I never thought I would ever get sentimental over a box of cake mix. But that’s just what happened when a box of Maya’s Butterscotch Brownie Mix was recently delivered to my doorstep. Suddenly I was filled with sentiment and nostalgia.
Maya, all these years, has meant much more to me than flour and cake mixes. I’ve always associated it with happy times and good food.
And even more so when several years ago Maya’s Ernie and Lourdes Fajardo organized a neighborhood ukulele group. It was one of the happiest groups I’ve ever joined.
Our weekly sessions would start with a home-cooked dinner (members took turns bringing the food) then segue on to lessons in ukulele playing. We would play folk songs, old melodies and seasonally, Christmas medleys. In between there would be a lot of chatter and laughter, which seemed to be always a part of our informal agenda.
Every Christmas our ukulele group would give a performance for our neighbors and families. It would be such a joyful occasion, with our group singing Feliz Navidad, Jingle Bell Rock and other Christmas carols. The performance would culminate in a celebratory dinner, with a smorgasbord of our best festive dishes.
The pandemic put a stop to our annual performances, but this year there was even more reason not to hold a ukulele session. One of our members, Ami Miciano, passed away, a victim of COVID.
Ami was such a beloved member of the group. Not only was she adept at playing the ukulele (and also the guitar), she was also a sweet friend to everyone. Because we both love music, reading and good food, Ami and I would often go to concerts together, and exchange books and recipes.
Just when I think I have somewhat gotten over Ami's death, something — a song, a dish and recently that box of brownie mix — would pop up and remind me of her — and I’d feel despondent all over again.
One of our favorite activities was attending the cooking classes at the Maya Kitchen, where we learned treasured recipes from guest chefs. She also had a beautiful herb garden, where I was always welcome to pick rosemary, basil, dill and other herbs for my home cooking.
Ami was the owner of the iconic Penguin Café, the ’80s hangout place where artists, writers and other members of bohemian society would congregate nightly to drink and be merry. Because she loved art — and by extension artists — Ami would welcome them all, even being an unofficial ate (older sister) to many of them.
Ami’s untimely demise has left a void in the hearts of many, this writer’s included. Just when I think I have somewhat gotten over her death, something — a song, a dish and recently that box of brownie mix — would pop up and remind me of her — and I’d feel despondent all over again.
Sadly it isn't just Ami who has left this world. The Fajardos' son, Eric, also passed away recently. He was business development manager of Liberty Commodities Corporation and took care of all the marketing activities and Maya Kitchen projects, initiated new products and formulated the company’s corporate strategy.
Eric was a constant presence in their company's numerous events. I’d sometimes catch him watching with a bemused smile as the participants got all excited over the recipes they’d be learning in the cooking class.
Now the happiness I associate with their products is tinged with a certain sadness. If only the sweetness of its cakes and pastries could wipe away the sorrow.
Still, as they say, we must soldier on. And so, in honor of Ami and Eric, who have made Maya full of cherished memories, here’s their recipe for Butterscotch Walnut Praline. It elevates the mix into something truly festive and scrumptious, so fitting to serve this Christmas season.
Butterscotch Walnut Praline
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 whole eggs
2 tablespoons fresh milk
1 pack Maya Butterscotch Brownie Mix (500 grams)
For the walnut praline topping:
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1/3 cup butter
1 cup roasted walnuts, chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350ºF (177ºC). Grease an eight-inch round pan then line it with parchment or baking paper. Lightly grease the paper. (A nine-inch round pan will also do.) Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter or margarine until smooth and creamy then add the eggs, milk, and the butterscotch brownie mix. Continue mixing until the mixture is well blended and smooth.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, spreading evenly. Bake in the preheated oven for 35 minutes (do not over-bake).
For the walnut praline: Heat a pan over medium-low heat and let the sugar melt without stirring (you can shake the pan occasionally so the sugar melts evenly). Pour in the milk as soon as the sugar caramelizes. Keep stirring the mixture until it boils then add the butter, nuts and vanilla extract. Continue cooking until the mixture becomes creamy but not too thick. (If a lump of brown sugar forms, you can just remove it.) Remove the pan from the heat. Set aside.
When the butterscotch is baked, remove it from the oven and set aside for 10 minutes without removing it from the pan (do not turn off the oven yet). Spread the walnut praline over the butterscotch, making sure to cover the top well with the mixture.
Then return the pan to the oven and bake for another five to 10 minutes, or until the mixture on top becomes lightly dry. Remove the butterscotch from the oven and let cool. Slice as desired. Makes about eight servings.