Let’s try something different. Over the course of the next two months, I will share with you some short stories from my anthology “Unintended Lives: A Collection of Tall Tales”. 

The first one is titled “Tiramisu (or pick-me-up)”.


It was the summer of 1998. Or maybe 1999. Her boys were 9 and 11, or somewhere thereabouts. It was August, of that she is sure. They had arrived in Antibes, planning to spend a month on the famous French Riviera.

Her younger son called her a pessimist back then, which surprised her, as she had packed them up and whisked them off on what was basically a whim, a product of the incipient madness that would envelope her in what would be a decade of strange and unpredictable life decisions. 

It was the year she had the first of her many mid-life epiphanies, or crises (depending on who is telling the tale), and decided she was going to leave a perfectly good corporate position to become a pastry cook. She enrolled in a renowned pastry program that would give her a certificate in nine months. 

Over the course of those months, she found that she loved the precision of measurements and movements required to make the perfect mousse or achieve the correct glaze of caramelized sugar. There was a comfort in following the dictates of a recipe – it was order imposed on an otherwise turbulent world. That was also the year her marriage fell apart.

She learned that, for desserts, it was all about the preparation.  Meticulous gathering and weighing of ingredients, to be whipped or folded or mixed at just the right moment, bringing the parts together into a harmonious whole. Here, if followed properly, the rules wouldn’t let you down.

But, after completing the course, certificate in hand, she wanted to learn more. There was the allure of an adventure to be had, for her and her sons. So she landed an unpaid internship in a patisserie in the town of Antibes. She found an apartment with a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and even rented a small car to drive along the sinuous roads hugging the coast.  

As an apprentice in the patisserie, she was only permitted a few tasks, so as not to spoil the otherwise flawless pastries that emerged from its kitchen. Basically, she cracked eggs. Hundreds of them. Carefully separating whites from yolks. She would wake up each morning at six, watch the orange-red sun rise over the water in its awe-full grandeur, drink her café (she was, after all, in France), and head to the patisserie to crack eggs until noon. Her boys would wake at ten, watch American cartoons dubbed in French, argue with each other, and wait for her to come home at noon to pick them up.

And then the magic would happen. They would get their favorite lunch (jambon-buerre baguettes) from the store at the corner and eat it at the beach. The boys would try not to ogle the women who, of course, were bathing topless (this so did not happen at Rockaway Beach). Or they’d pack into the car and explore the small towns perched in the sloping hills of the Cote D’Azur, visiting museums or perfumeries. They would hang-glide in Nice, people-watch in Cannes or Saint-Tropez, or drop into Monaco. Wherever the breeze guided them. Their favorite place for dinner was a small Italian restaurant in town, where they would order spaghetti and discovered tiramisu. How the boys loved tiramisu. They would finish the day by walking through the town center, bristling with people, laughter, and romance. Before heading back home in the evening, they would buy giant cones of gelato and eat the dripping confection as they gazed at the moon, embraced by the soft sea wind.

It was one of the hottest summers in Europe in decades, so the roads were teeming with refugees from the steaming cities to the north and east. They heard no English other than their own bickering. She threatened to get a tattoo. Or swim topless. The boys threatened to disown her. They wound up meeting other children on the beach, a jumble of French-Italian-German-speaking kids with whom they would play soccer, communicating in some universal language of their own making.  By month’s end, her boys had achieved a certain French swagger, a semblance of sophistication that would serve them well when they returned home. 

It was an enchanted month. An unexpected pause in their lives that would prove to be a remarkable gift. Twenty years later, her youngest son would no longer be alive. An event she was not prepared for. In hindsight, she is grateful for the impetuosity that spurred them to experience this extraordinary sliver of time together. It now takes all her energy to wake up in the morning and put her shoes on, one at a time, in preparation for the day. But as she closes her eyes at night, she can see his silhouette against the shimmering water of the Mediterranean, throwing a frisbee at his brother, tossing his curly hair away from his eyes as he waves to her and laughs, sounds of pure happiness.


TIRAMISU (Italian, from the phrase tira mi su  or  “pick me up”)

An Italian dessert consisting of layers of sponge cake soaked in coffee and brandy or liqueur with powdered chocolate and mascarpone cheese. 

For the cream:

4 large egg yolks

½ cup granulated sugar

¾ cup heavy cream

1 cup mascarpone

  • Whip together egg yolks and ¼ cup sugar until very pale yellow and triple in volume. 
  • In another bowl, whip cream and remaining ¼ cup sugar until soft-medium peaks are created. 
  • Add mascarpone and continue to whip until a spreadable mixture with medium peaks is created. 
  • Gently fold the mascarpone mixture into the sweetened egg yolks and combine.

For the assembly:

1 ¾ cups good espresso 

2 tablespoons rum or cognac

2 tablespoons unsweetened coca powder

24 ladyfingers (store-bought) – easier than baking sponge cake

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate for shaving, if desired

  • Combine espresso and rum in a bowl.
  • Using a sifter, dust the bottom of a 2-quart baking dish with 1 tablespoon cocoa powder.
  • Dip each ladyfinger into the espresso mixture and place, rounded side up, at the bottom of the baking dish until you have an even layer (use half the ladyfingers)
  • Spread half the mascarpone mixture on to the ladyfingers in an even layer. 
  • Repeat with remaining ladyfingers and mascarpone mixture.

Dust top layer with remaining tablespoon of cocoa powder. Top with shaved chocolate, if desired.

Cover with plastic wrap and let chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours (the longer the better) before slicing or scooping to serve.

Thanksgiving, Leningrad and the Northern Lights

Have you ever had a transcendent moment – a momentary pause in the rush of day, a hush imposed on the noise of living, a stillness that pervaded your surroundings so that you could hear the beating of your heart?

I had such a moment, nearly forty years ago.

If you live long enough, you’ll find that the world’s geography changes before your eyes. The boundaries of nation-states morph, disappear, and then are resurrected onto the same parcel of land with a new name. Alternatively, lands are sliced and diced according to some random plan by those temporarily in power. Cities are renamed according to the caprice of time or the ruling regime or passions of its inhabitants. You can never be sure what town you will wake up in, even when you are sleeping in your own bed.

So it was that in the fall of 1979 I found myself in a country called the U.S.S.R., living in a city called Leningrad. After graduating law school I accepted a two-year fellowship, studying what was euphemistically called “Soviet” law. It necessitated spending ten months in Leningrad and Moscow. My mother, having fled Poland after World War II, considered herself fortunate in having escaped a Communist regime. She was perplexed as to why I would willingly subject myself to living in one. Being wise, she knew what life would be like over there. Being naïve, I could only see adventure and mystery awaiting me as I lifted the drapery and slipped behind the Iron Curtain. What awaited me was something totally different. 

I and a small group of American exchange students arrived in Leningrad in late August of 1979. It was a beautiful time of year to descend upon a city with historic buildings, some with golden domes that would glow when kissed by sunlight. There were bridges crossing the canals dissecting the city, reminding one of Venice. We settled into our dormitory rooms that we shared with Soviet roommates. For the first few weeks, we were overwhelmed with the classic beauty of the city’s museums and broad avenues, with its workers’ cafeterias and kvass (home-brewed beer) vendors on the corners. It took us awhile to see behind the façade and understand the reality of this society, the scarcity of food and essential goods and services, as well as the lack of privacy and freedom of thought that its populace labored under. Big brother watched every move its citizens made and each word uttered or written.

Realizing we were being spied on, we learned the tricks of evasion so that our conversations would not be listened to and our activity would not be tracked. A mellow September turned into an October colder than I was accustomed to. Produce available in Soviet stores consisted of bread, potatoes, condensed milk and canned fish. Fresh fruit and vegetables became a dream of the past, as did any kind of meat.  Being ever vigilant against surveillance or eavesdropping took its toll. Shadows lengthened as daylight hours shortened. Lines haphazardly grew at random storefronts as rumors spread of Czech shoes here or Polish sausage there. My initial enthusiasm wore off as I witnessed the constant strain and struggle endemic in living in this country.

It was November. Icicles hung from bare tree branches. The weather was relentlessly gray and cold. I was homesick. My mother sent care packages filled with toilet paper and laundry detergent, kind enough not to say “I told you so” in her letters. With the prospect of seven more months to go in this mirthless place, I acknowledged, ruefully, that my mother was, once again, right.

Thanksgiving was approaching. We were trying to figure out how to make potatoes taste like turkey, when, unexpectedly, the staff at the American consulate invited us to join them for a real Thanksgiving dinner to be held at a dacha two hours north of the city.

The dacha was a former summer palace of a long-dead Russian noble, so it was resplendent in an old-Europe, slightly decaying opulent sort-of-way. The furniture in the spacious rooms and the art decorating the walls were a cornucopia of color welcome to the eye after months of bleak grey. The dinner table was laden with real turkey, edible vegetables (more color!), sweet potatoes (but this kind of potato was alright) and pumpkin pies. Sitting down to the table, in a grand salon, we gorged ourselves on healthy food and good wine, able to engage in spirited discussion freely without fear of being watched. We were served coffee and brandy – so very sophisticated.

And then we were invited out to the terrace to “see something special”. We piled out onto this grand stone precipice, overlooking the inky waters of the Gulf of Finland. No lights, no sound other than the raspy intake of our own breath. “Look up”, they said, and we did.

And there, strewn across the sky, was a shimmering curtain of green, purple and red jeweled lights. The aurora borealis. I was transported at the sheer grandeur of this spectacle, a mere glimpse of the mysteries yet to be unveiled by this universe we inhabit. It was awe-inspiring, terrifying, hinting at forces greater than those of earth-bound mortals, whispering of beauty and peace, a majesty attainable if only we stood still and listened to the harmonies of the heavens.

And for a moment, I was bestowed the gift of grace.

And now for a divinely indulgent dessert:

Cranberry-Chocolate Tart


1 C flour

1 T sugar

1 t baking powder

¼ t salt

4 oz unsalted butter

2 T water

350 degrees. In food processor combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. V\Cut in butter until mixture resembles small peas. Stir in water and combine into ball. Chill 30 minutes then roll out to fill an 8 inch pie plate. Chill.


4 oz. bittersweet chocolate

¼ C butter

1 C corn syrup

¼ C sugar

3 eggs

2 T orange liquer

Grated zest of 1 orange

Pinch cinnamon

4 oz. cranberries

Melt chocolate and butter over low heat. In separate pot combine corn syrup and sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Set aside. Beat eggs, liquer, orange zest and cinnamon in a large bowl. Stir in chocolate mixture and corn syrup. Pour into crust. Sprinkle cranberries in a single layer over chocolate mixture.

Bake for 40-50 minutes or until pastry is cooked and pie is set. The cranberries will split.