Friendships need to be nourished and nurtured so they can grow strong and be sustained.

It’s pretty simple.

There is a bond created when we share a meal together. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or a shared bowl of popcorn in front of the TV, there is a language of food that at a certain level we all comprehend.

When we share food, especially that which we’ve created, we are giving of ourselves to those we commune with. Sitting around a common table is an intimate experience. We invite someone in, and say things like “May I offer you another helping?” “Let me refill your glass,” “Please enjoy,” and “Mangia bene.” Offering food is an expression of friendship.

Holidays are a prime example of bonding over specially selected symbolic foods, but if we feed friendships only on holidays, somebody’s going to experience some serious cravings for something to sustain them.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting six ladies who’ve been friends for 25 years. Often it’s easy to maintain a friendship if you see one another regularly at work, or in your neighborhood. When you live in different parts of the city, never did work together, don’t have kids in the same schools or even share the same career path, how do you do it?

You cook together and you eat together.

Once a month for 25 years, Julie, Linda, Debbie, Claudia, Anna and Jeanne have come together monthly for a night of cooking and sharing the table.

I was incredibly flattered when I was invited to organize a cooking class dining event in celebration of this noteworthy occasion. As the ladies arrived, it was just plain fun to hear and see the excitement that this evening held for them. One of the ladies commented that it felt like Christmas because she was so excited. That’s saying something.

The ladies originally met as members of AAUW, American Association of University Women. One of the branches of AAUW offered a cooking theme. Although no longer affiliated with AAUW, the ladies continue their monthly gatherings, alternating houses and themes.

Former member Suzanne was their “Julia Child” and taught everyone the art of de-boning a chicken without cutting the skin, and so it began. Suzanne moved to Hawaii, making room for Claudia, who is the newbie to the group, with 11 shared years. Claudia came as an invited guest to dinner and became a regular who was impressed by the openness and sharing within this group of women. The sharing of food and recipes, of course, but the gift she feels she received was the sharing of their lives. Joys and frustrations, losses and accomplishments. This sentiment was a constant within the group.

She who hosts has the fun of choosing the theme for that month. Stories were shared about favorite nights. The paella dinner, where they first met, French cooking, barbecue and the Kentucky Derby experience, fancy hats included. One theme they won’t repeat would be St. Patrick’s Day with all green food.

There were photo albums shared, highlighting dinners spanning their 25 years. One could not help but note the changes in hairstyles along with the changes of menus in the scrapbooks.

On occasion, their night might be a picnic on the lawn of a Mondavi concert, or a special anniversary dinner at a fine-dining restaurant.

Their group has no official name (not a serious one, anyway), but I think they might have a name and don’t even realize it. I kept hearing the same words over and over from different members of the group as we did the kitchen dance in Julie’s home. “Fun,” “food” and “friends.” These words were even written on the hand-painted plate Debbie had created for each member, as a memento of this 25th year. Something to think about ladies.

Each participant shopped for specific ingredients we would need. Teams organically came together to prepare the four recipes that would become the celebratory dinner.

Before we began chopping, slicing and dicing, I offered an olive oil tasting party. It was a party, after all. I love hosting these in the Napa Valley, where folks can relate to topics like oxidation and can connect the dots when I tell them that you would not open a bottle of beautiful cabernet and keep pouring from it week after week or month after month, so why would you do it with olive oil? An olive is a fruit, you know. Tasting the true extra virgin olive oils of our valley prior to using them in the dishes we were about to create helped to impress upon these foodies how important it is to use only “true” extra virgin oils.

Our menu: Pappa Pomodoro, a spicy Italian tomato-and-bread soup; crispelli, a savory filled crepe with bechamel sauce; Tuscan lemon cream chicken and an olive oil cake with sweetened ricotta and drunken golden raisin filling over a fresh berry coulis. Each Chef di Giorno plated and served their creation.

To have been invited in and invited to join their table on such a special evening was a gift these lovely ladies shared with me. Saluti, ladies, and here’s to many more years of food, fun and friends.

Olive Oil Cake With Ricotta Filling

Serves 10—12.

3 large eggs

1 1/2 cups whole milk

8 oz. sugar

1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil (Use a mild to moderate balanced EVOO. Big picante flavor overpowers this recipe.

Filling:

1 Tbsp. baking powder

2 cups flour

8 oz. imported ricotta cheese

1 cup golden raisins

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Brandy or Vin Santo

1/4 cup powdered sugar

Unflavored pan spray (or butter and flour)

Dark berry coulis

Soak raisins by cover with brandy or Vin Santo. If you can’t find Vin Santo, you can use a sweet dessert wine. Set aside. Soak minimum 20 minutes. Longer gives you more flavor. Pour off all liquid.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Do all mixing by hand. Do not use electric mixer for this recipe.

Mix eggs, sugar until creamy. Add milk and oil and mix well.

Mix flour and baking powder together in large bowl. Slowly add sugar and egg mixture, blending well.

Spray 13-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch rectangular pan. Or butter and dust with flour.

Bake center oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Cake may not darken on top.

Add drained raisins to ricotta. Mix gently. Add powdered sugar and fold in. Set aside.

When cake is completely cooled, cut into individual circular pieces. Cut 3 across and 4 lengthwise.

Drizzle dark berry coulis over each dessert plate.

Cut each cake round in half so that there is a top and bottom piece for each serving. Fill with plentiful amount of ricotta filling. Immediately place each filled cake over a drizzle of dark berry coulis on a dessert plate.

Dust each heavily with powdered sugar and serve.

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