Material Object: Claudia Fleming
As told to Joshua David Stein. Illustration by Lucilla Tubaro.
What's the most important item in your home? In our series Material Object, we explore that very question, asking some of our favorite people which of their possessions connect them to their past, to their family and to themselves.
Claudia Fleming is a James Beard award-winning pastry chef and best-selling author. Her most recent book is Delectable: Sweet and Savory Baking. Below, Claudia shares the story behind her pastry blender.
When I was growing up in the 1960s on Long Island, my mother, EIvira, cooked dinner for our entire family. I don’t know if she enjoyed cooking but she did it regardless. What I know she enjoyed was baking. She loved to make everything from apple turnovers to chocolate cream pie. This wasn’t an everyday thing. She never (rarely) made pie dough for us but she was good at it and enjoyed it. So as a little girl, I knew that if she was baking it meant company was coming over.
When you’re making pastry dough, you need to use cold butter. There are many ways to keep the butter cold but it’s important because if the butter starts to melt, it will release its moisture into the dough, which activates the gluten in the flour and results in a tough dough. On the other hand, if the butter remains cold, it turns to steam during the baking process which results in a delightfully flaky dough. My mother was not one for kitchen gadgets but she did have a pastry blender, which looks like a baby mezzaluna with double blades. You put the whole thing in the freezer then use it to cut the butter into the flour without unduly warming the butter. I remember watching my mother use the blender to make dough. I remember it because she wasn’t one for kitchen gadgets so this was an anomaly. Maybe the door-to-door salesman was particularly handsome or skilled but the blender was the only gadget we had.
"My mother was not one for kitchen gadgets but she did have a pastry blender, which looks like a baby mezzaluna with double blades."
Years later, when I became a pastry chef and was working at the Gramercy Tavern, my mother would come into the restaurant and she enjoyed the desserts I made. She was very loving and warm but not very encouraging of my restaurant career. People would tell me how proud of me she was but she never did. I thought she just knew I made desserts for a living. Then one day I went over to her apartment—where I live now—and saw that she had kept a big basket full of all the magazines and newspaper clippings in which I had been mentioned. She was, it turns out, very (proud of) interested in what I was doing with my life.
Now that she’s passed, this little gadget really pulls at my heartstrings. I’ve developed other techniques for cutting butter into dough -- freezing the butter and then grating on a cheese grater is a good way -- but I keep the pastry blender in my kitchen at all times. It reminds me of my mother, of how she found joy and pleasure in the kitchen, and as I do now as well.