Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Anna Banana

My cousin Karen sent me an email the other day.
After seeing herself in a vintage family photo I posted a couple of months ago, she thought it would be fun to reminisce about Gramma Anna, the patient, simple, fun-loving, albeit vertically challenged better half to our fiery French-blooded Grampa Henry.
Among her many virtues, I think the thing we loved most about Gramma Anna was that she was consistent. As the self-appointed family historian, Gramma Anna wrote smack dab on the front of every photo...most of which she took with her old Brownie box camera. Formal portrait or family snapshot, it really didn't matter, Gramma would record the facts on each photo. It drove us crazy then...but what would we do without those notes today!

"Anna-Banana” she’d say to us kids in her deliberate, syllabic way as she'd peer through the little Brownie viewfinder and we’d shriek with delight each time at her wacky wit. “Anna-Banana”…how clever! It really didn’t take much to make us smile.

Topping off at an honest four feet-eleven, Grandma Anna also faithfully served as the family’s human grow stick. Posted like a diminutive sentry at the threshold of their Outer Mission headquarters, she would stand at the top of those terracotta steps, hand held high in the air, waiting to tap the top of our heads as we walked through the door to gauge where we measured up against those almost five feet of hers. With a smooch on the lips, she'd proclaim how much we’d all sprouted since our last visit and how she must be shrinking too…and she was!

At every family event we’d gather at "Eight-Ee-Se-Ven-Na-Va-Ho" (pronounced by Gramma as seven separate words) and the six of us grand kids would run off to the back of the house not to be seen until the turkey made its way onto the crochet-clad dining room table. We’d leave the grown-ups to their chit-chat, their log of Gallo salami and their jug of Carlo Rossi red table wine and be off to explore the wonder that was Gramma and Grampa’s house.
We’d rifle through the designated toy drawer in Auntie Janet’s old bedroom, and fight over the same old trinkets that waited patiently for us to abuse at every visit. We’d play Circus Bingo and Yahtzee and when we were bored with that, we’d explore Gramma’s jewelry drawer and admire her precious “Oh-Pal” (pronounced as two separate words) and Grampa’s silver dollar bill clip.

And, on the rare occasion that Mom and Dad needed a babysitter, we were treated to a city sleepover where Gramma would give us her undivided attention, teaching us how to play poker for dimes or letting us transform a loaf of Wonder bread into stacks of fake hosts so we could practice for our much anticipated First Holy Communions.

When we got a little older, we’d descend into the basement wonderland where Grampa kept his tools and wood scraps that the boys would consistently craft into some form of weaponry. The girl cousins loved the easy access into the garden where we’d mix up muddy concoctions and bury coffee cans full of treasure stowed to unearth on future visits.

The old chest freezer was down there too and if we were feeling especially naughty, we’d pick the lock and steal a nibble of the Carnation coconut-covered vanilla ice cream snowballs that were always there around the holidays, nestled between 40 pounds of butcher-paper wrapped red meat and stacks of thin white boxes filled with frozen ravioli. We learned that if we repositioned the decorative plastic holly leaf just right over the tell-tale bite marks, no one would know that the snowballs had been compromised.

That basement was our clubhouse and we were happy to share it with the old, early-70’s model Oldsmobile (which Grampa insisted on calling a Cadillac) that faithfully ferried them to our house almost every weekend. They were professional fans and never missed one of the many Little League games or dance recitals that commanded their attendance.

Wearing a floral polyester, long-sleeved dress and sun visor, Gramma Anna would sit patiently in the bleachers, notepad in-hand , meticulously recording statistics and observations. At the end of each event, she’d tuck her notepad into her well-organized purse and announce that it was time to go home to “San-Fran-Sis-Co-Watch-My-Fist-Go” (pronounced like eight separate words) and off they would ride into the Sunset, so-to-speak.

As they’d pull into the driveway of "Eight-Ee-Se-Ven-Na-Va-Ho" Grandma would reach into the glove box for yet another notepad, record their mileage and fuel consumption, neatly re-secure it with a rubber band and stow it back away. She’d then hop out of the passenger seat, stand in front of the open garage door and waive Grandpa in as if together they were landing a fighter plane on the deck of the USS Nimitz.

Sometimes Grampa would make it through the narrow portal unscathed, but the deep battle scars stretching down both sides of the Olds proved that their success rate was less than 100%.

When we’d come back upstairs, our first stop would always be the kitchen. After a couple of hours in the tunnels, we’d worked up quite an appetite and could always count on finding handfuls Oreos in the chipped, glued and re-glued Raggedy Ann cookie jar (which I now proudly display in my kitchen) and an opened, less-than-fresh box of chocolate-covered Hostess mini-donuts on the counter.

We’d wash it all down with a cold glass of Tang (pronounced by Gramma as “Tanj”) and while we were in the fridge we’d sneak a spoonful of chocolate pudding (the cooked, Jello-brand kind, of course) digging beneath the characteristic surface skin to find that familiar, chocolaty, lumpy, goodness. Yes, it’s true, Gramma Anna wasn’t known for her culinary prowess, but a visit to their house wouldn’t be the same without those donuts, that pudding, and that “Tanj.”

So, as a gift to my brothers and my cousins, but most of all to celebrate our “Anna Banana”, I share with you my version of chocolate pudding that I hope you will all enjoy in good health. It may not be Jello-brand, but it is cooked, it is chocolaty and it is guaranteed delicious. I make it today in the shadow of that Raggedy Ann cookie jar and as I put it in the fridge to cool, I look up, and raise a cold glass of “Tanj” to our beloved Gramma Anna. Enjoy the pudding, my brothers and my cousins…enjoy one-and-all. I think I’ll play some Yahtzee tonight.

Get all of your ingredients together...this recipe cooks up time to go searching for the vanilla or you'll get lumps! My favorite chocolate to use is the Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Dark...and it comes in a 4 ounce bar. Carly made a double batch last night and brought it to school today with 10 spoons. She used Trader Joes Dark (which is what I had on hand) and it was good too...and way less expensive!

 Throw the sugar, cornstarch and salt into a heavy saucepan and whisk it together...

Add the chopped chocolate then whisk the egg yolk into the milk and add it to the pot...keep whisking...

Melt everything down until it looks (and smells!) like hot chocolate then gently bring it up to a boil over medium high heat. When it starts to thicken remove it from the heat (about one minute).

Add a tablespoon of butter and the vanilla and whisk it until it is smooth and glossy. Pour it immediately into two 8 ounce ramekins or whatever fancy dish or dishes you'd like and chill. The recipe serves two but I think the portions are too's sooo rich! I suggest putting it into two smaller dishes then leaving a big glob of it in the pot to eat right then and there sharing spoonfuls with whomever is in lips' reach.

Bittersweet Chocolate Pudding

In a heavy saucepan whisk together:
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • pinch of salt
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Whisk together then add to the pot:
  • 1 1/3 cups whole milk
  • 1 large egg yolk
Keep whisking over medium-high heat until the chocolate melts and when it starts to bubble watch it until it thickens then remove it from the heat (about one minute). Add and mix until smooth and glossy:

  • 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Pour into two to four serving dishes, chill and garnish with:
  • whipped cream and chocolate shavings if you've got 'em.
Serves two to four