Last weekend, I attended what was affectionately called The Cousin Summit. It was hosted by Ann Marie, the family member who is not only closest to me in age but, conveniently, the closest to me in geographic terms, too.
She lives in San Francisco.
It was a potluck affair, by the way.
And, in case you were wondering, I’m the younger one.
I count myself fortunate that I adore my cousins, who hail from my father’s side of the family. To me, they’re rather like a big, genetic bonus, since I never knew they existed at all until I was ten.
When rifling through the cardboard Sunkist box we used as the family photo dump, I found a Kodak Instamatic print of seven children taken in my very own backyard just before I was born. Curious as to who these big-eyed, adorable looking people were, I took the picture to my mother for identification. I had assumed they were friends of my brother and sister, or perhaps some neighbors who had long since moved away. I never would have guessed they were related to me.
“Oh, honey, those are the Coniglios… your cousins.”
“Cousins? Coniglios? Who? Where are they and why haven’t I ever even heard of them before?”
“Well, I don’t know why you’ve never heard of them. You’ll have to ask your father the next time you see him,” was all I could get out of her.
I was excited by the fact that my family had suddenly—almost magically—doubled in size. Seven Coniglio cousins. Given that the coniglio is the Italian word for rabbit, it seemed only fitting that there should be so many of them.
Of course, I was also rather upset that they should have been kept a secret from me for so long. If you would have asked me five minutes earlier, I would have told you I had only two cousins who lived in Beverly Hills. Two cousins who, in my limited world view, lived fabulous, nearly perfect lives. My opinion of their near-perfect status was based solely on the fact that they lived next door to Doris Day, had Bing Crosby’s children (the second litter) over for parties, and were lucky enough to have Ann Miller’s dog do its business on their lawn from time to time. To discover that I had nearly quadrupled my cache of cousins delighted me to no end.
When I grilled my father, he seemed surprised that I had never heard of them, since they were regular wedding-and-funeral attendees. However, he filled me in a bit as to who they were, where they lived, and how, precisely they were related to me.
I was told they were the offspring of my Aunt Theresa and Uncle Jimmy, who lived in North Hollywood. My father then quickly corrected himself by saying that Aunt Theresa and Uncle Jimmy were actually not my aunt and uncle at all, but my cousins as well, since Theresa and my father were first cousins.
Did that make their children my second cousins or my first cousins, once removed? He didn’t have the answer to that question. We share great-grand parents, was all I knew. And I never got a satisfactory answer as to why they’d been such a well-kept secret.
I no longer care why. It’s just not important to me anymore. What is important, however, is that they exist. I’m happy when I get the odd chance to see them that isn’t somehow related to the saying of rosaries and the viewing of open caskets.
Except maybe when Ann Marie, who is a much better pastry chef than I will ever be asks me to bring dessert to The Cousin Summit. Then I hyperventilate.
If there are two traits we cousins have inherited from our shared ancestry, they are a) the ability to cook well and b) what we refer to as the “spot-the-flaw”gene. We are a critical bunch. Fun and friendly, but critical.
I flew into a mild panic. I was re-assured that this was going to be a simple affair. Ann Marie was going to make meatballs, my cousin Stephanie was bringing “the sauce” (watch this space for a future blog post regarding said sauce), and everybody else would bring wine, salad, and snacky things.
Getting stuck with offering up the last thing everyone would eat after they’d already stuffed themselves with soul-satisfyingly good pasta and meatballs was a nerve-wracking prospect. Perhaps, I thought, they’d no longer care at that point. Maybe they’d all be drunk and too pre-occupied with their conversations to notice if my dessert sucked. Then again, what if too much wine merely heightened their ability to spot flaws, like it regularly does with me?
It felt like a no-win situation.
I didn’t want to look as if I were trying too hard. Then again, I didn’t want to seem as though I didn’t care. I decided to do what any sensible person in my situation might to, which was turn to the food blogosphere’s fairy godmother– sorry, father— of desserts, David Lebovitz.
I would make something homey and good. I would make something sweetly salty that didn’t require a lot of ingredients or time in the kitchen. I would make butterscotch pudding.
Only I’d use actual scotch. You know, the kind from Scotland.
It seemed like a plan. Except that I screwed things up a little by not buying enough of one of the key ingredients. I was cooking for 14 people. I tripled the recipe. I’m bad at math.
So I winged it, added a couple of my own touches, and brought it to the party.
After dinner was served and I had stuffed myself with two plates of pasta and meatballs, everyone was feeling good. Stories flew around the table as fast as the wine. And, just before my dessert was served, we all discovered that Brian, my cousin Stephanie’s son, was considering an offer to join the WWE.
Suddenly, everyone was fascinated by prospect of having a pro-westler in the family. Someone at the table even suggested that he might want to develop a Winston Churchill-like character who would run around the ring smashing watercolors over his opponents heads while yelling something about “peace in our time.”
It was during this particular thread of conversation that the pudding was introduced.
“So, how exactly are we all related?” I asked, hoping to keep the conversation going so that there would be no time to pause an reflect upon our dessert.
There were cousins I was related to by marriage but not blood, like Catherine, who I discovered earlier lives in San Francisco and is, coincidentally, a waiter, blogger, and film lover; there were the cousins I knew, like John and Stephanie and Ann Marie; there were charming spouses and friends; and children like Brian who is no longer a child, which should hopefully seem obvious given his potential future in wrestling.
We went around the room and hashed things out. In my case, since our closest shared relatives were our maternal great-grandparents, we were second cousins. Ann Marie’s mother, it was later determined, is my first cousin, once removed, and Brian is my second cousin, once removed.
I was relieved to have our relativity clarified. I was also relieved to see that people were seeming to enjoy the butterscotch pudding, with the exception of Brian, who was in training and was on a strict diet. You know how budding pro wrestlers are.
And then I noticed Matthew, my other second cousin, once removed wasn’t touching his dessert. In fact, he frowned and pushed it over to Ann Marie, his mother. Eight year-olds always finish their dessert. Unless there’s something wrong with it, that is.
Are the harshest critics always the youngest, I ask? Was I that blunt at his age? Oh, I guess I was.
“He doesn’t like it because there’s scotch in it,” offered Ann Marie, seeing my concern.
My first thought was “How is that possible?” We were all subject to great aunts who soaked everything in booze and no one ever flinched.
And then I remembered that the booze we all ingested in our childhood desserts was rum. It was unfair of me to think that Matthew would be genetically pre-disposed to liking Scottish spirits. It took me years of intensive study to develop a taste for it myself.
I accepted the excuse. I was in too good a mood to let my ego become deflated by a child, relative or no. Everyone else loved the pudding, which made me happy.
And then I thought of one more, little thing:
He’s got the gene. He’s got the flaw-spotting gene. He’s one of us.
And that made me even happier.
Butterscotch Pudding, Once Removed
Aside from the obvious cousin reference, this pudding is once removed from the original recipe, birthed by David Lebovitz. Of course, since Mr. Lebovitz did not himself invent butterscotch pudding, his recipe is, of course the offspring of someone else’s, and so on, and so on. All butterscotch puddings are related somehow.
Whether it’s on the maternal or paternal side, I have yet to decide.
I would have made Mr. Lebovitz’s recipe as it was printed, but I ran out of dark brown sugar right in the middle of making a triple batch of the stuff, so I substituted golden brown sugar for the third batch. It isn’t as darkly rich as its sire recipe, but it happens to be the way I like it. I was very pleased and, with the exception of Matthew, so were my cousins– especially Ann Marie, who enacted the kindest gesture possible.
She dove into the bowl for a second helping.
Serves about four cousins.
4 tablespoons of butter, either salted or un.
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup golden brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons corn starch
2 1/2 cups whole milk
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons of scotch. I used a single malt. If you hail from a specific region of Scotland, I suggest you go with whatever your clan drinks.
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whipped cream and crushed graham crackers for an upside down pudding pie-like quality
1. Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan, then add both brown sugars and salt. Stir until sugar is moistened through with butter and then set aside.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and 1/4 cup of the milk so that it is free of lumps. then add the eggs and whisk further.
3. Add the remaining 2 1/4 cups of milk to the sugar and butter, whisking well. Next, add the corn starch mixture and whisk even well-er-er.
4. Return pan to the heat and bring your proto-pudding to a boil, still whisking. I might suggest at this point that you relax your wrist and let your hand to all the work, unless you really need to burn extra calories by wiggling your hips (which is what happens when one’s wrist is tense). On second thought, if you’re going to eat this dessert, burning a few more calories certainly couldn’t hurt.
Once it all begins to bubble, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about a minute or, as Mr. Lebovitz says, “until the pudding thickens to the consistency of hot fudge sauce.”
If your pudding does not reach this consistency, fly into a mild panic (whisking all the while, mind you) and wonder if you should just throw everything away and buy a Safeway cake.
However, since you have followed this recipe to the letter, your pudding will more than likely thicken properly, at which point you will remove from the heat and add the scotch and vanilla flavorings.
5. Pour into your serving vessels of choice and let refrigerate. I am in full agreement with El Lebo regarding the pressing of plastic wrap to the surface of one’s puddings: if you don’t like pudding skin, then why the hell are you making pudding in the first place?
Chill in a refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight.
6. Serve with a layer of freshly whipped cream and a thick (thicker than the photo above illustrates– I wound up eating most of the crackers before I could shoot the dessert) layer of graham crackers or shattered toffee or something equally and delightfully crunchy.
7. Submit dessert to a roomful of relatives who are never as hyper-critical as one fears. Especially after a great dinner. And lots of wine.