There have been rare sightings of fresh rhubarb in the tri-state area. Repeated calls to my congenial rhubarb supplier, Mike-in-Produce, have proven unsuccessful. “I’m sorry, but it’s unavailable, “ Mike insists. The more he insists, the more I implore. “That’s not possible- can you pleeease check another location?” Mike hits the keyboard of his computer with short, staccato strokes. “Unavailable. Out of stock. Unavailable. I can’t order it because the website tells me it’s unavailable.” Demoralized, I tell him I’ll try again next week but Mike is already gone, replaced by irritating elevator music punctuated by an endless loop of organic grocery specials. Begrudgingly, I paw through the depths of my freezer, emancipating the very last bags of rhubarb. Each bag is inscribed with a date scribbled in Sharpie that reads, Pandemic ’20.
Chipping away at the faded pink and green icecap with an OXO meat tenderizer, exactly three quarters of a pound of rhubarb over fills a fine mesh strainer. The ice crystals are stubborn, clinging to the frozen rhubarb like barnacles on the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.. Waiting for the ice to thaw and the oven to heat, I rummage through the pantry, assembling ingredients for a crumb topping. The Quaker Oats man relinquishes barely one cup of old-fashioned cereal. Hoisting my heaviest cast iron skillet from the bottom of the cabinet to the countertop, the oven beeps slightly off key, indicating it’s ready for business. A simple buttermilk cake batter is quick to mix and sturdy enough to support the still-frozen pie plant. The crumb topping is a little too generous for the batter, bordering on excessive.
Recently fixated by the BBC television series, Great British Menu, I can’t stop thinking about the rhubarb and custard pudding prepared by Edinburgh Chef of the Year, Tony Singh. Singh’s fresh rhubarb pudding, made with locally sourced rhubarb, is served with a custard sauce that teeters on crème brulee. The chef introduces viewers to the chickens responsible for the egg rich custard, as well as the farmer who grows a steady supply of exquisite rhubarb. My oven timer beeps, interrupting my Great British Menu reverie. I’ll wait a few days before calling Mike-in-Produce. This week’s ‘unavailable’ might just be next week’s rhubarb windfall.
A long time ago, doctors made house calls, meaning it was fairly common to roll up your sleeve and receive a shot while hunkered down at home in your pajamas. When we were kids, our family physician was Dr. Seidenstein, an affable neighbor of my grandparents. “Doc” had a home office, but was more of a frequent visitor to our house where four children traded germs and malaises with abandon. It seemed that as soon as one of us was recovering from the latest ailment, someone else was coming down with it. My mother was in charge of temperatures, dispensing chewable aspirin as needed or simply placing a cool hand on a feverish brow. She doled out Smith Brothers cherry cough drops, Aspergum, and Sucrets in moderation and opened fresh boxes of Kleenex with calm precision. You knew you were really sick when the black and white television was wheeled into your bedroom so you could watch cartoons, or Captain Kangaroo, or I Love Lucy. Doc was a nice enough fellow, but the sight of him and his black leather medical bag making his way down the sidewalk sent me hiding beneath the covers. I always assumed his visits would culminate with a dose of penicillin administered via hypodermic needle followed by a chalky, cherry-tasting prescription. I was rarely wrong.
House calls have been replaced by urgent care centers and routine vaccinations are often in full view of a pharmacy check-out line; the one that sends you home with miles of receipts. Doctor’s visits have been forever changed by the pandemic and are more commonly conducted via a computer screen rather than in person. My long-awaited, highly coveted first dose of the Moderna vaccine recently became a reality. Keeping a respectful distance, I meandered through a now defunct department store that had been revamped into a vaccination site, repeating my pertinent information to a series of enthusiastic volunteers. Weaving in and out of makeshift barricades, I arrived at the final checkpoint where I was ushered into Cubicle Number 6 and asked to roll up my sleeve. In four weeks I'll be back for the second dose, because hiding under the covers is no longer an option.
Pie has provided more than sustenance in a year fraught with uncertainty, heartbreak, stretchy pants, and too many bad hair days to count. When time stands still it helps to take stock of what is essential. As spring wakes us in the morning an hour ahead of schedule and the weather hints at possibilities, it all feels a little surreal.
2020 gave us an abundance of unpleasantries but it did provide time for baking our blues away. Sourdough starters and pie-scapes crafted with matte knife precision provided distraction during a year we hope never to repeat. No matter how you choose to celebrate Einstein’s birthday, or the mathematical constant, or an excuse to eat pie, today is a fine day to be mindful of who and what matters. Personally, pie has always been about the divvying up and the sharing, not necessarily the math. But in honor of a numbers kind of day, thanks to the Shakers for their recipe combining two lemons with two cups of sugar, a pinch of salt, four eggs, half a stick of butter and a little flour. Sometimes it’s a good idea to focus on simple gifts because they have a way of becoming essential in challenging times. Happy Pi(e) Day to all.
One year ago, I was singing the Happy Birthday song on repeat while fervently washing my hands. The cabinets and drawers circling my kitchen were in a state of constant upheaval as I attempted to revamp, rearrange, and declutter. With way too much time on my very clean hands, surely I could have dabbled in sourdough or created my very best banana bread adventure. My mornings were wide open with nothing to do but organize an unruly collection of Tupperware, matching them with their appropriate lids and pitching the rest; instead I procrastinated.
The truth is I ignored sourdough starter like the very plague swirling around us, listening patiently while friends spoke of their ‘starter’ with the enthusiasm of a new pet owner. I baked zero loaves of banana bread, dodged the Dalgona coffee trend, and never entertained the idea of baking tiny pancakes for the sole purpose of tucking them into a cereal bowl. After numerous half-hearted attempts, I gave up on the Tupperware odyssey and shoved all of the mismatched lids to the rear of the cabinet.
The bane of my existence was what to make for dinner. A hot topic of debate, I struggled with what to prepare and also what to avoid. With each suggestion that flooded my inbox, I resisted. I didn’t want to cook on a sheet pan; sheet pans are for baking. For every reinvention of an old trend into a contemporary idea, I balked. Yes, I knew exactly where in the basement my mother’s circa 1970 canary yellow fondue set lurked. It hadn’t seen the light of day since Gene Rayburn hosted Match Game, and that was fine with me. The idea of getting creative with a slow cooker felt counter intuitive. With nothing but time to mise en place to my heart’s content, I shouldn’t be turning to a crock pot for inspiration. Ultimately, an oven cranked up to 425 degrees and a love of pie saved me.
Pot pies, hand pies, cast iron skillet pies, each one sparked a little joy. Yeast-driven doughs, pizzas and galettes provided inspiration and eased the curmudgeon o’clock hour. One year later, with the world still in flux, pie-for-dinner continues. Leftovers find refuge stored in a Tupperware container, sealed with a lid that mostly fits.
Purim began at sundown last evening, the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. One of the most festive holidays on the Jewish calendar, Purim celebrates the biblical story of the Jews’ deliverance from Haman, minister to the Persian king. Queen Esther of Persia, a resilient and brave woman, along with her cousin Mordecai, foiled an evil plot, saving the Jewish people from certain doom. I know these facts not because I was paying close attention in Hebrew school, but because hamantaschen and a costume parade coincided with the lesson plan.
The tri-cornered pastries known as hamantaschen are symbolic of the hat worn by Haman. Originally, the pastries were filled with “mohn” or poppy seeds, thick jam, or nuts. The Settlement Cookbook calls yeast-risen sweets Purim Cakes or Haman Pockets. Jennie Grossinger’s The Art of Jewish Cooking offers both yeast-risen and cookie dough recipes under the heading of Hamentaschen. In Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, a recipe for beigli or kindli is included; a yeast risen cookie served at Purim, flavored with wine and filled with rum spiked poppy-seeds, raisins, and figs.
Contemporary versions of the triangular cookie have veered off course from the Hamantaschen road our grandmothers traveled. Bakers have reimagined the simple cookie, zhushing them with unicorns, rainbows, s’mores, and blizzards of sprinkles. I’ll admit old hamantaschen habits die hard; make mine mohn or jammy, please. Currently, I’m pining for the strictly-from-scratch poppy seed version crafted by @beerswithbrahms in Toronto.
Recently, I’ve learned about a totally different Purim sweet; the shikkera babka, which translates to ‘drunken grandma.’ Before you accuse me of blasphemy, let’s take a stroll through the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
Within the pages of the food-centric encyclopedia, renowned food historian, the late Rabbi Gil Marks, explores a tipsy babka known as the shikkera babka. An un-filled yeast bread drizzled with a whiskey or rum laced syrup, the pastry closely mirrors both the French savarin and the baba au rhum. Marks goes on to suggest that the shikkera babka might have resembled the Polish babka because of its turban shape.
Fascinated by this new piece of knowledge, I turned to Mrs. Simon Kander and the ladies of the Settlement cookbook, plus Jennie, Joan, and an entire bookshelf dedicated to Jewish baking. Not a single book turned up the babka mentioned in the encyclopedia, but there were more than enough solid babka recipes for inspiration.
My tipsy babka experiment yielded an orange zested yeast bread swirled with dates and hazelnuts, lavishly doused with Cointreau. More of a commitment than a jam stuffed triangular cookie, it was well worth the whole dough megillah of resting, rising, and weaving. For the next one, I’m envisioning a swirl of poppy-seed filling and some dark chocolate.
In celebration of the cooled babka, I paraded around the kitchen with a thick slice, leaving behind a trail of hazelnuts and sticky crumbs. Though my grandmother would have opted for whiskey syrup over Cointreau, I’m fairly certain she would have approved.
We live in a world where interactive, live-streaming baking classes are taught by professional chefs and intimately hosted on Zoom. This was not always the norm. In a world long ago and far away, baking classes were an in-person experience. Students and instructors met together in a shared kitchen space. Armed with clean, white linen service towels, a notebook, and a hunger for a new skill, students observed and participated, sharing in the tactile experience.
Before 2020 interrupted our lives, teaching hands-on classes was something I managed to squeeze in whenever the opportunity presented itself. I also gravitated towards taking classes under the tutelage of instructors I admired. New skill sets are just as important as a sharp kitchen knife, a small offset spatula, and a properly calibrated oven.
Quite a few years back, 2004 to be exact, my friend Nancy and I traveled from Philadelphia to Manhattan to attend a baking class taught by the formidable Carole Walter. Diminutive in size but with a prodigious knowledge of pastry, Carole led us through an afternoon of baking that teetered on exhaustive. More of a coach than a helicopter instructor, the James Beard award winning culinary professional shared baking secrets and dispelled myths. The one thing I remember most vividly was Carole’s demonstration of “how to measure.” Armed with measuring cups and spoons, we were instructed to “fluff” our flour before measuring, spooning in the dry ingredient before painstakingly leveling off the requisite amount. Additionally, in stressing the importance of technique, Carole told us, “If you are a ‘shaker,’ a person who is accustomed to shaking the measuring cup while spooning in flour, STOP.”
Good advice for anyone without a kitchen scale.
Carole meant business and after the measuring tutorial, we dove into our prep list. In short order, we baked an array of sweets; a rich coconut cake, a very crumb-y, (but in a good way), coffee cake, brown sugar cookies, and slender chocolate biscotti. When instructed to plump the raisins for the coffeecake, Nancy, a talented baker in her own right, but more of a landscape artist, paused and whispered,“They look fine to me.” Carole was already one step ahead, stirring chocolate chips and walnuts into biscotti dough. We were woefully behind. Because my classmate had taken the place of someone else whose name remained on the class roster, Carole spent the afternoon referring to Nancy as Margie.
With cakes barely cool enough to slice and a mountain of cookies and biscotti to divvy up, we over-filled white bakery boxes and gathered up our notes. Carole had recently written a book dedicated to cookies, and our tuition entitled us to an autographed copy. As we stepped up to the stainless steel worktable, Carole looked up at Nancy wearing a name tag that said Margie. “Please make it out to Nancy,” my friend asked, and the award winning pastry chef complied with the raised eyebrow of a woman wondering if this student knew her own name. Carole added, “Good luck!” with an exclamation mark for emphasis.
“See?” I said as we headed towards Penn Station, our arms filled with cookbooks and butter stained boxes. “Carole really liked you.” Margie/Nancy shook her head.
Carole’s book, Great Cookies, sits comfortably on my kitchen bookshelf alongside her compendiums, Great Cakes and Great Pies & Tarts. A treasure trove of detailed recipes, I turn to these books not only for what to bake, but how and why. This week, armed with too many open jars of peanut butter and way too many bags of lightly salted peanuts, I leafed through Great Cookies until settling on one of my favorite Carole Walter recipes. With my baker's scale set to zero, I weighed the flour but not before giving it the slightest little “fluff.” It made me think of Nancy.
In its early days, upside down cake was a cast iron skillet cake, cooked over an open-fire. Once supported by legs, the heavy skillets were dubbed ‘spiders’ which lead to the moniker, “spider cakes.” The advent of flat-bottomed cast iron skillets opened the oven door to new possibilities.
The ingenuity of James Dole, the “Pineapple King,” coupled with the invention of the pineapple ring cutter would make the once elusive tropical fruit readily available to home bakers. In 1925, Dole Pineapple sponsored a contest for pineapple centric recipes, amassing more than 2,500 variations on the upside-down cake theme.
By the 1930s, rings of pineapple and neon maraschino cherries were making indelible memories in kitchens across America. When boxed cake mixes arrived on supermarket shelves, pineapple upside down cake became an easy to prepare ‘busy day cake.’
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s version, adapted from “The Cake Bible,” is my favorite. Pineapple sprawls across the top and also around the sides, cradling a rich yellow batter. Some might frown upon my use of Wisconsin cherries over maraschino, but either will happily compliment the caramelized brown sugar. The only enhancement might be a dollop of whipped cream.
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.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm