Weeknight Wonder: Baked Macaroni and Cheese

31 Aug

My teaching schedule can sometimes mean being gone at an awkward hour for trying to coordinate dinner, so I’ve learned a lot of crock pot, sous-vide, and make-ahead meals to keep Joe and myself from paying for take-out.

This baked macaroni and cheese recipe is one of my personal favorites, because it skips some of the fussier steps like making a roux and a cheese sauce. Nope, this one is for the evening you’d rather skip all of that and still have something hot, gooey, cheesy and delicious. Plus, it can be prepared well in advance. You can also double this recipe for a bigger crowd or even add vegetables or chopped meats to it.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

  • 8 oz. dried pasta (I usually go with penne or elbows)
  • 1 cup half-and-half cream
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese (or a mixture of cheeses! Great way to clean out the cheese drawer.)
  • 2 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 cup panko bread crumbs or crushed crackers
  • 1 tbsp. butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cook the pasta al dente, drain the water, and return the pasta to the pot. Add the cream cheese and stir until the pasta is lightly coated with cream cheese.



Combine the cream and spices in a measuring cup and then stir that into the pasta. Add the flour and Dijon mustard as well.



Finally, add the cheese, stirring to distribute as easily as possible. Move this mixture to a greased 8×8 in. baking dish. At this point, you can prepare it for the oven, or cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.




Melt the butter and stir it into the bread crumbs. Spread the bread crumbs evenly over the macaroni and cheese and then bake for 25 minutes.



I also like to turn the broiler on for the last minute or two to brown the top. We get four servings out of this, and it reheats really well in the oven or toaster oven. Yum!

Graham Crackers (and S’mores!)

23 Aug

Sometimes, you find your 31 year old self needing the comforts of childhood: Cartoons and s’mores. After a particularly long week recently, I asked a couple of friends to come over and watch Batman cartoons with me and wind down.

It’s hard not going into full-on hostess mode when people come over. But I really just wanted to hang out with my friends. Can’t hide in the kitchen the whole time, Neen. So I decided the local Thai place would make dinner and I’d only put myself on the hook for dessert.

I thought s’mores would be pretty fun for a summer evening, so I made a batch of marshmallows (recipe here), a batch of chocolate ganache, and some graham crackers.  I know the typical s’mores chocolate is a good old fashioned Hershey bar, but the ganache was definitely tastier and meltier.

Easy Chocolate Ganache

  • 8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream (or coconut milk for dairy-free)

Put the semi-sweet chocolate in a bowl. Bring the heavy cream just to a boil, and then pour it over the chocolate. Let stand for 2 minutes, and then whisk until smooth. It will be very liquid, but will set up and become spreadable as it cools down.

The last step was making the graham crackers, which is really more like making pastry dough than a cookie or biscuit. I’ve made graham crackers a lot of different ways, but this is my personal favorite recipe for ones that are crisp, and juuust sweet enough.

Graham Crackers

  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar (or 1 cup granulated sugar blended with 3 tbsp. molasses)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
  • 1/3 cup honey or maple syrup. For this batch I used half and half!
  • 5 tbsp. cold milk
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • granulated sugar for sprinkling

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor.


Add the butter a few cubes at a time and pulse until the mixture is sandy. You can also do this by hand with a pastry cutter or the tines of two forks.


In a separate bowl, whisk together the honey/maple syrup, milk, and vanilla extract.

Slowly add the wet ingredients to dry and mix until a cohesive dough forms.


Divide the dough into two equal pieces, flatten into discs, and chill in the refrigerator for an hour or until firm enough to roll.


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a baking mat.

Roll out one half of the dough until it is 1/8 in. thick and then cut out crackers. I used a 2-in. fluted round cutter for these.  Move the crackers to the prepared baking sheet, dock with a fork (this keeps them from puffing up) and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar.


Bake the crackers for about 15-20 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Then move to a wire rack to cool.


We intended to use my little butane torch to toast the marshmallows (no campfire here, alas). It was out of fuel though, so Joe quickly improvised while at the grocery store and bought a sterno. We lit it and toasted our marshmallows using the chopsticks from dinner as skewers. Honestly, it was a pretty great way to spend an evening with friends. I’m glad to have people in my life who are content to laugh, eat a bunch of gooey marshmallows, and have a good time.


Re-mixing Upside-Down Cake

27 Jul

Upside down cakes are a magic trick to me. The perfect chemistry of caramel, cake, and fruit.  I felt like playing around with this traditional southern favorite this week. The classic variation features a light, white cake, brown sugar caramel, and pineapple rings studded with maraschino cherries

For starters, pineapple is sweet enough—maraschino cherries are delicious, but kind of overkill. We’ve had some lovely, tart blueberries in VA this summer, so I swapped those in for flavor and color contrast, and then brightened the whole caramel up with fresh herbs and lime. I also diced the fruit and let it cook with the caramel, rather than layering them individually. It really let the fruit soak up the herbs and zest. Yum!

As for the cake itself, well, there’s nothing wrong at all with a good white cake, but my favorite batter is a good old-fashioned yellow butter cake. And frankly, no egg whites to whip means less bowls to clean. Shall we?

Pineapple-Blueberry Upside Down Cake with Lime and Mint Caramel


Cake Batter

  • 4 oz. butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 egg yolks and 1 whole egg
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup whole milk plain yogurt
  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • 1 ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt


  • 1 pineapple, cored and diced (fresh or equivalent canned amount, drained)
  • ½ cup blueberries (frozen or fresh)
  • 5-6 mint leaves, finely chopped
  • zest and juice of one lime
  • 4 tbsp. butter
  • ½ cup brown sugar


Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. Butter a tube pan, bundt pan, or 9 in. cake pan thoroughly.

Combine the chopped pineapple with the lime zest and herbs and set aside.


To make the caramel, combine the brown sugar, lime juice, and butter in a saucepan over medium heat.


Once the sugar dissolves and the caramel is bubbling, add the pineapple mixture, and cook until fruit is soft, well-glazed, and the caramel has reduced by half (5-7 min). Set aside to cool slightly while the cake batter is prepared.


Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then add the egg and yolks one-by-one, mixing and scraping the sides of the bowl between additions. Add the vanilla and mix well.


In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.

With the mixer on low speed, alternate adding yogurt and the flour mixture until all is incorporated. Mix just until the batter is even.


To assemble, pour the pineapple and caramel in an even layer on the bottom of the pan. Then, make decorative lines using the blueberries.



Pour the cake batter over the top. It is a stiff batter, so use an offset spatula to smooth it as evenly as possible.


Bake the cake for 40-50 minutes or until golden brown on top. A knife into the cake (not the fruit layer) will come out clean.


Let the cake cool on a wire rack and then invert. Yes, it’s scary, but if you’ve baked the cake long enough and prepped your pan well, then…


The cake is buttery and rich, the caramel and fruit are tart and sweet, and it all comes together so beautifully.

Enjoy and be inspired to make your own upside down creations!

Ciao for now,


My Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies

27 Jan

What sort of red-blooded American woman has a recipe blog without a chocolate chip cookie recipe??

Oh, oh…

Oh dear.

How did this happen? Once again I fell into that trap of thinking, “Oh that’s too simple. People know how to make that.” And that’s true, but hey, who knows? Every method has its own little tricks and quirks to it. In fact, what started this was my husband showing me this image from Handle the Heat that’s been floating around social media:

Now there’s science I can get behind! Why didn’t I do this as my science experiment for PJAS in grade school?

Joe asked about the chocolate chip cookies I make, and I told him that my recipe was a combination of several of those variables, except that I rarely chilled the dough for a whole day. Maybe he was just trying to get a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but he asked me to try it out of curiosity.

I did, and the flavor was amazing, but found that the first batch didn’t spread out as much as I’d prefer. So for the next go-round, I rolled the soft dough into a log, wrapped it in parchment, and then chilled it. Instead of rolling or dropping/flattening the cookies, I cut half-inch slices off of the dough log, ensuring even thickness and less spreading.

And lo, it was the perfect chocolate chip cookie. I doubt the ingredients are much different than yours, but I think the method here makes all the difference.

CCL’s Most Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

Sift the flour, salt, and baking soda together in a bowl and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer, combine the sugars and melted butter and beat until well mixed and slightly thickened. Add the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla to this mixture and beat until thick (2-3 minutes).

Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix just until combined.

Mix in the chocolate chips.

Scoop the soft dough onto a large piece of parchment paper and form it into a 12-13 in. log. Roll the dough up in the parchment and refrigerate for 24 hours.

To bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and then use a sharp knife (those chocolate chips are chilled and hard now) to cut the dough log into 1/2 in. slices. Place the cookies on a parchment-lined sheet pan about 2 in. apart and bake for 16 minutes or until golden around the edges.


They’ll bake more evenly, no spreading, no fuss. Just delicious chocolate chip cookies. Now stop reading and get baking!


The Evolution of an Identity

27 Jun

When I was in high school, I met the first person I’d ever date. And I didn’t know it when I met her, but we would weave in and out of one another’s lives for the next three years. I would feel simultaneous joy and pain for every moment we were friends.

The first time I told a friend that I liked this girl (but still liked boys too), she frowned and said, “Bisexual? That’s not a thing. You’re gay or straight.” But I wasn’t, and even though I knew it deep down, I remember that I just smiled and moved on to a different topic.

I understood very little about sexuality, and all of the opinions that dominated my life came clouded with religious overtones. It was a time when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act were heavy parts of the national conversation, and many of the people I went to school with were devout Catholics. My parents were faithful, but never evangelical, teaching me that above anything really to just treat others as you wished to be treated. “Love one another, for God is love.” They thought that the environment that gave my brother and I the best opportunity at getting into good colleges were the local Catholic schools. I attended those schools for 12 years. On the academic side, they were probably correct in their assumption. But there was a high price to pay for this education (beyond the tuition.)

Because of where I went to school, I got into trouble for holding my girlfriend’s hand or saying anything in our morality classes that implied that I didn’t consider homosexuality a sin. When we were “dating” (and I put it in quotations simply because it was such a gray area), I could tell very few of my friends, and never, EVER show so much as an iota of affection in front of the girl’s mother. If she ever knew, she’d have thrown her out of the house. I was well aware of where and when we could get away with letting it show that we cared about one another.

I still cringe sometimes when I consider how I treated this young woman, constantly vacillating between loving her and running away from her. At a time in my life when I wish I felt free to tell someone, “I don’t understand. There is no difference between my attraction to boys and my attraction to girls,” I felt that if I told anyone of authority, the only thing that could follow was anger, disappointment, or shame. Once a priest told me I’d be better off leading a life of celibacy than ever experimenting with homosexual relationships. I fled dating my girlfriend numerous times, often seeking easier or more “normal” relationships with guys. I figured that even if I was bisexual, life would just be easier if I presented and acted like a straight woman. I wanted more than anything to make my faith and my sexuality work together, but the mental gymnastics required were more than I could tolerate.

At one point though, I was tired of pretending all the time. I told my two of my best friends on summer swim team that I was bisexual, and they were revolted. That was a dagger in my heart. I will never, ever forget the loss I felt sitting between them that day, and I never told either of them how badly it wounded me. I’d not felt that sting of hatred since eighth grade, when I first read about young Matthew Shepard being beaten and left for dead tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming for the crime of flirting with a couple of heterosexual men.

When I moved to Boston for college, I met people of all backgrounds and found allies through campus GLBTQ organizations, PFLAG, clubs, and online support to understand that I identified most sincerely as pansexual. Some people really don’t like labels on their sexuality, and that’s fine, but for me it gave me a sense of ownership of my sexual identity. I didn’t have a preference of how a person presented, or what reproductive organs he or she had. I just knew I felt attracted and drawn to all kinds of different people.

And then one day I decided to just out myself casually. I was watching TV with a bunch of friends in my freshman year dormitory and we were talking about high school. At a point, I mentioned an ex-girlfriend and one of my friends said, “I didn’t know you were gay.”

“I’m not, I’m bisexual. Well, I guess pansexual is more accurate.”

“You just like everyone?”

I laughed at the remark, but suddenly I realized that this identity I’d felt ashamed of my whole life was actually an enormous gift. I couldn’t remember a time where I’d ever felt a preference toward men, women, or any other gender identity. I just felt drawn and attracted to certain people. It was revelatory—I kept trying to think back to a time when I felt differently, and I realized that this person always existed. There were never any barriers around gender. I felt lucky.

I was born this way.

The friends watching football with me that Sunday afternoon continued to watch the game with me as we moved on to complaining about finals together. Absolutely nothing changed. Nothing. No one treated me differently, and no one told me “I’ll pray for you,” or “God will help you find your way.”

I was free. Free of all of it. Even though I realized that there would always be people who didn’t like me because of my identity, I realized also how many MORE people didn’t care at all.

I could love anyone I wanted to love. And finally I really felt like I knew myself.

Many years later, I happily returned to a sense of spirituality through yoga and meditation, and am joyfully married to a man who has known and loved me for everything I am from day one. He is proud of me every single day, and has never asked me to hide my feelings or thoughts. He knew what yesterday’s Supreme Court decision meant to me, my family and friends in gay relationships and marriages, and all of those who have ever felt like their relationships were somehow second-class. After I taught my morning class yesterday, I received his text message that the United States of America had taken this massive step toward stripping this country of institutionalized discrimination. I fell to my knees and cried the moment the last student left the studio.

I thought of my littlest cousin, who is only one year old. She will grow up in a country where it has always been legal to marry the person you love, regardless of sex or gender. She will grow up in a country where, yes, there is still a great deal of work to be done toward equality, but her generation will have this foothold of marriage. She will know that in the eyes of the law, these relationships are every bit as beautiful, valid, and special as the marriages of heterosexual partners.

She will not go through high school with words like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” being commonplace or rallying cries for a “Defense of Marriage Act.” She’ll have all the confusion, angst, and elation that every teenager goes through without that one added pressure. Her generation will have its own challenges to face, and the road to equality for all is a long and winding one, but for now I embrace this moment.

“I celebrate myself and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to YOU.”

–Walt Whitman


An Apology

28 Apr

It took me a little while to find you. As we drifted apart, I let the pictures of you fade away too. One by one. The ones I kept accessible were only to remind me that I was better off without you.

For a long time, I regarded you with pity and dismay, then contempt for everything you did to spite and hurt me, and at long last indifference. A numb acceptance that you existed as a part of my history.

But I never loved you. Maybe in brief, fleeting moments I remembered something funny you said, or the way that you didn’t pay much attention to what anyone thought of your sense of style.

If I let you in, even for a second, I might think you weren’t so bad. I might feel loss.

I might remember that there were good times. And that you fought courageous battles that would have brought others to their knees. I might see the dark circles under your eyes the day after you stayed on the phone with a friend through the whole night, because she told you she wanted to kill herself.

You wrote every day, religiously, fiendishly. Filling up notebooks and journals without worrying about deadlines, word counts, style manuals, opinions, or critics. You paid none of it any mind and allowed that creativity to energize you, even at the darkest moment. Even the worst day of your life (almost a decade and a half ago), you wrote in that notebook until three pens were dry and your hand was so cramped you wore a wrist brace to school for two days.

I missed that drive.

And that is all it took. I felt you seeping into my heart, wheedling your way in and begging for my attention. Every time you have come to me like this in the past, pushing into the corners of my heart, I rejected you with anger, indifference, pride…anything to show you that I didn’t need you.

This time I just heaved a sigh and asked, “What do you WANT?”

You were silent. You looked down and I knew everything you felt. You were telling yourself all the reasons that you shouldn’t have come, you’re not worth anything, you’re not good enough….

That’s my script. I wrote that.

All of the things others told you, I reiterated a thousand times, branded them into your heart and left deep, painful scars.

And I realized suddenly that of all the tormentors you had, I was the worst. All this time I rejected and cast you aside for hurting me, letting me down, making me lonely. Meanwhile I shouted at you, struck you, and shackled you. Every day, I reiterated the world’s message that you simply were

Not. Good. Enough.

Finally I looked at you through tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you. I love you as you are. You are important. You matter.”

And so today on this eleventh anniversary of my gastric bypass, I celebrate YOU.

aidswalk 012

AIDS Walk Pittsburgh 2004

Every time this anniversary comes around, I focus on how far I have come and been so proud of how I’ve pushed you into the past. And I owe you an apology. Because even though I made that decision to give this vessel a better shot at carrying me around for more years of life on earth, you never deserved the hate I threw at you. You didn’t need one more person to remind you that your round shape was unwelcome.

And so here I stand. I am not at the lowest weight I’ve ever been. In fact, I didn’t want to remember my anniversary today. Because maybe I’m scared that I’ll never really feel “victorious” over the weight problems we’ve had.

But I never stood in a Bikram class in a bra top and shorts at that lowest weight—the confidence wasn’t there, and I do it now with great pride. (I can demo a mighty fine kapalabathi breath because you can see that whole belly move.) A student told me he felt welcome in class with me because I explained things practically and used anatomy cues. Another told me that she felt relaxed because I moved “like a graceful yoga swan” but I looked like “a real person.” Granted, we are all real people, but if you look at publications like Yoga Journal, you might recognize the mold that pop culture has tried to create for the Western yoga practitioner. My personal favorite was the student who said to me, “Oh my god, no one has ever told me I could reach and move my belly flesh out of the way in a seated twist. I actually twisted!” Those were all things I learned from you. I remembered what you felt like in that first yoga class as an obese woman.

I’ve come home and cried to Joe on occasion, “What do I have to offer that someone else can’t do a thousand times better?” Even I fall into that trap of thinking that I’m not worthy to be in the seat of the teacher because I can’t float up into arm balances gracefully or fold my legs into lotus. And again I have to go back to all of those words I say in class. “This is not about how many postures you do, how deeply you go into them, or how strong you are. It is about finding a ‘steady, comfortable seat’ in any shape you take. All you need to do to figure out what that means is listen to your breath. If it’s even and calm, you’re just as deep in the posture as anyone else. What is a steady comfortable seat for you at this present moment?”

Sometimes when I feel unsure of myself as a teacher, I imagine you standing there, proud and tall. All of the weight hanging off of your bones, and you don’t care because this place is safe. This room is sacred. This yoga is for everyone. And I would say to you, dearest 18 year-old Neen…

Welcome home.

Listening to music in Faneuil Hall - April 2004

Listening to music in Faneuil Hall – April 2004