Nora Ephron is my spirit animal. There, I’ve said it. I’ve felt this way ever since I first stumbled across her poignantly funny, biting, foodcentric autobiographical novel Heartburn (1983) back in my twenties. I instantly related to Nora’s brand of edgy humor…and her obsession with food. Watching her son Jacob Bernstein’s insightful HBO documentary Everything is Copy (2016) about his late mother recently–which Rina aptly called “hypnotic”–reminded me of just how much Nora and her wisdom has inspired my creativity over the years, both in terms of my writing and, more importantly, my culinary pursuits. And I’m not just referring to her movies, which I have to say are some of my favorite “go to’s,” especially when I’m in need of comfort…like a good slice of pie.
Sure, most people know Nora Ephron primarily as a filmmaker of popular romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and Julie & Julia (2009). But aside from her work in films–with screenwriting credits for a range of films including Heartburn (based on her novel), Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, My Blue Heaven, and Michael–Nora Ephron was a prolific journalist and essayist, whose clear-eyed view of the world, in a particular of relationships, always made for a great read. She was fearless when it came to expressing her opinions (of which she had many), a master at exposing the underlying truths about everything from being a woman in the modern world (sorry, beautiful women do not have it just a tough as plain ones) to the pretensions of media culture (reading People is like eating potato chips, enjoyable at first but you feel bad about it afterwards), to the inevitability of aging (“The Senior Moment has become the Google moment”)–wielding her sharp wit like a scalpel to cut away the bullshit and using humor to enlighten. In talking about the women’s movement, Nora once lamented that “it was a terrible shame” that those in the front lines hadn’t realized “how much easier it was to reach people by making them laugh than by shaking a fist.”
At the heart of Ephron’s writing is her mantra “everything is copy”–in other words, it’s all about how you control the story, how you shape your narrative. You can either be the butt of the joke or you can be the one telling the joke. You can be the victim or the heroine of your story. Nora may have been the “injured party” in the train wreck that was her divorce from Carl Bernstein, but in writing Heartburn (novel and screenplay) she became (as Rachel Samstat) the heroine who rises out of the ashes of her imploded marriage…to be played on-screen by the great Meryl Streep no less!
This is what I learned from Nora. To be a strong woman you have to tell your own story–you have to own your story. Don’t be afraid to express your opinions…just make sure to (like in cooking) season liberally with humor. It’ll make most things seem more palatable. Certainly for me, writing this blog has given me a means to exercise control over some portion of my life, which is extremely gratifying, particularly when I have less control over other parts of my life…like when I discover that I’m down one production person and have a thousand mini desserts to make in 12 hours. Here, I can create whatever recipe I want because I don’t have to work within anyone’s parameters. More importantly, I can embrace what I truly love to do on my own terms.
Perhaps, that is the reason why I (well, I should say “we” because Rina and Laura also feel the same way), really only love half of Ephron’s last film Julie & Julia–the Julia part. No offense to Amy Adams (who is a marvelous actress), but Julie is a whiny pain in the ass. Yes, she became a blogger as a means to escape her humdrum existence, but she more or less did it by riding on the back of Julia Child, cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking–essentially telling her story through imitation. Julia Child (played by the brilliant Meryl Streep), on the other hand, took control of what was at the time a male-dominated profession and made it her own. Her passion for food, zest for life, and refusal to accept the status quo was the driving force that enabled her to blaze a new trail for herself and countless other women chefs. And like Nora, Julia did it with humor.
At the end, Nora Ephron purposefully kept her illness out of the narrative of her life, choosing instead to focus on living in the present, perhaps because she did not want to be defined by the state of her health. Nevertheless, in her last collection of essays I Remember Nothing she does reflect on what she would miss after her death–of course her husband Nick and her sons, but also Pride & Prejudice, bacon, and pie (a woman after my own heart).
In celebration of her life, I’ve come up with my own spin on a few of her favorites…because there can never be enough bacon or pie.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Spring Vegetables
Carbonara is what Rachel Samstat makes for Mark Feldman after their first night together in Heartburn. If you’re the type of person who always keeps a stock of the three main ingredients–bacon, eggs, and pasta– in your kitchen then this recipe is for you. I also happened to have asparagus, peas, mushrooms, and onion in my frig, so this is my version of carbonara.
- 6 oz. Dry Spaghetti
- 4 Strips Thick-Cut Bacon, cut into small pieces
- 2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
- 2 Garlic Cloves, minced
- 1/4 Medium Yellow Onion, chopped
- 4 Fresh Asparagus Spears, cut into small pieces
- 3-4 Button Mushrooms, sliced
- 1/4 cup Frozen Peas
- 2 Tbsp. Dry White Wine
- 2 Large Eggs
- 1/4 cup Grated Parmesan
- Salt/Pepper to taste
Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water for 8-10 mins. or until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet on medium and cook the bacon until almost crispy. Add the garlic and onion, and saute until just soft. Add in the asparagus and mushrooms and cook for couple of minutes until just tender, then add in the peas. Saute for another minute then add in the white. Season with salt and pepper.
Reserve about 1/2 cup of pasta water, then drain the cooked pasta. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the cooked pasta. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and parmesan, then quickly toss the mixture into the hot pasta to evenly distribute. Add some of the reserved pasta water to thin out the sauce. Mound the pasta onto two plates and sprinkle with more grated Parmesan and cracked black pepper.
Key Lime Pie
Who can forget that famous scene in Heartburn where Rachel slams a Key Lime Pie into her cheating husband’s face at a dinner party.
While I love the catharsis of the moment, I always thought it was a shame to waste such a lovely pie. Nora’s recipe calls for the classic graham cracker crust. But I’m more of an English digestives kind of gal, so I used those in my crust instead. I also like adding extra fresh lime zest to the filling, and topping the pie with a mound of whipped cream and garnishing it with toasted coconut chips. It’s so pretty it would be criminal (and selfish) to hit someone in the face with it.
- 8-10 Digestive Biscuits, ground
- 2 Tbsp. Brown Sugar
- 4 Tbsp. Melted Butter
- 1 can Sweetened Condensed Milk (14 oz.)
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup Key Lime Juice (e.g Nellie & Joe’s)
- pinch of Sea or Kosher Salt
- zest of 2 limes
- 1 cup Heavy Whipping Cream
- 2 Tbsp. Powdered Sugar
- 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract
- 1/2 cup Toasted Unsweetened Coconut Chips
In a bowl, toss together ground digestives, brown sugar, melted butter. Press the mixture into a 9″ pie pan to form the crust. Bake the crust at 350°F for abut 8-10 mins. to set. Remove from the oven to cool.
Meanwhile, in a mixer beat together sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks for 2-3 mins. Slowly beat in key lime juice, salt and zest. Pour the mixture into the prepare crust. Bake the pie for 15-18 mins. or until set. Let the pie cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for another 30 mins. Whip together the cream, powdered sugar and vanilla to medium stiff peaks. Mound the cream on top of the cooled pie and garnish with toasted coconut.
Another favorite of Nora’s is the Sour Cream Peach Pie (also from Heartburn). It’s not your typical double-crusted variety…more like peaches enveloped in a rich sour cream custard, slightly reminiscent of a French clafoutis. Peaches aren’t in season yet, but it doesn’t really matter because this recipe works just fine with a package of good frozen peaches…and some frozen sweet dark cherries thrown in. I opted for my tried and true pie crust rather than Nora’s press-into-pan sour cream crust, and added a little bit of vanilla and almond extracts to compliment the peaches and cherries.
Tried & True Pie Dough
- 1-1/4 cup All-Purpose Flour
- 2 tsp. Sugar
- 1/2 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt
- 3 Tbsp. Chilled Shortening, cut into small pieces
- 5 Tbsp. Chilled Butter, cut into small pieces
- 4 Tbsp. Ice Water
- 1 Tbsp. Vodka
Place the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add the shortening and butter and pulse at intervals to process until the fat is broken down into the size of pop corn kernels. Combine the water and vodka and drizzle into the processor, pulsing at intervals until mixture forms into a dough. Transfer the mass onto a sheet of plastic wrap and flatten into a 1/2″ disk. Chill the dough for at least 30 mins. before using. To form and shape the pie shell, roll the dough out to 1/8″ thickness. Slide the dough into a 9″pie pan and carefully nudge it against the sides, making sure not to stretch it (which will cause shrinkage when you bake). Trim off the excess, leaving about 1″ of over hang, then tuck in the edges and crimp. I like to chill the pie shell while the oven preheats to 350°F. To “blind bake” the shell, line the inside with a large circle of parchment paper or foil and weight it down with about 3 cups of dry beans. Bake the shell for about 15 mins., then remove the liner and beans and continue baking for another 5 mins. or until the crust is a golden. Cool shell to room temperature.
Sour Cream Peach-Cherry Pie
- 1 9″ Pre-Baked Pie Shell
- 3 Egg Yolks
- 3/4 cups Sugar
- 1/4 tsp. Sea or Kosher Salt
- 2 Tbsp. All-Purpose Flour
- 1/2 cup Sour Cream
- 1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
- 1/4 tsp. Almond Extract
- 2 cups Frozen Peaches, slightly thawed
- 1 cup Frozen Dark Sweet Cherries, slightly thawed
Whisk together the first 7 ingredients until smooth. Arrange the peaches and cherries at the bottom of the pie shell, then pour the custard mixture over them. Cover the pie with foil and bake at 350°F for abut 35 mins., then remove the foil and bake for another 10 mins. or until the filling is set.