By the time she was 18, Nita Shapiro had already met the man she wanted to marry and encountered a dessert she would serve for the rest of her life.
Now 62, Shapiro is still enamored of her husband Jeff, and still serves her crumble bars whenever the occasion calls for a sweet treat.
"I bring them everywhere I go. When you're eating them, you can't stop at one. Everybody wants them," the Ship Bottom woman said.
These days, Shapiro is also willing to share the recipe for the bars - a family treasure she got from her mother-in-law, Terry Shapiro.
"She always had these bars whenever we requested them, and we requested them a lot," Nita Shapiro recalled. "She made them for everybody. It was her signature."
Shapiro grew up in Union, Union County, one of three daughters of Bea and Abe Bernstein. A a child and teenager, she wasn't interested in cooking. But things began to change when she was 17 and went out on a blind date with a boy from her high school.
She was smitten when she got to know Jeff Shapiro.
"I would have married him a month after we were dating," Nita Shapiro said. "I was 17 and I knew he was the one. He is very funny, very good looking, very smart and very driven. After all this time, it only gets better."
Jeff Shapiro soon took his new girlfriend home for dinner. It was there that Nita Shapiro first met Terry Shapiro and tasted her delicious Crumble Bars.
"She served them that first night I was there," Shapiro said. "Later on, when I went over, it became automatic - they were always on the table."
One reason for this is that the recipe is simple and difficult to mess up - two factors Terry Shapiro appreciated. The bars are also mildly addictive - "They are like a potato chips - you can't just eat one," is how Nita Shapiro describes them.
Although young and in love, the couple didn't marry right away. They dated for five years, enough time for him to graduate from Rutgers University and her to graduate from the Newark School of Industrial Art.
"We went through high school together, college together, then we got out, worked a year and then we got married," Shapiro said.
The couple now has two children, Stephanie and Eric, and live on Long Beach Island, where he is a realtor and she and partner Connie Beggs own Art & Decor At Surf City.
Over the years, Shapiro has gone from having little interest in food to teaching herself how to prepare great meals.
Both she and her husband love to shop at gourmet food stores and experiment with recipes and meals.
"We love to experiment. We make all these different dishes. People will eat the dish and ask, 'What's in this?' Half the time we won't even know," Shapiro said.
Shapiro is such a fan of cooking, that in 2007, when it came time to plan a fundraiser for the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island in the Spray Beach section of Long Beach Township, she decided on a cookbook.
"We were looking for a good fundraiser. It seems like people like to collect cookbooks, so we thought we'd try it. It worked. They are in the stores all over the island," Shapiro said.
While Shapiro contributed a handful of recipes to the book ("I didn't put a lot in because I didn't want to be greedy," she said.) she didn't include the crumble bars in her submissions.
That's because, like her mother-in-law, Shapiro was hesitant to reveal the secret of her go-to dessert.
"I was keeping it a secret for a long time - that's how good it is, that's why it's not in there," she said.
Shapiro eventually relented, and in the intervening years she has let other people in on her secret.
When her daughter Stephanie was married, mom and daughter baked up batches of the bars to package with the recipe as wedding favors.
She also cooked up the bars for a gallery walk at her store. While latecomers didn't get a chance to sample the treat ("They were annihilated in 15 minutes," Shapiro recalls with some pride) they could still make their own using the small recipe card Shapiro had also put out.
While Shapiro's recipe calls for chocolate chips, she prefers to use big bars of chocolate, which she chops up into bite-sized pieces. For those who like to experiment, Shapiro recommends adding nuts to the mix.
And while the recipe's ease of preparation is one of its virtues, Shapiro warns it's also one of its drawbacks.
"It's effortless. It's great. I always have the ingredients on hand, I could do it make now, but I try not to make it all the time, because if you do, it's guaranteed you will be up a couple of pounds. You have to be aware of that," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Terry's Crumble Bars
•graham cracker crumbs
•1 14-ounce can sweetened
Prepare in a 9- by 9 -inch pan, double recipes are prepared in a 9- by 13-inch pan. Mix all ingredients very well. Put in well-greased pan. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake 20 minutes. Top should be slightly brown and firm. Let cool about 10 minutes, then slice.