In the summer of 1980, just a few weeks after graduating high school, I packed my bags and moved away from home to a mid-sized town in central California. I found myself a tiny, furnished apartment and got a part time job as a stock boy at a local retail store so I could earn enough money to pay the rent. Located in this primarily agricultural town was a very prestigious theatre training program. The program was a two year, fully immersive training where you would basically live and breathe theatre and boasted alumni like Robin Williams and Kathy Bates. The reputation of the artistic staff was unparalleled as well. If you wanted to learn acting while working alongside professionals, this was the place to go. Since that was the thing I wanted to do, that is where I went. During the summer the theatre operated in a repertory fashion where each night of the week was a different show. To make things even more complicated the productions were also mounted in an outdoor theatre forty-five minutes away. This meant that each day the stage crew would arrive at the main theatre first thing in the morning and take down the scenery from the night before. All the set pieces from that show would be loaded into several long trailers or stored until that show was scheduled to run again. Next, the crew would assemble the scenery and set the stage for the show that would run that night. After that was finished the same process would happen for the outdoor theatre. The crew would hook up the proper trailers, drive the scenery forty-five minutes south to the outdoor stage, remove the previous night’s set pieces and replace with the current night’s set. When I wasn’t working at the store I would sneak in and sit in the back row of the main theatre and watch in awe as the crew performed the change overs. For me it was fascinating to watch as the stage was transformed from Finnian’s Rainbow, to The King and I, or Death of a Salesman. I watched so many of those change overs before my season started that I felt like I was already a part of the company.
On the first day of the “winter” season, all the other enrollees and I sat in the theatre to be welcomed by the artistic director and staff. There was a brief lecture about the company and the program and as the speeches went on I just got more and more excited. Then something very unexpected happened. At the end of all the speeches the artistic director announced that every actor would be required to perform two monologues, no more than two minutes in length, and would be required to sing one song (again no more than two minutes in length) so the staff could get a sense of “where you were" as an actor. Now mind you over the past 9 or 10 years I had been up on stage in some form or another, either as the Emcee in the elementary summer camp program, or in many of the plays produced at my junior high and high school. Being on stage was just as much a part of me as eating. But the kicker here was that in all of the shows I had been part of, none of them were musicals… because I can’t sing. On that first day of this fantastic training program I was embarking on, I was told I had to do something I just could not bring myself to do: stand up on a stage and sing in front of a group of people. For a minute I just sat there not knowing what to do. I remember the voice of the director, as he continued on, started to sound like the voices of the teachers in the Charlie Brown cartoons. “What if you only want to do dramas or comedies, and not musicals, do you still need to sing?” I asked. “Yes, I don’t care what you sing, but everybody sings” came the response. The next few seconds seemed like hours as I sat contemplating. I had this picture in my mind of the entire company bursting into laughter as I struggled through a song. That would be the thing no one would ever forget, stories would be told for generations to come of the actor who could not sing to save his life. Every imaginable scenario of humiliation went through my mind and I leaned over to the person seated next to me and asked in a quiet voice, “Is it too late join the tech crew?” and in that one brief moment, my acting career came to an abrupt end. At the end of the orientation meeting all the actors filed out the front doors of the theatre and I went with the technicians, painters, costumers, lighting, and sound folks backstage to the scene shop.
For the next two years I primarily worked with a relatively small group of people, in the props department located downstairs in the basement next to the old boiler room. Occasionally a project of mine would require me to go upstairs to the scene shop to use the "big boy" tools, but for the most part I hid downstairs using small mat knives, coping saws, tin and/or scraps of wood to create whatever the actors needed to interact with. Very often I was assigned to the running of the shows as well, which meant that I was backstage each night handing the actors whatever they were supposed to carry on stage with them, and retrieving it from them when they were finished. I got to know a great many of the actors working backstage all that time. I knew Michael Winters well before Gilmore Girls; Mark Harelik long, long, before he was the professor on The Big Bang Theory; and well before Troy Evans took a role on ER, I was helping him roll a gurney of food on and off the set of “The Physicists”. Oddly enough most (if not all) of the actors I assisted backstage only new me as “Prop Guy”.
Occasionally I will think back to that first day, to that turning point in my life, and I can't really say I regret my decision. Had I stayed on the acting path, I might have become a movie star, living the good life in Hollywood, having all my meals prepared for me by a personal chef and because of that I would have never started writing this blog. I would have never met the fantastic technicians and artisans that work behind the scenes tirelessly to help create the illusions onstage and I would have never met David and shared in all the adventures we’ve had over the years. So all in all I believe some turning points can be very good.
And that brings me to cherry turnovers… Get it? Turning point… turnovers… OK, they all can’t be winners I guess, right?
Anyway, every now and then if you stop into a Williams Sonoma store they will have little paper cups of something they have either made in the store or of some product that they are trying to sell, sitting on the counter for customers to try. It’s a real good tactic for sure. At least it works on me a lot of the time. I purchased a waffle iron once after sampling an eggnog waffle. I purchased pumpkin butter after trying a sample of pumpkin bread and I have bought cider and hot chocolate and peppermint bark after sampling to name just a few more. It shouldn’t be a surprise that somewhere along the way I ended up with a Williams Sonoma cookbook. I started making things from that book almost immediately and it has always been on the front part of the bookshelf ever since, right next to the two other Williams Sonoma cookbooks! So, this is a recipe that comes from Williams Sonoma. You can view the original here. I have made a few adjustments to this recipe; one is because I like cherry turnovers that have a bit of tartness so I added some dried pitted Montmorency cherries that I usually have on hand (you can get them at Trader Joes). You can leave those out if you want, but I think they give the other cherries a bit of a kick. Actually, there are countless recipes on the World Wide Web for cherry turnovers and they are all pretty much the same, but few have the added bonus of dried tart cherries. The thing with this recipe is that it tells you how to make your own puff pastry. Well I am going to tell you right now, I have never done that. Honestly, I just haven’t had the time or the inclination to do that. It’s on my bucket list but it’s way, way, way down at the bottom. Plus using ready-made puff pastry means you can make these in very little time.
So here is how I put these cherry turnovers together:
1 lb. frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions
2½ cups (12½ oz) bing cherries, pitted and halved * (see note at bottom)
¼ cup (1½ oz) dried pitted tart montmorency cherries - optional
¼ cup (2 oz) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
Flour for rolling out the dough
1 large egg, beaten
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling – optional
First off, grab a bowl (stainless steel is best) and set it in a larger bowl filled with ice water. This is how we will cool down the cherry mixture after it cooks.
Next get a heavy, medium saucepan and in it, stir together the bing cherries, the Montmorency cherries (if using), the sugar, and the lemon juice.
Cover the pot, place over a medium low heat and bring the cherries to a simmer.
Cook the cherries, stirring them often, until they get juicy and are tender, which takes about 5 minutes or so after they start simmering.
Stir the cornstarch and water together in a small bowl until the cornstarch has dissolved, this will thicken the cherry juice.
Add the cornstarch mixture to the simmering cherry mixture and cook until the juices are thickened, about 30 seconds.
Now, transfer the cherries into the stainless steel bowl which you set in the bowl of ice water and let cool completely, about 20 minutes or so.
While the cherries cool…
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Gently roll a sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface just to make it square and using a pastry wheel or sharp knife cut the dough into four equal parts. Repeat this process with the second piece of puff pastry. You should have 8 equally sized squares of dough.
Place about 2 tablespoons of the cold filling just off the center of each piece of pastry. Putting it off center a bit makes folding and sealing a lot easier.
Fold the square in half diagonally to enclose the filling, then take a fork and crimp the edges to seal the pastry together.
Place each of the sealed turnovers on the baking sheet. Leave space between each turnover but you should be able to get all 8 on one baking sheet.
Put the whole sheet pan in the refrigerator, uncovered, for 30 minutes. This will get the butter in the puff pastry cold again which is going to really help with the puffing.
While the turnovers are chilling out in the fridge…
Preheat the oven to 375°F with the rack in the center position.
Just before baking, brush the tops of the pastries with a little of the beaten egg and sprinkle the tops with the turbinado sugar. That will help them turn a nice color and the extra bit of sugar on top is just good, that’s all.
Bake until those turnovers are puffed and golden brown, 20-25 minutes.
When they come out of the oven place the entire sheet pan on a wire rack and let everything just cool off for 10-15 minutes… and then you can dig in. This is the hardest step for me.
You can serve them warm (the way I like them) or at room temperature (the way I like them – Yes, I like them both ways).
See there was nothing to that was there? Easy, Breezy, Cover Girl… wait… I think I got a little off track there, but here are a few final thoughts: I like to have chunks of cherries in my turnovers, so if the cherries are very ripe and soft to start with, leave some of the cherries whole, and watch them closely as they cook down: you don’t really want cherry jam in your turnovers. Also, and I am sure it goes without saying, you can fill turnovers with whatever you like. Lastly, please don’t skimp and use a can of cherry pie filling… it really won’t be the same, those cans can be so sugary and cooked so far down that the end results will leave you disappointed. As you can see there really isn’t too much to making them… cook some filling, fold it in the dough, and bake until it’s puffed. Viola as they say. Look for other turnover recipes on the web, there are a billion of them (I think… I lost count after three).
In any case I hope you’ll bake a batch of these (or some flavor/filling that you like) and let me know if you do… or bring me one… whichever works for you.