By Sanford D’Amato
As a baby boomer I was a witness to the first generation of convenience foods. Not just a witness, actually—I had a front row seat from the age of five, from behind the counter of my dad’s grocery store.
It started in the freezer, with Swanson’s turkey TV dinners. Once the floodgates were opened, they would never close.
Up to this time all our meals were “Leave It To Beaver”-like, with my mother making everything from scratch. But when convenience foods slowly crept onto our dinner table, there was no shame—just the opposite, as each new product was unveiled with the excitement of a Broadway opening!
Somewhere between the time I was waiting for the Sara Lee Cheesecake to defrost and the Pepperidge Farm Raspberry Turnovers to rise in the oven, the coolest thing happened: It was 1964, the year that the Beatles invaded the United States, the first Mustang was released, and the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. And in the food world, the first Pop-Tart was unleashed on the public.
I couldn’t wait as my dad brought in the case from the wholesaler. We extracted a box and pulled out the 1960s-appropriate foil packaging—almost Tang-like—which held two flat toaster-ready strawberry-jam-filled rectangles. Within seconds the toaster in the store’s back room set off its Pavlovian “cha-chink” and we were both juggling and blowing on the hot pastries at the same time.
This was a magical moment—until the first bite: kind of dry with really mediocre gluey, friend-of-strawberry filling! That may sound harsh but I’ll admit it: I’m a candy/dessert snob. My credentials? 1955–1968: Official Candy Taster, D’Amato’s Grocery. I tasted every one of the 80+ types of candy that would cross our counter to be purchased by the salivating crowds. My self-appointed duties also included tasting every new sweet or savory product that was introduced over the years.
Even though the taste of the Pop-Tart made it a “NOT-Tart” for me, I still thought the idea was absolutely brilliant. So on the 50th anniversary of the Pop-Tart, I’m making a tart influenced by both the original and my dad.
At this time of year at the winter markets, it’s a toss-up which is the quintessential late-season fruit. Apple is the undisputed leader, being synonymous with cider. But even though I will consume almost my body weight in fresh-picked apples through the season, I still crave the perfectly ripe pear.
My first, and still favorite, pear is the Bartlett. When its skin turns that beautiful warm yellow, that is the day I take a bite and know there is no better fruit. With the rugged Bosc pear it is trickier to capture that perfect moment, as they are a drier sort. But when you do, they are full of deep, assertive, complex flavors.
My dad was a pear whisperer. He would pick one out of the large case when he was stocking the store shelves and set it aside. Some 14 to 53 hours later, he would pick it up, cut it in half, remove the core, and slice it into wedges. He would then muscle out the half wheel of Pecorino Romano from the unrefrigerated case in the back and cut a mess of finger-sized pieces of the pungent, slightly salty cheese. As fragrant as the cheese was, the ripe pear gave it right back, a yin-yang combo that influenced how I ate from that point on.
This recipe is based on the flavor profile I learned at an early age. It affected how I make desserts as I always try to balance on the savory side of the sweet. I feel the combination of the fragrant rosemary in the dough and the slightly spicy candied ginger in the filling balance off the sharp Tomme from Robinson Farm over in Hardwick and sautéed pears.
Don’t be afraid to pop them in the toaster to reheat, as almost every pastry is better when warm. After 50 years, it’s still a brilliant idea!