud he is that I’ve replicated my grandmother’s recipe, proud of me in a way that even my law degree couldn’t accomplish.

If you’ve read about my Meadows Shore series, you know the characters have a strong Portuguese heritage deeply rooted in Southeastern Massachusetts, and Meadows Shore is their childhood home, where they celebrate various aspects of their Portuguese culture, including the cuisine. There are few novels published in the United States that capture the essence of Portuguese culture, the family, and women, in particular. When I watch my widowed aunts, in their eighties and nineties, stand at the stove dressed in simple black dresses and perfectly coiffed hair, preparing arroz doce and other Portuguese specialties, I’m painfully reminded that there is perhaps little time left to memorialize the traditions that these women carried with them across the Atlantic Ocean decades before. So today, I share one with you, dear readers, hoping that a sliver of the past will live on forever, through each of you.

 

Avó Angelina’s Arroz Doce

Remember what Sophie said about Angelina’s arroz doce: “…food for the angels, but you’ll pay Lucifer himself if you overindulge.” It’s best to heed her words—you know she’s always right, well almost always.

4-6 servings

The recipe seems long and complicated, but it’s not, although it does require patience. I’ve detailed the steps, and added a few helpful hints that I’ve learned through the years. Please remember this is a very dense pudding, not at all like the kind in the grocery store. Some recipes for arroz doce call for lemon peel or zest, which is traditional in some parts of Portugal. Lemon is not part of my family’s tradition, but if you would like to make your pudding with lemon (or orange) add the zest of one half lemon or orange, in long strips, to the pot when you first add the water, and remove it before you add the eggs in the last step.

1 cup of rice of short or medium grained rice do not use instant or converted (Like my aunts, I use the River Rice brand but Carolina rice works great too)

1 cup of water

Pinch of salt

3 Tablespoons of unsalted butter

4-5 cups of whole milk (low fat milk does not work well)

1.5 cups of sugar (you may want to adjust the amount of sugar to one cup, if you don’t want it too sweet.)

½ cup of half and half or cream.

5 large egg yolks

Rinse the rice under cold water in a strainer. Add to a pot with a tight fitting lid along with a pinch of salt and 1 cup of water (I’ve used many pans over the years, a heavy, non stick pan works best, trust me on this—a light, Teflon coated pan does NOT work) cover, and simmer until almost all the water is absorbed.

Remove lid and set aside, you won’t need it anymore. Add ½ to 1 cup of warm milk and the butter to the pan and keep the heat so low you can barely see a bubble. You can keep the milk warm in a separate pan, or do what I do—heat one cup at a time in the microwave. I use a heatproof rubber spatula to give the rice a stir every now and again. If you are not using a non-stick pot, watch the mixture very carefully so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Keep adding milk until the rice has absorbed as much as it can, and doesn’t have any bite left.

Heat half and half, and add it to the pot along with the sugar. Stir carefully until sugar dissolves. I turn up the heat a little at this stage and let the mixture bubble a bit. You need to cook it long and slow, and babysit it carefully so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Be patient!

When a good portion of the sugar mixture has been absorbed and the rice looks very creamy again, whisk egg yolks in a small bowl, adding a couple of tablespoons of the hot rice to the yolks to temper. Continue adding a couple of tablespoons of hot rice until you have about one cup. This will prevent curdling when you add it to the pot. Take the pot off the burner and using a spatula, stir tempered yolk mixture into rice—stir well and quickly. The pot I use holds heat well, so I don’t put the pot back on the hot burner—depending on your pot, you can return it to the burner, but for no more than a minute, stirring constantly—yolks are very temperamental! Take the pot off the stove and let the pudding sit for 3-4 minutes before spooning it onto a platter. Sprinkle with cinnamon or use your fingers to create a traditional lattice pattern over the rice.

Keep at room temperature until it’s cool enough to cover, and place in the fridge. The pudding is best if you let it sit overnight (This rarely happens in my house). Take it out of the fridge for about 20 minutes before serving.

If you have any questions email me: evacharlesauthor@gmail.com. And if you make the pudding, please let me know how it turns out.

Tchauzinho!