I have a confession; I have house envy. I’ve had it ever since I was a kid. Emily, my grammar school best friend, lived in a pristine town house where she and her sister ruled the top floor. She had her own room with a walk-in closet, crisp pink and white gingham sheets on her twin beds (one for guests, aka me), and they shared a special little room just for watching The Brady Bunch or, when her sister made us, The Streets of San Francisco. I shared a room and a closet with my little sister, slept on white sheets, and watched TV in my parents’ bedroom. I know, tragic.
These days my envy tends towards that of the Nancy Meyers movie variety; Diane Keaton’s ideal Hamptons beach house in Something’s Gotta Give or Meryl Streep’s It's Complicated 1920’s Spanish-style Santa Barbara ranch. It makes no difference to me that these houses were created on a soundstage; I still want to live there.
But, given this summer’s dearth of interesting shelter porn flicks (or any flicks for that matter), my attention has turned to the smaller tube. And I am here to announce that I am secretly (until now) fascinated by the McMansions of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. I can’t believe it either. But think about it: the kitchen and great room alone are enough to keep my eyes glued and may be why I am fascinated with McMansions to begin with. Who knew a house could come with something called a “great room”? There’s no denying that it is indeed, great—arm’s reach to the fridge, all squishy couches and 54” flat screen TV’s, open and airy.
What I think I might envy even more than the physical spaces is the guilt-free way in which these women inhabit them. They think nothing of spending the day around an island, on a tall, cushioned, stool, picking bakery coffee cake the hostess has unwrapped, drinking the Starbucks another has brought (despite the presence of an elaborate coffee maker on the back counter), and yakking with each other about North Jersey happenings. That is until they break so one can run out for a quick hair weave, another can drag her child to an audition, and the third can visit another woman’s great room to enjoy a glass (more like a chalice) of wine before heading home to her own cherry kitchen. There she will pull out the refrigerated drawers in her granite topped island, and start making her signature cocktail, maybe a Bailey’s Butter Baby, for Caroline, Theresa and Jacqueline to sip while they repair to her overstuffed sofas to snack on grissini and gossip about the three hours they spent apart. Not that I’d want to spend my day playing musical kitchens but wouldn’t it be nice not to feel guilty if you did? And I don’t know what a Bailey’s Butter Baby is but the ladies really seem to enjoy them.
Among the Housewives kitchens, I get the biggest kick out of Jacqueline’s “Tuscan-Style” décor: the cluster of giant candlesticks (don’t you like a little mood lighting when you cook?), the ochre curtain swag framing the window over the sink, and truly the best of all, the over-sized “Tuscany: The Beautiful Cookbook” proudly displayed on an easel in the middle of the island. Imagine, you’ve poured yourself a glass of Chianti, about to start to work on assembling your antipasti platter to enjoy with the girls, and you think, I’d like to take a moment for myself, hoist my beautiful book from its wrought iron display, dreamily flip through the glossy pages, and let my mind wander to Italia: just me, my kitchen, and my great room enjoying our time together.
I know it sounds greedy but it would be nice to be like a cat and have nine lives. I recently accepted the fact that I’m never going to be an Italian-American housewife living behind baroque electric gates in Franklin Lakes. When Johnny Carson died so too did my plans of sitting on his couch (not sure what I thought I was going to talk about, I just assumed as a kid that I would take a seat). And due to the “D” I got in biology, finding the cure for cancer is just slightly out of reach. I’m just saying it would be neat to try on lives, like trying on different coats, even for a day. But barring an unlikely appearance on Wife Swap, this is it folks; I’ve got one life to live. I best make the most of it, and my tiny kitchen.
Sure, there are ways to pretend to be someone else. I suppose I could start speaking in an accent (hey, it worked for Madonna) and see what happens. Or lie to strangers about my life story. Then again, I’m not a serial killer or trying to bilk the Rockefellers. I think I’ll stick to something a little closer to home and make something the Housewives might enjoy. Aside from a signature cocktail, what would Jacqueline make for her “girls-night in”? A quick look at Theresa’s new cookbook (is that a law? If you’re on a Bravo show you have to “write” a book?) reveals a complete lack of respect for desserts. After a quick consult with Giada De Laurentiis, another envy-worthy (great kitchen, cute kid and cuter husband) but dessert-happy Italian girl (who I have a feeling wouldn’t be caught dead in Jersey), I’m thinking about cannoli. But I’m not going to really make them because they require vats of bubbling oil, lard, a pasta maker, and a special metal shaping tube I don’t own. Plus, the one time I made them in pastry school my hair smelled like grease for a week. No, I’m just whipping up the cannoli cream, which is the best part anyway, to pair with fruit, which makes you feel less disgusting than a deep fried shell. I think I’ll curl up with my dessert in my perfectly fine, if not great, (living) room and watch what? Brideshead Revisited? Citizen Kane? The Queen? I mean, if I’m going to envy a house, I may as well go all out.McMansion Fruit Salad with Cannoli Cream
adapted from Everyday Italian, by Giada De Laurentiis, 2005
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1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest (optional)
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 ounces fresh strawberries, hulled, quartered (the big box from the market, about 2 1/2 cups)
1/2 dry pint fresh raspberries (the little box at the market, about 1 1/4 cups)
2 nectarines, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice (or lemon juice if you're not using orange zest)
3 tablespoons shelled, toasted pistachios or almonds or crumbled amaretti
In a medium bowl whisk ricotta, orange zest if using, and 2 tablespoons of cream together to incorporate.In the bowl of a standing electric mixer (or using a hand-held) beat remaining cream, confectioner's sugar, vanilla and cinnamon until semi-firm peaks form.Fold the ricotta into the cream mixture and place in fridge for at least 30 minutes to thicken. (Cream can also be prepared up to 4 hours ahead and refrigerated until ready to use.)Stir the strawberries, raspberries, nectarine slices, sugar, and orange juice in a medium bowl to combine. Let stand until juices form, tossing occasionally, about 15 minutes.Divide the fruit mixture among 4-6 bowls and top with spoonfuls of the cream. Sprinkle with the nuts or cookie crumbs and serve.
NOTE: I like the combination of orange and cinnamon but not everybody does. Feel free to omit zest from cream and use orange or lemon juice with the fruit.
Yield: 4-6 servings