A few Mays ago, I was tasked with baking sixty cherry pies for a pop-up event in Brooklyn celebrating the return of “Twin Peaks.” A new season of the cult classic was airing exclusively on Showtime, prompting renewed enthusiasm for ‘damn fine coffee’ teamed with ‘the best cherry pie.’ The number of cherries needed to fill sixty pie shells is probably more than most people encounter in years of summer vacations. And with Memorial Day the official kick off to summer, despite my love for rhubarb, I am keeping my eyes peeled for the first cherries of the season.
Timidly stepping inside my local supermarket, mask slightly askew, glasses foggy, I am met by a towering display of scarlet cherries, astronomically priced. The fine print affixed to the cherry signage indicates a savings with my Shopper’s Card. Yes, I am a shopper and yes, I have a card, but the idea of rummaging through my wallet to access the card will require removal of my protective gloves. It seems awfully cumbersome and will clearly encourage the ire of my fellow shoppers. I walk away, distancing myself from the cherries and the couple wheeling an over-filled basket just ahead of me. Maintaining 6 feet of proper social distancing, I follow the one-way signs until I locate the end cap display of shallots and garlic, plucking the latter from a wicker basket. The well-worn industrial flooring is decorated with footprints guiding me towards the check-out. With the proper disco accompaniment, the footprints could serve as a tutorial for learning the Hustle. Clutching my lonely head of garlic, sneakers planted firmly on my designated square of carpet, I wait impatiently in a holding pattern, unable to move forward until Check-Out Traffic Controllers deem it permissible. It reminds me of hovering above Newark Airport on Friday evenings around 5 pm, pre-March 2020, when people still traveled.
The longer I wait in the one-couple-ahead-of-me-line, the weaker my cherry resolve. Though the idea of a freshly baked cherry pie tempts, I can’t bring myself to sign on to the cherry pitting commitment. Transferring the garlicky cloves from right hand to left, I consider my options. “Maybe I’ll buy a handful of cherries, just for eating. No commitment.” Too far away from the magazine rack to catch up on the latest Kardashian news, and too damn close to the cherries, the cherries win. It is anyone’s guess how many cherries are lurking in the cello bag clutched in my fist, but it is unthinkable of traversing the produce section, going the wrong way down a one-way aisle in search of a produce scale. Even with a shopper’s card, it is doubtful there will be much of a savings. But this purchase feels almost necessary, a small luxury highlighting the upcoming holiday weekend that doesn’t feel like a holiday.
Distracted by the cover of Us Magazine, the price of the cherries goes unnoticed. “Shopper’s Card?” the cashier asks politely. Barely grazing the scanner with my credit card and gathering up the lonely head of garlic with one gloved hand and the extravagant cherries with the other, I shake my head. “Have a good weekend,” the cashier adds, more as a suggestion than an ultimatum. I nod half-heartedly. Trying to squeeze into a Memorial Day state of mind this year is akin to squeezing your feet into your favorite pair of socks; the ones that were washed in hot water then tumbled dry on high heat. As May ebbs into June, the kick off to summer via a 3-day weekend just doesn’t seem to fit.
My pop culture correspondent in Queens informs me that many of the bars and restaurants in her eclectic neighborhood are offering cocktail delivery service and restaurant cocktail kits. In between Zoom conference calls and episodes of a Netflix binge-a-thon, you can stir things up in your favorite bar glass. I’m intrigued by this idea, imagining a perfectly crafted libation garnished with a festive swath of citrus and a pesticide-free edible flower.
The reality of my ready-to-drink cocktail is this; in the midst of several conflicting culinary projects something clicks in my brain signaling, hey! I’m ready-to-drink a cocktail! Grabbing a kitchen towel and wiping the butter off my fingers, I procure a glass from a cabinet over-filled with stemware, pilsners, and tumblers. Without a definitive cocktail destination in mind, I wander towards the freezer. The on again/off again ice maker only knows extremes, catapulting frozen cubes at a ferocious pace or shutting down completely. This hardly automatic ice cuber is a fickle creature, never showing its hand until you commit to opening the freezer door. Silence means you’ve stumbled upon ice cube organizers in the midst of a work stoppage. A frantic kerplunk/crash/kerplunk means the ice bin is dangerously full and projectile cubes will soon blanket the floor. The ice cubes I covet are oversized, crafted in small batches in rubberized trays that don’t quite fit our freezer. Dropping one of those hefty cubes into a glass miraculously transports me from a floury kitchen to a dimly lit bar. It’s the kind of bar where the bar stools are slightly off kilter yet perfectly comfortable and the bartender fills the cocktail shaker with exactly what you need. The perfect combination of angtsy-yet-hopeful jazz plays softly in the background.
When I'm the one actually crafting the craft cocktail, it is a wage of wills between bartender, ice cubes, spirits, and citrus. I find myself battling with one of those oversized ice cubes, trying to wedge it into a glass that is better suited to average-sized ice. By the time the cocktail glass is adjusted to accommodate the ice, the oversized cube is looking less romantic, more run-of-the-mill. As the ice melts, so do my dreams of freshly squeezed juices and perfectly chilled simple syrup.
Peering into the refrigerator, I am momentarily sidetracked by an almost empty jar of expensive Italian maraschino cherries in heavy syrup. “Someone should replace these,” I mention to no one in particular, scooping one out with my impeccably clean fingers. Leaving a trail of maraschino syrup between the fridge and the kitchen counter, a container of rhubarb compote taunts, prompting inspiration. A lackluster assortment of citrus, most having been zested within an inch of their lives, are looking more Loehmanns than Saks. A sprightly naval orange has survived unscathed and teamed with the rhubarb, might prove promising.
The cocktail that is spinning around in my head is from one of those off-the-beaten-path bars in a town with a name I can’t pronounce. A small, dusty chalkboard hangs alongside the bar, announcing the daily specials. I vividly remember a chubby glass filled with vermouth and orange and something about rhubarb. The memory of the drink doesn’t provide a recipe, just a mindset. Pitching the ice cube in a rapid state of decline towards the sink, I replenish my glass with a new behemoth cube. Eyeballing what seems like the correct amount of rhubarb syrup followed by a fruit cocktail’s worth of orange, I’m encouraged. A double dash of rhubarb bitters from a paper-wrapped bottle generally reserved for baking seems appropriate. Reaching for a tall bottle of Lillet Blanc, my mood is far less dark and stormy. Unfettered by a closing time and feeling downright punchy, I nearly take a header on a renegade ice cube.
Maybe I should have washed my mask in cold water; it’s a little snug, fitting more like a Barbie sweater and less like protective gear. I’ve been gifted a number of fashion forward Corona wear, but every time I slip the elastic straps over my ears, my face tightens. The words that come out of my mouth sound stilted, much like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, before Dorothy fetches his oil can. Masks tend to fog up your glasses and tickle your nose, making it both hazardous and sneeze inducing to navigate the outside world. It’s nearly impossible to see where the sidewalk ends and the front step begins and I feel myself stumbling, instinctively putting my hands out to save myself from I don’t know what. The combination of absurdity and desperation and ill-fitting disposable gloves makes me laugh and cry. I long to pick up the phone and call my mother who would have helped me find some humor in all of this insanity. Had Rommy been here to witness Covid-19, she would have filled her quarantine days Norma Rae-ing through remnants of Laura Ashley floral and jacquard, sewing up a storm of colorfast masks.
The masks would have been meticulously executed, probably reversible, a curious but agreeable fashion accessory. I envision the masks edged in cheerful rickrack promoting cautious optimism. For a select few, Rommy would have fitted her imposing sewing machine with a special needle attachment, monogramming the lower right hand corner of the mask with our initials. There would have been a sensible pocket (with room for a filter) and a little quilt bunting to cushion the form fitting nose wire. In some cases, bits of coordinating fabric would have been pieced together in order to craft a matching headscarf, or an oven mitt. Rommy would have known instinctively what I needed in the midst of this crisis and would have supplied the appropriate gear. A variety of headscarves would have distracted from my desperately needed haircut. The perky oven mitt would have been helpful in protecting one hand from a scalding pie drip.
A glutton for punishment, I fuel my pandemic anxiety with a daily dose of Governor Cuomo’s riveting and unsettling news. Drawing me close to the screen daring me to watch, I’m haunted with too much information, visually sucked in by blue charts punctuated in yellow. Coupled with my housemate’s recitation of medical statistics and Times Square updates, I find myself constantly eyeing the kitchen clock, wondering if it’s approaching five pm; if not here, somewhere.
The funny/not so funny thing about quarantine is despite having all the time in the world, I continue to procrasti-bake. A half-hearted attempt at basement organization unearths an assortment of kitchenware. A pullman loaf pan from a restaurant kitchen sparks an afternoon of whole wheat bread baking. A 7” springform that cradled Oreo cheesecakes in the 1980s, prompts an exhaustive search of crumb cake recipes. Ignoring the mountain of papers snaking across my desk, I open the refrigerator and reach for a stick of butter.
Beyond the kitchen, the dining room window frames a solitary pink dogwood, a harbinger of Mother’s Day. The wall clock ticks off the minutes a little too loudly, punctuating the surreal passage of time. Feeling nothing like a holiday weekend and more like an incessant episode of the Twilight Zone, the clock hands indicate 5 o’clock. With the temperature unseasonably warm, a tall glass emblazoned with the brand Peroni, seems appropriate. “A shot and a beer,” Rommy liked to say when sipping an occasional beer, clearly conjuring boilermakers and sky blue afternoons spent cheering the Brooklyn Dodgers. Setting down my glass with a distinctive smudge of butter across the front, I can hear my mother’s laugh.
What begins as a classic love story ends with a broken heart. Baker meets Vegetable. Baker falls head over pie plate with Vegetable. Vegetable refuses to commit and leaves town at the end of the season. Baker mends her broken heart by cramming bulging Ziploc bags of rhubarb into every vacant freezer nook.
Last year around this time, Rhubarb and I had a falling out. There was plenty of blame to share in our volatile relationship. When he callously called me needy, I swung back with the word unreliable. Rhubarb complained that my expectations for a vegetable were unreasonable. I reminded him that every time he was a no show, I was left explaining his absence to a freezer stacked high with eager pie shells.
Uttering the word ‘spring’ felt hollow until the first case of pie plant had crossed the bakery’s slightly unhinged screen door. Rhubarb didn’t understand.
A baker of habit, now that Mar’pril has segued into May, I cannot face these uncertain times without a hint of certainty. Unable to identify the day of the week, I can still identify the season. This is the season for rain-splashed sidewalks, sneeze inducing blooms, and crimson rhubarb.
A stalker of stalks, I’ve burned through two cases of the pinky-green vegetable in the last two weeks. Methodically chopping, keeping an eager eye out for any toxic leaves, the repetitive practice feels therapeutic. My cutting board crime scene refuses to surrender to a fresh sponge and extreme suds-ing. Standing in the midst of a season unlike any we have known, the simple act of pairing rhubarb with freckled strawberries and tucking them into a pie plate feels the tiniest bit hopeful.
Rhubarb will always be my James Dean of a vegetable; my iconic spring pie essential, swinging through the kitchen on his own terms, sassy and demanding, trying my patience with his mercurial availability. I will continue to hunt him down, fully aware that our time together is fleeting.
Boldly using a kitchen towel to navigate a tired sheet pan, a strawberry rhubarb pie overwhelms the room with its intoxicating sweet tang. The pie is dangerously hot, extroverted juices bubbling through a haphazard lattice. Brazenly poking a pinky finger into the syrup, the heat deters but doesn’t stop me. Burning my lip, the taste is unmistakable; cautious optimism.
The calendar indicates I have arrived at Week 5 of Baking In Place. My circumstances are infinitely better than many, and to say I am grateful is an understatement. Good health clearly transcends everything but I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the one thing that makes me giddy on a daily basis. The fact that I am not responsible for the home schooling of Master Master and Blondilocks is comparable to winning the golden ticket of parenting. Thanks kids, for being fine, well educated grown-ups.
Sequestered from the rest of the world provides more than enough time and inclination for combing through the daily newspaper. I divide it into sections; Dire are the pages emblazoned with graphs, numerical charts, and bold headlines that fuel my anxiety. Delusional are the articles related to home projects that are crafty/organizational/Zen. Lacking the enthusiasm to sort through a laundry basket of mismatched socks, it’s doubtful I’ll find joy in alphabetizing my pantry. Crossword is more of an event, not a section, but highly coveted and worthy of its own category. The Arts section leaves me despondent yet hopeful and it’s what I read before bringing it all home with Miscellaneous Sorrow which I only turn to if we’re not running low on Kleenex. A daily reminder of my good fortune is humbling.
We’re flush on one item in particular, the one that insists on staring me down every time I open the refrigerator. A 2 lb. bag of Red Star Rapid Rise yeast bought pre-pandemic wants to come out and play. Based on the outcry captured in every food section of every newspaper across the country, bread bakers are bemoaning their inability to access supplies, and rightly so. Flour stalking and panic buying of yeast has left market shelves empty and on-line sources exhausted. Traipsing across the kitchen in a pair of mismatched socks (I have another pair just like them) I consider my bread baking options. Admittedly, that 2 lb. bag of yeast gives me pause. I’m feeling a little bit guilty about my bonanza of Rapid Rise and the assortment of flour rarin’ to go in my un-alphabetized pantry.
In the days before bread was an art form, I relied on the calm instruction found in James Beard’s Beard on Bread and Bernard Clayton Jr.’s The Complete Book of Breads. Bread baking was relaxing and I don’t recall giving any of my breads a first name. Today everything is dramatically different. Breads have become not only kneady, but needy.
Like children, it’s impossible to choose one type of bread over another. Loving them equally is dangerous in the throes of a pandemic. Making a deal with oneself to wear pants with a zipper and a button is a little like making a deal with the devil. I don’t want my waistband to expand like a bowl of freshly risen bread dough covered in cling film. I’m determined to exit this pandemic looking reasonably like me and less like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Woman.
Now that every day is Sunday, (or is it Friday?) weekend bakes are tempting. I have babka-ed and brioched, sticky-bunned and crumb caked, but today these options feel excessive. Might this be a result of too many cast-iron skillet cheesy pan pizzas? Perhaps, but how many is considered too many? I would be both surprised and horrified if I tallied them all.
Turning to an old reliable recipe for challah, it is the eggy, yeast bread that happily crosses the line between sweet and savory, breakfast and lunch, dinner and dessert. Challah bread is comforting, like a grandmother’s lipstick-ed kiss on your cheek. Reminding myself to check for pouffy as opposed to over-proofy, challah dough affords me all the crafty I need. Weaving an imperfect circular loaf bakes up into a multi-purpose bread. We greedily consume it by the slice until I stumble across Claire Ptak’s recipe for Strawberry Brioche Bread Pudding and put the brakes on. A handful of strawberries and rhubarb fill out the ensemble. At this performance however, the role of Brioche will be played by Challah. Waiting for the thirsty bread to drink in the orange scented custard, I pre-heat the oven and wonder where I left today’s crossword puzzle.
The first week of the farm share box was met with great anticipation. I was new to staying at home and unpacking a corrugated surprise package of local produce was downright riveting. When the second share arrived, I folded back the flaps with a little less enthusiasm. The box revealed a bounty of curly leaf lettuce, an assertive bunch of scallions, and enough parsley to last nearly a lifetime. There were plenty of spunky radishes and fistfuls of Popeye-approved spinach. Toward the bottom, some roly-poly onions collided head-on with a sizable purple cabbage and one stray carrot. Feeling curmudgeonly grateful, I was disappointed. Conspicuous in its absence, I had hoped to find a handful of early rhubarb, just itching to find the nearest pie plate.
As April unfurls, I’m hearing a universal sentiment voiced amongst my pie pals. Now that the novelty of sheltering in place has become curiously ordinary, we’ve hit a stay-at-home wall. We struggle to play nice with housemates who are perfectly agreeable folks under other circumstances. We are challenged by what is (and isn’t) in the refrigerator. Unidentified freezer burn Ziploc bags provide a common source of irritation. Personally, I’m growing weary of getting clunked on the head from free-falling cans of tuna fish. Those near-miss concussions are probably there to knock some sense into me, reminding me things could be far worse.
My parents and grandparents had a fondness for reminding me all too often, “When you have your health, you have everything.” I don’t recall paying much attention to their mantra, preferring to coast through childhood and adolescence in a bubble of smarty-pants ignorance. Plagues were a thing of the past, depicted in biblical films starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. Spanish influenza took its toll on characters stuck in serial costume dramas, aired on our local PBS channel. Face masks and gloves were reserved for John Wayne movies and the Wild, Wild, West; not for leaving the house.
Attempting to choreograph a farm share’s worth of produce into the confines of a refrigerator takes time and patience. I have plenty of the former and not enough of the latter. It also brings me up close and personal with the ‘use by’ dates flaunted across perishables. This provides a not-so-subtle reminder that I am standing smack dab in the week that was supposed to be different. My calendar earmarks this week as one slated for travel and featuring far more cake than pie. It was a week dedicated to special birthdays and happily-ever-afters. My baking mise en place called for enough butter, sugar, flour, and eggs to yield a multi-tiered, multi-flavored confection. One cake was all about chocolate and one cake was for lovers of almond. And still another cake was slated for drifts of coconut, room for candles and the accompaniment of off-key singers. Although I dedicated a great deal of attention to the mathematics of large scale baking, I forgot to factor something into the equation. I forgot to consult with Life.
Life is the thing that sometimes gives you lemons that can easily, albeit begrudgingly, be squeezed into lemonade. Clearly, Life wasn’t listening when I casually asked for a few dozen lemons, just enough to yield a generous recipe of lemon curd. Life had other plans, gathering far too much citrus for a tall glass, or a wide-mouthed pitcher of lemonade. Instead, Life provided a tidal wave of lemons, more than enough to derail all plans.
With nothing but white space and a few Zoom cocktail hours on my calendar, I have plenty of time to circle the kitchen. The occasional crunch underfoot requires a casual sweep or a little vacuuming, or both. This feeble attempt at tidying is less about housekeeping and all about distraction. The stand mixer and paddle attachment offer a constant source of diversion, but today I’m fixated on the ruckus in the fridge. The warped crisper drawer is over-filled, refusing to close. My patience with one particular vegetable is wearing thin. “Someone oughta make a slaw outta you!” I scold the bulbous head of cabbage. The cabbage is nonplussed. Not feeling the slaw love at the moment, the multi-layered vegetable seems better suited to a vibrant soup. Tightening my grip on the cabbage, I do more damage to the off-kilter drawer. Setting the cabbage on the counter and eyeing him critically, I put the soup on hold. Crafty feels more appropriate right now as I strive to regain my footing. Having the rug pulled out from under your yet-to-be-worn-sensibly-heeled dance shoes alters your perspective. It certainly gives you a new and cautious appreciation for lemons.
Passover has a way of announcing itself, with the same showiness that forsythia and magnolia bring to the April landscape. Most years, supermarkets are decked out in extensive Seder provisions. Unwieldy cases of matzoh, too big for a shopping cart and impossible to tuck under your arm commandeer end cap displays. Canisters of macaroons in curious flavors jostle each other for shelf space. Slim blue boxes of matzoh ball soup mix squeeze in alongside jars of gefilte fish. This year, I climbed a step ladder to get a clear look at what was hiding on the top shelf of my pantry. Behind the oversized box of kosher salt, I uncovered a wealth of Passover fixings. Some of them were recent purchases, others less so. A fresh box of Streit’s matzoh meal and an unopened box of matzoh from 2019 seemed perfectly harmless. Two partial bags of coconut, one from Baker’s, the other from Bob’s Red Mill, would have to satisfy any macaroon hankerings. Accustomed to baking 1,000 macaroons in a commercial kitchen, I liked the idea of baking a mere dozen. This pantry windfall proved fortuitous because in our current climate, the supermarket is to be avoided like the plague.
My father’s delivery of the Passover story was succinct, a result of the endless, boring Seders he endured as a child. It was also an abbreviated version of the detailed Haggadah because he believed hot food should be served hot. “Why are we gathered here this evening?” he asked, glancing around the table at the expectant and hungry faces. “We are here to remember, to retell a story that was told by my father, and my father’s father, and so forth… for generations. It is the retelling of a story that celebrates freedom from oppression.”
At the conclusion of the four questions, my father set down the Haggadah and reemphasized that Passover was, in a nutshell, all about family and the passing on of traditions from one generation to the next. He also made it very clear that although the Haggadah allowed reclining, he did not allow elbows on the table.
Passover 2020 tells a slightly different story, one that will be told to future generations, about a time when faced with truly dire circumstances, we were forced to hunker down at home. The irony of this Passover is that for the first time in eons, I had nothing but time to prepare a Seder. What made this night different from all other Passover nights was that the table required only two place settings and room for a laptop computer.
Second only to Thanksgiving, Passover was the holiday that always required adding all of the extensions to the dining room table, plus a table that inched its way into the living room. The menu was traditionally staid, virtually unchanged year after year, and greeted with joyful expectation. It was an elaborate meal of many courses, all prepared with great care by three women; my grandmother, my mother, and Jessie.
The sounds of Passover in the making were predictable and comforting. What I remember most distinctly was the repetitive spinning of the Sunbeam mixer, beating what looked like dozens of eggs and extra-fine sugar into a gossamer sponge cake. We weren’t allowed to jump or slam a door because there was a sponge cake in the oven. When the sponge cake had risen dramatically over the top of the tube pan and was cooling on a rack, the oven was cranked up to high to accommodate an over-sized, matzoh-stuffed bird. The door of the oven creaked incessantly when it was opened and closed, the oven racks groaning under the weight of the roasting pan. On top of the stove, a cavernous pot of chicken soup simmered, sparking debate over matzoh balls, dense (my father’s preference) or light (my mother’s preference). There was never enough room in the refrigerator for the tub of chicken soup, necessitating a constant reconfiguration of dairy and produce. The fragrance of Passover was distinctive, teetering on aggressive. Sautéed onions and celery wafted through the kitchen door, snaking down hallways, climbing stairs. Homemade gefilte fish was an enormous undertaking, requiring mountains of finely grated onions and freshly grated horseradish. Depending upon where you stood in the kitchen, your eyes streamed or your nostrils flared, or your throat tickled, or all three. It was glorious, all of it; the chatter, the cooking, the elbow-to-elbow togetherness.
Beyond the kitchen you could hear the clatter of the ‘good’ dishes and the jangle of sterling silver muffled against a freshly pressed tablecloth. The pristine damask never stood a chance against the menu. Classic charoset piled high in my grandmother’s cut-glass bowl couldn’t contain itself. Toppling off squares of matzoh, it left an indelible trail of cinnamon-spiced apples, walnuts, and Welch’s concord grape juice at each place setting. As the meal continued, there was the inevitable glass of wine or grape juice mishap, made worse by trying to abate the flood with a monogrammed napkin.
Passover occasionally fell on my dad’s birthday, necessitating a menu change. The sponge cake was replaced by a Kiss Torte, a behemoth meringue baked in an ancient springform pan. The Kiss Torte required hours of oven time, first at a low heat, (what my grandmother referred to as a ‘slow’ oven) then with the oven turned off to set the meringue. Split and filled with whipped cream, strawberries, and bananas, it was the most dramatic and eagerly anticipated part of the meal.
One of the great joys of the flourless holiday took place days after the Seder leftovers were exhausted. Filling the West-Bend electric fryer with Crisco and hoisting a heavy cast iron skillet from beneath the oven, Jessie orchestrated our favorite meal. Creating an assembly line of dishes in graduated sizes, Jessie filled one with matzoh cake flour and spices, one with beaten eggs, and one with seasoned matzoh meal. Systematically dredging pieces of chicken in eggs and matzoh, most of the chicken fit comfortably in the electric fryer. The overflow monopolized the cast iron skillet, rhythmically percolating in oil. Jessie was very particular about not crowding the chicken, giving it plenty of time to cook thoroughly, which felt like an eternity. Transferring the first few pieces to a Farberware pan lined with paper towels drew us into the kitchen like a magnet. Hoping the smallest pieces would go unnoticed, we tried to sneak off with a wing or a second joint, but Jessie saw everything. Advising us to set the table and stop ‘fussin’ with the chicken, we retreated.
Passover 2020 will forever be remembered as the year technology allowed us to gather together, yet separately. In keeping with tradition, I set the table with dishes and silver worthy of a holiday, and spilled the requisite amount of charoset on the tablecloth. Squinting to see the faces assembled across the computer screen, it almost sounded like Passover, save for the absent clatter of knives and forks and soup spoons. No one was eager to tear up the living room hunting for the Afikomen and for the first time in ages, not a single wine glass was accidentally broken. As surreal as it was on many levels, there was one aspect of the holiday that my parents would have loved; none of the Seder-goers had to drive home in the dark, because everyone was already home.
My former boss and mentor, Roger Eatherton, passed away a week ago, adding one more layer of sadness to an already surreal world. To say Roger was a wizard of efficiency was an understatement. Born and raised in South Dakota, Roger learned the art of pie baking from three generations of mid-western women; his great grandmother, his grandmother and his mother. Roger was much more than a formidable baker; he was a productivity expert, a brilliant mechanical engineer and a visionary.
Roger’s purchase of a Bucks County farm forever changed my career. Following a ten-year stint owning and operating a restaurant, I was ready for a change. Ignoring the fifty minute commute in good weather, (longer when it snowed), I found myself working in a kitchen framed by windows overlooking apple orchards, fields of wildflowers and meandering rows of pick-your-own berries.
The original bakery was compact, outfitted with Roger’s bench, a double door refrigerator, a wall of deck ovens, and two commercial mixers. An imposing dough sheeter ran the entire length of one wall. Freezers were located on the other side of the building, beyond the weathered cider press.
As the business continued to flourish, Roger and his wife, Jane, saw the clear need to expand the bakery. The new space was meticulously designed with the vision of an engineer, equipped with time saving technology Rube Goldberg would have applauded.
Amidst the convection ovens, dough rounders, and rotating bread oven, stood one of Roger’s favorite pieces of equipment. The humble doughnut fryer and batter depositor was an engineer’s dream. Cider-spiked batter fell into a pool of hot oil, sizzling and bobbing towards the surface. Armed with a giant pair of tongs, Roger plucked the doughnuts from the fryer, dropping them into a cavernous tub of cinnamon sugar. On Saturday mornings, the tangle of hot oil and cinnamon wafted through the screen door of the bakery, assaulting my senses before I’d barely stepped out of my car. “Have a doughnut,” Roger would say as I crossed the kitchen with my first cup of coffee. In all of the years I worked for Roger, that Saturday morning doughnut, dangerously hot out of the fryer with a thick coating of cinnamon sugar, was impossible to resist.
Roger and I approached baking from two vastly different perspectives, agreeing to disagree on many things. Roger was a devout believer of cakes slathered in frosting, I felt cakes should be adorned with buttercream. I vouched for cake pans in graduated sizes while Roger swore by baking cake layers in sheet pans. My idea of pie crust called for unsalted butter while Roger was an unwavering supporter of shortening. Roger relied on the consistency of Individually Quick Frozen fruit while I avoided frozen fruit like the plague. Roger also had a strong aversion to any diminutive baked goods he felt required “too much fiddle.” Roger spoke fluent Metric system, while I spoke Imperial. When I said ounce, Roger said twenty-eight- point-three grams. Potato, potahto.
When it came to mise en place, I liked to assemble all of my ingredients side by side on my workbench. Roger’s version consisted of emptying ginormous bags of flour, sugar, and leavening directly into industrial sized mixing bowls. One of my first days at the bakery, I gathered together a number of ingredients, among them cake flour. Determined to produce a silky batter, I scanned the utensils looking for a sifter. “Roger,” I asked, “do you have a sifter?” Roger paused before responding, answering my question with an incredulous look. Exploding with laughter, he doubled over in hysteria, punctuating his laugh with a few knee slaps, before finally dabbing his eyes with the edge of his apron. Over the years, he loved to retell the story in excruciating detail, “And then Ellen said, ‘Roger, do you have a sifter?’ A SIFTER!!!” Working for Roger taught me more about production and less about minutiae.
It’s impossible to forget Roger’s infectious laugh, the well-worn baseball cap perched on top of his head, or the way he rolled pie shells at a dizzying speed. There always seemed to be a fine mist of all-purpose flour circling him as he worked. Because of Roger, I purchased my first kitchen scale all those years ago and allowed frozen fruit to occasionally edge its way into a pie plate.
Embracing challenge over retirement, Roger and Jane began a new chapter in upstate New York several years ago. Another farmhouse beckoned, this time attached to 250 acres of rolling vineyards framed by the Finger Lakes. I visited with them last summer, touring the vineyard and the new bakery, designed by Roger. The bakery housed all of the equipment I remembered, including the doughnut fryer. Driving south along the Seneca wine trail with Roger’s signature laugh echoing in my ears, I felt my nose twitch; cinnamon.
There’s a tiny window in the morning, somewhere between asleep and awake when I almost forget; the world we recently took for granted has landed on its head. We’ve been flipped upside down like a buttermilk pancake free-falling towards a sizzling griddle. Consumed by social distancing and self-quarantine, some days feel downright dire. Padding across the kitchen in slippered feet, there is no sense of urgency, no scramble for car keys, no train to catch. The house is too quiet and the neighborhood eerily silent. Overdressed in a thinsulate turtleneck, hooded sweatshirt, and corduroys, but hellbent on coffee, I forget to remove the lid from the burr grinder. Coffee beans skittle across the counter, pausing briefly before hitting the floor. Sunshine is tentatively peeking through the window, illuminating the coffee beans circling my slippers. What day is this, I wonder? I answer my own question; a good day to bake.
What I’m hearing these days are stories from pie pals across the country. We are baking out of boredom, out of desperation, out of fear. Baked goods and carbohydrates are what we crave when we struggle to feel better. For many of us, baking is the perfect tactile activity. Looking for a temporary escape from media saturation? Pre-heat your oven. Need a little control in your life? Set the butter on the counter, grab the brown sugar and reach for an unopened bag of semi-sweet chocolate.
Recently, I’ve noticed a damn‘demic surge of bakers seeking solace in sourdough. I am inundated with images of chubby jars filled with pouffy mixtures of flour and water. While I’m more than happy to accept a warm slice of sourdough bread slathered in butter, I draw the line at feeding and caring for an activated bread starter.
Sourdough bread starters remind me of houseplants. There is such promise in the beginning, the joy of nurturing, the gratification of success, until things go south. I recall each houseplant debacle with utmost clarity, beginning with a leggy spider plant my mother carried on her lap on my inaugural car trip to college. As the first semester of freshman year rolled into the second, it was obvious that the spider plant was on a downward trajectory. Sophomore year, a healthy jade plant weathered the four hour car ride wedged between the complete works of William Shakespeare, a small desk lamp, and a pair of tap shoes. The Shakespeare compendium, the desk lamp, and the tap shoes survived. Thankfully, study abroad Junior year negated any chance of transporting greenery overseas. Senior year I lived off-campus and one of my housemates boasted a true green thumb. I took a part-time job at the local bakery, entrusting the plants to someone else. The houseplants thrived and the Pleasant Street housemates (plus much of the theatre department) enjoyed day-old black and white cookies and cream horns.
My very first New York City apartment had an “S” hook screwed into the ceiling, suitable for hanging a macramé planter. My mother provided a healthy wandering Jew plant that fit easily between the intricate knots and twine. Uncertain if by nature the plant prompted guilt, I tended to the plant with great care in the hopes it would flourish. The wandering Jew shared sunlight with an Amana Cool Zone window unit air conditioner. Neither the plant nor the air conditioner survived past August and yes, I felt guilty. The guilt plagued me through unhappy encounters with African violets, Christmas cacti, Paperwhites, and orchids. Even the impatiens of my adult life ultimately grew impatient with me, losing their joie de vivre.
I’m probably overthinking this, but sourdough starter feels very plant-like to me, and perhaps that is why I avoid it. Comfortable yeast doughs appeal to me; pizzas and focaccia, tightly swirled cinnamon buns and babka, top-knotted brioche. But my true love, the dough that serves as a blank canvas for every season, is crafted in an over-sized Pyrex bowl filled with pieces of cold butter, pinches of sugar and salt, and handfuls of flour, In order for pie dough to be tender, not tough, it needs to be spoon-fed just enough ice water to hold itself together, but not too much. I suppose pie dough is akin to sourdough starter in that they need a little nurturing and some time to relax in the fridge.
Situations dictated by unusual circumstances nudge bakers to be creative, to consider hidden treasures tucked away in pantries and freezers. Throughout history, pie bakers have been forced to use what was readily available, more so when times were difficult. My freezer boasts snippets of pie dough made from various flours, each parcel carefully wrapped in plastic. Although the leftover dough is too small to fill a 9” pie plate, it is too large to toss. A deluge of leisure during a difficult time has encouraged me to be crafty, something I'm not. Pie dough shies away from re-rolls, but with some gentle coaxing, odds and ends handily fill a make-shift pie tin. Frozen rhubarb and a few handfuls of fresh strawberries bake up into something that tastes less like the Ides of March and almost like spring. If the world is still upside down once I exhaust the freezer supplies, maybe I'll take up macramé.
Neither my pantry nor my fridge mirror any of the images currently flooding my inbox. Today is a fine day to unearth and regroup, tidy and pitch. My initial foray into the double door Jenn-Air refrigerator meets with immediate tragedy. An overfilled container of San Marzano tomatoes jettisons from the top shelf to the floor, spreading its contents with great abandon. Careening to a halt at the edge of the stairs, spilled tomatoes are not dire. It could have been far worse, it could have been egg whites. Tiptoeing to avoid the river of tomato puree as I secure a mop, my mood teeters between simmer and parboil. In light of the world around us, the idea of taking a deep dive into produce, dairy, and dry goods feels petty.
Grabbing more space than they deserve, incidentals roam freely amongst sensible groceries. Cookie dough studded with dark chocolate should move to the freezer. but the freezer is full. Combing through the yogurt, skim, and whole milk, I see nothing that boasts an imminent expiration date. There's little if any spoilage, and cobbling together a recipe based on odds and ends is do-able. It's also something our grandmothers did religiously, before groceries and meals were delivered via Amazon and Fresh Direct.
Neediest items will jump to the head of the line. I venture into the warped drawer identified as the “crisper.” It houses the remnants of a butternut squash and an unopened bag of rainbow carrots. As colorful and leggy as a Rockette kick line at Easter, I’m tempted to bake something with the carrots. Carrot cake? Morning Glory Bread? The butternut squash, sequestered since Sunday, should take priority. I close the drawer to the crisper and give the contents one last once-over. Dairy shelf real estate is too valuable for whole milk to stand upright, so I tighten the cap and turn it on its side. Tempting fate, I stack a narrow carton of eggs atop the milk.
The pantry is next, shelves over-filled with spices, dry goods, and canned goods. A lonesome can of organic pumpkin vies for attention. I see you, Pumpkin, and you, paper and cello bags of assorted grains. A package of jewel-toned candied fruit lounges against an unopened tube of chestnut paste. Smuggled home in a suitcase from a previous holiday, their shelf life is waning.
Wandering down a shelf, canned milk stretches out from end to end. Each one has value, but are they all necessary? These are baking milks, not coffee milks; sweetened condensed, evaporated, coconut, and powdered. I cannot part with a single one but reorganize things just a touch. An unopened can of dulce de leche seems better suited alongside a can of Eagle Brand condensed milk. Coconut cream is a little too self-important with a flashy label and flip-top lid. I transfer the cream behind the coconut milk and close the cabinet doors. A weighty bag of dark brown sugar insists on propping the door open. A cello bag overly secured with rubber bands free-falls from the top shelf. One corner of the bag has the slightest hole, large enough to cause chaos. A significant trail of semolina flour covers the tomato stained floor.
My chaotic pantry longs for order, jealous of what taunts from the great wide web. The pantries posted on social media are tidy to a fault. Organized alphabetically, they boast a color story direct from Pantone’s newest hits. Every pantry in fantasyland sports pristine canisters in various sizes, standing at attention. My pantry doesn't fall into place with precision; neither does my fridge. If self-quarantine doesn't encourage kitchen organization, I don't know what does. But it is a process, not a one day endeavor. More critically, I do know that the butternut squash in the fridge and the neglected can of pumpkin in the pantry deserve each other. They will also provide a little wiggle room in both my refrigerator and my pantry in the midst of a pandemic. Additionally, the marriage of the two squashes will fill a blind baked pie shell that is feeling neglected.
The latest article to land in my newsfeed instructs me to update my "storage system" which I interpret to mean, organize the Tupperware. More lids don't fit than do, and my favorite containers are triangular, (better suited to pie slices) or square, from decades ago. A wave of Corona blues hits me like a tidal wave and I slam the drawer shut. The Tupperware project can wait for another day of self-quarantine.
My knees crack as I kneel down to fetch the brown sugar from the bottom shelf. There's a 2 lb. bag of Fleishmann's yeast next to the dark brown Domino, separated by a slim paperback book. Glancing at the title, I'm shocked to see The Fleishmann Treasury of Yeast Baking. I'm organized and I don't even know it.
Reaching for a manual can opener, I explain to the ingredients set before me, "It's spring, Pumpkin. Both you and butternut are so much more November than March. But in this ever-changing world, who am I to judge?" I cross the kitchen to the sink, grab the liquid soap, turn on the tap, and sing two choruses of Happy Birthday. What a world.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm