There are forgotten giants in the food world, people who have profoundly influenced what we eat, but whose names we barely know. James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Claudia Fleming is one of those people.
She is the author, along with Melissa Clark of the New York Times, of The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern, which you’ll find on the bookshelf of anyone who’s serious about dessert. She is also my guest on the next two episodes of Special Sauce, and man does she have some stories to tell! First, in this week’s episode, Claudia talks about ice cream, dance, and dessert construction; then, in next week’s episode, she’ll talk about love and loss.
When Claudia first became a pastry chef, it was the era of vertical desserts, which she wasn’t thrilled about. As she says in the book, “I wasn’t very interested in Legos. I wanted it to taste like something.” She expanded on that notion in the interview. “They make things that stacked on top of each other and how high can we make it before it falls down,” she says. “Technically, the only way to do that is with tons of sugar and it’s almost inedible. You’d have this tiny edible thing on the plate and then you have all of these things on top.”
Claudia has a gender-based theory for why that trend came about, and why her approach is different: “I think it’s a more feminine approach because- I’m going to be really sexist- boys like to build things. Women nourish more. I’m being incredibly generalistic and very sexist, but that’s my experience.”
But before we hear from Claudia, Serious Eater Ryder Cobean asks Kenji for a non-meat alternative to use in Kenji’s very fine pressure cooker chile verde. Kenji offers up two ideas. One is soy-based and not so surprising. The other, however, shocked the hell out of me. I’m not giving it away here, but I will give you a hint: It’s a fruit I most often associate with the Caribbean.
Finally, we hear from our beloved Pastry Wizard Stella Parks about how to improve your banana bread, no matter which recipe you use.
Pastry chef legend Claudia Fleming on the rise and fall of Lego-like desserts, Kenji on losing the meat in his pressure cooker chile verde, and BraveTart weighing in on banana bread. Quite an episode of Special Sauce.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life now with an expanded menu. Every week on Special Sauce, we begin with Ask Kenji, where Kenji Lopez Alt… Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant… gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a serious eater like you has sent us.
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Butler Soy Curls. They’re dried. Soak them in water and then you can simmer them in that chili sauce and it gets the texture of pulled meat.
EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guest. Today I’m so excited to have in the house, pastry chef goddess and cookbook author, Claudia Fleming.
Claudia Fleming: They were just making things that stacked on top of each other. How high can we make it before it falls down? Technically, the only way to do that is with tons of sugar and it’s almost inedible.
EL: It’s true that vertical desserts are extremely phallic.
CF: I didn’t say phallic.
EL: I said it.
EL: Finally on today’s podcast, a teachable moment in the Serious Eats test kitchen.
Stella Parks: We’re doing banana bread today. You know why? Banana bread is amazing. Everybody makes great banana bread; that’s a fact. But there are always ways to make banana bread better.
EL: First up, our chief culinary consultant and author of The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez Alt. Kenji, our question of the week comes from Ryder Cobean. Is he a cousin of Ryder Cobain? No, I don’t know. “I’m obsessed with your pressure cooker chili verde, Kenji. I like to reduce meat consumption when possible and have a loved one that is recently medically gluten free. Have you ever experimented with a plant-based meat that does pulled pork or chicken texture well in this kind of role?”
Yeah. What you’re looking for is something that has shreddy bits and have bits that have a little chewiness to them, but are basically tender and fall apart and shred. There’s two things that I can think of that are really good for that. One of them is jackfruit, which you can buy… These days if you go to the vegan section in your supermarket a lot of times you’ll find packaged pre-shucked, pre-pulled, pre-husked… I don’t know. Anyway, you’ll find jackfruit. Jackfruit absorbs flavors really well and it has that pulled pork/pulled chicken texture to it.
The other product that I really like is… I think it’s made in Portland or somewhere in Oregon. They’re called soy curls, which is a terrible sounding name.
EL: They need to change the name.
JKLA: It’s Dr. Something Soy Curls or something like that. Actually, let me look it up and make sure.
EL: It sounds like a hair product.
JKLA: This is what it is: Butler Soy Curls. You can buy them on Amazon. You can but them online and they’ll find them to you. They’re dried, so they last in your pantry forever. You basically just soak them in water and then you can simmer them in that chili sauce and it gets the texture of pulled meat and absorbs flavor as well.
Those would be the two things: soy curls or jackfruit.
EL: What’s interesting about jackfruit is that it’s not even a plant-based meat. It’s just a plant.
JKLA: It’s just a plant, exactly. If you’re looking for a pulled pork or chicken texture, those would be what I recommend. If you’re looking for something that’s more of a ground meat texture, then you have a big range of options these days in the plant-based meat department. Impossible I think is available in many places now.
EL: Now all over the country.
JKLA: Beyond is also available. In taste tests I’ve done, Impossible is the best of the ones that are out there. It’s what we use at the restaurant.
EL: Us too.
JKLA: We did a taste test on Serious Eats and it is the best one. But Beyond is just fine if it’s all you can find, especially if you’re going to be cooking it in a sauce like a chili or whatever it is. If you have it in a flavorful sauce it works really well.
EL: Cool. All right, Ryder, I think you’re going to be in good shape. Kenji, we’ll see you next week. We’ve got the plant-based meat questions down I think.
JKLA: All right.
EL: Kenji Lopez Alt is Serious Eats chief culinary consultant and author of The Food Lab. Do send your questions to Kenji to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now it’s time to officially welcome one of my favorite pastry chefs and human beings, James Beard Award-winning Claudia Fleming. Claudia’s seminal book, The Last Course, has just been reissued. Of course, I have to add innkeeper or former innkeeper.
CF: Yes, we can say former innkeeper.
EL: The innkeeper formerly known as Claudia Fleming. Until recently, Claudia owned the North Shore Table and Inn. On behalf of serious eaters everywhere, I want to welcome you to Special Sauce. Claudia, it’s great to have you here my old friend.
CF: Thank you for having me, Ed. I’m delighted to be here.
EL: Tell us about life at the Fleming family table.
CF: It was the 1960s. My mother was a homemaker. She did not work. Made dinner every night.
EL: Where was this? In Long Island?
CF: It was on Long Island, correct. Brentwood, Long Island. Very middle class, nothing special, just a Levittown development. Tiny house, but mother sewed my clothes and made dinner and lunches and wallpapered the house and tiled the bathroom. There was nothing that women couldn’t do.
EL: She’s one of those closet master crafts people kind of like her daughter.
CF: Not at all. She was a master of everything. I dabble in making dessert for a living. So dinner was unlike today’s dinners. My mother made one thing for dinner and were all required to eat it.
EL: There’s no questions asked, no excuses.
CF: There’s no short order cooking. My friends are like short order cooks for their kids. Every kid has a different dinner. Dad has something different to eat. It’s unbelievable.
EL: That’s because one is vegan and one is this and one is gluten intolerant.
CF: And you order in and everybody can have whatever they want to eat. It wasn’t like that in those days. My mom was a great cook.
EL: Just a good homey American cook?
CF: Oh yeah. And from an Italian background. Her maiden name was De Marco. My grandparents were off the boat. She was first generation. Never did we have a frozen or canned vegetable in our house.
CF: Yeah. I used to beg for iceberg lettuce. We had escarole. We had Swiss chard. We had…
EL: “Can we just have the lettuce that everybody else has?”
CF: Exactly. Chicory. Anyway, I grew up with terrific food, delicious food.
EL: And were you always interested in watching her cook and helping her, or not really?
CF: Not so much. She was a little controlling. She didn’t really solicit my help. Cleaning up was my thing.
EL: Isn’t that redundant when it comes to moms? “A little controlling.”
CF: I guess. Any time I asked if I could make something, she’d go, “You’re just going to make a mess.” Okay.
EL: That’s what happens when I cook and that’s what my wife says: “You’re just going to make a mess.” I say, “I know. It’s okay.”
EL: But your first dream had nothing to do with food, right?
CF: No, it didn’t. I was a dancer. I didn’t even know it was a dream. I later asked my mother, “Mom, why did you ever send me to ballet classes?” She said, “Because that’s what you did with little girls in the 1960s. You sent them to ballet school. It just stuck with you.”
EL: Fascinating. You went to ballet school on the island or in the city?
CF: On the island. Eventually in the city.
EL: But serious ballet school. This wasn’t like, “I got to do something once a week.”
CF: No, it was three times a week and different teachers. I had a local teacher that I would go to on either Tuesday/Thursday, Monday/Wednesday, and then on Saturday I’d either go into the city or to a very good school in Massapequa, where my parents had to drive me. So it was a big commitment.
EL: Did you end up not going to college and just going straight into dancing?
CF: Correct. Well, I went to a dance conservatory in Connecticut. It was affiliated with Hartford Women’s College with where we took our academics and I got certified to teach. A couple of my instructors there lived in New York and came up to Hartford for a couple of days during the week, but they were primarily in New York. One of them asked me to come and dance with her after graduation. Then I went to New York.
EL: What was that gig?
CF: It was pickup performances. You were working and taking classes on your own and then you were going to rehearsals and then maybe performing a couple of times a year.
EL: You eventually ended up either studying at ABT or being with ABT.
CF: Studying. My incredibly generous and wonderful older sister… when I was 15, for my birthday… invited me to live with her in New York City for the summer and paid for my dance classes at ABT.
EL: Which is the American Ballet Theater.
EL: Those of us who are very familiar with dance, you know that I only used to go to dance concerts because my wife had just finished a stint as a modern dancer and I wanted to impress her.
CF: Really? I’m impressed.
EL: We went to see Laura Dean and Remy Charlip. Then I stopped.
CF: After she married you you stopped?
CF: Kind of predictable.
EL: So you were gigging in New York as a dancer and that can’t be an easy way to make a living.
CF: You don’t make a living that way. I made a living waitressing.
EL: You were waitressing and your first job in the food job was not even waitressing. It was in ice cream, right? You were a scooper.
CF: That was back in high school. To this day, that might still be my favorite job.
EL: Tell us about that job.
CF: I love ice cream more than anything. I’m a pace person. I like it fast. It was in a mall. I think for the entire six or eight hours that I worked, whatever the shift was, there was a line.
EL: You loved that.
CF: I loved that. You couldn’t go fast enough.
EL: You were serving a line in at Friendly’s. That was awesome.
CF: That was awesome, yep. Making those scoops a little extra large just to make people a little extra happy.
EL: So you started waitressing while you were dancing. At that point did you think that maybe your future laid in the kitchen?
CF: Not at all. It wasn’t until I went to Jams…
EL: Jonathan Waxman’s seminal American restaurant. Jonathan Waxman used to work for Wolfgang Puck in California and he came to New York.
CF: And Alice Waters.
EL: He came to New York to open up what was the first California cuisine restaurant in New York.
CF: Yep. It was the American food revolution. It was Larry Forgione who was right up the street…
EL: Larry Forgione from American Plates and American Spoon Foods.
CF: And he took Jonathan in and introduced him. Not that Jonathan needed introductions, but to purveyors and… I vividly remember boxes of FedEx… towers of FedEx boxes with vegetables from California. Can you imagine doing that these days?
EL: What about the carbon footprint?
CF: Exactly. People weren’t growing miniature squash and baby this and…
EL: They were sending from Chino Farms… that’s hilarious.
CF: But it was so exciting. Who’d ever seen anything like that before?
EL: So you were waiting tables at Jams and then you said…
CF: This is so interesting and exciting. I don’t know. There was this gravitational pull to the kitchen. It was new and exciting.
EL: But there must’ve been this weird conflict between dancing and eating.
CF: Yeah. There was always that. And maybe that was part of what was so attractive about Jonathan’s food, because it was incredibly healthy or appeared to be.
EL: Except for the french fries that came with the grilled chicken.
CF: The free range grilled chicken. Whoever heard of free range chicken? Remember the jokes? They were endless. And there was pigeon on the menu- squab. Oi. “What do you do? Go to Central Park and get the…”
EL: All of a sudden working in the kitchen looks appealing.
CF: Yeah. At that point I had decided that I did not have a career in dance. My mother used to say to me all time, “Just stick with it. You’ll win the war of attrition.” It doesn’t really work like that in dance because you get old and no one wants an old dancer.
EL: Even if you reach the zenith you’re making 60 or 70… I mean, there’s a few superstars, but it’s hard to make a living even when you make it.
CF: Not unlike the restaurant business. I have this tendency to choose lifestyles, not jobs, because the restaurant industry is a lifestyle not a job. But that so familiar to me: just giving my everything to this one thing. It didn’t even seem like a sacrifice.
EL: Did you ask Jonathan if you could stage in the kitchen?
CF: Exactly. I asked him if I could stage in the kitchen and he said sure. Giving up that front-of-the-house money was tough. It took several years before I dove in 100%. After I left Jams, I went to Union Square and was still waiting tables.
EL: Because the money was so much better.
CF: Oh man. Yeah.
EL: And then what happened?
CF: Then I went to Peter Kump’s. Do you remember Peter Kump?
EL: Peter Kump’s, which became ICE. A lot of people don’t know. Peter Kump was the founder of the Institute of Culinary Education.
CF: In a brownstone on 92nd Street or something. Two classrooms. Very…
EL: It’s not what it is today.
CF: No. It was very charming.
EL: So you went there.
CF: I went there. I don’t think I finished. I was working at Union Square at the time and Michael Romano was the chef and he said, “I hear you’re going to cooking school,” and I said yeah. He said, “If you want to give a shot here, you’re welcome. I said okay. So I did and I worked garde manger and then I went away for the summer to Aspen. When I came back, he said, “I don’t have anything available on the savory side, but the pastry chef needs an assistant. Do you want to do that until something opens up?” I was like, “Sure, that sounds great. Learn different things? Absolutely.” That was the end for me.
EL: Because it was like, “Hey, you’re back on the line at Friendly’s but you’re doing something even cooler.
CF: Yeah. The autonomy in the pastry department is very different from working on the line and being a cook. When you’re in pastry you make everything from A to Z. When you’re working on the line, you’re doing the same thing over and over and over for however long your shift is. You’re making that same pasta, sauteing that same fish. It seems like a broader education for me. I was older. I was 30 plus. The guys on the line were 19 to 25. It was the ’80s. The competition was pretty fierce.
EL: I assume the sexual politics of the kitchen must’ve been intense pre-Me Too.
CF: I never experienced any of that. Maybe it’s because I was older and I wasn’t desirable because they were going after the young chickies. I don’t know. Everyone was so young. But I never experienced any of that. I worked for Jonathan. I worked for Michael Romano. I worked for Tom Colicchio. I worked for the most dignified, respectable people there are.
EL: You worked for great chefs who treated you quite respectfully.
CF: Absolutely. I was kind of bitchy to them.
EL: What’s interesting is that I read when you first went to work for Tom, which is when you were first head pastry chef at the original Gramercy Tavern, that he was telling you what desserts to make and you were okay with that because it was your first gig as a head pastry chef.
CF: It was great.
EL: But then your restless intellect comes in, because what’s going on around you in pastry is all of this vertical stuff like Richard Leach and all of those guys who wanted to make skyscrapers for dessert. You had this great quote in an interview: “I wasn’t very interested in Legos. I wanted it to taste like something.”
CF: I mean, they were. They were just making things that stacked on top of each other and how high can we make it before it falls down. Technically, the only way to do that is with tons of sugar and it’s almost inedible. You’d have this tiny edible thing on the plate and then you have all of these things on top.
EL: And that’s not the way you roll.
CF: It’s not how I roll. I have to say, I think it’s a more feminine approach because… I’m going to be really sexist… boys like to build things. Women nourish more. I’m being incredibly generalistic and very sexist, but that’s my experience.
EL: It’s true that vertical desserts are extremely phallic. That’s indisputable.
CF: I didn’t say phallic.
EL: I know. I said it.
EL: You also spent some time in France learning your craft in a very traditional way.
CF: Yeah. I was at Union Square for a bit and then I staged at Montrachet. Then Drew Nieporent was the owner of Montrachet. When he opened Tribeca Grill, he asked…
EL: Now the owner of Nobu and many other restaurants.
CF: He asked me if I wanted to be part of the opening team at Tribeca Grill. I said yes and I worked there for a year under my late husband, Gerry Hayden. He was doing double duty as sous-chef and pastry chef. I worked under him.
EL: And then you ended up in France.
CF: Because after a year people were calling me and saying, “Do you want to come work here?”. I’m like, “I don’t know anything! I can’t be a pastry chef. I don’t know anything.” I wanted to go somewhere where I would learn technique. I didn’t want to work in restaurants to learn more stylized stuff. I wanted a foundation. So I worked in pastry shops in France.
EL: You said, “I wanted to cook my desserts like a chef not just scoop and slice.” There’s still a lot of scooping and slicing going on, isn’t there?
CF: And I’m afraid we’re going to go back to that more because of the economics of a kitchen. Other than in patisseries, pastry chef are kind of a phenomenon in a restaurant except for the last 30 years. Before that, somebody made the desserts and the person in garde manger plated the desserts.
EL: Plated the desserts. And you went home, so you weren’t around during service. But if you want to cook your desserts like a chef, you’ve got to be there.
CF: You’ve got to be there. That became the way it was for the last 25, 30 years. But I see more and more that the economics just don’t work.
EL: It’s crazy because we have arrived at the moment. Pete Wells of the Times wrote this great piece: “If I get served another sundae for dessert at a white tablecloth restaurant…” We all love sundaes. Who doesn’t love an ice cream sundae? But he was saying the same thing you’re saying, which is really interesting and you’re right. As the economics of the restaurant business gets tougher and tougher, we’re going to see more of that.
CF: Yeah. Hopefully there’s a time and place… which is kind of where I feel like I want to direct myself to perfecting these elements of dessert that are as delicious now as later.
EL: Got it. It makes sense. And you got a lot of attention at Gramercy Tavern for your desserts.
CF: Gramercy Tavern got a lot of attention. I was part of that.
EL: You end up writing The Last Course with Melissa Clark of the Times. We will get into that more later. As you mentioned, you also ended up meeting and falling in love with your late husband. I’m always surprised at how many romances start in the kitchen given the level of stress.
CF: Start and ends, yeah.
EL: Yes. How did you end up dating Gerry? Was he your boss?
CF: No, not at all. It was at least 10 years later. We bumped into each other at the Beard Awards and we were just chatting about new restaurants and whatever: “Have you been here?” “No.” “Here? There?” “No.” “We should go sometime.”
EL: He was the coolest.
CF: He’s a cool guy. Funny man. He said, “We should go to dinner sometime.” I said okay. He called me a year later. Not kidding, a year later.
EL: If there were dating apps, you would’ve never made it to that year. The opposite of speed dating is carbon dating. So you fell in love and married Gerry who was very charming and handsome and talented. Then for some reason you both dropped it all and moved to the North Fork in 2005.
CF: Yeah. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
EL: We’re going to get into that. We have to leave it right here for this episode, but you’re going to be back next time to tell us about your life as an innkeeper and afterward. Thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us.
CF: Thank you for having me.
EL: Now it’s time to Serious Eats test kitchen to hear what treat our pastry wizard Stella Parks, author of BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, is about to create. No need to take notes. Details of Stella’s recipe are at seriouseats.com.
Stella Parks: We’re doing some banana bread today. You know why? Because banana bread is amazing. Everybody makes great banana bread. That’s a fact. But there’s always ways to make banana bread better. This is how I make banana bread. I’m not saying you need to use my recipe. You can use your recipe, but you might pick up some ideas that you want to use for your own.
Step one: measure out some bananas. My recipe calls for 12 ounces of peeled bananas. I like overall for the bananas to still have a bit of structure because it can help the cake… the banana bread… It’s cake, let’s be real. It can help keep the banana bread light and fluffy. You want to not have too much goo-ified banana mixture. Going to mash them up a bit. Obviously do this in a food processor but that is way too much work for me because the cleanup to effort ratio is all screwy. Once the bananas are mostly mashed up, add a bit of Greek yogurt. This stands in for buttermilk or sour cream or something. I think Greek yogurt has a really good thickness. It helps keep the batter really thick and a thick batter is what’s going to crown really high in the oven: when you see that really satisfying split across the top. Also, some vanilla to bring out the aroma of the banana and two whole eggs.
Really cool trick is that egg yolks contain a starch-dissolving enzyme. If you happen to have slightly under ripe green bananas, you can make this mixture, mash it up, and leave it for about 30 minutes and the enzymes in the egg yolks will act on the starches in the under ripe bananas and convert them to sugars naturally. It’s the same process that you would have when the banana ripens on its own on the counter. It can help bring out a better banana flavor even if your bananas aren’t fully ripe.
Actually assembling the banana bread itself is extremely easy. You’re going to combine all purpose flour, toasted sugar… So, toasted sugar is white sugar that’s been stuck in the oven for a bit. It can be an hour. It can be five hours. It’s personal preference. In either case, the sugar is going to taste a bit less sweet and a bit more complex. Nutty, toasty, a little caramely: some toffee, butterscotch notes. That kind of thing. The next ingredient is a bit of oat flour. The idea is to get a bit of whole grain flavor into the banana bread. It pairs really nicely with the banana flavor itself and brings out some of its earthier qualities. It’s a cool bonus ingredient. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have it. It’s not worth the pain and suffering. Salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves… Cloves and banana share an essential oil in common. If you are making a banana recipe, whatever it is, a bit of cloves can help the banana taste more banana-y. Nutmeg: nutmeg also share a bit in common with bananas, so its playing a similar role as the cloves by bringing a wider flavor in. Coconut oil: you might say, “Why not use butter?” The answer is that coconut oil has more fat and that keeps it rich and moist.
Keep mixing this until the coconut oil has completely disappeared and created this fine powdery mix, just like it’s a banana muffin mix. In fact, you could use it that way: storing a jar of it on the shelf until you’re ready to add the wet ingredients. I’m going to add our mashed banana, Greek yogurt, eggs and vanilla… the wet ingredients… all at once into the bowl. At this stage, I’m only going to keep mixing until the flour has been fully absorbed, which is now, and then I’m going to finish with some toasted pecans. Whenever I’m done mixing any kind of batter, I always scrape the bowl and fold it a couple times from the bottom up just to make sure there’s nothing unmixed left behind.
The cool thing about this batter is that you can bake it off however you want. I’m going to bake it off into two 8 inch loaves. These are called one pound loaf pans. That’s perfect for this recipe because you can split the batter evenly. I really like to cut a strip of parchment to line the pans. This isn’t 100% necessary. You could just grease the pan well and it’ll come out, but for me it’s nice to have that added insurance of knowing it’s not going to stick and you can get the clean release on the loaf. Some people say if you make a stripe with a wet knife down the middle it’ll crown better. I’ve never believed that. That sounds like a load of hooey to me. I cut a wet batter with a knife. Let’s see if that does anything.
I’m going to bake these loaves at about 350 until they’re well risen and golden brown. Let’s see how they do. Look at this nice split. I’m really surprised. I did not believe that running a wet knife through the batter would have such a profound impact on how the batter split, but it did. This one still rose and split nicely. After the loaves bake, I let them cool at room temperature in the pan. That’s because banana bread is warm and fragile. I know you want to eat it. I want to eat it too, but it’s just going to fall apart. Also, when cakes are hot they’re gummy and dense. You may think it’s underdone or raw, but that’s not true. It’s just too hot. Wait. Have patience.
Hey, banana bread is ready. Now we can eat it. It’s cutting time. I’m going to slip a butter knife on each end just to make sure it’s not stuck anywhere. It helps with a nice clean release. Then you can tug on the parchment so that it lifts out and then pick it right up. A good sharp serrated knife helps a lot to get good slices, so if you don’t have one it’s a good option. Classic banana bread needs nothing more than a thin smear of butter. It’s perfect. I’m just going to put some butter on this bad boy because I don’t have enough.
EL: Again, the details of Stella Park’s recipe are at seriouseats.com.
SP: You wouldn’t believe this banana bread.
EL: That’s our program for this week. Next time, Kenji will return to answer your question of the week with his usual scientific precision and back to culinary school, also known as Serious Eats test kitchen. As always, a conversation with our special guest.
EL: I’m Ed Levine. So long, serious eaters. We’ll see you next time.