When Nora Ephron, the dynamic, witty-beyond-belief writer extraordinaire (and even greater friend, in Arianna Huffington’s view) died recently, one of her sisters had something to say about Nora’s gift for forming opinions. “Was there anyone in the world with more opinions? Delia Ephron said. “The planet is practically opinionless now.”
Not quite, Delia. There are a couple of us left to carry the banner forward (perhaps, given my age and genetic curses, not for long, but with gusto nonetheless)! I didn’t think all of her “opinions” made much sense, mind you. Take “Hazelnuts are what’s wrong with Europe.” I never quite figured that one out. Nor did I always see eye to eye with her ideas about what constitutes great food. Many of her favorite recipes are pretty representative of her (and my) coming of age in the kitchen in the ‘60s and ‘70’s, and while I remember them fondly, I have no desire to revisit my Campbell’s soup phase at this point in my food adventures.
What really connected me to her, though, was the zeal with which she threw herself into all things, culinary and otherwise. She sallied forth unabashedly, opinions at the ready, devil take the hindmost. Ultimately, it was her comfort with forming and expressing her opinions on whatever crossed her path in life that so endeared her to me, made me feel I knew her. Sometimes I think of us as having been separated at birth … what else could explain how we both approached life (in particular its primal relationship to food, and food to it) in the same intensely personal, evangelical way; the similar insane need to convert everyone we meet, one sorry food-deprived soul at a time, until they get it. The short and skinny? I just plain loved that lovely broad’s indomitable soul. No holds barred.
Nora Ephron was an exceptional gift to the world in many, many respects. But to fully comprehend her classic take on the importance of food in every aspect of our lives, just savor this quote for a moment: “I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times”. That was Nora Ephron. So let’s take a page from her glorious book on how to live and enjoy life, and talk about food!
It’s August, and time to talk peaches, about which I have some rather strong feelings (er, OK, have it your way; opinions).
Peaches are my favorite fruit, but only when the season delivers them at their very best. I am not much of a fan of cooked peaches. It’s not that a great Peach Cobbler doesn’t taste wonderful, but sadly, it always throws me into mourning. A season in which I am forced to cook my peaches is a summer lost. Peaches are meant to be appreciated as Nature gives them to us, in all their nakedness; a glorious, incomparable climax to summer’s gift of flamboyant juicy flavor.
And so it is that every year right about this time I head to the farm stand around the bend, where they carry the coveted Glastonbury peaches, and buy just one. I (once again) ask of the lovely woman there her opinion of the quality of this year’s crop, holding my breath. Good, she says this time. So, OK, I buy just one. I know I’m a tad fussy and a bit OCD on this particular issue, but remember, they do have peaches to sell, whether they meet my “au naturel” standards or not . Gotta be 100% sure before one commits oneself. But, oh, my, was she ever dead on this year! Perfect. Time for a Peach Shortcake extraordinaire!
I am assigned the task of “shortcaking” my daughter Denise’s family this Saturday, so now is as good a time as ever to set down a few salient points everyone needs to know about shortcake.
It will probably not surprise most of you to hear at this point that I feel similarly about people’s experiences (or lack thereof) with shortcake as I do about those classic New England dishes I lamented in Welcome to New England, which I posted here when I first started my blog. True shortcake, like New England’s famous Baked Beans, Brown Bread and Clam Chowder are things that many people think they have experienced, but in almost all cases, sadly have not. Why? Because 1) shortcake, as with the aforementioned classics, is rarely available in its true form in the public arena, so it’s hard to find somewhere to experience it as it was originally created, and 2) there are very few recipes for the “real deal” out there (not that most people would notice the difference, once you take into consideration point # 1).
So, here’s the short and skinny on shortcake: It should not be sweet. That role belongs exclusively to the fruit, which is the star of the show, and, secondarily, to the fresh whipped cream that crowns it. Nor should it be textureless. Today, disgustingly sweet, spongy cups of ersatz cakey crap fill the shelves in our stores, drawing countless suckers into their flavorless orbit in the name of shortcake! They need to be banished from the earth! Along with margarine.
In short, shortcake needs to be short, as in crumbly and buttery. It needs to be sufficiently non-sweet so that the fruit has a foil for its vine-ripened flavor and macerated sweetness. It needs to be so wonderful that with every bite you KNOW you are eating the real deal. If you follow my guide here, you will, for probably the first time in your life, actually experience the glory that is shortcake!
Next, do not, on pain of death, reach into your grocery store’s “dairy” case for some sickening aerated wannabe whipped cream, or, worse yet, that chemical substitute of the “Cool” variety. You might as well throw the whole shortcake to the swine. No, make the leap and make your own, even if you never have before. It is so easy, so delicious, and so irreplaceable that once you have, your heart will leap in rhythm with the universe! Need you hear more?
So, here goes.
This is the best shortcake recipe in the world, hands down. Bar none. It’s from my mother’s 1940’s Spry cookbook. I now substitute butter for the Spry that’s called for, for all the obvious reasons; a happy improvement. I have also adapted it for the food processor, as I have my recipe for pie crust. The shortcake is wonderfully flavorful and flaky, and easy as 1-2-3; sort of buiscuity. You split the batter, and put a layer of softened butter between it and the next layer, so that when it is cooked, you can separate the layers to put the fruit in between. Try it. Savor it. You won’t be disappointed.
PEACH (OR STRAWBERRY) SHORTCAKE
My mother’s old Spry cookbook from the 1940s
3 cups sifted flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 ½ T sugar
¾ cup cold butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
¾ – 1 cup cold milk
Softened butter to spread on the cake batter
Enough peaches to give each person an insanely large portion of this heavenly fruit (2 peaches per person is not a suggestion to be sniffed at – peaches come but once a year, and must be properly celebrated), sweetened to taste and macerated in the fridge for several hours
Mix the dry ingredients together in the food processor, then add the butter and pulse until the butter is well distributed and in pebble-sized pieces. Add the milk through the feed tube, using just enough to give you a soft dough. Do not overbeat. Stop mixing when the batter has just formed a ball around the blade. Divide the dough in half. Pat one piece into a 9” round greased cake pan. Spread with some softened butter, enough to ensure that the layers will split easily after baking. Bake in a very hot oven, 450° F for 30 minutes. Separate layers. Cover with ½ of the fruit. Place the upper layer on top, cut side up. Cover with the remaining berries.
Serve with homemade whipped cream (recipe follows)
Note: During strawberry season, replace the peaches with 2 quarts fresh strawberries, hulled, cut into quarters, sweetened to taste and macerated in the fridge, as with the peaches.
8 ounces heavy cream
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Sugar to taste
Beat the cream and vanilla with your hand beater, adding the sugar slowly as you go, until you like the taste. It should not be too sweet. The sweetness of the macerated peaches or strawberries should carry the day. Continue to beat until the cream holds its shape when you lift the beaters out of the bowl. You can make the cream an hour in advance and hold it in the fridge. Anything longer and you could start to see some separation.
Note: Whipped cream freezes really well. I make serving-size mounds of any leftovers on waxed paper, then freeze them. When they are frozen solid, I peel them off and put them in a freezer bag, so I always have some on hand.
In honor of Nora Ephron’s lifelong dogged pursuit of the next wonderful meal, I am closing with her favorite peach pie recipe, from “Heartburn”. I am breaking all my rules here, since I have not made it myself yet, and can’t guarantee its perfection. Somehow, though, I’m not all that worried.
THE BEST PEACH PIE
Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn”
1¼ cups flour
½ Tsp. salt
½ cup butter
2 T sour cream
3 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 T flour
1/3 cup sour cream
3 peaches, peeled and sliced
Preheat the oven to 425° F.
For the crust, place flour, salt, butter and sour cream in a food processor and blend until it forms a ball.
Pat into a buttered pie tin. Bake for 10 minutes.
For the filling, beat egg yolks slightly and combine with sugar, flour and sour cream.
Arrange the sliced peaches in the baked pie shell. Pour the egg-sour cream mixture over the peaches. Cover the pie with foil.
Reduce the oven to 350° F and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake an additional 10 minutes, or until the filling is set.