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I liked the moments just before the most.
Fifteen minutes before a party, if I weren't running around trying to throw a shirt over my head after washing my hair, I'd sit in my suddenly clean house and look around. The image of friends and family playing games in the living room, or leaning on the kitchen island with something delicious in hand made me happy.
As time went on, I found myself happiest when I was in the moment. It was messy and awkward at times, but there's nothing like being in the moment to guarantee a surprise. The moments before were filled with anticipation, those afterward often felt deflated. But the moment? Oh, the moment. You never knew what was about to happen next.
These days, though, I've decided I like the moments just after. I love the meal, of course, but I've grown terribly fond of the moments when we're leaning our arms on the table, napkins crumpled, only crumbs are on the plates, and we're trying to figure out which bottles of wine still have something to offer. Our tummies are full, and we're sitting together, no one is itching to leave, and there aren't expectations of anything more.
I think about this ..
On the third Saturday of every month, a little before 7 p.m., as I light the candles.
For the past couple of hours, we've been methodically going through our checklist: meatballs formed and in the fridge, tables and chairs are up from the basement, the dishwasher is three loads into its two-day marathon – the table is set with something pretty for decoration.
One kitty has gone deep into hiding; the other stands ready for her job of greeter. Near the (many) bottles of wine are a cutting board for fresh garlic bread, a bowl of freshly grated Parmesan
My husband bends over a slow-cooker of simmering sauce. Big pots of salted water rest on the stovetop, ready to start the boiling about a half-hour before the guests arrive. A colorful salad chills in the fridge. I've changed into jeans and a t-shirt. My feet are bare.
Once the candles are lit, I stop fretting, dim the lights, put my computer away, and pour a couple of glasses of something bubbly
Before long before our little apartment in the sky is full of stories and laughter. It always feels smaller, brighter, and, best of all, warmer. When the table is full of plates of pasta and steaming meatballs, we sit and raise our glasses:
“To friendship and Spaghetti Saturdays!”
My husband and I have been doing this every month, give or take, for five years (minus the year or so we were apart) They've been extraordinary months.
When we started, we had a few simple problems to solve. There were so many incredible people in our lives, and we weren't touching base with as often as we wanted. Plus, working nights from home was incredibly isolating for me. People were always inviting us over, but working in the evening made saying “yes” a challenge.
We had no idea how much the simple act of gathering for dinner would transform our lives
— — —
This year, after we sold our house and moved to a downtown apartment, we decided to start the tradition again. An attempt to build a community and get to know some of the interesting people we found ourselves surrounded by. The experience has been different logistically, but no less soothing for the soul.
My husband grew up on the south side of Chicago in a large and traditional Polish-American family. I'm forever asking him about the meals they served. Mostly he mentions everyone gathering at his parent's house on holidays and special events; that and his mother's affinity toward burning dinner. That might have been the case, but somehow she raised a man who's always expressed love through cooking.
I, on the other hand, grew on a farm in northwestern Iowa, and we were traditional in our own way. My mom cooked casseroles of all sorts, and the gatherings I remember most were community affairs in church basements. Eventually, I had children of my own and tried to follow in her footsteps. While the kids were the world's pickiest eaters whenever spaghetti was on the menu, they were always happy.
Our monthly meatball recipe originates from this season.
On a warm summer evening, twenty-five years ago, friends who lived on our block invited us for dinner, and meatballs were on the menu. I noticed that everybody loved them and asked for the recipe. So when we were thinking of what we could serve at our monthly parties, I dug it out but debated. Were they too pedestrian for guests? Turns out, my fretting was unfounded. Friends from other food cultures, Indian, Jewish, and African, have all adored them.
So meatballs it was
I'll never forget the day I took to the blog:
“We're starting a new tradition called Spaghetti Saturdays.
Starting in November, we'll be cooking spaghetti and meatballs on the 3rd Saturday of every month. There will be jazz playing, and the flickering of candles, as we sit down to eat together, along with anyone who'd like to join us. You can bring something if you want to, but nobody will frown if you don't. You can stay for a long time or a short time.
We have 4 cats and 2 dogs that will want to say “Hi.” There might be cards and board games, possibly an ongoing puzzle. Of course, there will be dessert.
This is our attempt to spend more time with the people we love so very much.
The response was immediate: we were inundated with kind comments and enthusiastic emails. My husband raised an eyebrow: “We're going to need more chairs.”
In the months that followed, we got used to hosting. It became less anxiety-ridden. We bought more chairs. More wine glasses too. We perfected the recipe and a process for pulling it all together. I learned if we deviated from our menu, it probably wouldn't end well.
Our guest list grew. We stopped worrying about making everything perfect. Our parents and grandparents, we realized, hadn't made a big deal about hosting family dinners; it was just something they did. After a few months, it started to feel natural for us too. I abandoned visions of cloth napkins and Pinterest crafts.
Mostly, we began to relax.
It wasn't long before we realized our attempts were working.
We got to see more of the people we loved, and word began to spread. For this hardcore introvert, Spaghetti Saturdays became a lifeline. And good things started to happen.
I've come to believe there's something magical about the mix of candlelight and comfort food (yes, a little wine helps too) that encourages people to relax and share their stories. Everybody always assumes hosting is stressful for us, and truth be told? Some months you can see it from there. Certainly, nothing happens in a vacuum.
But overall Spaghetti Saturdays have become a welcome escape from life's ups and downs. The moment after the last person has headed off into the night, we hug and say, “this is our favorite one yet!” Every. Single. Time.
Perhaps any and all of these reasons are why Spaghetti Saturdays have struck such a chord. When we started hosting in our new place, everyone who came said the same things, “We love the idea. There's something perfect about it. Why don't people get together like this more often?”
This isn't a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, of course, Shabbat dinners, Sunday suppers, Ramadan iftar, and the like are cherished all over the world. But as I've come to realize, especially as I've gotten older, it can be hard to find community.
Everybody works long hours, often with challenging commutes or multiple jobs. An increasing number of us work from home and go for long stretches without an in-person interaction with another human.
I have to wonder too if our cooking habits are changing. I'm always surprised by the number of meal service boxes in the package room. And really, who can dinner-shame anyone? Meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking something from scratch takes significant effort. It's so much easier to go out for dinner or grab something from the drive-through on the way home.
— — —
But most of all, Spaghetti Saturday offers a warm hug to everyone, young and old. With fur and without. It's low-key, and honestly quite inexpensive. There's nothing to join; your contact information is safe with us. The biggest obligation it asks is simply to come and be a part, for as long or as short a time as you'd like.
If you'd like to give it a try, next month, I'll share a few of the tips and tricks we've learned along the way.
( .. to be continued .. )
Besides breakfast casseroles and really great lentil soup that I'm excited to share, it seems my diet lately has had a higher percentage of treats than usual. Admittedly, it feels a bit cliche to say, as I'd love to tell you I prefer celery sticks to something sweet. But, alas, I don't, especially in December.
Likely story .. I know, I know
If like me, you've struggled to find a go-to gluten-free chocolate cake, similar to what you'd find from a box (which is always wonderful). Friends, this is the one. I served as dessert for this past weekend's Spaghetti Saturday, and it will be our offering at holiday get-togethers this coming week.
It's filled with chocolate, moist, easy to make, and delicious to eat. A combination of brown rice and almond flours standing in for the more traditional all-purpose. A generous drizzling of chocolate ganache to top it off, along with a sprinkling of peppermint candies for holiday cheer
Even without the ganache, it's a decadent dessert that potentially takes about twenty minutes and only a few dirty dishes. The whole situation is easily dairy-free if you use dark chocolate and the coconut milk in the ganache.
If you don't have a bunt pan, no worries, it bakes beautifully in a wide range of options. It makes great mini cakes, loaf cakes, and also cupcakes. You know the drill, adjust the baking time and bake until the sides of the cake start to pull away from the pan a bit, and a tester/knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
You'll want to refrigerate any leftovers. As the cake chills, the texture will become truffle-like. At room temp, it will be more crumb-like.
~ Adapted from Dolly and Oatmeal
Holidaze Chocolate Cake (It's Very Refreshing)
- 1 cup brown rice flour
- ½ cup almond flour
- 2 Tbsp arrowroot powder
- ⅓ cup cocoa powder + more for dusting the pan
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp fine grain sea salt
- 3 eggs (large or XL)
- 1 cup natural sugar (Sugar in the Raw or Turbinado)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 cup hot water
- coconut oil or butter for greasing the pan
- ⅓ cup chocolate chips
- 1 ½ Tbsp canned coconut milk (or heavy cream)
- ¼ tsp vanilla extract
- tiny pinch of sea salt
- peppermint candies, crushed
- Preheat oven to 350°
- Prep an 8 or 9" bundt pan with coconut oil or butter, and add a sprinkling of cocoa powder. Gently shake the pan to disperse the powder evenly. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the first six ingredients with a whisk. Set aside.
- In another large bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar until thoroughly combined (~ 1 minute)
- Whisk in the vanilla and oil. Then the hot water.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry and whisk until combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared bundt pan. Transfer to the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean (rotating halfway through)
- Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely before invert onto a serving platter or large plate
- In a small saucepan, add the coconut milk and chocolate. Stirring constantly, heat until the chocolate has melted.
- Remove from the heat, add the vanilla and salt. Stir to combine and let rest for five minutes or so.
- Drizzle the chocolate evenly over the top of the cake, and top with crushed peppermint candies