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August 21, 2001: Drool factor

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If you had to recommend any five eating experiences, what are they? They can be restaurants, something made in somebody's kitchen, lists of comfort food, or a combination of all of these. Just tell us five ways food makes you feel good - Top Five Collab - August 2001<

Creme Brulee: I associate creme brulee with decadence. It is not an ordinary dessert - something you find at mom-n-pop's local diner. It is something to be had only on special occasions.

I don't remember the first time I had creme brulee, but I do remember the best. It is served at a restaurant in Sacramento called The Firehouse, and comes complete with snooty waiter, lush and opulent surroundings, and quiet music. It is not to be eaten quickly - oh no, not this. This dessert must be eaten slowly, bite by lucious bite, every creamy bit savored and the bowl scraped clean until every last morsel is gone.

Doughnuts: I love doughnuts. Cake doughnuts to be exact, and they have to be good doughnuts too, not those greasy dense things you get in the lower-class doughnut shops, but the thick cakey rings that come in boxes at the store, dripping with powdered sugar, coated with cinnamon, or - my favorite - plain.

Cake doughnuts are a special treat, and they are better when eaten somewhere else but home. Stolen moments in a car, driving down the highway, leaning foward over the steering wheel so as not to drip powdered sugar all over my shirt. Gatherings with sisters, sharing coffee and a box of Hostess goodness while draped over furniture in some strange living room. A single doughnut, savored with chocolate frosting, or even a sprinkling of peanuts, in a little doughnut shop when you've been lucky enough to find a good one.

Homemade Pretzels: For as long as I can remember, there was one particular meal that was pretty common in our house when company came over. My mom would whip up a huge bowl of dough, and then after a trip to the grocery store for a selection of fruits and cheeses, we'd all sit around the table - guests and all - and make pretzels. There's something about preparing food that helps to break the ice on conversation. We'd sit there, floured hands rolling pieces of dough into thick ropes and then twisting them into pretzels, and talk and laugh about all sorts of things. Even us kids were allowed to participate, just like the adults.

They are not the tough pretzels you can buy at ball games or in the mall. These are soft, pale brown knots. They are best fresh from the oven, when the bread still steams when you cut into it. The hint of rock salt on top combined with the fresh yeasty smell is truly divine. Slip in a sliver of cheese so that it melts from the heat of the bread and it gets even better.

Pretzels are still, to me, company food. I've rarely made them when it's just for those of us living there - it's always for when friends come over.

Pizza fondue: My mother had an old fondue recipe book, pages yellowed and stained. I'm sure there were other recipes in there, and it's possible that when they were younger, my parents tried some of the others. But the only recipe from that book I ever remember her making was the one for pizza fondue.

It's nothing complicated. Cheddar, mozzarella, pizza sauce, and a few herbs and spices, but when it's covering a square of toasted bread, it tastes exactly like the topping from a pizza.

In my college days, D and I used to make a batch of this and cut up an entire loaf of french bread, and then eat until we were far, far past the point of full - continuing to eat because it tasted so good and not because we were hungry any longer.

Recently D came over for dinner to the new house and we made pizza fondue. It surprised me that I'd not made it for Richard - a bit of a shock to realize how long it's been since I've had this. We sat around the table, spearing cubes of bread and dunking them in the cheese mixture. Delicious!

Christmas: There is something magical about Christmas. I'm not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination, but I adore Christmas for nearly everything else. The smell of pine, the sparkle of decorations, and of course all the Christmas baking.

My mom always did a lot of baking. Gingerbread men and pumpkin bread; thick soft sugar cookies decorated like Santa Claus with coconut beards, or cut into bell shapes and coated with brown sugar. Thanksgiving has its turkey and it's pies, but Christmas has so much more. It's more than just the food - it's the memories around them. Gingerbread men were hung on the trees. Decorating the sugar cookies was a whole-family affair, and when we had boyfriends over, they were roped into service as well. The smell of pumpkin bread fresh from the oven always heralds the start of the holiday season. Any of these could just as easily be made year-round, but they're not. These are special foods - just for Christmas.

The best part of Christmas, however, is my mother's cinnamon rolls. Nearly every year she has gotten up early to make the dough and bake those rolls, and as we grew older and the promise of toys under the tree wasn't so huge a lure, it was hard sometimes to choose between diving into our stockings and heading for the breakfast table where we knew there would be plates of fresh rolls, coated in caramel and pecans, or drizzled in sugary-sweet glaze.

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