While the first day of spring is officially Monday, March 20, it would certainly seem that spring has sprung in Central Florida. I really hadn’t noticed until I was outside with the dogs the other day, and I realized how very windy it was. Instantly, I remembered being a kid and my mom always saying, “Son los vientos de cuaresma.” (It’s the Lenten wind.) I’m sure there is a meteorological explanation for it, but to be completely honest, I don’t know it. I just know that the 40 days of Lent are always extraordinarily windy and, year after year, they are the telltale sign that spring is here.

As months go, March is a pretty benevolent and, well, a party-friendly month. You’ve got Mardi Gras, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and, in our house, March means it’s my husband’s birthday month. Every March 19, we celebrate all things Oscar.

Birthdays are a big deal for me. I’m all about making it a big celebration for people. When my mom turned 55, I sent her a man dressed as a gorilla to serenade her at her doorstep, while also playing the guitar. I’m not sure what surprised her more, the fact that I sent her this as a gift, or the fact that there is a man who offers such services, and I found him.

Through the years, I’ve done all sorts of different things for Oscar’s birthday. One year, I spoke to his boss and got him a few days off from work. The night before his birthday, I gave him a letter purportedly written by Mickey Mouse, informing him that he needed to pack his bags and would be leaving by train in the morning to Disney World.

We took the train from Miami to DeLand. When we arrived, I had a chauffeur-driven Town Car waiting to take us to our hotel in Disney. Back then, Amtrak still offered food in the dining car on short trips, and while the food was far from stellar, Oscar got to have a hamburger in the dining car of a moving train. It was something he had always wanted to do.

Another year, we spent the weekend at my family’s farm, and I woke Oscar up at sunrise for a scavenger hunt across all 10 acres. I made more than 25 different, rhyming clues, and each one came with a gift. It took him about four hours to complete it. I had preset cocktail stations throughout the whole property.

There have been years when I rented out entire restaurants to throw Oscar a party, and there was the one year where I had Giordano’s famous Chicago pizza flown in for the occasion.

OSCAR AND ZACHY — Chef Santi Gabino’s husband of nearly 14 years, Oscar Herrera, is pictured here with their teddy bear, Zachy. This photo was taken this past New Year’s Eve when both the bear and Oscar were gussied up with snazzy bow ties.

The thing is, if you ask Oscar what he’d like to do for his birthday, he always says he just wants me to make his favorite dishes and have a quiet meal at home. As someone who has worked in hospitality, event planning and marketing for more than 20 years, “small and quiet” aren’t usually my go-to.

When my sister, Shelby, got married, as a surprise, my father and I arranged for an entire Junkanoo band to be flown in from the Bahamas. When the party was at its zenith and frankly, people were pretty drunk, we brought the band to the outskirts of the event tent, and hid them in the trees. We had orchestrated it all with the DJ, who had been building up the music for a while. When the dance floor was packed, we had the band enter from all sides of the tent in their massive costumes, dancing, and playing their tubas and horns. People went absolutely nuts! I’ll never forget this one little old lady, a relative of my brother-inlaw, taking off her heels and throwing them in the field, so that she could really get down on the dance floor!

When Oscar and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary, I surprised him with a vow renewal on the beach in Sanibel. He thought we were spending the weekend there, and I had told him we should get dressed up to take a couple of pictures on the beach. When we got to the location I had previously agreed upon with the officiant, she was waiting for us by the water, just as the sun was setting. Oscar was in utter shock. When it came time to exchange rings, I had bought him a whole new wedding ring to mark the occasion.

The thing is, yes, I love to throw a good party. However, beyond that, I believe people and important occasions need to be celebrated. There are only so many birthdays, anniversaries and holidays. And in my book, you need to make them count!

The past few years, I’ve embraced Oscar’s wish for a quiet meal at home, and every year, my in-laws, now in their late 70s, make the three-hour drive from Palm Beach to visit and see their son. I make Oscar’s favorite meal, set the table with all the fine china and crystal, and hang the same birthday banner we’ve been using for more than a decade. It comes with numbers that you can change for whatever the year may be. We joke that we’ll use it till we die. And, I hope that we can.

It’s my hope that I can celebrate the ones I love for as long as I am able. Moreover, this is an attitude we can all embrace, not just for birthdays and special occasions. Every day that we are alive is a celebration. Don’t wait for ___________ to use the good china, grill a nice meal, go to the beach, or tell someone you love them.

Lastly, when someone says they don’t want you to make a big deal for their birthday, anniversary, retirement or whatever it may be, make a big deal. I’ve thrown hundreds of parties both personally and professionally for many years; not once have I ever seen someone upset by being shown they are loved and a cause for fanfare. Happy Birthday, Oscar!

This month’s recipes are Oscar’s go-to birthday meal. They’re perfect, though, for any celebration. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.

French martini
The first recipe is for a French martini. Along with vodka, this wonderful cocktail uses Chambord, a luscious, French black-raspberry liqueur, and pineapple juice. It’s sweet, tangy and utterly delicious.

French martini

• 2 oz. Grey Goose Vodka
• 1 oz. Chambord
• 2 oz. pineapple juice
• Fresh pineapple or raspberries for garnish

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and all the ingredients, except for the garnish. Shake vigorously for about a minute. Strain slowly into a martini glass. Take your time with this step, so as to allow the foam to rest on top. It will be very foamy, but it will settle. Let the cocktail rest for 30 seconds. This allows the layer of foam to form. Garnish with a pineapple slice and leaf or a skewer of fresh raspberries.

Detroit-style pizza
The second recipe is for Detroit-style pizza. We both adore pizza, and this is one of the best ways to make it. Fans of a thick-crust pizza will love this recipe. It’s also very unique in that the cheese (Monterey Jack instead of mozzarella) goes on the dough and the sauce goes on top of it.

Detroit-style pizza

• Extra-virgin olive oil (The Anointed Olive in Downtown DeLand has wonderful options.)
• 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
• 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
• 1 cup warm water
• 3/4 teaspoon salt
• 10 oz. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
• Your favorite tomato sauce

Spray a 13-inch-by-9-inch metal baking pan with cooking spray. Heavily brush the bottom and sides of the pan with olive oil. In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix flour, yeast and sugar on low speed for about 10 seconds. With the mixer running, slowly add the water and mix until a dough forms and all the flour has been absorbed, about 2-3 minutes.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let stand for 10 minutes. Add the salt to the bowl, and knead the dough on medium speed for about 7-8 minutes. Transfer the dough to the heavily oiled pan, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

Oil your fingers, press the dough into the corners of the pan, and let it rest until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500F. Sprinkle the cheese all over the dough right up to the sides of the pan. Spoon three (1-inch-wide) stripes of sauce, lengthwise over the cheese. Bake until the cheese is melted and starting to brown, about 20 minutes. Depending on your oven, you may need 5-7 minutes more. However, check it at the 20-minute mark.

Let the pizza cool in the pan for 5 minutes. Run a knife around the edges of the pan. Very carefully, use two large spatulas to loosen the whole pizza from the pan and transfer it to a cutting board. Cut into squares, and serve.

The BEST Chocolate Cake
As Julia Child once said, “A party without cake is just a meeting.” This recipe, my take on Hershey’s chocolate cake, is the most amazing chocolate cake you’ll ever have.

Chocolate cake

• 2 cups sugar
• 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 3/4 cup cocoa powder
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 eggs
• 1 cup whole milk
• 1/2 cup vegetable oil
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon of instant espresso powder
• 1 cup of boiling water

Heat oven to 350°F. Heavily grease and line two 9-inch round baking pans with parchment paper, which you’ve traced and cut to fit inside.

In a mixer or large bowl, stir together the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Carefully and slowly, add the boiling water (the batter will be thin). Pour the batter evenly into both pans; I use a ladle.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for at least 30 minutes, and remove from pans to wire racks to cool completely. Frost with the frosting recipe that follows.

Cut into squares, and serve.

Chocolate frosting
This recipe makes a lot of frosting, but I like a heavily frosted chocolate cake. You can divide it in half if you prefer a thin layer of frosting.

• 3 sticks of butter
• 2 cups of cocoa powder
• 9 cups powdered sugar
• 1 cup of whole milk
• 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon of salt
• 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon of espresso powder

Melt the butter in a large microwave-safe bowl, about 2 minutes. In a stand mixer, or using a large bowl with a hand mixer, add the butter and stir in the cocoa until smooth and glossy. With the mixer running, alternately add the powdered sugar and the milk. It’s a lot of sugar, which could make a bit of a mess, but you want this cake to have a thick layer of frosting inside and all around. Add the salt, cinnamon and espresso powder. Beat for 2-3 more minutes until the frosting is thick. Frost and decorate the cake as you would like. It’s highly versatile for any type of decoration or occasion.

— Santi Gabino Jr. lives in DeLand with his husband, Oscar, and their two crazy dogs, Hope and Athena. Santi is a self-taught chef who has been in the hospitality industry for more than 20 years.


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