The Food Column: Get the conversation flowing with food

A few days before Christmas, I returned home from picking up my son at a friend's house to discover that wind gusts had knocked out our power right at dinnertime. We're an all-electric house -- no gas range for us -- so we could do PB&J or eat out. We opted for the latter.

We piled into the minivan and drove cautiously down the weirdly blacked-out streets, inching along at intersections with darkened traffic lights.

We ended up at Chipotle, and who was at the next table but our across-the-street neighbors, obviously in the same boat where dinner was concerned.

So we struck up a little conversation. On the second night after we had moved in 41/2 years earlier, they'd dropped by with a pizza, explaining that they owned a local pizzeria. So I always thought of them as the pizza people. And they were friendly over the years -- the wife often would wave as she drove by, or maybe exchange a brief greeting with me when she was out for a walk. Once, the husband noticed me doing some heavy lifting in the yard and inquired whether I needed a hand. But we'd never held a real conversation beyond pleasantries. In fact, I'm ashamed to admit that although the husband's first name (Charlie) had stuck in my mind, I didn't even remember the wife's after that first introduction over a pizza box.

It took a chance meeting at Chipotle for me to discover that the pizza shop in fact belongs to the wife; the husband is a professional musician and university professor, and we even have mutual friends. We talked about kids and grandkids, their son's musical career following in his dad's footsteps, our son's basketball team. We even determined that they had attended the same university as my husband, though not at the same time. I learned more about them in five or 10 minutes over fast food than I'd known about them in 41/2 years of looking at their house out my kitchen window.

That gave me pause. I had even thought of this couple as folks I would like to know better. I'd seen them outside with their triplet grandkids, who are about the same age as my son. Once, I even encouraged my son to cross the street and ask one of the triplets to join him in a game of basketball. But my son was shy about doing it, and so was I. When he shrank away from introducing himself, I didn't walk over there and help him do it.

Why are we so shy about knowing our neighbors, so private in our isolated little lives? Are we too busy? Do we fear our neighbors will be too busy -- that we'll be an annoyance? The truth is that when anyone makes an effort to get to know me, I always appreciate it. So why wouldn't I open up and assume that others will likewise appreciate it if I make the first move?

It's time for me to get to know my neighbors better, starting with some more conversations with Charlie and Elaine and, when they're visiting, the triplets. In fact, food is always a good icebreaker, right? I should take their example: They showed up on my doorstep with a pizza, so tonight I'm going to show up on theirs with another treat to get the conversation flowing. The recipe below (Orange Marmalade and Raspberry Jam Pochette Cookies) should be just the ticket.

Pastry classes

Chocolate souffle and crepes suzette: Pastry chef Erika Bruce teaches how to make these delectable treats. 7 p.m. Jan. 29 at Wilkins School Community Center, Swissvale. $25. Register by Monday at

Valentine's goodies: Create an assortment of cookies and chocolates. 6:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at Sweetwater Center for the Arts, Sewickley. $65.

Book signing

Women of Sarah Sudar, Julia Gongaware, Amanda McFadden and Laura Zorch discuss six-meal days, long editing nights and the behind-the-scenes process of writing their book, "Food Lovers Guide to Pittsburgh." 6:30 p.m. next Thursday at Hampton Township Community Center. $2 admission. To register: 412-684-1098.

Open house

La Dorita Studio open house: Tour the new party space, which includes a BYOB bar, caterer's kitchen and dance floor, or learn about the kitchen share space program. 5 to 8 p.m. tonight at La Dorita Studio, 2312 Main St., Rear, Sharpsburg. Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres served.

Scottish suppers

Burns Supper: Scottish heritage meal in honor of poet Robert Burns includes haggis, rutabaga, mashed potatoes, cottage pie, shortbread, whisky tastings, bagpipe music and readings of Burns poetry. 6 p.m. Jan. 26 at Fern Hollow Nature Center, Sewickley. $75 per person for center members; $100 for non-members; proceeds benefit the center's educational programs. Reservations required: 412-741-6136.

Read about another great Burns supper and whisky tasting at Piper's Pub on Jan. 21 on The Forks blog:

Orange marmalade and raspberry jam pochette cookies

PG tested

In the recipe's head notes, Melissa d'Arabian says these cookies "exist in a middle ground between a cookie and a pastry making them perfect for many occasions: weeknight dessert, PTA coffee, hosting teatime, greeting new neighbors, or (I'm thinking of my husband) breakfast." I'd add that they're great for greeting old neighbors, too.

-- Rebecca Sodergren

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling

  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

  • 1/4 cup orange marmalade

  • 1/4 cup raspberry jam

  • Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Stir the flour and salt together in a medium bowl and set aside. Place the butter and cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Reduce the speed to medium-low and add the flour mixture 1/4 cup at a time until the dough comes together. Divide the dough in half and shape each portion into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until slightly firm, about 30 minutes.

Set a small bowl of water and 2 rimmed baking sheets on the counter. Adjust an oven rack to the upper-middle position and another rack to the lower-middle position. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly flour a work surface and, using a rolling pin, roll one dough disk into an 1/8-inch-thick circle. Use a 3-inch round fluted cookie cutter to stamp out as many rounds as you can. Top each with 1/2 teaspoon orange marmalade. Brush the edges of one side of the dough with water and fold one side over the jam to meet the opposite edge (for a half-moon shape). Press the seam together to seal, and place on an ungreased rimmed baking sheet. Reroll the remaining scraps on the counter and fill with more marmalade. Repeat with the remaining dough disk and the raspberry jam.

Bake the cookies until golden, 20 to 22 minutes, rotating the sheets from the upper-middle rack to the lower-middle rack and vice versa midway through baking. Remove from the oven and use a spatula to transfer the cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely. Dust with confectioners' sugar and serve.

-- "Ten Dollar Dinners" by Melissa d'Arabian (Clarkson Potter, Aug. 2012)

Rebecca Sodergren:


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