A recent grocery run for citrus reminded me how much I love January fruit, but how much I loathe packaging. Selecting a mesh bag of Cara Cara oranges with a hole on the bottom was a surprise, but not a deterrent. Sheepishly attempting to catch the bouncing oranges in my outstretched arms, citrus circled my sneakers, highlighting the fact for every shopper within six feet. Selecting a bag of oranges tightly secured in plastic, and a three pound clamshell of Stem & Leaf Mandarins, was in my opinion, a positively Olympic maneuver. Or it would have been, had I not sideswiped a neighboring clamshell, watching in horror as six pounds of stems, leaves, and mandarins plummeted into my shopping cart. Choosing the “I like my fruit that way” high road, I made a beeline for the socially distant check out. Awash in citrus, waiting patiently on a small yellow circle, the cashier beckoned but not without a look that said, “Oh, so that was you in produce…”
Particularly in January, when citrus is plentiful, peeling an orange unleashes more than fragrance; it invites nostalgia. Oranges conjure the jarring wake-up call of a Sunbeam juicer on a sleepy morning. The tartness of Pixy-stix wrapped in orange and white striped paper straws. A bottle of Fanta or Nehi soda, with its cavity-inducing effervescence and its indelible orange tint. The sweetness of orange from a stick of Fruit Stripe gum, or the burst of sugared ascorbic acid meeting cold water, morphing into something called Tang. Enjoying a Creamsicle on a blistering summer afternoon. Perhaps the most memorable but least palatable orange memory from my youth was something called Aspergum, a medicinal Chiclet, orange-flavored chewable aspirin, administered by my mother for that January sore throat. A different kind of medicinal orange, a thimbleful of Cointreau or Grand Marnier, reminds me of a piece of furniture; my father’s mahogany bar. An imposing piece with a weighty mirror on top and a double doored cabinet below, when opened, revealed a complex fragrance of sweet and smoky spirits.
Oranges, unlike lemons, don’t often make their way into pie shells. Freshly squeezed orange juice, while bright and sweet by the glassful, often yields a lackluster pie filling. One thing to consider is squeezing more orange juice than the recipe calls for and reducing it down to the proper amount, concentrating the flavor. Another trick is to add a splash of fresh lemon juice to the orange juice, which adds a hit of brightness.
On this cold January day, with a handful of empty tart shells cooling their heels in the freezer, I opted to fill them with orange chiffon. The orange flavor is heightened with the addition of reduced orange juice, Cointreau, and plenty of orange zest. Yes, there’s gelatin involved, but just enough to hold the filling together. And for some of us, adding gelatin to a pie filling is far less dramatic than a trip to the market for citrus.
Nesselrode pie was a special occasion dessert, one I always considered a pie for grown-ups. Billowy chiffon nestled inside a flaky crust, a tipsy filling studded with chestnuts and jewel-like candied fruit. Generously spiked with dark rum and blanketed in freshly whipped cream, a blizzard of dark chocolate curls and maraschino cherries garnished each slice. In the 1940s and 50s, Nesselrode pie was a mainstay on the menus of many New York City seafood and steak house restaurants. It was also available to purchase whole from certain bakeries and by the slice at casual coffee shops and diners. Named after the 19th centruy Russian Count Karl Nesselrode, the dessert was originally served in a couple glass as a pudding, or directly from the freezer, as recommended in my Grandmother's Settlement Cookbook. A recipe for Nesselrode pie was also ear-marked in Jessie's Ladies Home Journal Dessert Cookbook. Calling for a jar of Rafetto candied fruit, light rum, and an orange envelope of Knox gelatin, the directions felt more science experiment than recipe. Maybe it was the gelatin, maybe it was the rum, but Nesselrode pie asked an awful lot of the baker; dissolving and simmering, thickening and folding. My contribution was shaving squares of Baker's sweet chocolate against the dangerously sharp box grater. As a child, the rum based dessert was a little too boozy for a palate keen on Ring Dings and Devil Dogs. It was only a matter of time before I learned to appreciate the beauty of macerated fruit, buttery chestnuts, and whipped cream.
The holiday cookies of my youth were non-denominational, merrily traditional. Some were piped from a cookie press, others coaxed into an 8” square pan, but most were dropped from a rounded teaspoon onto a non-rimmed cookie sheet. Fragrant with vanilla from a small red capped bottle and rich from sticks of Land O’Lakes butter, I baked cookies alongside Jessie and my grandmother, Minnie. Under Jessie’s tutelage, I learned the intricacies of the Mirro Cooky Press, mastering the art of the spritz. Mama Min was the one responsible for teaching me the twists and turns of cream cheese rugelach. Sugar cookie cut-outs were inspired by a drawer full of vintage cutters, some crafted out of tin with green wooden handles, others belonging to my grandmother Dorothy and handed down to my mother.
Regardless of the season, homemade sugar cookies were unadorned; no silver, no gold, not a lick of red edible piping gel, nary a dragée. We didn’t dabble in royal icing or painstakingly rolled fondant. The cookies were stored in a square red cookie tin, with the words Carr’s Biscuits imprinted on the underside. Layers of wax paper prevented the chocolate spritz cookies from co-mingling with the sour cream jumbles and the cinnamon-walnut rugelach. Jessie spent most afternoons replenishing the cavernous tin, only to have the contents exhausted by my brothers, my sister, and myself.
Over the years, my baking career shifted dramatically from casual cookie-ist to retail professional. Christmas cookies were an integral part of my workdays (and nights) at bakeries, farm kitchens, and restaurants. The cookies cooling on my commercial baker’s rack at home were primarily tucked into brown paper lunch bags but also meant for sharing; sometimes packed in corrugated boxes, glassine bags, and college bound tins, never via social media. Homemade cookies were also the requisite holiday gift of appreciation for the elementary school bus driver, Bob.
Without the benefit of Christmas food memories, I find myself turning (and returning) to cookies that prompt joy. My cookie mentors are many; those I have had the pleasure of working with side by side, and just as many smart cookies whose words and recipes I have devoured through their books and at one time, a steady stream of magazine articles.
This year, holiday cookie-ing has been enormously therapeutic for many of us. My sister has created a veritable Cookie Lab in her Toronto kitchen, sharing her triumphs and her cookie works-in-progress with the two people I’m missing most in this crazy, can’t-cross-the-border year. As I layer cookies between sheets of parchment paper in the same red cookie tin that Jessie once filled, I seal the lid with equal parts nostalgia and cautious optimism, In my all too quiet kitchen, I brush the cookie crumbs from the corner of my mouth and raise a glass of milk to 2021.
Snow days were once announced via radio, an endless list of hard to understand numbers rattled off at lightning speed at the crack of dawn. The numbers were affiliated to a school tethered to a township. The dream was hearing your school's number followed by the word “closed.” Far less desirable were the words, “delayed opening” which generally meant the dreaded math test or gym class or mean girls lunch table you were hoping to avoid would be waiting for you upon arrival.
The first significant snowfall of the season fell this week, commencing Wednesday evening in fits and starts, continuing steadily into Thursday morning. The word on our street was that schools were closed and students were enjoying a snow day. A snow day in the midst of in-home/virtual classrooms sounded confusing to me, but 2020, much like Mother Nature, abides by her own rules. More than ten inches of powdery fluff hugged the sidewalks and roads, blanketing the neighborhood like an oversized white comforter. From inside the house looking out, everything sparkled, twinkly and beckoning, a pristine landscape, save for the incessant footprints of squirrels.
Freshly fallen snow is as pretty as a snow globe unless you need to be somewhere. A brief venture outdoors to pluck a snow-covered newspaper from the hidden walkway and ascertain the status of the snowplow is all I need before coffee. Snow however, had other plans, cozying up to the car, covering the windshield, immobilizing the wipers, freezing all four doors shut. Snow knows your ice scraper lives inside the car, the one with the frozen doors. Snow likes to tease by palling around with brilliant sun and sapphire skies, surrounding itself with chilly temps, biting winds, and a thin yet hazardous layer of ice. Snow likes to taunt you into believing a turtleneck, a sensible pair of jeans tucked into a pair of boots, and a parka will provide sufficient warmth. Outfitting myself for the horizontal wind chill nipping at my nose compared to the Weather Channel's “real feel” forecast is a thermal-flannel-woolen nightmare.
Digging into a driveway’s worth of weighty snow, I’m instantly reminded me that the repetitive nature of snow removal doesn’t align with an already cranky baker’s back. With each hoisting of the shovel, my father’s voice echoes in my ears, reminding me to bend my knees, lift with my legs, turn and not twist. My shoveling choreography is erratic, the shovel unwieldy, the cargo too heavy. With little room to deposit the snow, the next available space is perilously close to my favorite hydrangea; the plant winces in anticipation. “I’m a baker, not a snow plow,” I complain to a brazen squirrel watching me from the hood of the car. My progress is slow, the bending and lifting tedious, my back disgruntled. Leaning the shovel against the house, I peel off my cumbersome boots and abandon my snow clearing mission.
Far better suited to an indoor activity, I unearth two discs of pie dough from the refrigerator and turn the oven to a comfortable 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The tapered rolling pin fits comfortably in my hands. With the late afternoon sun pouring through the kitchen windows, I reach for a pair of nine inch pie plates and two ibuprofen.
On the Saturday evening before Thanksgiving, it became blatantly obvious that securing freezer space for gravy-making turkey parts and bulging bags of cranberries was going to be a struggle. There was little, if any, Feng shui energy taking place between the Tupperware, zip-locs, scraps of pie dough, and half-eaten containers of ice cream. Certain items needed to sequester, and while the garage freezer had a few vacancies, I was hesitant to move the ice cream. Rhubarb, once fresh, was the first to receive his eviction notice. Gathering up the frost bitten pink and green vegetable, I deposited the rhubarb in the depths of an already crowded satellite freezer. In the midst of rearranging frozen chicken stock and pounds of sweet butter, a Tupperware container came tumbling forward. Scrawled across the lid in black Sharpie marker were the words “Hyline Cherries- Summer ’19.” Grabbing the cherries, I left the rhubarb to get settled in his new digs, closing the freezer and the garage door.
Cobbling together odds and ends of dough, there was just enough of a circle to blanket the bottom of a 9” pie plate. While the reconfigured dough tried to relax, I emptied the cherries into a mesh strainer and dabbed away most of the ice crystals. While we ate dinner, the slap-dash, open-faced cherry pie baked, taunting with a fragrance more akin to late spring/early summer and less like November. We tucked our forks into it without waiting for it to cool and it was just sweet enough, decidedly tart, and very cherry. It made me think that I should call Loretta at Hyline Orchards and wish her a happy holiday and an early happy birthday.
Draping plastic wrap over the pie, I found a place for it in a less than obvious location. Some might say I hid the pie, which is true. On Sunday morning, November 22nd, I ate one slice of cherry pie for breakfast with my morning coffee and had another smidgen just before leaving for work. That last bit left a cherry stain on my white button down work shirt. Splashing some cold water on the indelible stain, I casually mentioned to anyone within earshot there was a little pie left, little being the operative word. This past Monday, I called Hyline Orchards to order some cherries and to chat with Loretta. As is often the case in life, when you think of calling someone, you should do it sooner than later. I will miss her every time I bake a cherry pie.
December 26, 1936 – November 22, 2020
Two words truly capture the essence of Pie-mageddon; one is “never” and the other is “enough.” The words can be used individually, for example, “I am never going to be able to cram another pie shell in this freezer” or “Enough already!” referring to the number of pre-orders haunting my dreams. The words can also be used back-to back when discussing the number of hours in a day, the numbers of racks in an oven and the number of hands available to peel bushels and bushels of apples. This year it seemed that there was never enough apple/pumpkin/pecan in the offing to satisfy the pie hungry throngs that forgot to order in advance.
The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving are fraught with drama. Add to an already stressful holiday a global pandemic, and you’ve set the stage for some lengthy days and bleary-eyed nights. Small annoyances become monumental; sneeze-inducing masks with ear bending elastics, in-operable linen service aprons, a pair of jeans that desperately requires a belt, but you've forgotten the belt. Normal, everyday occurrences take on a sinister life of their own.
The truth is there will never be enough oven time, freezer space, fridge space, nor pie to satisfy the hunger of those who don’t bake. This year felt more unsettled than years past, especially when Thanksgiving pre-orders closed. The distinctive hint of a small uprising lurked just beyond the bakery door. Reminiscent of the angry mob waving torches and pitchforks in Beauty and the Beast, my version featured an angry mob wielding pie forks. Despite copious amounts of caffeine, there were days in November that felt as topsy turvy as a good, old fashioned Thanksgivukkuh.
Clearly, 2020 is the uninvited houseguest who doesn’t know when to leave. It is the least welcome addition to the holiday table, snagging the last slice of pie when you aren’t looking. While we wait impatiently for this crazy year to gather up its belongings and see itself out, the best we can do is fortify ourselves with a little pie, a little Zoom and an abundance of kindness.
Pumpkin pie has been on my radar since early July, when HGTV Magazine contacted me wanting some insight on pumpkin pie mishaps. Clearly they had landed in the appropriate pumpkin patch. Pumpkin pies are the neediest in the Thanksgiving pie line-up. Maybe not when you're baking at home with an oven that speaks your language and classical music pouring out of the radio. Loading convection ovens from top to bottom with dozens (and dozens) of pumpkin pies requires cajoling them into almost doneness. Knowing when to pluck them from the oven while they still jiggle is tricky. What's needed is a gentle heat that will woo the spiced custard just enough, but not too much.
Commercial ovens are equipped with feisty heating elements and fans that circulate hot air. These ovens can be both breezy and hot headed. The last thing a custard pie wants is too much hot air blowing down its crimp. If you could wrap each pie in its own cashmere pashmina for the last ten minutes, you might have a shot at even baking. Instead, the oven doors tiptoe open to reveal pies at varying degrees of readiness. Cookbooks once suggested the "clean test" knife approach, but that only leaves a chasm sprawling across the pie's surface. The cautious manipulating of the not-quite-baked-pies is a delicate dance. The more you jostle them, the more apt they are to grimace.
Pumpkin pies do not appreciate a draft or a chill, much like my first piano teacher, Mrs. Poblack, who wore a cardigan sweater regardless of the season. While I plunked out the C major scale, Mrs. Poblack fanned herself non-stop with my copy of "A Dozen a Day." You might say her fanning was as relentless as a convection oven without a fan switch. Which is what makes Thanksgiving fraught with challenges worthy of magazine copy.
Anyone who has ever dabbled in the performing arts knows instinctively what the term Anxious Patience refers too. It is a state of anxiety where you are desperate to learn the facts but terrified at the outcome. Generally, it conjures images of a high school bulletin board announcing the cast list for the annual spring musical. As a lowly freshman, know-it-all-sophomore, or arrogant junior, it felt like the end of the world if the role you saw yourself playing went to somebody else, namely a senior.
In college, Anxious Patience required more of you because there was a semester's worth of shows to audition for amidst far greater competition. Cast lists were posted on the Call Board, a backstage bulletin board that could determine your fate by the simple inclusion or omission of your name. Hopes and dreams were dashed more often than highly coveted roles were snagged. The disbelief accompanying the news unfolded amidst your competitors. The Call Board provided one of the most demanding of all acting skills; how to be a gracious loser. Combing through a blur of names to find your own, or not, helped aspiring actors steel themselves against the competitive nature of the business. It also helped propel some of us directly across campus to the student union where peanut M&Ms and mint lentils were sold by the pound.
As I practice Anxious Patience/Pandemic Version, I am grateful for the pie support of @maggieschweppe (aka Blondilocks). I see nothing wrong with adding a little (more) sugar, salt, and butter to my diet as I wait for someone to please, point me toward tomorrow.
The minute we extinguish our Jack-O-Lanterns and turn the clocks back, we are in the thick of Thanksgiving preparations, specifically pie. It doesn’t matter whether you align yourself to a double-crust apple, rich pecans suspended in buttery brown sugar, or vibrant pumpkin spiked with warm spices; pie takes center stage on Thanksgiving. But first, let us consider the last moments of October.
This will be an a-typical Halloween weekend for most of us, unless your tradition includes hunkering down at home, armed with a binge-worthy selection of Netflix and an over-sized bag (or two) of your favorite candy treats. I am ashamed to say that I didn't purchase a single Halloween sweet this go around, preferring to drown my 2020 disgruntlement in daily consumption of peanut butter cups, neon-colored DOTS and bagfuls of Cheesy Puffs. Bemoaning the fact that I totally missed Ocktoberfest-ivities, I opted to turn my attention to beer and pretzels. Pumpkin-stout soft pretzels with candied cider apples and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream was a fine distraction from the fact that Halloween, like most events of 2020, have been put on hold. Maybe October 2021 will prompt a grin from a Jack-O-Lantern, but I can't swear to it. I can, however, vouch for the fact that on Sunday, there will be an extra hour of sleep and plenty of half-priced Halloween candy for the choosing. I am in no hurry to embrace November, but armed with a bag of Hershey miniatures and the last of the Reese's peanut butter cups, there's a glimmer of hope in the November distance.
The world has yet to right itself; last week Canadian Thanksgiving came and went and I never received my Porter Airlines boarding pass. It felt like being uninvited to both Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport and New Jersey's Liberty Airport. The socially distant dinner hosted by my sister and attended by my Canadian peeps was not an option. Border crossings during a pandemic can be funny that way/not funny. The more I thought I about it, the more pie I consumed. I didn't discriminate; leftover pie, frozen leftover pie, fresh pie, collectively they made me feel better. Slightly buoyed by carbohydrates and pumpkin custard, I felt incrementally better until I glanced at the statistics flooding my inbox. The fact is domestic November festivities are also in a state of flux. Will we gather, should we gather, do we gather? Indoors? Outdoors? I wish I knew.
The day before yesterday, after closing the commercial freezer door on a leaning tower of pie shells and wandering towards my car, the NY Times Food Section posed a timely 2020 question in my newsfeed; “How Big a Bird Will Be Going Into the Oven?" https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/dining/thanksgiving-turkey-coronavirus.html
When I saw the words, ‘Big’ and ‘Bird’ used in the same sentence, for a brief instant, I thought perhaps this was a warm, fuzzy story about Muppets. Instead, it was a thought-provoking article exploring the plight of the turkey industry amidst an anything-but-normal Thanksgiving.
On a personal level, this Thanksgiving will be almost as unusual as last year. Unlike last year's surreal holiday without family, this year, we will expand our place settings from two to five. While maintaining a reasonable distance, we will circle a table that once accommodated upwards of a dozen guests. It is both sad and strange and undoubtedly, the turkey will be smaller than in years past. There will be no need for my over-sized roasting pan, the one I keep sequestered in a box on a metro shelving unit in the basement. An ordinary pan will do and there will be no brining and whining that the turkey is too heavy to maneuver from counter-top to oven. It will be a Goldilocks turkey, not too small and not too large, but just right with a little extra for leftovers.
The pie equation however, is dire. Not on the home front, but out in the retail bakery world. One of the great unknowns of this holiday is how much pie will be enough without being too much, and (perish the thought) without being too little. I have to believe that after many months of kitchen quarantine-ing, folks may very well have learned how to roll a pie shell, how to bake a pie. Maybe they watched a few hundred YouTube videos or actually signed up for a Master Class on Pie 101. Perhaps those on lockdown had time enough to peruse every single cookbook on their bookshelves and studied pate brisee, blind baking, and crumb crusts. It’s quite possible that during a seven or eight month time frame, you could binge watch every episode of MARTHA ever filmed, honing in on her pie tutorials.
The truth is we won’t really know what to expect until we (much like Wondra flour and gravy) are in the thick of it. Until I get a pulse on the state of pie and its holiday forecast, I’ll keep the butter cutter busy and the dough sheeter plugged in. My personal pie decisions will be made last minute; with Master/Master and Sweet Soprano on the other side of the border, it’s doubtful we’ll need an oversized Wild Nut Pie. The pumpkin selection will remain faithful to James Beard, but it’s the wild card pie, the one culled from a freezer stash of warm weather fruit that is uncharted territory. To be honest, the turkey is less stressful than all the pie shells swirling around in my subconscious and my reality.
It’s comforting to know that any unresolved questions can be fielded by the steady folks at the Butterball Turkey hotline and those in the know at the King Arthur Baking company. The sad truth is that the only certainty circling Thanksgiving is the uncertainty. Since I’m unable to travel to Canada and Canada can’t travel to me, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm