I’ve thought about them so many times over the years. Little girls in blue and grey, enveloped in giggles as they played hopscotch and double dutch  in an asphalt covered schoolyard. Little girls racing home after school to watch Barnabas Collins and Angelique face off on Dark Shadows . Little girls hurrying down to Larry’s Candy Store to score some Double Bubble  and sneak a read of the latest issue of Tiger Beat  magazine. And later, bigger little girls, experimenting with neon blue eye shadow, grabbing a “slice” from the Pizza Shack and strutting their (not quite yet developed) stuff down the “Avenue”. It’s funny. Most days, I can’t recall what I ate for breakfast or where I stashed my car keys. But, I remember each one of those bright and shiny faces – my own included – even though it’s been over thirty-five years since I last saw any of them.
I don’t know. Maybe my own mortality is catching up with me. But lately, I’ve been feeling so nostalgic for those old days. It’s like I have this urgent need to remember as much as I can, so that I never forget. Does that make any sense? It’s a little hard to explain – even to myself.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I found a group on Facebook  dedicated to Morris Park, my old neighborhood in the Bronx. I clicked on it and the page was filled with posts from people about life in the “good old days” in the “old neighborhood”. Most were like me – the ones that started out there, and for whatever reason, moved on to a life somewhere else. There were also many who still lived there, some even in the same houses they were born in. Some of the posters just wanted to reminisce. Some were looking to find old friends they’d lost touch with. I got kind of a rush when I read the comments about places or neighbors that I remembered. The group’s air of congeniality and familiarity really struck me. I felt a sort of kinship with them.
I browsed through the list of members of the group. To my delight, I realized that there were several names that I recognized, including a few old friends from elementary school – those little girls in blue and grey. WOW! I got so excited! I immediately “friended” them, not knowing or even caring if they’d remember me. Within ten minutes, one had already “friended” me back. Then, I found this rather exuberant note in my inbox:
“WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Is this or is this not a BLAST FROM THE PAST????? OMG HOW ARE YOU?????”
It was from Marguerite V., one of my good buddies from St. Clare’s Grammar School.
I remember the first time I met Marguerite. It was the first day of second grade, and my first day at St. Clare’s. I was “the new kid”, having just moved back to the “neighborhood” from Westchester. I was pretty shy back then, and I was scared to death! This cute little blonde pixie with a big grin on her face walked up to me and introduced herself. It was Marguerite V. Then, she introduced me to a bunch of the other kids and invited me to play with them at recess. I was in!
Marguerite and I became pretty good friends after that. We had a lot in common. We both loved to sing and act, performing in school plays and recitals. We ran around in a pack with other pre-pubescent, Catholic school girls and thought we were hot stuff. We didn’t get into too much trouble, though. Back then everybody knew everybody else, and that included everybody’s mothers. We knew that if we ever pulled anything, someone’s mother would find out and tell ours about it. We had fun, but we definitely towed the line.
The St. Clare’s Girls and me at my 5th grade Halloween Party
Then, in the summer between 6th and 7th grade, the unthinkable happened. My father came home from work one day and announced that we were packing up and moving to Florida. FLORIDA? HUH!?!? What about my friends? What about my life? What about my one true love – Bennie Buffamante?
For the first few years after we moved, my family used to go back up to New York for visits a few times each year. I lived for those trips! They meant that I got to see my gal pals again. Then, little by little, the rest of our family moved to Florida too and we had less reason to return. Eventually, I lost touch with all of the St. Clare’s girls. And then, more than thirty years went by…..
Marguerite and I have spent some time chatting and catching up with each other’s lives. Since then, I’ve reconnected with a few more of the the St. Clare’s girls too. None of us live in the old neighborhood anymore. But, through the magic of Facebook, I’ve managed to grab back a treasured piece of the past.
The other day, I bought a gallon of some gorgeous full fat cream from a local dairy. It was too good to use for just anything. I really wanted to find some recipes that would highlight the simple purity and natural sweetness of the cream. Naturally, I posed my request for ideas to my peeps on Twitter and Facebook. One of the responses I received was from Marguerite. “Panna Cotta!”, she wrote.
Panna cotta. Perfect! This silky, creamy, voluptuous dessert was just the thing to showcase my cream. Panna Cotta is an Italian dessert made by simmering cream, milk and sugar together, mixing it with gelatin, and letting it cool until it sets into a luscious custard-like cloud.
I asked Marguerite is she would share her panna cotta recipe with me, and she was kind enough to agree. The only additional ingredient I added was an incredibly plump and moist Tahitian vanilla bean from my stash. Panna cotta is usually prepared in some kind of a pan or bowl and unmolded before serving. I decided to serve mine in these pretty little glasses instead. I think they’re the perfect size for such a rich and decadent treat. I also made three different toppings to go with the panna cotta: a strawberry gelée, a lemon curd and an espresso jello. I just kind of made up the recipe for the gelée. I bought the lemon curd at my local farmers market. And, I swiped the espresso jello recipe from my very talented and creative friend Jen from Use Real Butter . Oh yes, and the peppermint and spearmint leaves came from my garden.
Marguerite calls her recipe Dominator Panna Cotta for personal reasons I won’t go into. I kind of like that, so I’m keeping it. If you’re looking for a new panna cotta recipe or you just need to use up some cream, I urge you to give this one a try. It is a little bite of heaven in a shot glass! Each of these three versions were to die for!
So, there you have it: a fabulous recipe for panna cotta and the reason why I love Facebook!
Marguerite’s Dominator Honey-Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon unflavored powdered gelatin
3 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
1. Place the milk in a small saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let stand for about 5 minutes to soften the gelatin.
2. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the point of a sharp knife.
2. Put saucepan over medium heat and stir until gelatin is just dissolved. Don’t boil the milk. Add the cream, honey, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds and salt. Stir until the sugar and honey dissolve, about 5 to 7 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and let steep for about 15-20 minutes. Remove vanilla bean pod, rinse and reserve for another use.
3. Pour mixture into a lightly greased mold, small jars or glasses. Leave some room on top of each for your various toppings.
4. Chill for at least 2 hours. Top with whatever toppings you’re using and chill again until set.
adapted from Use Real Butter 
4 teaspoons instant espresso powder
1/2 envelope unflavored powdered gelatin
10 ounces water
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1. Heat water to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and sprinkle gelatin over water. Stir until completely dissolved.
2. Add espresso powder and brown sugar and stir until dissolved. Let mixture cool. You can put it in the fridge for about 10-15 minutes to speed things up.
3. Pour cooled espresso mixture over set panna cotta and chill until jelled.
1 cup strawberry puree
2-4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons cold water
1/2 envelope unflavored powdered gelatin
1. Heat puree and sugar in a small saucepan just until it begins to bubble, stirring to dissolve sugar. Stir in lemon juice and remove from heat.
2. Put water in a small bowl and sprinkle gelatin on top. Let sit for 5 minutes.
3. Add fruit mixture to the bowl and stir until gelatin is completely dissolved.
4. Let gelée cool and pour over panna cotta. Chill until set.