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ZaSu Pitts, the little-known confectioner

Silent-screen star ZaSu Pitts is usually remembered for her extraordinary name, her huge eyes, and her fluttering fingers, but not many know that she also put her nimble fingers to confectionery use, crafting elegant candies that were famous on Hollywood sets.

Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts: The Famous Star’s Own Candy Recipes, a cookbook filled with bittersweet memories of Pitts’s years in film and TV, contains the star’s favorite recipes (it was published posthumously in 1963). Pitts offers instructions in exquisite detail to ensure that even novices will succeed in the notoriously fickle art of making candy. She writes like a confidante, sharing the secrets she learned through sometimes-painful practice. Not surprisingly, Pitts is drawn to an illustrated recipe for Bonbons au grillage in a French-language cookbook:

There were drawings of hands in action — fingers so delicately sweeping pale fondants through luscious melted chocolate, the thumb and index finger so fastidiously holding a Brazil nut over a gleaming copper kettle. I glanced at my hands. Could they capture my dream?

Alas, no: “An hour later my tears were washing away the chocolate smears on my face. My hands and arms were covered with a brown, sticky goo…” Although Pitts initially chalks the disaster up to the fact that she couldn’t read French, she goes on to confess that she hadn’t realized that chocolate must be tempered, “catered to and cajoled into acceptable behavior,” and that cocoa-butter-rich couverture is crucial for success. She then shares with her readers “How to Master Chocolate Dipping in Ten Hard Lessons,” the first of which simply exhorts “Pray!”

ZaSu Pitts in Tish trailer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
ZaSu Pitts in Tish trailer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Other recipes display similar charm. Fondant is “as basic to a candymaker as the ‘little black dress’” is to a traveler. For Chocolate Fudge, Pitts cautions against using a kettle that is too small, warning that “an absent-minded candymaker can find her syrup boiling all over the range if the telephone rings or if she starts reciting the last act of The Bat,” a dark-house-mystery play in which Pitts’s character claims to have seen a caped man prowling the stairs. I would have loved to hear her recite those lines, or to see the candies she made as history lessons to honor Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin — molded marzipan heads mounted on chocolate plaques.

Pitts made her confections in her beloved kitchen, whose layout she’d devised with the architect Paul R. Williams when he designed a new house for her and her husband in 1936 (Williams went on to design LAX in 1960). Located in LA’s Brentwood neighborhood, the house was Georgian in style, with seven bedrooms and eight-and-a-half bathrooms. But the kitchen was the real showpiece. It had built-in shelves to hold Pitts’s extensive cookbook collection, and plenty of space on the walls to hang the decorative molds she collected. In addition to a stylish black-and-white enamel stove, the kitchen featured a brick oven. But what made the room truly extraordinary was its shape: it was completely round, with a round central island where Pitts could display her confections.

When in 1919 one reviewer called Pitts “the girl with the ginger snap name,” he couldn’t have imagined how important sweet things would become in Pitts’s life, especially when her career periodically floundered. Throughout all the ups and downs, Pitts madly made candy, finding its complexity both a welcome challenge and a release. As she relates in her book, “everybody began to call my morale-builder sessions in the kitchen ‘ZaSu’s sweet moments.’”

Here is one of her sweetest moments (extracted from cookbook Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts: The Famous Star’s Own Candy Recipes):

Pirate’s Treasure

This coconut candy is rightly named — the recipe is my greatest treasure. The candy is so delicious it should be kept under lock and key. It also improves with age when kept in a tightly covered tin. I pack it in pretty metal-hinged boxes I found in a ten-cent store, and they simulate a pirate’s chest.

3 large fresh coconuts
6 cups granulated sugar
1½ cups coconut milk
2 teaspoons vanilla

Grate coconut meat; in heavy saucepan mix with sugar and coconut milk. Blend thoroughly. Place on a very low heat. Cook gently until mixture becomes thick and heavy. Stir gently from time to time. You can test it by dropping a spoonful on waxed paper — if it holds its shape, it is done. If it is cooked too fast it may scorch and change color. Allow for time and patience. When it is done, add the vanilla. Drop by teaspoonfuls on waxed paper. Let stand till hardened. Pack your treasure in suitable airtight tins and await the battles for your loot!

Headline Image Credit: SugarDiamonds1. Photo by amp2. Royalty free via Freeimages.

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