Through the Ballet Cook Book Dinner Series — gatherings featuring meals made from recipes in Tanaquil Le Clercq’s cookbook — New York City Ballet soloist Antonio Carmena, baker extraordinaire Susan LaRosa, and I are embarking on a kind of time travel, preparing the favorite foods of the 20th-century’s most famous dancers and staying true to their (often old-fashioned) cooking methods.
Our April 13 dinner, where we prepared five recipes by ballerina Melissa Hayden, had special significance: Hayden’s son, Stuart Coleman, was among our guests. As with past meals, we weren’t entirely sure the dishes lived up to their recipes’ intentions, but Stuart, an exceedingly kind guest, assured us we had done them justice and brought him back to his childhood. “This brings me closer to my mother,” he said in a touching pre-meal toast, “whom I miss very much.”
Hayden, born Mildred Herman in Toronto in 1923, began her career in the ballet corps of Radio City Music Hall. From 1945 to 1947, “Millie,” as she was known to close friends and family, danced with American Ballet Theatre and joined New York City Ballet in 1948, shortly after the company’s founding. There, George Balanchine cast her in new ballets including 1958’s Stars and Stripes and 1962’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her “exultant, dramatic style defied the supposed impersonal mold of the Balanchine dancer,” according to her 2006 New York Times obituary, and Lincoln Kirstein, NYCB’s co-founder, also considered her a happy anomaly: “Melissa has been the nearest thing to a ‘star’ in our starless company. We have never encouraged stardom on programs, posters, or publicity; managers can’t make stars. The public does.”
At this dinner, the sixth in our series, we were also honored to have with us Stuart’s partner, food expert Meryl Rosofsky; Paul Epstein, a close friend of Hayden’s and the President of the George Balanchine Foundation; his partner, Garry Parton; and reliable friends and indispensable sous chefs Michael Pereira and Jeff Gageby. It was a treat to hear Stuart and Paul’s stories about Hayden’s life and career during a vodka happy hour and over the meal itself.
Hayden’s recipes in the book reflect her Eastern European Jewish heritage, and clearly came from a time (and place) where fresh vegetables — at least those beyond potatoes and onions — were scarce. Susan and Meryl spoke of eating similar dishes when they were growing up, but to this Wisconsin Catholic boy, the flavors were entirely new.
The only dish Stuart specifically requested we prepare was his mother’s sweet and sour meatballs, which I’m told were served at The Ballet Cook Book’s 1966 launch party at Bloomingdale’s. (We were grateful Stuart didn’t ask us to prepare gefilte fish. His mother and grandmother commandeered the bathtub for live carp and whitefish before preparing this dish!) Ground round steak, eggs, potatoes, and onions went into the meatballs themselves, and the main source of flavor was the sliced onions, which had been boiled with sugar and salt and simmered in lemon juice.
The stuffed cabbage — ground steak wrapped in cabbage leaves and smothered in a sweet and sour tomato sauce — was remarkably similar in ingredients and taste to the meatballs. The main course’s two fried dishes, potato latkes and chicken wings, were — big surprise — universal favorites among guests. The latke recipe called for the eggs to be separated, and for the whites to be beaten and folded in — a very unusual preparation for this traditional dish. Served with applesauce and sour cream, they were delicious.
Finally, we served fruit compote, the only dessert in Hayden’s chapter of the cookbook. It’s a relatively simple dish (says the guy who can’t cook), made from dried fruits that are soaked overnight and simmered for about 15 minutes. Plated beautifully by Antonio, with the fruit surrounding a dollop of whipped cream, it was a perfect ending to an outstanding meal. (To read more about the dessert, visit Susan LaRosa’s blog.)
Watch a video of the dinner preparation (with outtakes):
Download Melissa Hayden’s recipes: