There were three of us living in the one-bed flat for six months, if you don’t count the extra seventeen pounds of cat. When Christina arrived in America, the story changed.
Christina is five foot six of muscle and cheer and mischief. She and I met one summer sevenish years ago in the middle of a story that would take far longer than this column allows to tell properly.
Meeting new friends in adulthood is sometimes difficult, but Christina has a way of making things really easy. She’s whip smart, and if she catches me getting too far into the clouds she’s got no qualms about reminding me (always softly) to cop on. She is unbeatable in a pun-run. She can pun you under the table. She really packs a pun-ch. She’ll be disappointed that I didn’t write this whole thing in puns. But I won’t pun-ish you, reader. I won’t.
Her mother is a tender oracle, welcoming and intuitive. They look alike – mad heads of curls and bright eyes. Their laughter is the good, warm kind. Sometimes, when we were in our earlier twenties, we’d stand around the Duff kitchen island way out in labyrinthine Drumcondra, watching Paula slice carrots and potato and chicken with a knowing ease: that same magic Cathy Boylan had in her kitchen in Skerries, all spinach and strawberry and goodness. I saw it, but didn’t have the words to describe it yet.
I had never seen a ginger root before that evening and didn’t immediately recognise it, a gnarled and tawny brown claw of a thing. Paula sliced it open with a fat, short knife and tossed discs of it into a large stock pot full of fresh vegetables. I had no idea what it was even going to taste like – it had never occurred to me that you could just throw ginger anywhere. Or that ginger wasn’t actually orange, or that it came in a thing that had grown under the ground. Or that it would taste incredible with chicken, or that it would infuse the carrots with something fragrant and tangy – would sit alongside their sweetness just right. I didn’t know that it would wipe out the loud, pungent bite of celery that is always louder than just background noise in food for me (if there’s one vegetable I still have qualms with, god damn, celery, turn your music down).
Myself and Christina and a couple of the lads sat up late that night at the island, talking nonsense or organising some event or other, with Paula, drinking wine and eating this simple, striking stew. There’s the thing about eating together and growing closer – what is on the table can be as important as the talk that is in the air.
Christina knows how to cook and how to cook well. I saw the hands that she learned from, and quietly absorbed something from them too, even in that one encounter. She’s also better at the cleaning up afterwards part than I was – I learned from her not to be afraid of scrubbing things or murky sink-water. I’m actually not sure that Christina’s afraid of anything at all. When we were rattling around the matchbox flat, and she, heroic and sleeping on our cramped red sofa every night of the week, smothered with allergies from the cat and never complaining – we kept the party going. We kept the air good. We cooked a lot. We were job hunting, not unemployed. Funemployed. CV after CV after cover letter after cover letter after dead end after dead end. If we didn’t have fun, we’d crack up – so we had fun.
We’d walk around the supermarket and pick food off the shelves, acquainting ourselves with the new world of it one bite at a time. I’d been there eighteen months already, and her enthusiasm and refusal to be defeated by culture shock gave me hope. She made me feel less out of place. Far, far less. We ate breakfast together every day. Breakfast, that holy thing – a ceremony in California, a new ritual of home fries and poached eggs and tortillas and salsa and whatever the hell else the dive diners in the Mission would put before us. Food was a terrific distraction from the seeming impossibility of developing a real life in San Francisco.
Chrissie arrived in winter, so in the lead up to and come down from our outrageous Christmas dinner, stuffing wound it’s way into our lives. It became a primarily breakfast-oriented staple food, in fact. Stuffing, poached eggs and avocado – a bastardised eggs Benedict, was one of our first spells. Fried plantains (a cousin of the banana) in the pan with coconut oil served right up and smothered with sweetened condensed milk. Avocados, just for the sake of themselves, with salt and lime or more sweetened condensed milk. We opened a makeshift kitchen cocktail bar to experiment with eggnog recipes: CB, my husband, remains obsessed with eggnog. I stand, still, eggnog-ambivalent, though am open to conversion.
We would slice up jarlsberg and chocolate-rippled light cheddar (game changer) and gouda spiked with truffles and fresh mozzarella, heady salamis and apples and crackers (Nut-Thins? I feel like they were called Nut-Thins) and make hummus in the blender that choked out a broken motor smell. We’d make huge late night picnic spreads, call them Art Gallery Dinners. I got really addicted to balsamic vinegar.
Bizarrely, we drank a lot of Baileys – I think it was on special offer at Safeway that winter. Baileys and whipped cream, Baileys in hot coffee. There was something of home in it, even though I’d never been mad for it before – cream with the sharp undertones of booze is something I’ve grown into. It’s a dissonance for me – I always expect Baileys to be chocolate, and had to figure out how to drink it slowly (like an adult). Baileys eventually found it’s way into our breakfast food, too. French toast, specifically. Everything can be breakfast – all foods can be transposed into the morning.
This recipe is a breakfast, and a lunch, but we often ate it at night, watching Youtube videos on a loop. Christina and I both made it back to Dublin after many adventures, and at present are cooking out of different kitchens.
I can’t wait to cook with her again.
Christina’s French Toast Cream Cheese Sandwiches
Ingredients for one serving
Two slices of bread I’m not going to insist that you use white sliced or batch bread for this. You can take it wicked serious and use brioche instead, or, if you’re feeling particularly risky, a croissant sliced down the middle into two bread-like-slices. I try to look at bread as a broader concept than just the slice pan: lots of things are bread. To be fair though, Brennan’s white batch bread is still a powerful thing, so if you’re not up for mucking around with breads on the cake/pastry end of the bread-spectrum, just go for that.
A knot of butter
A splash of milk full fat, or whatever you have lying around – live your truth.
A pinch of cinnamon I got weirdly into cinnamon flavoured breads in the states. Like, it’s really easy to overdo cinnamon in this case, so step lightly. A pinch.
Philadelphia Cream Cheese I’m going to recommend full fat again, the lower fat options just aren’t really the same. You don’t need much – just a smear.
Baileys/Kalhua/Tia Maria You only need a little splash, but the flavour will carry through the batter and really kick the French toast up a notch. These three are flavourful in the same way – sweet with a bite underneath.
French Toast is an old standard, but what this approach does is elevates it from being a sort of, pancake-like stack of bread, into a proper little meal of it’s own. I mean, I say meal, but this is anything but balanced. It’s a fancy weekend treat or a late-night snack. There aren’t any fruit or vegetables involved this time. I’m not sorry.
Crack your two eggs into a bowl, make sure not to get any shell in there. Whisk them together with a fork, adding a small bit of milk along the way. You don’t want it too wet. If you’d like a precise measurement, I’d recommend the batter shouldn’t be too milky – one part milk to two part egg. Sprinkle in a small pinch of cinnamon, and the splash of Baileys, and mix them all together.
Heat up your knot of butter in a frying pan until it is soft and starting to melt – try and get the whole surface of the pan covered: you don’t want anything burning.
Now, there are two ways you can proceed from here depending on what you feel like. The first path is dipping each slice of bread individually into the batter then placing them on the hot pan, waiting for them to become crisp and brown and dappled and delicious-smelling, then removing them and placing them on a plate before spreading on some cream cheese and turning them into a sandwich. This route is probably more sensible if you’re using a croissant as your bread (realistically, I’m not sure why I don’t always, in life, use croissants as bread).
The second path is borderline Monte-Cristo level. Spread the cream cheese as generously as you feel on once slice of the bread, but keep it away from the edges and crusts. Assemble the sandwich then, dip the whole thing in the batter. Both sides. Be generous. Make a mess if you need, it’s ok, messes are nothing to be afraid of.
Fry up the batter covered sandwich in it’s entirety in the pan – it might take a little longer, but it’ll show all the same signs of being done. It’ll smell amazing. Hopefully the cheese won’t heat up too much and spill onto the pan, but if it does, no harm done.
When it’s all freckly and crispy, after 3-5 minutes, remove it with a spatula and pop it onto your serving plate. Use your nose, keep your eye on it – if you pay attention, the food will let you know when it is ready. Slice it into four triangles, because that’s the classiest way to eat a sandwich of any kind. The cream cheese in the middle should be hot and melted, and should compliment the tang of the Baileys and cinnamon. If you want to add a snowfall of powdered sugar or a drizzle of maple syrup, I’m not going to discourage you – eat your heart out.
Sarah Griffin is an Irish who has just arrived back in Dublin after 3 years abroad. She’s an Aquarian and a feminist. She has a masters degree in writing from NUIG and is only interested in video games that came out before 2005. Her current favourite foods are literally everything that is prepared on Irish soil. You can buy her nonfiction book about moving away, Not Lost, published by New Island Press, in all good bookshops in Ireland. Her YA debut, Spare & Found Parts, is coming from Greenwillow Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, in the autumn of 2016. She tweets (mostly animal pictures) @griffski.