By Samantha Husted
Naples resident and Coastal Breeze News contributor Roy Eaton is paying homage to his mother Stefanie in the form of a cookbook. “Welcome to Stefanie’s Kitchen” offers readers a collection of his mother’s many Greek and American recipes. Coastal Breeze News met up with Roy and his wife Debbie to learn more about his upcoming book, baking baklava, and his mother, who inspired it all.
“Welcome to Stefanie’s Kitchen” follows the life of Stefanie Eaton, born in Mystic, Connecticut in 1917. Her parents were Greek immigrants, making Stefanie a first-generation American. Growing up, she worked in her family’s restaurant, the College Diner, which specialized in Greek, Mediterranean, and American cuisine. This is where she developed her culinary intuition.
Stefanie left her family home at the age of 16 and eventually met her husband, LeRoy, a man of Dutch/English decent. Their union was met with controversy, as it was a marriage outside of her faith. Nonetheless they started building their small family.
Throughout much of her life, Stefanie toed the line between Greek tradition and a desire for Americanization. The recipes in Roy’s book reflect her multicultural upbringing. For example her American dishes include “Coca Cola Cake” and powdered donuts. Her Greek recipes offer tiropita, moussaka, spanakopita and, of course, baklava.
Roy remembers his mother as an avid baker and a creative chef. She was so talented, that local, upscale restaurants purchased and served her pies to their customers. Family life revolved around the kitchen, which was was always open to friends or anyone with an empty stomach. In the prologue to his cookbook Roy writes that his mother’s “cookery, generous manner, outgoing demeanor, sense of humor and hospitality regularly brought together family and friends who loved her cooking and enjoyed her company.”
Though a well-rounded chef in her own right, Stefanie excelled when it came to desserts. She especially loved making American pies and Greek pastries for birthdays, holidays, and her church’s annual Greek bazaar. While she took joy in sharing her culinary creations, she staunchly protected the nuances of her recipes. She was traditional in that way.
When Stefanie died in 1994 she left behind those recipes, many of which were written sporadically on index cards. For years Roy has held on to them. The idea of a cookbook has always itched at the back of his mind. But it never seemed like the right time.
But last year Roy once again stumbled upon her catalogue of recipes. He decided it was now or never. After nearly 25 years, his mother’s creations are finally coming back to life.
“I didn’t think she’d want this to pass with her and disappear,” Roy said. “I thought she’d want it to be out there for other people to enjoy her recipes.”
In his search through her catalogues of index cards, Roy says he found over 200 original recipes. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Many of her dishes were done completely by memory.
Roy writes “I thought it would be an honor to produce a book of her creations as a lasting legacy to the woman who enjoyed life and loved to cook and please others.”
There are four separate recipes for baklava in “Welcome to Stefanie’s Kitchen.” We chose to make the most traditional. Baklava is one of the oldest recipes in the world. The sweet pastry’s origins are difficult to trace, though many different regions claim ownership. It’s made using thin layers of phyllo (or filo) dough and chopped walnuts. The dessert is held together using a combination of butter and a sweet, sticky syrup.
Baking baklava is an involved process. It takes precision, time, and a whole lot of patience. Roy’s wife Debbie walked me through the steps, giving me tips here and there. For instance, she placed a brown paper bag over the baklava for the last 20-30 minutes of baking, so the outside didn’t get too brown. She also explained that while you should be gentle with the phyllo dough, it’s not a big deal if it breaks while you’re layering it. The only layer that really counts is the top. She was also liberal with the butter, which created a crispy, golden outer finish.
Though baking a baklava is no walk in the park, it’s 100 percent doable for the beginning baker. Just make sure to set aside a few hours to get the job done.
“Welcome to Stefanie’s Kitchen” will be available for purchase in 2018. Roy intends to donate all proceeds to charity. Stay tuned for more information on its release.
Cooking with Debbie was a blast. A special thank you to the Eatons for welcoming me into their home and teaching me how to bake the perfect baklava.
For more books by Roy Eaton visit www.booksbyroyeaton.com.