For anyone who has ever dozed off during a lengthy Rosh Hashanah service, Zoom-ing through the high holidays might feel like living the dream. Though unprecedented, a drive-by blasting of the shofar is just one more curiously surreal pandemic adjustment we will one day look back on in bewilderment. The traditional fight to secure a parking space in a crowded temple parking lot doesn’t apply this year. Instead, we can channel that wasted energy on our weekly trip to Trader Joe’s.
Filing into the sanctuary attired in clothing less suited to yoga or exercise is a moot point in 5781. This year, you can spandex to your heart’s content, plying yourself with apples and honey from the comfort of your over-stuffed sofa. As congregations assemble together/apart, the idea of a sweet new year takes on added significance as we acknowledge a very fractured world. If ever we could use a little Shanah Tovah, 5781 is the year.
Here we go again, gearing up for the challah-days. Continuously bombarded with images of challahs mimicking red velvet cake, multi-colored unicorns and curiously enough, buffalo chicken, I understand; there’s an audience for everything. Personally, I prefer a classic challah, one that is content to simply twist and egg wash, embellished with a little poppy or sesame seed. Today’s challah is a totally different animal, preferring to twist and shout, “Look at me! I’m studded with dark chocolate and bling-y with pomegranate seeds. You can dress me up in tahini and whatever you do, don’t forget the halvah!”
I get it. Eggy bread is another blank canvas hungry for artistic expression. Contemporary challah artists are certainly worthy of applause. But when we’re talking about the High Holidays, it seems appropriate to save room for a classic challah, one with fewer whistles and perhaps fewer strands to weave. We all have our favorite recipes, the ones we all turn to; Joan’s or Marcy’s, Jennie’s or Marian’s, the Ladies of Hadassah; influencers all.
For Rosh Hashanah, the traditional oval-shaped challah is replaced by a spiral, formed from a singular rope of dough. As one who prefers to play with her food, I always opt for a braided loaf, turning it over to tuck in the ends, and turning it once more, nudging it into a circle. Some years it’s a little more lopsided than others, but in the end, round challah is a reminder of introspection, continuity, a fresh start with a date no one can quite remember. (This year it’s 5781.) The entire process requires a substantial part of a morning or afternoon, but the results are well worth the time. Challah teaches patience and attention to detail in the rising of the dough and the weaving of the braid. It also allows for a little reflection during the torturous waiting period between oven exodus, cooling, and slicing.
I’ll keep a watchful eye on the parade of challahs marching through social media this week, but the challah we will slice will not resemble a mythical animal, nor will it be tinted red nor will we serve it alongside celery sticks and blue cheese dressing. We’ll happily slather the thick, egg-rich bread with good butter and try to exercise restraint, saving some for the next morning. While cautiously optimistic, I can make no French toast guarantees.
The last hurrah of peach pie season brings out the cranky in people. Maybe they’re cranky because they just looked at the date on their Apple watch and discovered September started without them. Perhaps they’re a little bitter because this was a highly unusual summer, unlike any we’ve encountered in our lifetime. It’s quite possible that the peach pie hopefuls of this weekend haven’t thought about peach pie since the 4th of July and are now frantically trying to make up for lost time.
Despite its shaky start, summer gained momentum, much like peaches skidding off a meticulously arranged pyramid on a Farmers’ Market table. Some of us dedicate a generous portion of the summer to peaches; peeling, sweetening, and nestling them in deeply crimped pie shells. Weaving a criss-cross of lattice over the stone fruit is a far more entertaining finish than a simple double crust. Peach pie, more than any other stone fruit pie is unique in its ability to capture a season so completely. The goal of a peach pie is to simply taste like summer.
While it’s quite possible that peach pie is on the radar of many summer idlers, they are easily distracted. Caught up in the critical importance of social media, they turn their attention to boozy popsicles or choose to agonize over sourdough discard. Or maybe they dismissed peach pie earlier in the season because they were too busy slathering graham crackers with peanut butter cups and handcrafted marshmallows. Regardless of the reason, here we are, smack dab in the first week of September, with Labor Day just about to turn the corner. The sweet peaches of Summer 2020, the ones best devoured standing over the sink have moved on, making room for the zucchini nobody wants.
Sure, there are freestones to be had, some yellows, some whites, but these peaches are unpredictable, less sweet, often mealy, over-sized and underwhelming. Vacillating between past their prime and desperately seeking time in a brown paper bag, bakers expected to fill pie shells are stuck in a hurry-up-and-wait pie conundrum.
On the home front, we have dipped dramatically low in our peach pie consumption. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until this week that I assembled Jessie’s Cookie Pie Crust with Peaches and Blueberries. This giant, open-faced pie requires little more than the sweetest peaches and the ripest blueberries. It’s easier to assemble than a traditional pie because Jessie didn’t like fuss and didn’t like wasting time. This pie embraces the peaches; skins, pits and all, and needs little time to cool before slicing. The crust is more cookie than pie and doesn’t require a rolling pin. As the humidity sucked the air out of the kitchen, the peach syrup reduced on top of the stove, filling the kitchen with the fragrance of peaches, vanilla, and almond, conjuring sun-filled days. Not the June/July/August of 2020, but summer as I knew it before it was side- swiped by a virus. As for you peaches, until we pie again. And while I’m sorry to see you go summer, I’m really not sorry.
Summer is just about ready to shake the sand out of its beach towel, retire its flip-flops, and move the blue jar of Noxzema to the rear of the medicine cabinet. Save for one mediocre soft serve ice cream cone, summer seems to have passed me by. Having actively avoided lakefronts, boardwalks, and swimming pools for the past three months, I will admit to adjusting my running route in order to cross parched lawns with rotating sprinklers. Socially distant al fresco dining does not call to me nor does the Good Humor Man’s revamped ice cream truck jingle. Lackluster chocolate éclairs and anemic toasted almond bars have no place in my Summer of 2020. There’s more than enough chaos to absorb; ice cream novelties that pale in comparison to their former selves aren’t worth the energy.
What I’ve been noticing and appreciating more this year than in summers past are the Jersey tomatoes. It’s taken most of the summer to arrive at Heirloom and Beefsteak perfection, but at long last I’m living the tomato dream. BLTs worthy of accelerated cholesterol, Caprese salads dotted with fragrant basil, and my favorite, heirlooms lounging on a buttery pie crust. Real tomatoes can certainly stand on their own with little more than a generous hit of kosher salt and coarse black pepper. But summer tomatoes are accustomed to the heat, their sweetness intensified by slow roasting in the oven or as part of an open-faced pie. The tomatoes of late August are the ones that ruin it for the rest of the year. No matter how intently we cradle and prod, sniff and squeeze, the tomatoes that fill the produce aisles from fall to winter to spring will taste nothing like summer tomatoes. Which is why we need to stop and smell the tomatoes before the season packs up, leaving us with tomatoes as tasty as wax fruit.
The humble buttermilk pie was once a popular go-to dessert, particularly in Midwestern and Southern farmhouse kitchens. Composed of readily available ingredients, the tangy pie often took center stage at baking contests, snagging blue ribbons and bragging rights for the baker.
Traditional buttermilk pies tend to reflect a heavy hand with the sugar, offset only by the sour notes of the dairy and a splash of lemon juice. I’ve always found the pie cloyingly sweet, and not in a good way. Adding fresh fruit to the mix enhances the filling, making this a stand-out four seasons pie. (It also helps temper the sweet custard.) Taking the time to blind bake the crust ensures a crisp pie shell. Summer fruit such as berries, peaches, nectarines, and apricots elevate this pie from dowdy to swanky. Pair it with a tall glass of something icy and pretend you’re on vacation.
Summertime and the living is not easy. In August, I'm painfully aware that the cool kids have stocked their fridges with the ultimate end-of-summer provisions. Burrata and fennel, a rainbow of radishes, dimpled tomatoes dubbed heirlooms. I'm happy with the basics; two-tone corn, deeply red tomatoes, and an armful of the freshest basil kindly gifted by my neighbor with the verdant thumb. At home, both the mercury and the humidity are battling each other like a pair of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. Turning on the oven is necessary but somewhat of a luxury. It is in August when we remember the reasoning behind icebox cakes, no-bake pies and fruit cocktail suspended in gelatin. In August one must choose between oven and stove-top, outdoor grill or in today's climate, contactless pick-up.
I'm more likely to pick-up a dog-eared cookbook than scroll through an on-line menu. Joanne Chang's Pastry Love offers inspiration with a recipe for a savory scone. Realizing my fridge boasts only 50% of the recipe's title, I forge ahead, improvising as I go. Kernels from a lonely ear of corn are happy to join in the mix. Basil steps in as Chive's understudy. A ripe Jersey tomato waits patiently as the over-sized scone bakes, filling the kitchen with a fragrance I'll miss when August tumbles into September.
Tuesday’s pelting rain and Wizard-of-Oz winds wreaked havoc. We were luckier than most. The good news is the tree branch carnage strewn across our yard is inconvenient, but not dire.
More importantly, two trays of hand pies exited the oven before the power went down. The surprising news is our power outage snuck up on us when we least expected it, a full day after the storm blew through. Undeterred, I made my way down the stairs on Thursday morning, hands firmly grasping the railing. Standing in the kitchen doorway, silence. Not a single appliance purred. Cautiously dipping one toe into the darkness, I tiptoed towards the counter, hoping to avoid the dreaded stubbed digit. Footwear would have been prudent, but fatigue diminishes one’s logic. Fumbling for the Chemex, I blindly folded the filter paper with the skill of an origami master. The electric burr grinder dozed, dreaming of freshly roasted Arabica beans. The ground coffee chamber offered a mere whisper of caffeinated dust. Chewing on coffee beans seemed overly dramatic and bad for one’s teeth. Bemoaning my state of cuppa joe deprivation, a morning pie (baked just hours before)offered consolation. Bad news? No coffee. Better news? Pie. Even better news? You can link to the recipe here.
Stay safe and remember, Mother Nature always wins.
Someone please hand me a block of Philadelphia Brand cream cheese; apparently Thursday was National Cheesecake Day and I didn’t get the memo.
When the mercury hovers in the nineties, my thoughts turn to ice cream floats and precarious swirls of soft serve. Cheesecake isn’t on my radar in July and August, probably because we once shared too much time together.
Cheesecake and I were once summer pals, hanging out together in Philadelphia restaurant kitchens, cooling off in the walk-ins, mopping up butter spills with nubby linen-service bar towels. Springsteen and Hall & Oates poured out of the radio until the line cooks arrived and changed the station. In the 1980s, Oreo cheesecake was a popular cholesterol buster, combining an iconic cookie with a triple threat of cream cheese, sour cream, and heavy cream. Over-dressed in dark chocolate ganache and swirls of whipped cream, each slice should have been garnished with 20 mg of Lipitor.
In the summer of 2002, I gathered together my collection of warped springform pans and moved up the block to a brand new eatery boasting Northern Italian cuisine. When I wasn’t turning out trays of tiramisu, I was filling the oven with ricotta cheesecakes. Flecked with lemon zest and perfumed with vanilla, the cheesecake needed nothing more than a perfect espresso. Instead, it was airlifted onto a behemoth dessert plate, Jackson Pollock-ed with raspberry and blackberry sauces, dotted with deliberately asymmetrical summer berries and finished with a casual dusting of confectioners’ sugar. Plating the dessert was almost as exhausting as preparing it.
A thirty pound carton of Philadelphia cream cheese forever changes the way you approach cheesecake, Sunday morning bagels, and lavishly frosted carrot cakes. In many bakeries, cream cheese is delivered in a single carton that could be mistaken for a window unit air conditioner. Chiseling away at cream cheese the way a sculptor embraces clay, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to weigh the yin and yang of cream cheese. The slab vs. the schmear, on a bagel. The naked carrot cake vs. the one smothered in stark white frosting and neon carrots. The pre-sliced cheesecake samplers peering through the freezer doors at Costco. For some, it might be cause to give up cheesecake forever.
With a stash of freshly pitted sour cherries in my freezer, and a nearly empty container of ice cream, dessert inspiration arrives via a recipe from my Canadian neighbors. Ignoring the oven, dessert is within reach. Smashing digestive biscuits into crumbs proves exhilarating. Adding a splash of bourbon to a quick stove-top spin of sour cherries and vanilla instantly improves my mood. (Ditto for a thimble-ful of bourbon for the baker.) The ‘no bake’ cheesecake filling is a quick blend of cream cheese, mascarpone, and more cherries. Not a single springform pan is required; an ordinary cupcake pan will do. The end result is the very best pairing of sour cherries and cheesecake in a digestive biscuit crust. Say cheese-cake.
As we continue to mask up and hunker down, the very best time for produce has arrived. Feeling skittish about the farmers' market, I convince myself that our local Monday market is too small to be problematic. Blinded by glaring sun, foggy eyeglasses, and mask (slightly askew) I'm determined to keep my distance. Though tempted to choose my own ears of corn, I really don't want to touch previously handled silver queen. Using my elbow, I maneuver two ears from the table into my canvas bag. There's a pyramid of blushing peaches, but those will require plastic. The simple task of procuring a plastic bag from a post dangling overhead is an issue. People within 6 feet watch me, eyebrows raised as I struggle to emancipate a single polybag while trying to maintain a safe distance. The bag is without end, causing me to unroll a football field's worth of bags. Attempting to re-roll simply makes everything worse. Fellow shoppers are glaring and stage whispering amongst themselves about "social distancing." Ugh. Is it too much to ask for a solitary flimsy tote? One with an opening that will cradle a few freestone peaches?
Focusing strictly on the cashier ahead, I pretend not to notice the peaches rolling under my feet. Just before the check-out, an unwieldy crate filled with just-picked sunflowers is perched a little too closely to where the table meets the thoroughfare. Unsuccessfully juggling my produce, I cannot find the opening of my hold-all. Clipping the sunflowers a little too closely, I plunk down my produce in order to steady the bouquet. Aaargh- my hand grazed the flowers! The grumpy guy behind me has been glaring since I elbowed the corn. Approaching the cashier, waving a credit card, I've touched the table and the square reader for contactless payment. My head hurts. Trying to maintain a safe exiting distance, a serious worker is trying to coax the sunflowers back to a casually impressive display. This is much too stressful for a Monday. Setting the produce on the front seat of the car, I explain to the peaches, "It wasn't always like this."
When an alarm pierces the dark o’clock of Thursday morning, a baker immediately believes the worst. Digging into the abyss of an exhausted subconscious, this baker wonders if she forgot to turn off the oven.
Convinced I am responsible for a house engulfed in flames, I open one eye. The floorboards are creaking followed by the interruption of the incessant beeping. Mr. Sweet As Pie returns from the third floor and assures me the house is not on fire. He continues, “It’s the carbon monoxide detector.”
“Whaaaa???!!!” I mumble from the depths of my striped percale. Suddenly I’m wide awake. “That’s the one where you die in your sleep, right? Or is that the one in Death of A Salesman, second act, second to last scene, Willy Loman?”
Mr. Sweet As Pie is both sensible and calm under crisis. He’s the guy you want standing next to when you’re stuck in a maddening crowd, seeking a safe exit strategy. It occurs to me we might need to evacuate.
“Do we have to leave the house?” I’m starting to panic, not because I’d hate for my neighbors to catch a glimpse of my mismatched pajamas, but because I don’t want to leave my freshly baked pie behind; I've yet to tuck into it. If I have to spend the rest of the night sitting in the car, the blackberry silk pie is coming with me. The fact that it is a refrigerator pie complicates things. I’ll need a cooler and ice, and the cooler is possibly in the basement or stowed in the garage. I may be unconscious by the time it's located. It appears the pie will need to remain in the fridge. This is sobering news.
My husband is busy opening every window in the house. He assures me the fresh air will dissipate the toxic air. I’m not so certain and lying in the dark, I begin composing my will. This feeble exercise will preoccupy my anxious self. For dramatic effect, I take a few audible breaths and begin mentally divvying up my jewelry, the pie plates, the rolling pins, and my Pyrex mixing bowls. Mr. Sweet As Pie appears to be going back to bed.
“What are you doing? You shouldn’t go back to sleep! What if we don’t wake up?!”
He suggests that if truly concerned, I can wait in the car. Squinting to focus on the digital clock on the other side of the room, it reads 3:30 am.
“Shouldn’t we call somebody?” I implore. “Who do we call in a case like this? Is this something for the fire department or is it gas related? Quick- what’s the number for 9-1-1?”
“It could be any number of things. I’ll call in the morning.”
“Don’t you understand? We might not be here in the morning…” With every window open, I’m about to complain about the drop in temperature. Blindly reaching for the blanket and a quilt, the blurry clock has inched its way to 4:15. With less than an hour before my alarm goes off, sleep is elusive.
“What kinds of things? You said it could be any number of things…”
“Maybe the hot water heater, or the chimney or the gas fireplace…”
Waiting for my alarm, trying not to over think the invisible toxicity that may kill me before sunrise, it occurs to me that Mr. Sweet As Pie has a birthday coming up. I wonder if carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors come packaged in gift sets?
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm