Christmas Trifle and Love Lost

Guest blogger, Cathy Donovan, writes:  Certain women have the luck of marrying men who love to cook. I was not one of them.  My husband Tommy was a tall, lanky Irishman, with cornflower blue eyes and a wide smile. He could make a respectable soft-boiled egg, but that’s about it.  However, he did make one thing and only at Christmas time.

Tommy was born of Irish parents, and a Christmas pudding was always at his holiday table, along with a trifle. When he first proposed making trifle for my family, I had visions of a fancy confection with homemade custard in a footed Waterford dish. His trifle was far more down to Earth, a simple layering and mixing of seven ingredients. The recipe was long ago perfected by Tommy’s two aunts, Delia and Sheila, who lived to be 100 and 101, each drank a Smirnoff martini daily, with an olive, not a twist and shared their recipe with us.

Christmas Trifle recipe - 1 pkg. lady fingers; split 1 can drained fruit cocktail;1 sm. pkg. strawberry Jello; 1 sm. pkg. instant lemon or vanilla pudding; whipped cream. Split lady fingers and arrange on bottom and sides of glass bowl. Add fruit cocktail to lady fingers. Prepare Jello, pour over fruit and lady fingers. Chill until firm. When it's firm, prepare instant pudding and pour over Jello. Chill. Garnish with whipped cream and maraschino cherries.

One Christmas eve, as our small daughter Molly watched, Tommy tied an apron on his 6’3” frame and began making the trifle. He gathered the ingredients I had purchased for him: fruit cocktail, Jell-O (yes, Jell-O!), strawberry jam, Birds English Custard mix, heavy cream for whipping and the essential ladyfingers. And the rum. That was most important ingredient.

As the snow fell, Tommy prepared his trifle. He boiled water for the Jell-O and let it set.  He lined a Pyrex lasagna dish with ladyfingers and told us of Christmases spent with his aunts and cousins in Vermont when the aunts cooked this very same the trifle. When he finished layering all of his ingredients he spread the top with whipped cream and decorated it with 6 maraschino cherries, cut in half and arranged in 2 simple lines. The trifle was then put in the fridge where it spent the night awaiting my family the next day. That Christmas was the third of 24 Christmases that Tommy, Molly and I spent together, with our families, serving the trifle. My mother was partial to the trifle, as was most anyone who tasted it.  Tommy’s trifle became the most requested dessert at our Christmas table.

Christmas 2008 marked my 25th year of marriage and it passed with Molly and me on our own. Tommy died unexpectedly after a short battle with cancer early in that year. He lingers deep inside of both of us, our Christmases together a clear and enduring memory. I cannot bring myself to make the trifle any longer. I don’t have the touch. Maybe one day I will make it again. But sometimes at Christmas, when I see the array of cookies and cakes set out underneath the flicker of candles burning low, I think of that trifle and have longing to taste it and to hear his voice again, just for a moment, a single second.

Editor’s Note: Though not exactly like the recipe in the story, here is a recipe for your Christmas trifle.  Feel free to add rum!


1 pkg. lady fingers, split
1 can fruit cocktail, drained
1 sm. pkg. strawberry Jello
1 sm. pkg. instant lemon or vanilla pudding
Whipped cream
Split lady fingers and arrange on bottom and sides of a glass bowl. Drain fruit cocktail, add to lady fingers. Prepare Jello, pour over fruit and lady fingers. chill until firm. When it’s firm, prepare instant pudding according to directions on the box and pour over Jello. Chill. Garnish with whipped cream and maraschino cherries, if desired.

Photo credit: Amy Lenzo



Cooking for Two in an Empty Nest Kitchen

Mary Dell writes: One of my roles as a mom has been that of chief hunter and gatherer for our family meals. To say I am bored with every single chicken dish that I have placed on the kitchen table over the last two decades is an enormous understatement. With our youngest child a senior in high school, the end is in sight for family dinners as I have known them but a new challenge looms – cooking for two.

Fortunately, Lisa and I had a serendipitous introduction to Katie Workman, author of The Mom 100 Cookbook, when we were all on a terrifying flight  from Chicago back home this summer. Our shared adversity fostered a friendship and, by the time we finally arrived (safely) in New York, we had learned that Katie is not only an amazing writer and cook, but also someone with a steady sense of humor, regardless of the circumstances.  She offered this advice for retooling our empty nest kitchens:  katie workman   chili-636

Dialing the quantities of recipes up or down sometimes feels daunting, but many recipes are highly flexible, and the freezer can become your best friend. Even if you make half of a recipe of turkey chili (a very easily recipe to scale down) you may have more than you need.  Just freeze extra in pint size containers for easy defrosting, and pull them out as you need them. Not only are you not worrying about how to consume the whole pot, but you’ve got another dinner ready to go. Apple Cider Beef Stew is another great candidate, as are most soups and stews, and casseroles (just divide them into two smaller pans and freeze one).


Also, think of how leftovers can be used in other meals a couple of days later. Extra Citrus Basil Shrimp Kebabs are a wonderful way to turn a green salad into a real lunch, cooked sausages get crumbled into a pasta, leftover Lemon Garlic Roasted Turkey Breast becomes Turkey Posole Soup.  Making cookies, but don’t want an extra dozen lingering around your kitchen? Freeze half the dough in rolled balls, then transfer them to a zipper top bag with all of the air pressed out, store them in the freezer and defrost and bake them as needed. And don’t forget – your neighbors will always appreciate a little care package!

StruesselApplePie-636 To that we would add, your college kid might actually venture to his post office box if he knows homemade treats awaits for him and his roommates. The cookies that Katie suggests seem perfect!  

Katie Workman is the author of The Mom 100 Cookbook  and the creator of blog.  She is also the founding Editor in Chief of, “the website that shares tested, trusted recipes from cookbooks created by respected chefs and cookbook authors.”

Photo credit: Todd Coleman

Katie Workman and the Empty Nest Kitchen

Watermelon Margaritas and 11 Other Recipes for Memorial Day Weekend

Mary Dell writes: At the end of every month, I tear off another page of our oversize family calendar and toss the tattered sheet away. April lands in the recycling bin and I am gleeful. There, on the last line for May, is the gateway to summer: Memorial Day. This is the weekend that changes our cooking — kitchens are transformed as we uncover the backyard grills and take the heat outside. With longer days and warmer temperatures, I am drawn to traditional southern and spicy Southwestern dishes. If you’re planning a party, why not greet your guests with a tray of watermelon margaritas? I can guarantee the cookout that follows will be memorable.

Memorial Day Weekend, American flag, Memorial Day cookout, cookout recipes, watermelon margaritas

1. Lemonade with fresh mint

Mix together the juice of 10 lemons, 6 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar, 3 sprigs mint. Adjust to taste and add 8 sprigs of mint. Refrigerate and serve in tall glasses with a sprig of mint in each.

2. Watermelon margaritas

This recipe is from the late, great Gourmet magazine: Cut up a watermelon into cubes, place in Ziplock bag and freeze overnight. Place the frozen watermelon (5 cups), 1 cup Tequila, 1/2 cup Triple Sec, 1/2 cup fresh lime juice, and 1/4 cup sugar in a blender and blend until the consistency is slushy. Best watermelon margaritas, ever!

3. Crudite with a yogurt-based dipping sauce with chipolte pepper

From Chobani Yogurt’s website: In a blender, puree 2 cups nonfat plain yogurt with 1/2 cup salsa, 1 can chipolte pepper (halved and seeded), with 3/4 tsp salt. Chill overnight.

4. Deviled eggs

Hard boil 9 large eggs for 11 minutes and place in a bowl filled with ice-cold water. Peel the eggs, halve them and remove the yolks. Mash the yolks with a fork and mix with 2 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 tsp mustard, 2 tbsp heavy cream, salt and pepper. Fill the cooked white egg halves and top with a sliver of jalapeno.

5. Guacamole

A classic from Helen Corbitt who ruled the roost at Neiman-Marcus for years: Mix together 2 cups mashed avocados, 2 tbls lemon juice, 1/2 tbsp grated onion, 2 tbsp chili sauce, 2 drops Tabasco sauce, salt to taste. Serve with a selection of white and blue corn tortilla chips.

6. Grilled, marinated skirt steak

My tried and true preparation for fajitas: Combine 2 cups picante sauce, 1/2 cup vegetable oil, 2 tsp lemon juice, a dash of pepper and a minced clove of garlic. Place a pound of skirt steak in a ziplock bag, pour in the marinade and refrigerate for 3-24 hours. Grill 6-7 minutes a side and slice into thin strips. Serve with warm tortillas on the side.

7. Tequila lime marinated chicken

This delightful dish comes from the Barefoot Contessa, Family Style Cookbook: Combine 1/2 cup gold tequila, 1 cup lime juice, 1/2 cup fresh orange juice, 1 tbsp chili powder, 1 tbsp jalapeno pepper, 1 tbsp minced garlic, 2 tsp kosher salt, tsp pepper. Place 6 boneless chicken breasts, skin on, in a Ziplock bag and pour the marinade. Refrigerate overnight. Grill skin-side down for 5 minutes, flip and grill another 10 minutes.

8. Green salad with corn and tomatoes

Mix a basic green salad, add wedges of tomatoes and corn shaved from the cob. Toss with a simple vinaigrette before serving.

9. Coleslaw

Place the following in a bowl: 1 head green cabbage, cored and finely shredded, 1 English cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced, 2 carrots, shredded. Bring the following to boil: 1/2 cup white vinegar, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp salt for about 3 minutes. Whisk 1 tbsp Dijon mustard and 1/4 cup canola oil. Cool slightly. Stir in 1/4 cup heavy cream, 2 tbsp sour cream. Mix with the cabbage, carrots and cucumber.

10. Black beans

Rinse and drain 1-16 ounce dry black beans, soaked overnight in cold water. In a large pot, cover beans with cold water, add 1 peeled yellow onion, 4 cloves peeled garlic, and I bay leaf. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Add Kosher salt during the last 20 minutes.

11. Southwestern rice

Heat 2 tbsp canola oil and saute 1/2 small chopped onion and 1 minced clove of garlic. Add 1 small chopped plum tomato and cook for 4 minutes. Add 1 cup white rice and stir to combine with onion mixture. Add 2 cups water, Kosher salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce to low and simmer 15-20 minutes. Fluff with fork.

12. Vanilla ice cream with berries

Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are in season, once again. Wash all, slice the strawberries, and serve along with vanilla ice cream. Adding chocolate sauce, sliced almonds, and whipped cream will transform a classic berry desert into towering sundaes.

Our friend and neighbor, Renee Cohen, is chef/instructor of CuisineArts Cooking School and supplied much of the culinary inspiration for this Memorial Day cookout.



Empty Nest Cooking

Mary Dell writes: What’s for dinner? is our kids way of saying hello to us as they walk into the door from school. Akin to the movie Groundhog Day, we seek an answer to this same old question every 24 hours. But one day, perhaps while sipping a first cup of coffee in our empty nest, we realize the question has ceased to be so very pressing.

After 20 years of grocery shopping an average of 2.2 times a week, preparing family meals 3.5 times a week, many of us are, frankly, happy to say goodbye to the stage in our lives where we logged 2300 trips to the store to cook over 4000 dinners!

But transitioning from pushing baskets overflowing with each child’s favorite foods to shopping for just one or two adults, means thinking about cooking in a new way. Gone are the long lists, junky snacks and super-sized quantities.  We have a chance to reboot our eating habits, ditching tired family favorites along the way.

cooking class, new recipes, pretty dining room table

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Thanksgiving Dinner: Meals and Memories

Mary Dell writes: Thanksgiving dinner is our favorite meal of the year.  Not only is it a holiday filled with fabulous eating, family and football, but it is also the day when we give our diets a hall pass, stuffing ourselves in a way we would never dream of the other 364 days of the year. But more than the food we savor, it is the scent of the feast that we love and that endures.

Thanksgiving Dinner

The sense of smell, more than sight, hearing or even taste, is where we store our most cherished and vintage memories. Once you raise that first fork full of stuffing, you begin to breathe in a memory of your childhood. As you sit at the table with your kids, parents, aunts, cousins and friends, the homeward journey begins.

Lisa and I are getting ready for the holiday at our two homes and have asked our friends about their traditions.  While hewing to the classics, they shared their favorites. Both traditional and idiosyncratic, all are treasured like family heirlooms.

Imagine getting up on Thanksgiving morning to the luscious smell of Darryl’s pumpkin bread baking in the oven. An aromatic wake up call,  the scent might lure even our sleepy college kids out of their beds and into the kitchen for a slice and their first cup of coffee. Sharon’s kids depend on her cinnamon rolls to get the holiday started early on Thursday while Risa’s festive breakfast is French toast made with Challah and eggnog.
cinnamon rolls

Slowly, the turkey begins a four, five, six-hour roast, until it’s finally ready to be presented as the centerpiece of the feast. With the bird underway, we turn our attention to the sides, where family traditions and regional preferences come into play. Many of us have dishes we prepare once a year on Thanksgiving and only Thanksgiving. Helene told us about the “Leenzil’s Thanksgiving Salad” she makes with cherry jello and Caryn offered her favorite, so-called “Cheese Jello,” which she acknowledges as sounding weird but swears her family loves it.

Gourmet Magazine last issue, Thanksgiving dinner turkey, Thanksgiving turkey, November magazines

At Lisa C’s house, it is a corn casserole she bakes with cheese until it’s melted and bubbling. She slides a double batch into the oven so her daughters and grandsons have an extra helping to take home with them.

Though we live in New York, my kitchen smells more like my mom’s house in Texas with cornbread baking in a cast iron skillet and the roasted sweet potatoes I whip with bourbon for a souffle. Each Thanksgiving dinner, I keep my most traditional of sources, Helen Corbitt’s Cookbook ( c1957) close at hand.

cornbread stuffing

Potatoes, stuffing, roasted butternut squash, rolls – each dish renders a unique smell. With the ever-more ready turkey roasting in the oven, these combine, creating a signature fragrance greeting guests the moment they step through our front doors.

Pumpkin pie rules on Thanksgiving but caramel apple and chocolate pecan pies sound amazing, especially if pastry chef and writer, Mindy, is the one baking.

pumpkin pie

Everyone gathers, talks, eats, takes seconds, and…..dinner ends, with a slice of pie and a side of football. Cleanup. Deep breath, rest….

If we’ve planned it just right, Thanksgiving stretches into a multi-day feast with signature leftovers as an eagerly anticipated Act Two. Sharon gushes about her mom’s turkey chile and turkey meatloaf. For Theresa, our photographer and friend, it’s turkey noodle soup.

This year, we are planning to try out the Turkey Posole soup from Katie Workman. You can find the recipe in her wonderful cookbook The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket

But Thanksgiving holiday doesn’t stop on Friday when your guests arrive carrying suitcases. When you have college kids coming back for a holiday break, they long for the home-cooking that is sorely missing on their meal plans.

Lisa L received an SOS from her college daughters for matzoh ball soup. With both kids sick, and sick of dorm food, she is ready with both the soup and the TLC they can count on once they set foot in the door.

While the multiple dishes that make up Thanksgiving dinner create a complex bouquet, a big pot of soup simmering for hours on the stove has a simpler smell. More like a pot of love, the smell of Lisa’s chicken noodle soup permeates her house, filling it with both the scent of the dish and affection of the cook.

With great thanks to our friends who contributed to this story,  Mary Dell and Lisa wish you all a delicious Thanksgiving week.

Photo credit: Pumpkin pie: sea turtle