Rebuilding The Culinary Cellar


Loss comes in many shapes and forms. Today, I want to talk about loss of possessions; the kinds of things that are near and dear to one’s heart and can never be replaced. Things that shape your identity and mark treasured life moments. Things that celebrate who we are. For example, years ago I lost the itty, bitty diamond in my engagement ring. It wasn’t an expensive piece, but the love and sentiment behind it made it feel like a huge loss. The ring symbolized a most happy once in a lifetime moment; a traditional sign of love that could never be replaced. I still think about it from time to time. Sure, I got a new ring. It’s bigger and brighter, but it just isn’t the same. Yes, it is just a thing and things can be replaced, but with cherished memories attached it is hard to let go.


Another loss I want to share with you today is a big one that affected my friend Debbie and the culinary world. Debbie writes one of my favorite blogs, The Culinary Cellar. I had the privilege of visiting Debbie when William was starting his Navy career at Great Lakes, IL. While he was in boot camp I was sitting at Debbie’s kitchen table enjoying the warmest hospitality and most delicious baklava pastry.


However, the biggest treat is waiting for me in Debbie’s basement. I get a tour of her famous culinary cellar. As I descend the stairs my eyes fall on numerous shelves bearing the weight of nearly 4000 cookbooks. In front of me is a massive old-time library card catalog filled with thousands of hand-written recipes collected since Debbie was 12. This is a lifetime of memories showcasing her love of cooking and generations of award winning talents.

Image result for culinary cellar

The variety of books is like none I have ever seen. There are rare and antique volumes. There are obviously much-loved books dog-eared and stained. There are souvenir books from all over the world documenting memories of family vacations and travels. Some are autographed by famous chefs and most have hand-written notes lovingly penned into the margins giving advice about a recipe. Each and every book has a story beyond its pages. Each and every one is treasured and so loved that she shares it with the world through her blog. She is a generous soul.


Now imagine the devastation when in the middle of the night during a violent storm a town retention pond fails and pours 7 feet of water and a ton of mud into Debbie’s cellar wiping out just about everything. Nine tons of cookbook debris were lifted up and dropped into a dumpster just a couple of weeks ago. Imagine opening that door above to this: 19990436_10102505366467335_4001791307728415727_n

A lifetime of memories and a valued collection washed away in an instant. How does one recover from such a physical,  emotional and shocking loss?


Well, if you are a part of the Debbie Vanni family, you just do. Talk about super human strength. The rebuilding of the culinary cellar is already in progress. Support from family and friends and strangers far and wide has Debbie re-grouping and cutting her losses. She is no Debbie Downer! Truly an inspration. I look forward to visiting again some day.


To read more of Debbie’s story check out her blog here The Culinary Cellar

thank you to Debbie for sharing theses photos with me








Mother’s Day Hot Wing Donuts


Mother’s Day usually means brunch or better, yet, breakfast in bed. When I wondered what recipe to share with you today I thought I could celebrate my own mom by pulling out one of her old cookbooks for inspiration. She loved this pamphlet from the 60’s and the recipes and brand behind it. I can still hear her voice saying, “Polly-O is the best. Buy the best”. Good advice, mom.


Flipping through I came across a spattered, well loved page that included ricotta pancakes, cheese blintzes and a peach torte. However, it is the ricotta puffs or fritters that grab my attention and bring me back to an Italian street fair where fried donuts called zeppole were the treat of the day. Crispy fried puffs smothered in cinnamon-sugar and purchased by the dozen still warm in a brown bag. A deliciously good and inspiring memory.


hands-free frying these donuts flip themselves

But you know me. I can’t just follow a recipe. It’s time to change it up and honor another mom or two I love very much. Like mother like daughter….Caitlin and I like deep frying and donuts on occasion. We also like it spicy.


Can a mother thank a daughter for becoming a mother? What fun it has been for me to be “Kiki”, aka, Annabelle’s grandmother. Annabelle is such a joy, but more incredible than that joy is watching your own daughter being an amazing mom. My Caitlin loves with her whole heart. Her mothering instincts are spot on. Being a new mom is an exhausting, self-less experience that she is doing with such grace. It makes me feel so proud to be HER mom. Caitlin continues to lift me up and remind me life is good. I’m ever so grateful for her and for that reminder.


Another mom I love and appreciate is a lady named Suzy. You know her best as the creator of the spectacular  Saucy Mama brand. Suzy not only pours her whole heart into creating amazing sauces, mustards and marinades, but also into investing and empowering women like me. Being a part of Team Saucy Mama is a dream and a privilege. All the women on the team inspire me to be a better cook, a better person and a better mom. I am ever so grateful for their kindness, generosity and friendship.


Here comes today’s recipe inspired by my mom, Caitlin and Suzy.  I tweaked the original recipe from the Polly-O pamphlet substituting vanilla bean paste for brandy and eliminating dusting the donuts in powdered sugar. Instead the donuts are coated with a mixture of granulated sugar, cinnamon and salt creating a bit of a crispy/crunchy contrast to the soft, almost pudding like ricotta interior. For the perfect spicy heat they are finished with a drizzle of Saucy Mama’s Total Domination Wing Sauce No. 2. The combination of scotch bonnet peppers and blackberry lift this simple donut to another level of goodness. Yes,’s the best.

Ricotta Puffs or Fritters

  • Servings: 2 to 3 dozen
  • Print

10 ounces ricotta cheese

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

1/3 cup all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon fine salt

oil for deep frying

¼ cup sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Saucy Mama Total Domination Wing Sauce No. 2

In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, eggs, 1-tablespoon of sugar and vanilla bean paste; blend well with a spoon. In another bowl, whisk flour, baking powder and fine salt; pour into ricotta mixture and stir until mixture is moth and well mixed. Let batter stand for 30 minutes to thicken up slightly. Heat oil to 350F. Drop batter by small, round scoopfuls (depends on size you like) and brown on all sides. Don’t crowd the pan as the puffs need room to flip themselves. Drain on paper towels. With a fork mix remaining sugar, cinnamon a salt in a small bowl. While still warm toss donuts in sugar mixture. Serve with hot wing sauce either drizzled on top or as a dip on the side. Makes 2 to 3 dozen puffs.


Feel free to dip instead of drizzle. And I hope someone serves you breakfast in bed next Sunday. Happy Mother’s Day in advance. I will be taking next Sunday and a few others off from here in the coming weeks as life is getting a bit busier than usual.

Mission Accomplished Sailor & A Give Away

Boot camp graduation is a proud moment

He lives on

In the blog-o-sphere Good Grief Cook is just one of many tiny drops in the ocean. Not an especially popular blog as defined by high stats for followers and/or page views, but read regularly by a select few. That suits me fine. In life isn’t that all one really needs; a select few? It’s a gift to be surrounded by a small circle of devoted, kind, and generous souls. For me it is enough. It feels authentic.

Sweet William's Spirited Sparkler to toast a festive celebration

Sweet William’s Spirited Sparkler to toast a festive celebration

So, it surprises me when this drop in the bucket gets a little notice from beyond the circle. It’s like the sun is up high and the angle is just right and a wave hits the jetty and a single droplet of salted water rises up, dances and sparkles. It catches attention. Once in a blue moon it happens.

peanut butter cream cannoli

peanut butter cream cannoli

It happens when a grieving mom whom I have never met writes that she looks forward to reading Good Grief Cook each week. That honestly takes my breath away. It happens when a company like Saucy Mama contacts me and says, “We’d like you to join our family and represent us at the World Food Championships”. Such an honor! And it happens when a friend, named Sonya, whom I lost track of 30 years ago, finds the blog and asks for help in writing a book. Really?

Pomegranate Guacamole

Bacon and Egg Scallion Crepe Cups are perfect for a holiday brunch

I met Sonya while working at Westover School back in the 90’s. At age 16, she left her home in Korea to attend a joint program at Westover and the Juilliard School of Music in NYC. With perfect pitch and a mastery of piano she was quite special. A brilliant student she went on to complete her undergraduate studies in NYC and then an MBA at Harvard. Today, she is the CEO and President of the Theodore Presser Company owned by Carl Fischer Publishing. When I look back on her high school days what I remember most about Sonya is how brave she was to leave her loving native home, her generosity in sharing her talents and her kindness to those around her. She writes:

“Hi Lisa, I don’t know if you remember me – Sonya Kim, class of 94. I am now running two classical music publishing companies in New York and Philadelphia. One of the publications we are considering for 2015 is a Christmas piano book with recipes. I thought of you as a potential contributor. Would you be interested? You would receive either a flat fee or a small royalty depending on how the particular project is structured financially. I thought you might find it interesting to participate. I enjoy reading your blog very much, which is why I thought of you. Please let me know if you would like to learn more details! The publisher would be Carl Fischer Music in case you are curious. ( Take care! Love, Sonya”

Pomegranate Guacamole

Pomegranate Guacamole

Holy Guacamole….Suffice to say Sonya and I collaborated on the book, but with one stipulation. I would do it for free. It was the least I could do for a kind generous soul who had been part of the circle without me even knowing it. Did she know she was fulfilling a dream of a mother just wanting to insure her son never be forgotten? A book like this does that. It’s inspired and spirited with beautiful music and recipes. In the spirit of Christmas it celebrates William, his favorite holiday and all his loving goodness. Priceless! Good Grief Cook…mission accomplished. What’s next?

Christmas in San Diego

Christmas in San Diego

And in that same spirit of Christmas it is time for a give away of this fabulous book, The Party Planner’s Christmas Song and Recipe Book. The collection includes over 90 all-time favorite carols each arranged for vocal, piano and guitar and 27 of my favorite award winning recipes. Perfect for a holiday sing along with family and friends. All you have to do is leave a comment telling me your favorite Christmas carol or favorite Christmas cookie…I am certain it is in the book. I will randomly draw a winner and post October 18th which happens to be Good Grief Cook’s 2 year blogiversary.


Thank you, Sonya. I love you William. This book is for you.