Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Girls Night Out: Shana Tova

Every Rosh Hashanah, I look at the dog-eared copies of  bon appetits piling up in our kitchen and think, "I'm gonna make something new and different this year!" The stakes were really raised this week because my neighbor and I decided to join forces and celebrate the New Year together at her house. My neighbor's husband is an excellent cook, the kind of guy who reads the New York Times Dining section and gets out his fryer on Thanksgiving and fries turkeys in the back yard. Plus, my good friend from high school was coming with her family, as were my mother and stepfather, and my neighbor's extended family. All of these people had eaten my standby holiday food too many times before so I wanted to make something other than brisket, string beans and my mother-in-law Dorothy's sweet potato casserole. But then I realized I didn't really have time to start playing around with new recipes and making eight trips to the grocery store. My neighbor was making chicken and noodle kugel. The most I could do to change things up a bit was to make a new kind of sweet potato casserole, the one Amy had given me last year, which calls for fresh sweet potatoes.

Amy is my younger son's Spanish tutor. She and my mother-in-law are the kind of women who make you relax as soon as they walk in the door. They smile, say something cheerful, offer a compliment, make themselves comfortable and put you at ease, all at the same time, even though it's your house and you should be putting them at ease. The word for these women is "lovely." Amy used to teach Spanish at a local public high school and she likes to cook. She comes over late afternoons, and I always seem to be making dinner while she's here. Last year, she gave me her recipe for sweet potato casserole. It was a little more challenging than my mother-in-law's, in that it required buying the potatoes, boiling them and then peeling them, but other than that prep, the recipe was easy to make and really yummy. Amy's recipe also calls for a bottle of apricot brandy and a jar of marmalade. My mother-in-law's recipe is more old-fashioned, relying on canned sweet potatoes, lots of melted butter, brown and white sugar and graham cracker crumbs. Needless to say, you won't lose weight eating either casserole but you'll be go to bed happy. Greasing an old white Corning casserole dish, pouring in the sweet, chunky mixture, adding the topping, sticking it in the oven and knowing that every hot spoonful is going to be delicious is a wonderful way to spend an hour.

But then my editor at Patch asked me to cover a meeting in town the night I was supposed to cook. I should add that this request came after my editor told me that my stint with Patch was coming to an end, since her freelance budget was being cut to nada for the fourth quarter. "I want to give you as much work as possible before September 30," she emailed, after she'd basically kicked me in the gut. I should add that I really like and respect this woman: I don't know many women who work ''round the clock, but she seems to, and she has two kids who are exactly my kids' ages. I always feel like a bit of a sloth when I talk to her, because she stays on top of a website that is live 24/7 and had to cancel her vacation when Hurricane Irene stormed through our town at the end of August. I suggested that Patch start charging readers for on-line subscriptions like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and that Patch charge people to leave comments on the Patch website. The ability to leave comments on the Patch website drives a lot of readers to the site, but no one pays to be there. There's a lot of on-line arguing going on, and my editor spends a good amount of time playing on-line referee. "Tell people to leave two cents if they want to leave their two cents..." I said, trying to think of ways Patch could keep making money so that I could.

My editor ignored my suggestions. She just wanted to know if I could cover the meeting. The town sub-committee on Hurricane Irene was planning to listen to residents and business owners describe their seriously bad flood experiences. My editor said the meeting started at 7:30 and was likely to go to 10 p.m or later, on a school night. Oh boy, that sounded like fun. I could just imagine my kids rattling around the house, sweaty from football and water polo practice, cruising Facebook and iTunes and not doing their homework. But my editor was giving me a chance to write my last swan song. She added that she couldn't go to the meeting because she had to go to her son's back to school night. How could I say no? I wasn't happy that my stint with Patch was grinding to a halt---I don't make much money writing for Patch, but I like the steady drumbeat of a deadline. Writing under pressure is a great way to shatter writer's block. But the best part of writing for Patch was having a sharp, gracious editor to talk to and hash out story ideas with. Plus, cranking out stories gets your adrenaline pumping and makes the more leisurely pace of writing fiction and creative non-fiction that much more pleasurable. The yin of news reporting fueled the yang of creative writing. Now, the gig is over. I'm trying to take the advice I'm always doing out to my kids: When one door closes, another opens.

Before the door slammed shut, I agreed to go to the sub-committee meeting, knowing that the next morning, I'd be churning out copy instead of cooking. Armed with a bag of chocolate covered espresso beans, I spent two and a half hours at town hall, typing like a maniac, trying to make sense of tributaries, reservoirs, river basins, ponds, ground water, overland flow, flood plane storage, bridges, sewage, dredging, basements, and record rainfall, all of which would explain why our downtown flooded so badly during a tropical storm. Despite the espresso beans, I forgot to take pictures, but if you feel like reading about the collective stress of living through a flood in a small New Jersey town, click here.

This afternoon, I set about cooking for the holidays. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to buy sweet potatoes and I had no idea where the apricot brandy was. During Hurricane Irene, we lost power for several days and had to throw out everything in the refrigerator. The jar of orange marmalade I had bought to make Amy's sweet potato casserole last spring was gone. I looked in the pantry: There were three old cans of sweet potatoes. One can was starting to rust but the expiration date said October 16, 2013. That was my brother's birthday! To borrow an old Yiddish expression, it was bashert (destiny). We also had a package of graham crackers. I wasn't sure how old it was, but it didn't matter. Once you mix graham cracker crumbs with the amount of butter and brown sugar my mother-in-law's recipe calls for, it doesn't matter if you're cooking with dust.

Both Amy and Dorothy's recipes are below. L'shana Tova.

5 pounds sweet potatoes
5 teaspoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 cup Triple Sec or Apricot Brandy
1 jar of marmalade

Set oven to 350 degrees.
Boil sweet potatoes until soft. Remove skins.
Mash sweet potatoes with milk until smooth.
Add all the other ingredients, except cinnamon.
Put in a baking dish and then spread marmalade over the top and sprinkle with cinnamon.
Bake for 30 minutes.


2 cups (one large can) of sweet potatoes
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk (I used skim)
3/4 stick butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/3 cup brown sugar
3/4 stick melted butter
3/4 cup mashed graham crackers

Set oven for 400 degrees.
Mash sweet potatoes in food processor. Mix together sweet potatoes, butter, milk, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon. Grease a casserole dish and pour in filling. Cook for twenty minutes.

While casserole is cooking, make the topping. (If you don't want to use graham crackers, just mix the brown sugar with the butter and pour it on top of the casserole). Mix the graham crackers with butter and brown sugar, take casserole out of the oven and cook for 10 more minutes.


  1. Sorry if this is sacrilege, but I've adapted the recipe over the years. I use real sweet potatoes (several pounds, just peel them and boil until soft, then mash), much less sugar, and more spices. For the topping, I use just walnuts and butter (no sugar, no graham cracker crumbs).

  2. I think it's only sacrilege if your Mom says it is!

  3. I'm really sorry that the Patch gig came to an end. I used to be a community newspaper reporter and I've done my share of freelancing. It's tough out there. But I'm sure that you'll find plenty of business. Shana tova! As for the chocolate-covered espresso beans, I've had to find a healthier version:

    It doesn't have the same "kick," but it's a little more guilt free!