My sister had come with her husband to Hawaii (along with my parents) for a late “honeymoon” – having married back in October of last year. Being newlyweds, they didn’t have much disposable money between the two of them, so when the opportunity to fly out to Hawaii, with a free place to stay (albeit with my parents, not the most romantic, but still a free place) they lept at the chance, a makeshift honeymoon vacation. AJ and I were thrilled with the idea of them coming and spending their honeymoon with us. Near the end of their trip, I made them Salted Rum Caramel Bars with Macadamia Shortbread, hoping that they would remember these bars as a sweet ending to an eventful vacation.
The one problem with a tropical island vacation for my sister, was that she happened to be deathly afraid of the ocean – or as she said – “we’re not really friends right now but we’re trying to get along.” She wasn’t always this way. I have fond memories of her playing in the ocean as a child in Virginia, jumping up to catch waves with friends of our cousins on Myrtle Beach. This all changed in a recent trip to Delaware where a particularly powerful wave hit her, knocking her down and rendering her topless for all the beach to see. It didn’t help that my sister couldn’t hear her new husband speaking to her from the beach where he stood, trying to tell her subtly that she was topless, until finally he had to yell out loud at the top of his lungs “YOUR TOP!” thereby ensuring everyone on the beach would turn to witness her in all her glory. Thus, the first day she arrived in Hawaii, we went to the beach and she stood there, feet in the water, unable to venture farther out in the water, staring at the ocean, trying to determine if the water really was her friend or foe.
That said, something tells me that when I was hit by a rogue wave, strapped to a backboard and taken off the beach by lifeguards, then ambulance driven to the only hospital in Maui 45 minutes away to make sure I wasn’t paralyzed for life a few days later, probably won’t improve her relationship with the ocean.
It all started innocent enough, with my parents having arrived a few days prior to my accident. The following day after their arrival, found us doing a morning trip to the Iao Valley where we stared the natural wonder of West Maui and then to Walmart shopping for swimwear, something my parents did not have with them. It was a rather startling change of scenery to go from natural wonder to big box store.
We went to Big Beach bright and early on the Monday after they arrived, a gorgeous sprawling gold sand beach that I thought my parents and my sister and husband would appreciate. AJ, my brother-in-law Peter and I ventured in the water and were hanging out, appreciating the gentle undulating waves from the shallow shores of the beach when two Canadian women started chatting AJ and I up. They were visiting from Vancouver and had just started their vacation, happy to be in Maui. AJ quickly realized that they had gravitated toward us, being lesbians and seeing AJ and I acting affectionate, wanting to find other fellowsexuals on the island. I, on the other hand, just thought they were being their usual friendly Canadians, polite and wanting to chat with those in close proximity, in their usual Canadian amiable way, sharing the ocean with others. It was then, distracted by our conversation that the wave hit me by surprise, knocking me face first into the shallow shore and then somersaulting me onto my back. A second wave, mere seconds afterwards had me reeling with shock and unable to do anything else but stumble and fall again.
AJ had been hit by the wave too, but was farther out and was prepared for it. He grabbed me and walked me out of the ocean, asking me if I was okay. I couldn’t answer and a man walking past, who had witnessed the entire scene, ran up to us and started asking me questions. It turned out he was a lifeguard in training, off duty, and was concerned by the way I looked. No wonder, as I was a mess, utterly unable to properly comprehend what was going on. When he asked me if I was feeling numbness or tingling in my fingers, and I replied back in the affirmative, he told me I needed to go to the hospital. Tingling or numbness in the fingers was the first sign that I had a neck injury, as the spinal cord in the neck was bruised or potentially compromised and those nerves were the ones that went to my fingers. They called over the other lifeguards, they isolated my head so it wouldn’t move and potentially cause more damage, then strapped me to a backboard and carried me out to the parking lot. An ambulance met us there and took AJ and I to the only hospital in Maui. My family followed quickly, concerned for my well-being.
At the hospital, I waited for the MRI, as my fingers continued to tingle as if they had fallen asleep. I was lucky, as they never really got numb, nor did I lose any strength in my hands or feet. I answered all the questions properly (we were on Maui, our president was Obama and it was Monday) and the doctor, a smiling thin older hippy looking man, skin tan and weathered from the tropical sun, wearing a puka shell necklace and looking like he probably would probably be more at home on the beach surfing than at the ER, declared me fine, with just a little bruising in my spinal neck nerve which would go away naturally (he also said I had some neck arthritis, which apparently was normal for a man my age – physical proof that I am old).
We left the hospital, with my family relieved and happy that I was ok. We rescheduled our reservations to the luau that we originally had planned on going to that night (I was not in any condition to appreciate kahlua pork or hula dancing). I spent that day resting and the following day in a neck brace puttering around the house, while my family and AJ went up to Mt. Haleakala to see the sunset and hike down to the cinder cone (a hike that I had gone on three years ago with AJ in our first trip to Maui).
I don’t know if my sister ever did get back in the ocean after seeing me nearly get paralyzed, but she did say she was able to enjoy the rest of her makeshift honeymoon. Once I was a little more recovered, we did eventually make it to the luau, which featured a world champion fire dancer, as well as a road trip around the island to the town of Hana (and beyond). We did go back to the beach (though I never did see my sister go farther out than ankle deep), ate well, laughed and generally enjoyed all the island was able to give us. Nature is a powerful thing, both beautiful and dangerous at the same time, and Maui made me realize this more than any other place I’ve been.
AJ and I did end up going back in the water though, determined not to let the one incident (no matter how traumatic) ruin our relationship to the ocean. True, the ocean is a fickle friend, but as long as it is treated with respect, I know that it will stay a friend. AJ did make sure to point out to me Every. Single. Wave, that came my way, in case I wasn’t paying attention. But I’ve learned my lesson well. I will never let Canadian lesbians distract me again.
Salted Rum Caramel Bars with Macadamia Shortbread
I had my first caramel bar in Santa Monica, at the café Huckleberry, which my friend Rita and Damon took us to, just a few weeks before we left to go to Hawaii. We loved the café so much that we ended up going to it twice that trip, enamored with their Monte Crisco sandwich. I adored their salted caramel bars, chewy and sweet with just a touch of sea salt to balance it. Once I was out in Hawaii, I knew that I wanted to make a tropical version, with rum and macadamia nuts. My sister and her husband seemed to like them as well, and AJ just adored them (not a surprise as he loves anything caramel). Make sure to use a candy thermometer to bring the caramel to the right temperature. If you don’t, the caramel will be runny and you’ll end up with a sticky (though still tasty) melty mess.
Macadamia Nut Shortbread
225 g (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose unbleached white flour
55 g (1/2 cup) confectioners’ sugar
170 g (1 1/2 sticks or 3/4 cup) salted butter (if you only have unsalted, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of sea salt) at room temperature
80 g (1/2 cup) Macademia nuts, roughly chopped to 1/4” pieces
2 cups (1 pint) heavy cream
1/4 cup dark rum
1 vanilla bean
400 g (2 cups) sugar
200 g (3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons or 1 3/4 sticks) unsalted butter
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt (do not use table salt, it’s way too harsh)
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Lightly coat a 9” x 13” baking pan with cooking spray, and then line with parchment paper, allowing for the paper to overhang by a few inches (the cooking spray will help the paper stick to the pan).
2. Place the flour into a medium sized mixing bowl. Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a bowl, breaking up any lumps. Using a wire balloon whisk, vigorously stir the flour and sugar together until they are evenly distributed. Cut up the butter into 1/4” cubes and sprinkle into the bowl. Using your hands, mix the flour and butter together, squeezing the butter and dry ingredients together until a smooth dough starts to form. Add the chopped macadamia nuts and squeeze them in by hand until evenly.
3. Press the dough into the baking pan with the parchment paper. You want to spread the dough evenly on the bottom and up the sides ever so slightly (about 1/4” to 1/2” if you can). You can use the bottom of a flat drinking cup to just flatten out the dough all the way around to help facilitate even baking. Line the crust with parchment paper again, and then fill with dry beans, dry rice or pie weights if you have them. Bake the crust in the oven for about 25 to 35 minutes or until the crust is a deep golden brown, rotating halfway through to make sure the crust bakes evenly. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack while you make the caramel.
4. Place the cream and dark rum in a small pot. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the cream & rum mixture. Throw the vanilla pod into the pot as well, and turn the heat to medium. Bring to a simmer and then turn the heat off and cover to keep warm.
5. Place the sugar in a large heavy bottomed saucepan with a silver bottom (avoid nonstick, as the dark coating will make it hard to judge the caramel color). Turn the heat to high, stirring occasionally with a heat proof silicon spatula or wooden spoon. As the sugar melts, continue to stir and shake the pan so all the sugar melts evenly. Once the sugar starts to brown, turn the heat off and let the residual heat of the pan continue to caramelize the sugar. You want the caramel to turn a dark golden brown, closer to chestnut but not mahogany black. If the caramel has stopped browning or isn’t dark enough, turn the heat back on to low to give it a nudge. It’s better to go slow and let the residual heat caramelize the sugar, as you can always make the caramel darker, but you can’t go backwards and if you burn the sugar, you have to start all over).
6. Once the sugar has reached the appropriate color, remove the vanilla bean pod from the cream and pour it into the caramel, being careful as the caramel will sputter and steam up (some of the caramel will seize up and harden, that’s ok). Add the butter and then turn the heat back on to medium. Cook the caramel, stirring until all the harden pieces have dissolved. Heat the caramel until it reaches the soft-ball stage of 240-245˚F degrees (about 10 to 15 minutes).
7. Once the caramel has reached the appropriate temperature, immediately pour the caramel onto the baked crust and then sprinkle the sea salt evenly over it. Cool to room temperature and then place in the fridge overnight. Cut into squares and allow to warm up for an hour at room temperature before serving.
Makes 24 bars.