Earl McCarroll was my freshman scene study professor. An Actors’ Equity card-carrying member with a penchant for Shakespeare, a raised eyebrow that spoke volumes, and an irrepressible laugh, Earl had a knack for challenging us by assigning scenes that cast us against our ‘type.’
Following a particularly lackluster but realistic scene from The Miracle Worker in which my scene partner accidentally doused me with a large cup of water, Earl suggested I take a break from Anne Sullivan. “Go to the library and look through the plays of Neil Simon. See if you can get your hands on a copy of The Gingerbread Lady.” Mopping up the water from the main stage, I crossed the lobby, my suede clogs leaving small circles of moisture on the red carpet. Beyond the heavy doors of the performing arts building, sun and clouds upstaged each other above Lake Cayuga. Autumn arrived early in upstate New York, prompting September to feel more like late October. Earl’s recommended title had me conjuring over-sized molasses cookies, heavy with ginger, spiked with cloves, outfitted in royal icing. My hunger propelled me towards the student union where I picked up a small bag of peanut M&Ms for sustenance.
Climbing the stairs to the library's theatre section, I found Simon was well represented in the stacks. Single plays published by Samuel French were wedged alongside compendiums encompassing entire Broadway seasons. The worn covers of the paperback plays echoed with voices of scene study and wistful auditions.
The Gingerbread Lady made it abundantly clear within the first few pages of dialogue that it was a darkly serious drama, a far departure from Simon’s trademark comedies. I wasn’t the only one surprised by this Debby Downer of a script. Audiences and critics were lukewarm about the play, ultimately gaining notoriety for running five short months on Broadway. Maureen Stapleton’s performance as Evy, a has-been cabaret singer fighting the demons of alcohol, garnered her a 1971 Tony award and a prestigious Drama Desk award. My performance in Earl’s scene study class received enthusiastic reviews but not a single award, sending me back to my dorm room empty handed.
Years later, I would spot Neil Simon in New York City’s theatre district, sometimes cutting through Shubert Alley, sometimes having lunch at the now-defunct “Polish Tearoom” in the Edison Hotel. I remember walking past his table, the prolific playwright hunched over a cavernous bowl of soup, an assortment of pickles edged out of reach by a notebook. I recall seeing him standing at the rear of the orchestra, scribbling notes during an early performance of They’re Playing Our Song and again at a performance of Brighton Beach Memoirs. I always expected him to be slightly larger than life because that was how I imagined him.
Last evening, at 6:45 pm, Broadway dimmed its lights in memory of Neil Simon who passed away on August 26th at the age of 91. Simon’s passing is bittersweet for many of us who studied his words and his characters, marking the end of a chapter that spanned our college careers and decades of Broadway theatre going. There was something comfortably predictable about the patter of a Neil Simon play, the buoyancy of his dialogue, the way the words rolled off the stage covering the audience in a blanket of humor and heartbreak.
As we head into the last weekend of August, my inbox is bombarded with no-bake-dog-days-of-summer recipe suggestions. Among them are multitudes of pies boasting cracker crumb crusts. As a nod to a very old way to line a pie plate, and in memory of Neil Simon, it seems only fitting to offer a snippet of dialogue from his play, The Sunshine Boys:
“You like a cracker?
What kind of cracker?
Graham, chocolate, cocoanut, whatever you want.
Maybe just a plain cracker.
I don't have plain crackers. I got graham, chocolate and cocoanut.
Alright, a graham cracker.
They're in the kitchen, in the closet.
When life gives you donut peaches, you have two choices. The obvious approach is to make a beeline for the kitchen, rinse the squat stone fruit under cool water, follow with a gentle towel dry, and set them on the counter. They are then ripe for the picking, as is, in all of their sweet, dimple-faced simplicity. The other option is to cradle that cute little peach in your hand and listen to the voice inside your head that says, doughnut. I chose the latter approach.
Never were two food items coined with the same name so vastly different. Resembling something whipped up in a food laboratory, donut peaches are genuine peaches, originally hailing from China in the 19th century. Descendants of flat peach varieties, donut peaches are aptly named ‘peento’ meaning, pardon the redundancy, ‘flat peach.’ They are also known as Saturn peaches as a nod to their resemblance to the rings of Saturn. Donut peaches exude a honey-like sweetness with far less wipe-your-chin juicy exuberance. Doughnuts, or Donuts (as coined by Dunkin) are what we dream of as we pile our paltry slice of 6 grain and legume Ezekiel bread with slices of avocado.
Recently, a gift of donut peaches followed me home, staring me down from the kitchen counter until I moved them across the room to my butcher block worktable. Unlike the blush pink donut peaches on display at the Farmers’ Market, these chubby little peaches were the color of clover honey. The peaches sat patiently for several days while I debated; were they best eaten straight up, no fuss, no fuzz, a hand-held celebration of summer? Or beneath the dimpled exterior was there a donut yearning to be free of its pit, slathered in custard, slicked with a glaze and a riot of confetti sprinkles? Based on my childhood, the answer seemed obvious.
Doughnuts were an integral part of my youth, particularly on lazy Sunday mornings, set against a dining room table blanketed in sections of The New York Times. My father’s hankering for something other than French toast or waffles or Jessie’s homemade sugar buns would send him to the Cedarhurst Cake Shoppe or the Gaston Avenue bakery. Returning with a cake box secured with baker’s twine, my father ceremoniously untied the box, placing the baked goods on a large Stangl platter. Everything boasted gluten and sugar and plenty of butter; the only thing preventing cross-contamination between sweet and savory were a few crinkly sheets of wax paper. Crusty rolls dotted with flecks of poppy seeds, onion and caraway elbowed thirst-inducing salt sticks. Airy crullers glazed in both chocolate and vanilla nuzzled against humble cake doughnuts, sparkly with cinnamon sugar. Plump jelly doughnuts oozing raspberry covered everything in snowdrifts of powdered sugar. Anything filled with vanilla custard and dripping in chocolate was divvied up into quarters, leaving a trail of chocolate smudges and dots of cream on the tablecloth. The room was fragrant with Sunday morning; a tangle of newsprint and Eight O’Clock Coffee, caraway and onion, chocolate, and raspberry. A thin veil of powdered sugar hovered over the table. The empty bakery box sat off to the side, a solemn reminder that the weekend was drawing to a close and I hadn’t yet started my homework. My father poured himself a second cup of coffee from the Chemex and reached for the crossword puzzle.
The quart of donut peaches staring me down from its perch on my butcher block this week begged to be used. I had to oblige, but not before dunking them in a splash of Lillet and wrapping them in circles of pie pastry. They baked up resembling the genuine article, providing safe haven for a generous fill of custard and a wide stroke of powdered sugar glaze. Had my father sat down to a plate of donut peach doughnuts, he would have pointed out between sips of steaming coffee that the confetti sprinkles bordered on overkill. Then he would have set down the Book Review and reached for the Sunday crossword puzzle.
In 1963, Julia Child came bounding across the tiny black and white television screen in our kitchen. Dressed in a simple button down blouse and sensible skirt, The French Chef introduced American homemakers to meals that rarely crossed our dinner plates. From my perch on a rickety wooden step stool, I was riveted by Julia’s opening teaser leading up to her exclamation, “Today, on the French chef!” The catchy theme song that followed was as bubbly as a flute of champagne, or in my small hands, a glass of Canada Dry ginger ale.
I took the French chef very seriously, particularly when she donned reading glasses. Detailing the recipe’s ingredients, this pause in action afforded viewers the opportunity to jot things down. So expansive was Julia’s tutorial on crêpes that the subject spanned two episodes. Julia demonstrated how to make the thin pancakes in what she called a ‘no stick-em’ pan suggesting, “you should train yourselves to use the tips of your fingers in very hot materials, because it will save an awful lot of time.”
I learned that the underside of a crêpe was the nicest, and the other side was the ‘non-public side.’ Ladling spoonfuls of liqueur over a chafing dish of crêpes suzette, Julia proceeded to set them on fire. Seated at the kitchen table, casually glancing up at the television from her latest Book of the Month Club selection was Jessie, my baking mentor.
Julia continued, “You can flame it in the kitchen and then bring it to the dining room, but it’s a little bit tricky because you might burn your eyelashes.” I gasped, waiting for Jessie’s reaction, but she was nonplussed. To Jessie, a woman well versed in cream puffs and éclairs, custards and meringues, crêpes were no different than the light pancakes she used to make blintzes. She shifted her attention away from the television and back to her book. My eyes remained fixated on the screen, watching until the flames died down and the credits rolled.
In contrast to today’s over-produced Food Network and Cooking Channel, The French Chef was bare-bones television. An impeccably clean kitchen towel was never too far from Julia’s reach as she bobbed between a General Electric stovetop and double oven, a Sunbeam mixer, a Waring blender, and a small army of hand-held whisks. The show was recorded live allowing ample opportunity for mishaps. Julia was unflappable and unapologetic; mopping up spills from overflowing pots, struggling with matches, unsuccessfully flipping pancakes, misplacing bowls of ingredients crucial to the outcome of the recipe. Julia sprinkled her programs generously with humor, omitting ego and arrogance. Her signature bouffant hairstyle was as mercurial as simple meringue on a humid day; in some episodes her hair held a soft peak, in others, her tresses had been teased and over-sprayed until stiff, often brushing dangerously close to flaming pans and chafing dishes. Far more than cooking, the half hour program was high drama and I loved it. The desserts were always splashed with too much melted butter, heavily doused in European liqueurs, until finally culminating in flames and Julia’s signature send-off.
For years from my perch next to Jessie, I followed Julia around her many television kitchens as they upgraded from black and white to glossy color. Her wardrobe became less stodgy, more fashion forward, and it became evident that she was wearing strategically applied make-up. I devoured her cookbooks, studying the illustrations in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, mesmerized by the photographs in her subsequent books and newspaper features. As glaringly obvious as the overhead lighting in her earliest television programming was the fact that mastering the classics gave you license to improvise.
In honor of what would have been Julia’s 106th birthday on August 15th, I reached for her 1981 softbound edition of Julia Child and More Company. Page 50 provides the recipe for Gateau Mont-Saint-Michel with a quick crêpes refresher course on page 133. Julia suggested apples for her layered dessert, but in the dog days of August, it seemed more appropriate to layer the crêpes with burnt almond cream and white peaches. With Julia’s voice in my head, I poured the thin batter over my very hot pan, rotating it until it had formed a less-than-perfect circle. Waiting a few minutes I zoomed in, using the tips of my fingers to turn the blistered pancake. It saved me an awful lot of time. Repeating the process until the batter was exhausted, I rinsed my hands under cool water before wiping them on my impeccably clean kitchen towel.
Local farmers’ markets are as vital to our summer experience as an icy, cold brew with a compostable straw. In the event your invitation was lost in the mail, you still have today and tomorrow to celebrate National Farmers’ Market Week.
Shining a klieg light on local markets and their role in bringing farmers, consumers, and communities together, the celebration at our humble market was modest. I was hoping for a slice of cake and a party hat, but no such luck. Save for the whining child wrapped around her mother’s leg, there was nary a noisemaker in sight. The only baked goods in the offing were a row of cello wrapped fruit pies, their top crusts slumping in the ghastly heat. It appeared the best way to snag a goody bag was to fill your own canvas tote and approach the register, so I inched my way to the table weighted down with baskets of stone fruit.
One of the farm market employees, looking more lifeguard than farmer, was trying to prevent the nectarines from colliding with the peaches. The peaches, not yet ripe and unruly, had escaped unscathed. Sadly, the nectarines had taken the brunt of the melee, their crimson and yellow skins split, in need of those small, circular Band-aids no one ever uses. Lifeguard/Farmer shook his head, gathering up the second-class stone fruit, whisking it away into a basket beneath the table.
“What happens to those?” I asked Lifeguard/Farmer, who had moved on to refill the hipster donut peaches, one aisle over. For a moment, his dazzling white smile dimmed. “Are you selling those?” I asked, feeling a sense of loyalty to the less-than-perfect stone fruit that just moments before had been hanging around with the cool kids of summer.
“Maybe someone will want them,” he replied, shaking his sun-streaked tresses.
I was that someone.
Approaching the register, it appeared my Lifeguard/Farmer had sent a message to the man standing before the commercial scale. Equally suntanned with pearly white teeth and a P90X physique, he whispered, “Half price for the nectarines.” Nonchalantly digging through my wallet in search of exact change, I expressed my thanks. “They’ll have a good home,” I promised, gathering up my bounty.
My car was as hot as a pre-heated Lodge cast iron skillet. Placing the bag of fruit in the passenger seat, the combination of heat plus ripe nectarines perfumed the car with the unmistakable fragrance of stone fruit in summer. If only we could bottle this and reach for it in the bitter cold of January; sweet with just a hint of almond and rose, followed by the slightest background note of New Jersey humidity.
My sheet pan has offered to make me dinner. It’s also interested in preparing an elaborate brunch for me on Sunday and longs to be my bestie when it comes to between meal snacks. In the event I turn down dinner, brunch, and swear off snacks, my sheet pan suggests we meet for dessert.
In a high volume bakery, sheet pans perform a repertoire more exhaustive than a non-equity Shakespearean summer stock company. Sheet pans are hard working and resilient, and except for the occasional warped pan that you discover moments after you close the oven door behind it, extremely dependable. We should remember however, that before sheet pans bounced out of commercial kitchens into home kitchens, we affectionately referred to them as cookie sheets or jellyroll pans.
I knew sheet pan when he was just a baby, a mere cookie sheet. Rectangular and flat with a pouty lip on one side, the pan needed to be greased or outfitted in wax paper, because home bakers didn’t have access to parchment paper. A partially unwrapped stick of Land O’Lakes sweet butter skated across the pan’s well-worn surface, covering the aluminum in a patina of soft yellow. Generous spoonfuls of cookie dough studded with semi-sweet morsels were dropped in strategic formation, 4 across by 6 down. Twelve minutes later, steadied by a pot holder, the cookies exited the oven, slightly puffy with brown sugar edges. A few renegade chocolate morsels hovered perilously close to the edge of the pan and had to be coaxed back with an icing spatula or when cool enough, a pinky finger.
I also knew cookie sheet’s closest relation, the jellyroll pan, measuring 15½” x 10½” with 1” high sides. Jellyroll pans held airy, sponge cake batter that rose just to the top of the pan, only to endure a blizzard of powdered sugar before being wrapped around a clean kitchen towel. Once cooled and unrolled, the cake was filled with jelly or whipped cream, re-rolled and dusted with more powdered sugar or a shiny chocolate glaze.
Cookie sheets and jellyroll pans weren’t particularly glamorous, they were utilitarian, stacking agreeably in just a sliver of a kitchen cabinet, rarely crossing the line from sweet to savory. On occasion, the jellyroll pan would inch its way over from cake to pie, elbowing the traditional 9” pie plate out of the way.
In late summer, at the height of blueberry and peach season, Jessie would reach up into the slim cabinet above the oven and wiggle a jellyroll pan out from beneath a stack of cookie sheets. She filled the pan with a press-in dough that tasted more of cookie than of pie crust. Jessie then blanched sweet yellow peaches, slicing them into thick wedges and reducing their rosy juices into a syrup spiked with almond extract. Rows of blueberries and peaches tumbled across the cookie crust, which had been sprinkled with a little bit of sugar and just enough Minute tapioca to contain the runaway fruit juices. The pie was baked just until the blueberries and peaches had sighed, leaning back into the golden crust. This was the only pie Jessie baked in a rectangular pan and we ate it with enthusiasm, warm forkfuls of summer under puddles of vanilla ice cream.
Nostalgia runs deep in my bones which might explain my reticence in utilizing a sheet pan to make meals. No one uses the term ‘cookie sheet’ anymore, and sheet pan has become part of our everyday kitchen vernacular, a term as casual as canelés and sous-vide. Sheet pan is no longer simply a noun, it has morphed into a verb, emblazoned as a headline, entreating me from high-end cookware displays, shouting at me from bookshelves, insisting that tonight is the night to “Sheet Pan Your Dinner!” Maybe it does streamline dinner and brunch, maybe even snacks can benefit. So go ahead, live your very best sheet pan life. If you're looking for me however, I'll be in the kitchen holding on to my cookie sheet/jellyroll pan reverie with a pot holder, not an oven mitt. I’m sorry sheet pan; it’s not you, it’s me.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm