NILES - "How do you like it?" he asks about the cheesecake.
"It's good. You don't like it?" she frets.
"I love it," he says, leaning in close.
Mary Littleton of Niles sits at her dining room table with her wedding soup and what she says is a requisite for the Italian meal — a glass of wine.
That's Gigi and Papa, otherwise known as Mary and Bud Littleton.
She's serving Gigi Soup, otherwise known as wedding soup.
An hour in this happy house and you begin to wish that she was your grandmother, too.
Recipes submitted by Mary Littleton
4 large split chicken breasts with skin
2 packages of chopped celery with 2 stalks of inner leaves, chopped
4 large peeled and sliced carrots
6 large leaves of Swiss chard (boiled, drained and chopped)
8 quarts water
4 heaping tablespoons Miller's chicken-flavored soup base
2 tablespoons parmesan cheese
50 of your favorite meatballs (made into the size of a dime)
Put water into a large stockpot. Add chicken, celery, carrots and soup base to pot. Stir and simmer for 2 hours. Remove chicken from pot, discard skin, and cut into bite-size chunks. Place chicken back into pot along with browned meatballs, Swiss chard and 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese. Simmer for half-hour longer.
Recipe can be cut in half, but it freezes well.
Miller's is in local grocery stores; it's made in Youngstown.
2 cups fine bread crumbs
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons parsley flakes
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
Combine ingredients. Roll by hand into a cigar shape. Fry in oil until browned on all sides. Slice when cooled.
2 packages of graham crackers (crumbles)
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 sticks of melted butter
Mix together, pat into greased 9-by-13-inch pan.
4 8-ounce (room temperature) Philadelphia cream cheese
6 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Beat filling ingredients until well blended.
Pour over crust. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees. Center will set when it is done. Take out of oven and mix 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and 1 pint sour cream together. Spread over top of cheesecake. Spread one large can of Thank You cherries on top. Refrigerate. Cut into squares when serving.
Mary Littleton said this is her family's most requested dish, and her husband said it's the best wedding soup he's ever eaten. She seems to like it most because it gets some healthy ingredients into her grandchildren.
"The only vegetables they get is Gigi Soup," she said recently in her Niles kitchen, where the photos of those kids are on the refrigerator. "Now how many kids eat greens?"
The greens - the Swiss chard - she grows herself. She also added the carrots to this recipe that came from her Italian grandmother. Another addition is the Gigi Crackers, otherwise known as croutons.
"The croutons, I created myself," she said.
Littleton said a lot of people who make their own croutons do it in the oven, but she makes them "the hard way," rolling them by hand into the shape of a cigar and then frying them on the stove. In the pan, they look a little like sausage. Once they're browned, they do look like cigars.
When they're sliced and put into the soup, they are toasty and tasty. Littleton likes that they don't get "mushy."
This mother of two and grandmother of four said one of the children tried them recently and said:
"Gigi, I ate four crackers, then I got tired of 'em."
"Typical Aquarian like me," Littleton said. "We get bored easily."
In addition to the grandchildren, keeping Littleton from getting bored are the conversations she has with her clients at Hair Essence.
"They pay me to talk," she said, making a little fun of her own communicative abilities.
Littleton's been doing hair for 44 years, and she just turned 60 on Valentine's Day. She started beauty school in the evenings of her junior year at John F. Kennedy High School. At the time, she remembers, tips were a quarter. In 1969, she did hair at Strouss' in the Eastwood Mall.
Until recently, she'd also been caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer's for 13 years, six of them severe. Even so, she still loved to eat and enjoyed her daughter's cooking this past Christmas.
Judging by the pictures around the beautifully set table in the dining room, it's easy to tell how important family is here. There are decorative picture frames and wreaths made of shells she's collected "when the fish weren't biting."
She remembers everyone gathering at her grandmother's after church.
"At Grandma's on Sunday, we never left the dining room," she said.
She said the focus on food created a heavy child - Littleton remembers breaking a chair in kindergarten and being put to work as a monitor at school because she was the biggest one. Now, she and her husband focus on portion size, knowing that it's not necessary to clean every plate.
When her children were younger and her husband's job as a train engineer took him away from home, no television was allowed at mealtime.
"It's dinner, it's time to talk," she said, remembering how they each enjoyed sharing one good thing and one bad thing from that day.
Littleton offered a bonus cheesecake recipe, one that she got from an older Italian lady that was her client at Strouss. She considers herself lucky to have it, because "these kinds of things are family secrets."
Littleton adds a little extra crust for her biggest fan.
"She's giving you the beginning and the end," Bud Littleton said, referring to the soup and dessert. "What's good is in the middle."
For the soup, she uses all-white-meat chicken, as well as Miller's soup base, which is made in the Mahoning Valley. The meatballs are usually done ahead, whenever she makes some for spaghetti sauce.
"It's a very healthy thing - it's a whole meal in a bowl," Littleton said. And it doesn't have to take all day.
"My theory is this," she said, "everyone's life is so busy, but you say 'I'm cookin',' and they're comin'."