Go ahead: Open the box of ramekins

Most people don't comfort themselves in bad times by cracking open a box of lime-green ramekins they bought five years ago -- but that's what I did the other day. After five years of carrying them around from apartment to apartment, hiding them in the backs of cupboards, I decided that the time had finally come to add their modicum of joy to my life. It was sorely needed.

The economy is terrible, I thought. My generation is lost. Tonight can be an apple cobbler night.

I had opened their navy-blue cousins right away, using them for everything from dipping sauces to the individually-baked apple cobblers I frequently make on weeknights when someone needs a little lift. But I always liked the avocado-green ones better -- which is why I had never opened them. I couldn't stand the idea that one would get broken. For whatever reason, this difficult week was enough to make me want to treat myself to a splash of color.

Before I filled the green ramekins with seasoned, diced green apple, I decided to dig into my stash of expensive dried fruit for a handful of blueberries. As I mixed them in, I had to force myself not to wince. They were almost too dry to eat -- almost. Saving things for too long can become oppressive, rock-hard and tacky, a promise never fulfilled. It can dry up the flavor of things and turn them to stone. You have to know when to let go and just enjoy.

I know how hard that can be, because I come from a long line of savers.

My mother -- always one to reserve the good stuff for that proverbial, perpetual "later" -- has been collecting her prized set of Adams china for over a decade. She bought the bulk of it from a departing neighbor, then filled in the rest from Ebay, one carefully bubble-wrapped piece at a time. Its coy, English pattern, imperialistically dubbed Singapore Bird, is an exotic, pale-greenish robin's-egg blue, decorated with pastel roses and tiny, brightly-colored birds enclosed in a geometric border -- definitely the stuff of The Doily Demographic's fevered dreams.

It was so beloved, in fact, that for at least the first five years, my mother wouldn't serve anything on it. Each crowded Easter dinner of 30 people or more would have been the ideal occasion to unleash its pastel charms, but with every passing spring, the layer of dust on its zippered padding only grew thicker. Those bordered dishes, delicate saucers, curvaceous teacups, platters and gravy boats were so precious to her that she couldn't bear to think of them being cracked, chipped or jammed in the dishwasher.

It took my grandfather's death in 2010 -- and his funeral lunch, a week before Easter Sunday -- for her to finally remember what they were really for. An hour before people arrived, she asked me to take her precious plates out of their padded towers and run them through the dishwasher so they'd be ready when it was time to serve the piles of aluminum-foil-covered casseroles that were on their way.

"This should be memorable," she said, wiping her swollen face. "He would have liked that."

Not a piece of Singapore Bird was broken that day. But my mother's habit of holding back her best for later was cracked from end to end (well, at least chipped). She had realized that perfect dinner was never going to come, but that her family -- right here, right now -- was the real special occasion.

In the years since, we have used that china for every Easter dinner.

Individual Apple Cobblers

This healthy dessert makes a great weeknight treat.

Peel and core an apple for each person you're serving.

Chop apples and toss with brown sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg to taste and a bit of dry instant oatmeal (a small handful for every three 3 ramekins usually does the trick).

Spoon or shove by handfuls into ramekins or baking dish while sighing loudly so that passers by will ask, "Are you OK?" -- giving you the opportunity to complain about whatever caused you to bake the cobblers in the first place.

Top with a mixture of more instant oatmeal, spices such as cinnamon and sugar (flaked almonds are optional), then dot with butter and bake at about 375 degrees.

This recipe can be made in one appropriately-sized baking dish (ready in up to an hour), but it tends to kill stress better when served in colorful ramekins (ready in a half hour), topped with spoonfuls of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.

-- Celanie Polanick

Celanie Polanick is a writer, editor and graphic designer (and lifelong Pittsburgher) who loves cooking and children's media: celanie@gmail.com.


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