If you’d been standing in Abby and Bo Simmses’ backyard that autumn afternoon, you would have seen Carter Francis’ ruffled brown hair and almond-shaped eyes peeking over the top of their privacy fence. Ten-year-old Carter was on a mission, the end of which would result in far more than he — or his parents — could imagine.
“Hey, Dad, there’s kids!” Mike Francis recalls of son Carter’s enthusiastic reconnaissance report. Mike and his wife, Amanda, had moved to this wooded Montrose cul-de-sac three years prior, and they’d been awaiting the day they’d hear news like that. Now, standing in their kitchen, the two grin as they listen to their son unfurl the details of meeting the neighbors-turned friends, who have just arrived for their daily afterschool playtime.
“I was climbing the fence, and then I saw Hank,” Carter beams proudly, looking at the freckled 8-year-old. Hank nods, and big sister Hayes picks up the story. “I came out in my pajamas to see what was happening,” the 10-year-old laughs, sheepishly. Older brother Hill, eager to get a word in, interjects, “And we asked him if he knew Davis and Elliott Moore, the other two kids down the street, and he said yes!”
Although they made a quick connection, it wasn’t until after Hurricane Sally that neighborhood friendships would really bloom.
“When the fence fell, that’s when it sort of became one big backyard,” Abby says, now outside, nodding toward the privacy fence that once stood between her home and the Francises’.
As if on cue, Carter walks across the slumped wood planks, still in their post-hurricane resting position, and joins the others on the ninja line strung between two sturdy pines. “He looks forward to coming home and playing outside every day,” Amanda says, calling it “old-school play.” “Nobody old-school plays anymore.” Abby agrees.
Amanda heads back to her house to finish dressing the cheesecake she’s prepared for this evening’s potluck. From the opposite direction come Davis, 11, and Elliott, 8, the aforementioned children from down the road. Late afternoon light shines on the brother and sister as they run down the magnolia- and pine-covered path adjacent the Simmses’ yard. They dash off, each shouting hellos before running to claim a hammock. Tierney and Brian Moore, their parents, aren’t far behind, she carrying a platter of oven-baked ham sandwiches, he lugging cocktail fixings. At 13, Anna Christian, the oldest of all the children, sticks with her mom as Tierney stops to chat.
“When the fence came down …” she begins, a phrase used frequently this afternoon, then restarts. “The kids would have never gotten together, or maybe they would have eventually. But this just quickened the process.” Tierney’s children now travel this path from one house to another so often they were given headlamps and walkie-talkies for Christmas. “We tell them, ‘Just be home by dark.’”
Between the three homes, there is no shortage of things to do, from baseball to fishing, from tiptoeing through Rock Creek to trampoline jumping. The woodsy, tucked-away area in Montrose indeed harkens to playtime of yesteryear. And Amanda has no qualms about it. “They’re outside,” she says, noting the importance of balancing electronics with fresh air. Abby laughs, remembering the time Carter told her, “I do have video games, but I am wanting to spend more time outdoors.” She happily obliged, sending her kids outside.
It’s not always about having something to do, however. Although the kids play outside daily, the adults don’t get together as often as they’d like. But when they do, Mike says, “It’s just about hanging out.” And eating, of course. Hart, Abby’s 1-year-old son, would most likely agree if asked between devouring fistfuls of blueberries.
As the families say good night, it’s clear that more than just the kids have made friends — the adults have, too. And while the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors” may be true, the toppled barrier between the friends’ yards is certainly one nobody is in a hurry to mend.
Mike’s Birthday Cheesecake
Amanda Francis says she is “famous” for her cheesecake and thinks the almond extract is what takes it from good to great.
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
6 tablespoons (3/4-stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 9-inch springform pan. In a small bowl, mix ingredients. Press into pan. Bake 5 minutes. Let cool completely.
4 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
2 cups white sugar
3/4 cup whole milk
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 (21-ounce) cans blueberry pie filling, chilled
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a mixer, mix cream cheese with sugar until smooth. Blend in milk, and then mix in the eggs one at a time, mixing just enough to incorporate.
3. Mix in sour cream, vanilla extract, almond extract and flour until smooth. Pour filling into prepared crust.
4. Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour. Do not open the oven. Turn the oven off, and let cake cool in oven with the door closed for 5 – 6 hours to prevent cracking.
5. Chill in refrigerator until ready to eat, then add chilled blueberry pie filling and serve. Serves 14
Abby Simms’s mother-in-law handed down this simple and sweet kid-friendly treat.
1 roll sugar cookie dough
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
mixed fruit of your choice, sliced
1. Spread cookie dough over round pizza pan to form one large cookie. Bake per package directions.
2. Combine cream cheese, sugar, sour cream and vanilla. Spread atop cookie base. Top with fruit. Serves 8
Lebanese Spinach Pie
Fresh lemon and flaky layers of phyllo dough bring this savory spinach and feta pie to life. Amanda Francis says it is very similar to a Greek spanakopita, but this is her family’s Lebanese recipe.
60 ounces (4 bags) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
16 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
16 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
6 ounces cream cheese
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt, to taste
8 ounces butter, melted
1 twin-pack package Athenos phyllo dough, room temperature
Tip: Use a damp cloth to cover dough while brushing butter on each layer. Refer to instructions on box for more information.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Wrap thawed spinach in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze out as much water as you can. In a large pot over medium heat, add olive oil to coat the bottom. Add the squeezed spinach, lemon juice, crumbled feta, mozzarella, cream cheese, garlic, onion powder, nutmeg and cayenne pepper. Gently fold the mixture together. Taste for seasoning and add salt, if desired. Remove from heat and set mixture aside.
3. Brush melted butter lightly all over the inside of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. From the first package of phyllo, place two sheets of phyllo dough, staggering dough to cover the bottom and sides of the pan and lightly brush phyllo with melted butter. Repeat two sheets at a time, brushing with butter until you have laid down at least half of the first package of phyllo.
4. Add spinach mixture and spread evenly into the pan.
5. Open second package of dough, and repeat dough layering over the top, brushing with melted butter every two layers until you have used all of the second package.
6. Using a sharp knife, cut the uncooked pie to establish your individual pieces (smaller for an appetizer, larger for main course). Cutting the pieces before you bake it will make it much easier to serve and will prevent the crispy top of the spinach pie from shattering.
7. When finished assembling, bake for 45 minutes, checking the top occasionally for over-browning. If it starts to get too brown, lay a piece of foil over top while baking.
8. Remove from oven and let set for 15 minutes. Recut through existing cut lines and serve. Serves 12
Party Ham Sandwiches
Tierney Moore’s sliders always go fast! Brown sugar and horseradish provide a surprisingly sweet kick.
1 (12-count) package King’s Hawaiian Rolls
3 tablespoons creamy horseradish sauce, divided
3/4-pound thinly sliced Black Forest ham
8 slices white American cheese
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Split each dinner roll. Spread a small amount of creamy horseradish sauce on the bottom of each roll. Layer ham and cheese, then replace top of roll. Arrange the sandwiches in a 9-by-13-inch pan.
3. In a small saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, remaining 1 tablespoon horseradish sauce, Worcestershire and poppy seeds. Bring to a boil and pour over sandwiches.
4. Bake for 20 – 30 minutes, or until the tops are brown and crispy. Serves 6
Creamy Bacon Mac ‘n’ Cheese
Who says mac ‘n’ cheese is just for kids? The Francises use bacon to add a smoky flair to their comfort food.
1 pound large elbow macaroni, uncooked
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) Parmesan cheese, shredded or grated
6 thick-cut bacon slices, cooked, crumbled and divided
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard
3 cups whole milk
1 cup whole buttermilk
1/3 cup unsalted butter, plus more for greasing dish
12 ounces (about 3 cups) extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 ounces (about 1 cup) Monterey Jack, provolone or mozzarella cheese, shredded
2 large eggs, well-beaten
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring 3 quarts water to a boil over high heat in a large stockpot. Stir in pasta and 1 tablespoon of the salt and return to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta is tender but still firm, about 6 minutes. Reserve and set aside 2 cups cooking water, and then drain the pasta. Return pasta to pot and remove from heat. Cover to keep warm.
2. Generously grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and set aside. Toss together breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, and half of the cooked, crumbled bacon in a bowl, and set aside. Stir together flour, pepper, mustard, and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt in a small bowl. Heat milk and buttermilk in a medium saucepan over medium heat, undisturbed, until barely steaming but not boiling, 4 – 5 minutes. Set aside.
3. Melt butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add flour mixture. Cook, whisking often, until mixture is smooth and thick and has a delicate golden color and toasted aroma, about 2 minutes. Slowly whisk in warm milk mixture. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring often, until thickened to the texture of cream, about 3 minutes.
4. Stir shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses into milk mixture and remove from heat. Stir in beaten eggs until mixture forms a smooth sauce.
5. Uncover cooked pasta and stir. (If pasta sticks together, stir in reserved warm cooking water, and drain again.) Stir cheese mixture and remaining bacon into drained pasta in stockpot.
6. Transfer pasta mixture to prepared baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with breadcrumb mixture. Bake in preheated oven until firm, puffed up and lightly browned, 35 – 40 minutes. Serve hot or warm. Serves 12
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