As Nancy puts it, a Cream Puff is a celebratory, comforting thing. And what a wonderful way to recall a recipe that she learned at her mother’s side before mental health concerns altered the mother daughter relationship.
Nancy Spiller: It’s kind of a neat parlor trick, you know. You can amaze your friends by making cream puffs.
Leigh Olson: This is The Heritage Cookbook Project Podcast where we connect with cooks across the country to talk about food memories and family recipes and learn just a little bit more about one another and I’m your host Leigh Olson.,
Nancy Spiller: My name is Nancy spiller. I live in Pacific Palisades, California and I am a writer and a visual artist.
Leigh Olson: In my chat with food writer, visual artist and author Nancy Spiller, we talk about making the invisible visible, a fictional food writer who makes a living writing about pretend dinner parties and how recipes have the ability to transport you to exotic locations.
Nancy Spiller: Primarily I paint, but I’m also something of a conceptual artist. For example, a few years back I did Reverse Trash Dreams, The Junk Mail Project. It was one year’s worth of junk mail that was shredded and turned into a gallery installation and a series of paintings called Shredded. I also illustrated with gouache paintings and line drawings my memoir Compromise Cake Lessons Learned From My Mother’s Recipe Box.
Leigh Olson: How Fun! How did you come up with that concept?
Nancy Spiller: I was living in Glendale in a home with five flights of stairs up to my home office and it was boom economy. We were getting buried under junk mail. I was told by local police that you really needed to shred your junk mail because this was an identity theft concern. So I decided, no, I’m not taking it up, five flights of stairs and shreading it and then carrying it back down.
Nancy Spiller: I’m just going to save it all in the garage for a year. And then I’m taking it somewhere and I am going to shred it and bag it and weigh it. And I did that and it was 157 pounds of junk mail. I also consider myself to be a recovering journalist. And as a journalist I felt I could write about it but it would disappear into the ether. But as an artist I could, uh, you know, let people see what, you know, a year’s worth of junk mail looked like. It was making the invisible visible. So, uh, found a gallery that went along with that and did the installation and did the series of paintings. The series of paintings were abstracts taken from the shredded mass and they were done in small images on large sheets of frosted velum plastic, which was referencing medieval illuminated manuscripts. We displayed it like 157 pound tsunami wave of shredded junk mail coming out of the back of the gallery in Culver City.
Leigh Olson: So where are the pieces of art now?
Nancy Spiller: Well, thank you for asking. Because of the, um, positive review and art in America, which I was told by other artists was something that people kill for. I was told by the gallery owner, you know, it’s, it’s a historic pile now, so you should preserve it. And so I have it in my living room. I had, um, fabricated a plexiglass tower that is six feet tall by two feet by two feet to represent the presence of a human. And then that didn’t take the 157 pounds. I had to go for a whole other tower and I did it as blocks, as cubes, two foot by two foot cubes. You stack them up there, three of them. You get a second tower that six feet tall, but we have the three, we have the three cubes arranged in a way that they’re our television stand in the living room. And we decorated it at Christmas and it’s our Christmas tree.
Leigh Olson: That is so cool. I love that.
Nancy Spiller: So it’s merry Christmas from The Junk Mail Project.
Leigh Olson: Right?
Nancy Spiller: Yeah.
Leigh Olson: 150 pounds.
Nancy Spiller: 157 pounds. Yeah.
Leigh Olson: That’s a human being.
Nancy Spiller: It is a human being. And you know, not only are are we supposed to bring it into our house and shread it and process it and all that stuff, but I talked with the mail carriers and they were getting injuries from carrying all of this stuff and delivering it. And I was actually told when I was doing this project, I was told by a postal worker that was what was paying for the post office was to deliver this junk to your mailbox. That was supporting the postal service.
Leigh Olson: Yeah, that makes sense. Sadly.
Nancy Spiller: But it’s a great TV, uh, you know, stand. I recommend it.
Leigh Olson: It’s very classy.
Nancy Spiller: Yeah.
Leigh Olson: So you had mentioned that you’re a recovering journalist. So did you start in journalism?
Nancy Spiller: I did. I started in journalism. Uh, when I started in the 1970s. Uh, journalism was the way to see the world. So I started as a freelance writer. I wrote in San Francisco, I moved to New York for a couple of years. I freelance wrote, and then I came back to California, back to the Bay Area, and I got on staff at the San Jose Mercury News. Then I came down to Los Angeles and I was on staff at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. I felt I needed to do something more meaningful. So I went back towards my first, um, passionate about writing, which was writing fiction and writing more personal writings. Worked on a novel for far too long, but I got it published and that was Entertaining Disasters a Novel with Recipes and um, that was followed by Compromise Cake.
Leigh Olson: And both of them had something to do with food and, and recipes.
Nancy Spiller: Both of them did. Entertaining Disasters was a novel with recipes. The story was of a contemporary Los Angeles food writer who is doing her first dinner party in a decade because she’s just been making them up for the page for that long because she’s actually socially paralyzed. An editor comes to town that she’s been working with long distance and that editor now wants an invitation to one of her renowned dinner parties. So she has to do it. And that’s when we find her is the week in which she has to do this first dinner party in a decade. And her whole life starts to fall apart in that week. The house that she lives in starts to fall apart. Her husband takes off on a business trip. She can’t pull all the ingredients together and her estranged sister threatens to show up. And she starts reliving her challenging childhood of the 1960s. And, um, little autobiographical. I really had fun putting the recipes into that book, you know, like exotic things because as a child I would cook things that would help me travel far away from my home in the suburbs.
Leigh Olson: I love that you talk about as a child that you made recipes that transported you somewhere else. What were some of those recipes that as a child transported you to somewhere outside of suburbia?
Nancy Spiller: Things like, you know, at the time if you put a pineapple slice of pineapple on anything, you were in Hawaii. I did Mexican, uh, wedding cookies, different you know, pastries that were from different parts of the world. So I would do that kind of travel out of the kitchen.
Leigh Olson: I love that. And I think that that is one of the things that food does. It does transport us. And, and you’re right, you know, the 60s was kind of a homogenous time. We had moms that were entering the workforce and there was the industrialization of food. And it did become very homogenous, so I can totally empathize with using the food as an escape. But even more than that as, as an adventure point.
Nancy Spiller: Yeah, it was, you know, a great way to be able to imagine through the different flavors and stuff, what that part of the world would be like. And the idea like with the tagine, you were combining fruit with your meat was exotic. You know, because I think that suburban cooking was pretty, things are separated out. You know, you had your little pile of peas and your little pile of mashed potatoes and then your slice of, you know, meatloaf and, you know, never the twain should meet. It was, um, just a good way to, to have more of an adventure. And also one of the reasons that I did as much cooking as I did as a kid was that my mother had, uh, she was very depressed. Uh, she had some mental health concerns and so I did a lot of cooking because it was a very creative outlet for me.
Nancy Spiller: Prior to her kind of, uh, giving up. I did spend time with her in the kitchen and she did teach me to do things like baking. She taught me a lot about it and so we spent some good time together doing that and then when she sort of gave up on the project, I got to explore it further. That’s how I came to enjoy food and cooking. And, and then as an adult along with my college textbooks, I got a copy of The Joy of Cooking and I still have that copy of The Joy of Cooking with me. And I cooked all through college and I, you know, continued cooking all through, you know, my adulthood. But then I also started writing about food.
Leigh Olson: after the break. We talk about making something out of nothing, vintage cooking implements and being fearless.
Sponsor Break: This episode of the Heritage Cookbook Project podcast is supported by Bob’s red mill. When you’re making those treasured family recipes, don’t leave the quality of your ingredients to chance. Visit Bob’s red mill.com to find out more about this employee owned company, their products and how you can fill your pantry with them. With their products, not their employees.
Leigh Olson: And now back to Nancy and how making cream puffs has changed from the 1960s to today.
Nancy Spiller: When I was at the San Jose Mercury News, I was one of the feature writers for their magazine. And one of the stories I talked them into sending me to and letting me partake of was this wonderful dinner that was 10 celebrity chefs, Jeremiah Towers, Alice Waters. Um, Wolfgang Puck came up from Southern California. Danny Kaye was there as one of the celebrity guests. Just this tremendous evening. So that was kind of the food writing that I got to do. And then when I came down to Los Angeles, when I got back into writing personal essays, I was doing food oriented personal essays for the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine and had a lot of fun writing that individual foods topics. So I enjoy writing about food as much as I do um, you know, cooking and exploring, adventuring.
Leigh Olson: Do you think that your writing about food, um, harkens back to taking care of your mother?
Nancy Spiller: I mean, I think it was taking care of myself. One of the great things about cooking is that, you know, you learned the magic of making something out of nothing.
Leigh Olson: So you had mentioned that before your mother kind of gave up that she taught you how to make these cream puffs and you described that recipe as miraculous.
Nancy Spiller: Yeah. Well that is the fundamental, making something out of nothing. Um, you just take, you take some flour and butter and some eggs and you turn it into this miraculous thing that goes from a little, you know, silky little nugget of nothing in a, on a baking sheet to puff up to have this, you know, moist interior. That’s basically a hollow that you can fill with anything. But with cream is really good. Or ice cream is really good. And then you put chocolate sauce on top of it and it just becomes, you know, it’s a celebration. A cream puff is as good as it gets. You know, that’s a celebratory, comforting thing. You know, it’s a party, a cream puff is a party. Wherever you put the cream puff, there’s the party. And uh, so, you know, that was a wonderful thing to learn how to make at my mother’s side.
Leigh Olson: I agree. I think that it is such a miracle for it to go from that, that blob of batter into something so etherial and you can put any fillings in, it can be sweet, it can be savory. It has that, that crispy crust and that Nice Silky soft interior.
Nancy Spiller: It is just, you know, absolutely remarkable. So we had to have the double boiler and that’s what you uh, you had the butter and the flour cooked in the double boiler and then you put the eggs in. It was all done over a hot water bath. We would do whipped cream and it was always real whipped cream. We never used Ready Whip. We got the heavy cream. And we didn’t have an electric mixer to do it. My mother wouldn’t upgrade the kitchen to that degree to have an electric mixer. We had one of those hand crank egg beaters and that’s what we had to do the whipped cream with. So that took like forever. Because we were using the double boiler for the cream puff dough, we melted the chocolate in an inverted lid of a Revere Ware pan and over the hot water bath and chocolate was always sticking under the ridge of the lid.
Nancy Spiller: So that was always, you know, imperfection was, you know, was guaranteed, you know, getting all of the chocolate out of that lid. But somehow we managed and um, and the party continued on. Zoe, my, my grandchild, she brought this recipe that, you know, sort of cut, cut away some of the things that made it a little bit more of a challenge to do when I was kid. With this recipe. The Epicurious one, the whipped cream is enhanced with the neat trick of doing a vanilla pudding. You folded it in, so as this incredibly light, but it’s got a little something more than just whipped cream going on.
Leigh Olson: And these were cream puffs that you made with Zoe?
Nancy Spiller: Yeah.
Leigh Olson: And when did you make these?
Nancy Spiller: We made them this December in Lake Tahoe. And she came and her mom packed up all of the ingredients and sent the recipe along and we, uh, did it in this, uh, rented, uh, Airbnb town home. And, uh, and Zoe was, she’s 11 years old and she was remarkably confident as a baker. And they’ve been baking Zoe and her, uh, fraternal twin sister Lily. The girls have been baking for, for years now. They watch all of those baking competition shows. But, so Zoe, you know, we wanted to bake and so we brought all of this stuff for the cream puffs and brought it over to, um, that kitchen. And again, it was her confidence in her baking that I just got a big kick out of. So.
Leigh Olson: And how do you think they were introduced to baking? Do you think it was because we have so many celebrity chefs shows and the competitions or does her mother bake?
Nancy Spiller: Well, their mother likes to bake. Yeah. And um, so yeah, they, they just do a lot, you know, they like, they like to eat baked goods and so they got into baking baked goods. And they do cakes and they do, um, cookies. They’re pretty successful with, uh, pretty much everything that they take on. But they get out a lot more than I did when I was a kid. So they’re a combination of baking. It also includes competing on a national level in snowboarding and um, so they burn off, they burn off the baked goods a lot better than I ever did when I was their age.
Leigh Olson: Oh, that’s neat. So do you have any idea why Zoe picked cream puffs or was that something that you guys talked about making?
Nancy Spiller: I just think that she had been making them lately. I think she’d gotten into making them and that she really enjoyed doing it. And it is kind of a neat parlor trick. You know, you can amaze your friends by making cream puffs.
Leigh Olson: So if there was one piece of advice that you would give to listeners who want to make this recipe, what would it be?
Nancy Spiller: Be Fearless. Follow the directions, but be fearless. You know, don’t be intimidated.
Leigh Olson: If you enjoyed hearing Nancy’s memories about cream puffs and want to hear more stories like this, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you could take five minutes away from the egg beater and leave a rating and review, it’ll help me reach more people like you who love stories about food. The full recipe for cream puffs can be found at theheritagecookbookproject.com and don’t forget to register for access to printable cookbook pages. Thanks.
Leigh Olson: Oh, and the protagonist of Nancy’s novel Entertaining Disasters does host an actual dinner party, but it’s less about the party and more about the journey, realization, and resolution.
EPISODE 5: The Cream Puff Parlor Trick
I connect with Nancy Spiller, a visual artist, author, and food writer who not only shares a very interesting project involving junk mail and the storyline of her food novel Entertaining Disasters, but also the magic of cream puffs. Something she equates to a parlor trick.
Thank you to our Sponsor Bob’s Red Mill for keeping my pantry full of fabulous flours and baking products!
Mentioned in this episode
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Nancy’s mother Marguerite and Zoe and Nancy with the cream puffs they made together.
Nancy’s mother, Marguerite and Zoe and Nancy with their cream puffs.
- 1 cup water
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 cup flour
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
- Heat oven to 450˚F.
- In a medium sauce pan, combine water and butter. Bring to a boil.
- Add the flour and salt. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the dough comes away from the side of the pan, about 1 - 2 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and cool slightly. Add one egg beating with a wooden spoon until the egg is completely incorporated. Repeat with the remaining eggs, adding one at a time and beating until completely incorporated.
- Drop batter by the spoonful 1 1/2-inches apart on a parchment or silpat lined baking sheet.
- Bake for 20 minutes.
- Transfer the puffs to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
- When ready to fill, beat the whipping cream and powdered sugar until medium peaks form. Spoon cream into a pastry bag with a star tip.
- Using a serrated knife, slice off the top quarter of the puffs.
- Fill the bottom of each puff with whipped cream and replace the top.
- Serve with your favorite chocolate sauce, sprinkled with powdered sugar, or plain.
Wherever you put the cream puff, there’s the party!