Celine in Vegas Tarte au Sucre (Sugar Pie)

Over a year ago I made a throwaway comment that wound up making a very real impact on my life. Having just read that, after a four year absence, Celine Dion was planning on returning to her home on the stage of the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace I said to my mother, “How much fun would it be to embrace the cheese and see Celine in Vegas?!” We both laughed and life went on.
Careful what you wish for. Last June I was celebrating my birthday with family and friends when Mom handed me an envelope embossed with the logo of her travel agent containing, you guessed it, a trip for two to Las Vegas and two tickets to Celine Dion. In March 2011.My reaction was multi-faceted. First, I was shocked she’d remembered the comment I had made four months prior. Second, I was thrilled she had indeed remembered and was excited by the idea--I'd never been to Las Vegas. Third, I was terrified. I should make it clear that I rarely travel and do not greet opportunities to get on a plane with relish and excitement. I hate to fly. Not because I worry the plane will drop from the sky but because I have control issues and I am claustrophobic. Both of these conditions are on high alert when they close the plane door. What if I need to get out? What if I can’t stand being stuck in this confined space? I have no say in where it goes or when it lands or when I will be able to get the hell off! The good part was that I had nine months to prepare myself (and stock up on the necessary medication) and I was determined to meet the challenge

Why did I want to see Celine in the first place? I have been slightly fascinated with her for 20 years. What a story. Awkward looking girl with 13 siblings from a dirt poor French-Canadian family, a set of pipes that were a gift from above, discovered at 12 by a manager so determined to make her a star that he mortgages his house to pay for her debut album and then begins dating her when she’s 19 (he was 43) and marries her seven years later. She becomes a super-star and transforms herself into a glossy blonde. (The hair is definitely a thing for me. I can spot a fellow refuse-to-accept-our-curls-or-color-natural brunette from 100 miles away and she has done a fantastic job becoming a swan.) Finally, I have to envy her unabashed earnestness. If you’ve ever seen her perform, or chat with Oprah, you know that this woman is the least snarky celebrity in the world. She’s self-effacing but seems completely sincere. That is a shock to any New Yorker’s system, but I respect it.
Clearly my trip will take two posts to tell so let’s just get to the concert (more on travel, hotel, and Vegas thoughts next week). To set the scene you should know that The Colosseum seats over 4,000 and every seat was filled. The audience was decidedly middle to older aged and yes, several infirm and/or obese people required assistance to make it to their seats. Celine came out to much cheering and shared how hard it was to say good-bye to Caesar’s several years ago so that she could focus on family, at which point we were treated to a manic montage of life behind-the-scenes of Diondom (who doesn’t love a good montage?) set to her super hit of 2008, “I Drove All Night.” Then she assured us that she was so grateful to be back at her home, here at the beautiful Caesar’s Palace. Her eyes misted over and the singing began.
How to capture a performance that veered from her greatest hits, to some Ella scatting, a James Bond theme song medley (who doesn’t love a good medley?) in which she managed to channel Eartha Kitt,Paul McCartney and Carly Simon, a rousing tribute to Michael Jackson (“Michael Jackson changed my life. He left us far too soon.”) to singing a duet of “Overjoyed” with a hologram of Stevie Wonder? Are you dizzy yet? I’m not done. There was R&B Celine singing a duet with a hologram of herself (I’m serious. People thought she was on the stage singing until the real Celine started walking down the aisle towards the fake Celine being beamed onto the stage) of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” (aka the theme to the 1982 film Best Friends and, if you were watching General Hospital in the 80's, Holly and Robert Scorpio’s special song), a contemplative moment when the former ugly duckling songstress sat at the edge of the stage with her guitar player soulfully singing Janis Ian’s hit, “17,” (Hmmn, I wonder if she was thinking about her own transformation?) more movie themes—“Beauty and the Beast,” “Because You Loved Me,”—and of course she ended the show with the smash hit from Titanic, “My Heart Will Go On.” It was like tuning the radio to Lite-FM and hearing Celine Dion sing every single song. And I don’t care who you are, everyone likes a little Lite-FM now and again. You know you’ve sung along to more than a few tunes while driving in your car. (And if you want to listen to them now, click on the above titles in bold and enjoy.)
Now, I should say several things. The girl can sing. Even my mother, who didn’t know from her repertoire, had to admit she was impressed. Also, for someone who just had twins she looks fantastic and I would kill for those gams. I lost count after the sixth costume change and each dress was more fabulous than the next. Who can cry and sing at the same time? Celine. Who can sing cover songs from the 80’s and 90’s and not feel like a nerd? Celine. Who can talk lovingly about her three sons and her full, beautiful life and not get a little squeamish that her husband is pushing 70? Celine.
The woman seems relentlessly sweet but somehow not completely treacly. Maybe it’s the self-deprecation? Maybe it’s the pounding on her chest during an emotive belt? Maybe it’s the jock-y way she moves while wearing an evening gown? Regardless, it didn’t take long for me to think of a Celine inspired dessert. This Tarte Au Sucre is a specialty of Ms. Dion’s native Quebec and it is literally a sugar pie. I became familiar with it when my friend’s step-daughter had to make one for a school project and I was recruited to help. Yes, it is sweet. Yes, you will want to cut very tiny slivers and serve it with UN-sweetened whipped cream. And yes, you will be hard pressed not to like it, just like Celine.
NOTE: If you are in the mood to make your own pie crust you are a better person than I am. I just couldn’t deal and decided to test Trader Joe’s all natural, refrigerated crust. Not bad at all!

Celine in Vegas Tarte au Sucre
Adapted from
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1 9" pie crust or tart crust, unbaked
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk
4 tablespoons butter, cut into 4 pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 400F
In a saucepan, whisk together flour and sugar.
Stir in milk slowly to avoid lumps, then add butter and salt.

Over medium heat, cook, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a boil. (Really, do not stop stirring or you will wind up with burnt sugar ruining your favorite pot.)
Remove from heat, whisk in vanilla extract.
Pour into the unbaked pie shell or tart pan lined with dough.

Bake at 400F for 5 minutes.
Reduce heat to 350F and continue baking for 25 minutes.
Remove from oven and let cool in a rack. (If using tart pan, remove from pan)
Serve cooled in small wedges, with vanilla or coffee ice cream or whipped cream.
Yield: 12-16 slices


Brother's Birthday Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies

I’ve talked about my pushy birthday problem before, but it recently reared its ugly head and in an effort to stop my annoying behavior, I think I need to confess again. Last fall my brother moved back to Brooklyn after being away for a few years. Oh, that sounds like he was in prison or rehab. He wasn’t. He was in grad school living in a roomy house and now he, his girlfriend, and their two cats are back in his apartment. Because of the transition from spacious to less so he renovated his kitchen in order to maximize space and give his place a little face-lift.
Since his birthday was coming up I proclaimed, I mean suggested, that my sister, the nieces and I would be paying our little brother a visit to see the polished digs and do some celebrating. “Um, sure.” he said as I announced the intended day of our visit and our plan to stop by his apartment, critique, I mean view, the renovation, take him out for a local pizza lunch and return to his living room for a little “Happy Birthday” candle blowing.
What my brother didn’t realize was that, during his absence, I’ve commandeered all family birthday desserts. If I don’t already know the favorite cake of the celebrant I decide what it is and I bake it and present it. My success rate is middling. Niece One and my parents have all been very happy with their annual treats. However, Niece Two hasn’t been so cheerful—spitting out her strawberry cupcake one year and completely ignoring her vanilla cake with chocolate frosting the next. But at least I didn’t try to poison her. That distinction belongs to my sister who received her favorite devil’s food cupcake filled with completely rancid peanut butter cream. And the thing is I kind of thought the Skippy smelled a little off but used it anyway because it was raining and I didn’t want to run out to the store.
Now it was my brother’s special day and I had a certain cake in mind. I’ve been on a nostalgia kick since I discovered a new channel on my cable box, Antenna TV (channel 166 for Time Warner NYC subscribers). Devoted to shows of days gone by, the line-up on a given day includes everything from Father Knows Best, to Hazel to The Partridge Family to many other hits. Take it from me, baking on a rainy Sunday listening to “Come on Get Happy!” is pretty, well, happy. Then there’s Maude who makes me love Bea Arthur even more and reminds me of my maternal grandmother. Nana was exactly like her, except with a deeper voice. And Good Times is a whole other story. When we were really little we had just one TV. One Tuesday our favorite babysitter introduced us to the Evans family and we were hooked. “Right on Willona!” and “Dyn-o-mite!” were our catch phrases and broke us up weekly. The only snag was the next day at school. All the other kids were saying “Sit on it Potsie!” and doing this double thumbs up thing while going, “Aaaayyyyyy!” Whoever “The Fonz” was he seemed to be a popular guy. But we stuck with JJ, Florida and the rest of the folks in the Chicago projects and watching it now I can see why: that show was hilarious.
With all this video pushing me back in time I’ve been craving one of the store- bought desserts deemed good enough to serve at our dining table back in the day. Sara Lee was considered to be of better quality and my favorite was the banana cake with orange cream cheese frosting. I can still remember that foil pan coming out of the freezer, peeling back the wax paper covering the frosting and cutting into the ice cold cake. It kills me that they don’t sell them in retail markets anymore (they make jumbo sized for restaurants) so I thought I’d push my brother into feeling as warm and fuzzy about the cake as I do by offering to make a version for him myself. Yeah, my plan didn’t quite work out.
“Remember that great banana cake we used to have? Wouldn’t that be perfect for your birthday?” I offered excitedly.

“What banana cake?” my brother replied with an indulgent sigh.

“You know, the one with the orangey cream cheese frosting, it was Sara Lee and…”

“That sounds disgusting.”

“Disgusting? It was great! You loved it!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t want that. Can’t you make cookies? I like your cookies.”

“Oh, okay,” I relented. “How about the Cook’s Illustrated browned butter chocolate chip cookies?”

“Are they crispy?” he asked.

“No, they’re soft. But they’re really, really good!” I pushed.

“I want a nice, thin, crisp, chocolate chip cookie. What’s your problem? Why can’t you make something crispy?”

He had me. I prefer soft cookies to crisp and so of course I put my own preferences first. But he is too smart to let me manipulate him. I also shouldn’t have been surprised since he is more of a salty, crispy chip guy than a sweet anything. While watching that one TV he could often be found snacking on a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, leaning back precariously on a kitchen chair and changing the channels with his big toe. (Nope, no remote.)
So I gave up and gave in. And you know what? The cookies were great. They’re made with way more brown sugar than white, which adds both stronger toffee notes and crispiness. The nieces went to town on them too all while I stared longingly at his new kitchen. It’s gorgeous and his oven looks professional and fabulous. If only he’d let me bake a banana cake in it, I bet it would be “Dyn-o-mite!”
Brother's Birthday Crispy Chocolate Chip Cookies
From Bromberg Bros. Blue Ribbon Cookbook: Better Home Cooking by Bruce Bromberg, Eric Bromberg & Melissa Clark, 2010
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1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups Ghiradelli 60% Cacao Chocolate Chips (1 11.5oz bag)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and the sugars until light and fluffy, 2 to 4 minutes.
Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the egg and vanilla; beat to combine.
In a small bowl, mix the flour, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the mixer in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl between each addition. Mix until just combined and then stir in the chocolate chips.
Using your two teaspoon ice cream scoop (or two teaspoons) portion out the dough and place on the baking sheets. Leave at least 2 inches of space around each cookie. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the cookies are golden brown and just set (they will crisp up as they cool). Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.
Yield: 6 dozen cookies


Getting It Right Scones

Last week the Times published one of those articles seemingly designed to provoke heavy cringing in anyone who grew up in New York. It was about a group of over-privileged Upper East Side 20-somethings who wanted the opportunity to network with people just like them. They came up with the "Native Society" as the name for their new, roving club and began amassing members. Don’t bother trying to join, this discerning group has to approach you. So many things annoyed me about the piece. Of course the idea of a club based on this idiocy is horrible, there is only one population who can call themselves “Native” and they were shoved out of the way 400 years ago. So that aspect is just horrible. But what really bugged me was the idea that these kids truly believe they are the crème de la crème. And that’s where they got it wrong. If you did grow up here you would recognize most of the academic pedigrees of these “foppish scions” to be pretty mediocre. There were few really rigorous secondary schools or colleges represented. And frankly, the alums of those first rate academies would be secure enough in their intelligence to leave their little circle in order to network. It makes me nuts to think the people who read the piece, or who watch The Real Housewives of New York City, feel they’re seeing real “society.” Don’t they know that anyone who is really anything would never belong to that club or agree to have their life filmed for the world to see?

It’s like the way my father, a true Mad Man, refuses to watch Mad Men. Despite the painstaking research the show prides itself on, Dad, who was actually part of that world, thinks they get so much wrong. It makes him crazy. And even though I think he’s missing out on great TV, I can understand his rejection. When you know the truth about something it is so hard to watch people believe what you consider to be false.
Years ago a woman I know finally married the man who had put her though Hell before he finally proposed. I was privy to the ins and outs and ultimatums and it was exhausting. But she wanted that ring. (Because of course everyone knows a guy who is a pain in the neck when you’re dating is going to morph into the perfect husband as soon as he says, “I do.”) They finally got married and lo and behold she wrangled a “Vows” column in the Times Sunday Styles section. Reading it I felt like my friends were strangers. She had spun their “story” into a lie. It became all about how he gave up his bad boy image (he wasn’t a bad boy, he was unemployed) to finally settle down with his princess (okay, the princess part was true.) I wanted to scream. I had to listen to her moan and groan and then it was as if nothing had ever been out of whack. Again I thought about all the people who would read the piece and think, “What a lovely couple!” It was all wrong. Oh, and they’re no longer a couple.
Then a few weeks ago while watching Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best? (Give me a break, I was cleaning out my closet) mother and daughter were told by their assistant that Perez Hilton was coming by for an interview. Well, you would have thought the Queen of England was on her way over in a carriage. Joan got all excited and said, “It’s Perez Hilton, I really want things to look fabulous.” And then she announced she wanted to serve “High tea.” Explaining to the camera she said, “High tea is a very formal English ritual. My husband was English and when you have someone you really like over you have a High tea.” Okay, I was suspicious. She went on, “There are three parts to it: it goes sandwiches, petit fours, scones.” And she jumped on the phone to her New York staff ordering them to overnight her good china. “I really wanted to do things right for Perez Hilton,” she reiterated. Okay, there is so much wrong here. First the dog and pony show for Perez Hilton is just a little sad. But most importantly, what she was serving wasn’t High tea it was "Afternoon" tea. High tea is what we would think of as an early dinner. It’s eaten around 5pm, there are plates of cold meats, fish or eggs, maybe some shepherd’s pie, sandwiches and cake. (Fun fact: it is called “high” because it was served on a higher table, where you would take a real meal vs. a low coffee table where you might pour tea and have some scones.) As far as I’m concerned this is the worst kind of getting it wrong because it is imbuing something with fanciness when it is just the opposite. Like when people say, “between you and I” because they think they sound classier when in fact, they just sound kind of dumb.
And now I’m asking myself why any of this actually bothers me? I know the truth and so what? Am I better off than someone who is buying into unwarranted pretensions? I don’t know, probably not. But still. I can’t shake it. I feel the same way about baked goods. Why does the tea shop near my apartment call the sugary, bloated, stuffed mounds studded with chocolate chunks, scones? A scone is more like a biscuit than a thick cookie—plain and simple, sometimes with raisins (blech), sometimes with currants (nice), sometimes with nothing. As in all things American we’ve managed to tart them up in translation and they’ve lost their purpose and focus. This recipe, however, is perfect. So easy to make, just slightly sweet but not so rich that some cream and jam would be overkill and light enough you could have them as part of an “Afternoon” tea party with little sandwiches and some petit fours. And maybe, if you’re really lucky, Perez Hilton will stop by.

Getting it Right Scones

Adapted from Letty Hampton, Everyday Food, March 2009
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2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled), plus more for work surface
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup dried currants
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon milk

Directions Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and 2 tablespoons sugar.

With a pastry blender, a fork or two knives, cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in currants.

Make a well in center; add buttermilk and egg, and stir just until combined (do not over-mix).Transfer dough to a floured work surface; knead 5 or 6 times. Pat into an 8-inch disk. With a floured 2 1/4-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds. Re-roll and cut scraps once.Transfer to baking sheet, about 1 1/2 inches apart. Brush rounds with milk; sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake until scones are golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield 12-13 scones


Oscar Recovery Strawberry Thumbprint Corn Muffins

I promised myself I was done with Oscar talk but after last Sunday’s debacle I can’t sit idly by and act like nothing happened. The 83rd Academy Awards were among the more painful events I’ve endured on any screen, big or small. I don’t really know where to begin so I’ll just start with me.
The Oscars are my Super Bowl, World Series, Wimbledon, well, you get the point. I look forward to the awards the minute I see the first decent movie of the year when I pronounce which actor/writer/director I am sure will be nominated. As I’ve said before, I go to the movies almost weekly, with the exception of the summer when there is nothing worthwhile to see. So the personal stakes are high which admittedly is a little sad given that I’m not in the movie business and have no chance of walking the red carpet—unless someday I’m on the arm of Colin Firth.

I was dubious as soon as I heard Anne Hathaway and James Franco were hosting. To be fair, they’ve both done well with not particularly great material on SNL, so I kind of understood why the powers that be thought they could handle a four hour live challenge. But where did they get the idea that they would work well together? You can’t fake chemistry and wow, they had none. It was like watching the bad high school date of a goofy drama geek and a sleeping stoner who only asked her out on a dare and then got high in the bathroom while she sipped her vanilla milkshake alone. She was insufferable. Overly enthusiastic, “woo-hooing” and hi-fiving, which anyone with a brain knows is unacceptable when you are in formal wear. I can’t deal with people who over-estimate their own appeal and she seems to think she is much more charming than she actually is. So that’s Anne.
As for James, obviously there is something off about someone who seems to live the life of a hyphenate: actor-director-writer-student-student-student-artist, what have I left out, astronaut? Plus his stint on General Hospital reeks of mockery which is just not nice. Do you know how many hard-working actors would kill for the chance for a day’s work on a soap? A lot.

So the hosts stunk. Now to the show. I’m sorry but who was directing that fiasco? Here’s an idea, let’s start the evening with two awards no one cares about and then bring on Kirk Douglas for a cringe-worthy turn as a dirty old man! You’d have to be an insensitive idiot not to have a knot in your stomach as he made his way through the script. I admire his tenacity, and think he is still charming, but come on! That was too much. And thank you Melissa Leo for your grace and class.
The nightmare continued for three hours. Gone with the Wind was evoked for no apparent reason, Bob Hope appeared as a hologram, Gwyneth Paltrow tried to sing a really bad song, Celine Dion tried to sing a really lovely song and David Fincher scowled in his seat, the seat from which he never had occasion to leave. Billy Crystal arrived to the warm embrace of a very grateful Kodak theater and made a joke about Hugh Jackman, a reaction from whom you’d think the director might want to capture. But no, they kept the camera on Billy cause who doesn’t want to look at the second coming of Jackie Mason instead of Australia’s most luscious export?
According to Anne Hathaway, the Oscars were trying to be young and hip (she said that how many times?). Oh, so that’s why James Franco was checking his Blackberry when he first came on the stage, Justin Timberlake said, “There’s an app for that” and Franco made a reference to texting! I get it now. Okay, doesn’t everyone know that the one way to insure you won’t be hip is to try to be hip? The Academy Awards aren’t cool and, more importantly, they’re not supposed to be. Stop trying so hard, go back to being Hollywood’s most self-congratulatory (and that is saying a lot) evening and bring back the 21st century’s Johnny Carson. And no, I don’t know who that is but I do know it’s not James and Anne.
Not to be a complete hater I will say a few positive things. Most everyone looked great, (despite the polarizing dress worn by Cate Blanchett. I liked the color, not the fungus design), Anne Hathaway can really sing, the PS 22 Chorus was sweet (if placed in a thankless time slot) and…Colin Firth took home the statue.
I was so cranky after the show I had a hard time getting rid of the bad taste in my mouth. Earlier on Sunday I got to spend some perfect time with the newly three Niece Two. Whenever I feel myself preoccupied with useless nonsense (something that happens way too often) I think about the two little girls who always remind me of life’s simple pleasures. I had taken Niece Two to a diner, which was extremely exciting for her because we sat at the counter and got to watch all the action from the high perch of a “spinny chair.” She was particularly taken with the stack of “baby cereal boxes” and the enormous flat screen TV tuned to a golf match. “It’s really special to watch TV and eat your lunch!” she announced to the, I’d like to think, delight of the other diners at the diner. But what really got her attention was the display of giant, mutant muffins under their plastic hood. “They’re the most humongous!” she screamed more than once, leading me to believe she had only recently learned that word. So to cure my Oscar blues I knew I needed to make some muffins.
This recipe couldn’t be easier and is the perfect mix of sweet, light and crunchy. Mix together the dry, mix together the wet, add wet to dry, bake, make an indentation and fill with jam. Please remember to gently fold the wet ingredients into the dry and do so just until everything is combined. Over-mixing leads to tough, unpleasant muffins and then you’ll be back where you started, obsessing over the wreckage of the 83rd Academy Awards. Okay, now I'm really done with Oscar talk, until I see the first great movie of 2011. Stay tuned.

Oscar Recovery Strawberry Thumbprint Corn Muffins
Adapted from The SoNo Baking Company Cookbook, by John Barricelli 2010
Printer friendly version
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse salt
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup coarse yellow cornmeal
3 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup sour cream
¾ cup strawberry preserves

Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a standard 12-cup muffin pan paper liners. Set aside.

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, and cornmeal until combined.
In another large bowl whisk eggs, buttermilk, oil, and sour cream together until blended.Gently fold wet ingredients into dry until just combined. Do not over-mix.

Using a standard ice cream scoop, divide batter among the muffin cups.
Bake, rotating the pan about two-thirds of the way through, until the muffins are golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean, 18-22 minutes.

Place the muffin pan to a wire rack and allow to cool for 5 minutes and then carefully remove muffins from pan, placing them on another rack.
Using your thumb press down in the middle of each muffin, and create an indentation deep enough to hold a teaspoonful of preserves.

Spoon strawberry preserves into each indentation. Let cool for another 10 minutes and serve.
Yield 12 muffins