I’m watching cubes of cold butter and pounds of all-purpose flour collide with the paddle attachment of the commercial Hobart mixer. Armed with a plastic pitcher of ice-cold water and a splash of gluten-inhibiting cider vinegar, I’m working on my umpteenth round of pie dough. It’s a little bit like a game of jump rope, when you’re waiting patiently for your opportunity to jump in without getting tangled up in the rope. I don’t want the water to get tangled up in the butter and flour until the mixture is the proper consistency; what folks in my line of work refer to as “coarse crumbs with the butter pieces being no larger than the size of a pea.” No one has clarified whether we’re looking for a split pea, or a very young, Le Sueur pea from Minnesota, or your run-of-the-mill frozen pea from the Trader Joe’s freezer case. I want the pie dough to be all of the right things; tender, flaky, and buttery but none of the wrong things; dry, tough, and elastic. There are three more rounds of cold butter and flour taking up space in the walk-in. Turning off the mixer, I pinch the stubborn butter bits, flattening them and sending them back into the brisée fray. Impatiently, I add water to the mix, stopping and starting the machine, tossing the floury butter bits with my fingers, trying a little more water but not too much. With the persistence of Goldilocks, I gather together the shaggy dough, declaring it ‘just right.’ There’s a clump of unmixed flour and butter at the very bottom of the bowl. Damn. Using a plastic bowl scraper, I empty the dough onto a parchment lined sheet pan and squoosh the wayward flour bits into the mix with a sprinkle of cold water. ‘Just right’ is highly over-rated when the elusive number you're hoping to capture is upwards of 700. You might say we’re just warming up.
The not-so-funny thing about commercial pie baking for Thanksgiving is the absurdity of the process. Just when you think you’re closing in on 700 plus pie shells for the day before the holiday, the cold harsh reality hits you over the head like the weightiest rolling pin. Before we congratulate ourselves for rolling and crimping hundreds of 9" shells, I remember; every single one of those pastry-lined pie shells has to be filled. My goals for the next two and a half weeks are humble yet critical. If I can limit my forearm oven burns to a minimum, if I remember to defer anything requiring math skills to a calculator, and if I'm strict about keeping a fully charged oven timer close at hand, I should be golden, just like a properly par-baked pie shell.
It’s a touch too balmy for the last day of October. The weather has been mercurial; chilly in the mornings, stretching into the low 70s later in the day. On Halloween at 5 pm, the thermometer hovers at 74 degrees. It’s been raining on and off, vacillating between substantial showers and the kind of drizzle that definitively makes it a bad hair day, even beneath a bandana.
There’s a parade winding through our little Village, starting at the top of the main street near the train station, zig-zagging past the movie theatre, the local supermarket, a variety of restaurants, finally ending a little past the bakery. Shop merchants are filling plastic pumpkins, tired pillowcases, and outstretched hands with Halloween candy. The children are equally represented by grown-ups, most sporting elaborate costumes. Even the family pets are outfitted as super heroes, skeletons, and ‘hot’ dogs. My costume is subtle- a pair of black and white checkered chef pants, a starched white button down shirt and a bandana emblazoned with kitchen paraphernalia. I carry one solitary prop; an empty wine bottle. Inspired by my vocation, I am a pie baker at five o’clock, somewhere.
Inching my way towards the car, a pair of high school-ers dressed in inflatable T-Rex costumes are taking up much of the sidewalk. Ducking and weaving, I scoot past, only to sideswipe a man on stilts. Yikes. Out of the fray, there’s a lone trick or treat-er dressed as a Lego. He’s wearing a multi-colored cardboard box on his head, and walking past him, I catch a whiff of craft glue and fresh paint. Alongside the Lego is his mother, her hands spattered with paint that matches the cardboard box. Little Lego and his mother wade into the ocean of costumes, the cardboard box bobbing along against a family decked out as Toy Story. Lego has a near miss with Buzz Lightyear and Woody, but steadies himself.
I’m driving with extreme caution, keeping an eye out for trick or treat-ers. There are plenty of distractions along the way. A few blocks from home, a front lawn overrun with an absurd number of Halloween inflatables is snarling traffic. The inflatables are oversized to a fault, better suited to a parade. Cars in front of me are slowing down to take in the inflatable show. I’m losing patience and turn left. There are plenty of sensible decorations on my street; toothy Jack-O-Lanterns grinning from front steps and strings of orange light outlining porches.
No sooner do I pull into my driveway than my ears begin to twitch. There is a high pitched wailing coming from the house across the street. My neighbors have fashioned a faux graveyard in their front yard, a tableau of appropriately frightening tombstones draped in cobwebs. It’s difficult to tell how the sound is unleashed but it is on a steady loop, a cross between a rusty hinge and an animal in distress. Its only speed is full throttle and the relentless lamentation is beginning to irritate me. The dwindling bag of Halloween candy in my kitchen still has a few worthy choices. I reach for a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Peeling back the gold foil wrapper, the milk chocolate is soft, a little melty, leaving streaks of chocolate on the wrapper and my fingers. The graveyard soundtrack continues interrupted only by my doorbell.
Wiping the chocolate from the corners of my mouth, I answer the door to a black cat and a pumpkin. I drop a few pieces of candy in their bags and watch them walk next door, leaves crunching beneath their feet. There’s not much in the way of trick or treat-ers on foot, maximizing their candy quota by dashing across front lawns and running from house to house. Instead, I’m witnessing a steady cavalcade of cars, stopping just before the intersection to unload a collection of candy seekers, leaving the driver in the car, eyes glued to a cellphone.
It is unlikely that my parents would have been the Uber to my trick or treating. Before my older brothers bowed out of the festivities, our Halloween celebration began with a party at school and trick or treating when we returned. Most years, I waited impatiently while my mother finished stitching the last details onto my costume, (this was before hot glue guns) grabbed a quick snack so I wouldn’t perish, and ventured out into the pre-dusk afternoon. We circled the neighborhood together, brothers and sisters with a few friends, never going inside anyone’s house, never eating anything that was homemade, and always being aware that apples had the potential to harbor foreign, dangerous objects. Our feet grew tired before we exhausted our itinerary. It was crystal clear that we would be home before dark; the only kids who ventured out at night were high schoolers, less likely to be gathering candy and according to my parents, more likely to be looking for trouble.
We spent the evening emptying our pillowcases and our plastic pumpkins onto the dining room table. Taking inventory of our haul, we discarded anything unwrapped, any stray candy corn that had found its way into the mix, and of course, any apples. We argued and traded, fighting over Pixie Stix, Sweet Tarts, jawbreakers that changed color, Bonomo Turkish Taffy, BB Bats, Double Bubble and Bazooka. Candy necklaces were highly coveted, Mary Janes, not so much. I have no recollection of being told how much or how little to consume, I only remember begrudgingly brushing our teeth as a preventative measure against loathsome cavities. The candy was popular for quite a while until all the good choices had been exhausted leaving us with a few tired Tootsie Rolls, the Mary Janes, the Bit-O-Honeys.
Around eight o’clock last night, the wailing from across the street finally ended, restoring peace to our little neighborhood. With the conclusion of Halloween, we are propelled into the thick of the holiday season. I count fewer than thirty days, less than a month to go before Piemageddon. More frightening than the oversized inflatables, the droning graveyard and a bag filled with loose candy corn, I shudder at the thought of it.
Act 4 Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale- Enter Clown
“I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice, - what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on…
I must have saffron to color the warden pies; mace, dates? – none, that’s out of my note; nutmegs, seven, a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pounds of prunes, and as many of raisins I’ the sun.”
My version of pear pie opts for cornmeal and rye in the pastry, cardamom in the filling, and golden raisins, straying from the Warden Pie depicted in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Warden pears were originally grown in Bedfordshire, gathered from the land surrounding Warden Abbey. Shakespeare had a penchant for pears, often peppering his scripts with bawdy and risqué pear references, not always suitable for prime time consumption.
I can relate to recipes instructing you to ‘bake your Wardens first in a pie’ (meaning pre-bake) to accommodate rock-hard, unripe fruit. Having only dabbled in Shakespeare in college, I do consider myself more of an authority on unripe pears. Without following the Clown’s recipe to the letter, cue my Pear Pie with Cornmeal/Rye Pastry. You won’t need Spark notes to understand it. The crust bows to rye and cornmeal flour and the filling is weighty with pears and has a good bite from candied ginger. I prefer it for breakfast with a drizzle of maple syrup, but vanilla ice cream makes a fine understudy.
Setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner was always a big to-do, almost ceremonial. My father liked to orchestrate, enlisting several sets of hands to expand the antique table to a size that could accommodate a minimum of a dozen, generally more. Consulting first with my mother for a headcount that was always changing, the man who always sat at the head of the table would venture into the cavernous hall closet for additional boards to extend the table. The boards weighed a ton, made of the same dark stained wood as the heirloom table, with each board numbered to ensure a seamless extension. Our dining room chairs with the needlepoint seats had curvy backs and wide legs, too unwieldy for Thanksgiving. My father dove into the rear of the hall closet to unearth uncomfortable folding chairs with black leatherette seats supported by wooden legs. When unfolded, the chairs were guaranteed to pinch your fingers as you set them in place. My mother accumulated the chairs in the 1960s and 70s when S&H green stamps were popular. The stamps were distributed at supermarkets, gas stations, and department stores, collected by all the moms, and pasted into booklets. When you had amassed enough, the green stamps were redeemable for products featured in the S&H catalogue. Based on the number of folding chairs tucked away in the closet, my mother must have been collecting and redeeming stamps with a passion.
Once the table had the requisite number of boards in place, my father retrieved the table pads and lined them up; sandwiching the narrow ones in the middle, securing them between the wide ones with the rounded edges. Having anchored the table and chairs in place, my father wandered into the kitchen to ‘supervise.’ This meant bantering back and forth with Jessie who was the mastermind of Thanksgiving dinner preparation. Jessie padded across the kitchen floor, checking on the turkey in one oven, rotating pies and root vegetables in the other, adding a shake of Wondra flour to the pearl onions simmering in cream. My father liked to stir things on top of the stove, add a little extra salt to the matzoh stuffing, check on the status of the pigs-in-blankets we would nibble with cocktails before dinner.
My mother was busy in the dining room, poised before the doors of the breakfront, going through an imposing stack of perfectly ironed linen tablecloths and a dizzying stack of napkins. From my vantage point on the other side of the room, all of the table linens looked pretty much the same; assorted shades of white, ivory, palest yellow, or sage green embellished with intricate monograms and a sprinkling of French dots. Etched within the threads of the initials were the generations of people who had once circled the table. My mother knew the history of each cloth, recounting stories of birthday dinners, anniversary celebrations, countless Thanksgivings, all tethered to starched linens. Up to her neck in tablecloths and napkins of varying sizes, her commentary was muffled beneath the damasks and jacquards.
Expanded to capacity, the dining room table stretched into the living room. Often we needed my grandmother’s card table for additional seating, its green Naugahyde surface draped with the perfect cloth, echoing countless games of canasta and solitaire. Occasionally, there would be a need for a kid-sized Samsonite folding table, to accommodate the very youngest, but for the most part we sat elbow to elbow, youngsters and grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins. We lingered long after turkey and pies, exhausting the centerpiece of vibrant grapes and dried fruit, emptying the candy dishes filled with salted cashews and thin chocolate mints.
It was my favorite holiday, the one that echoed through the dining room the following morning as we dismantled the table and folding chairs, restoring the dining room to its original, everyday formation. The cranberry stained tablecloth and the napkins smudged with pumpkin and chocolate tumbled into the washing machine, facing a deluge of hot water and laundry detergent. My mother retrieved the clean linens promptly out of the dryer, whisking them away to her full-sized ironing board to restore their creases with her serious iron, before folding them and returning them to the breakfront.
Thanksgiving arrived a little early this year, with our group of eleven fitting comfortably around a long table without boards, without monogrammed linens. As my sister and I earnestly ironed a contemporary tablecloth with stubborn wrinkles, it occurred to me that there was no need for a kids table. All of the kids have grown up.
Attention Shoppers; both apple and honey cakes are no longer available in the holiday aisle. Personally, I’m not sad about it nor will I be dipping my toe into the gluten-free pumpkin-chocolate-chip quick bread waters. For the next 47 days, my focus will be on 9” aluminum pie plates and 11 oz. circles of pie dough. Not that I’m counting the days, or the pie shells, or the dwindling number of vacant shelves in the freezer adjacent to my workspace. It’s early in the pre-Thanksgiving game, affording plenty of time for critical thinking, strategizing and cautious yet fleeting optimism. In a few short weeks, just about the time toothy Jack o’ Lanterns lose their grin, my optimism will be replaced with complete and utter dread.
Right now, I’m looking away from American Thanksgiving and looking forward to this very Monday’s Canadian Thanksgiving. Combing through my well-worn expandable file of recipes, I’m fixated on everything pumpkin, cranberry, and apple. These are the recipes plucked from every Thanksgiving I’ve ever encountered as a professional baker. Each one is scribbled with notes, the excruciating details that analyze oven temperatures, baking times, parchment linings and foil tenting. Filed under “P” is a recipe for an embarrassingly large quantity of pecan bars, circa 1998. Baked in a full sheet pan outfitted with a pan extender, one recipe yielded enough nuttiness to feed a casual gathering of 96 guests. Scrawled in orange Sharpie marker across the top of the recipe are the words, “NEVER BAKE ON TOP RACK OF CONVECTION OVEN. EVER.” Navigating a sheet pan weighted down with pounds of nutmeats suspended in hot, sugar syrup is best attempted at eye level. These are the kitchen life lessons acquired over too many years and far too many oven burns.
I pause for a moment at a recipe for Poached Pears with Spicy Gingerbread, a cake baked in pans with deeply fluted sides and removable bottoms. Emblazoned across the top of the recipe is the not-so-gentle reminder to, “LINE PANS WITH PARCHMENT CIRCLES EXTENDING BEYOND THE PAN BOTTOM.” The memory of gingerbread batter seeping between pan bottom and sheet tray instantly conjures the fragrance of scorched molasses. The recipe for poached pears conjures a totally different fragrance memory. Set afloat in a saucepan of white wine, bobbing alongside cinnamon sticks, curls of orange peel, and speckled vanilla beans, the pears were both spicy and perfume-y. Scribbled in the margin of the recipe is the reminder, “DON’T FORGET- PARCHMENT CIRCLE COVERING PEARS IS HOT.” I must have forgotten more than once.
In my ridiculously over-expanded, expandable file are a few recipes I’m considering for the weekend. On Saturday, the first round of strategic dessert planning will commence. We will gather in my sister’s Toronto kitchen, with good/bad pop music from the 80s blaring in the background. We will discuss and reminisce about recipes; restaurant recipes, Jessie recipes, recipes plucked from magazines and cookbooks, vacillating between what I want to make and what my sister suggests. We will talk about dessert in excruciating detail circling back around and around again. My sister is a brilliant strategist and planner, capable of making wise decisions. I am the problem, unable to truly decide the dessert story until I stand face to face with the produce at the St. Lawrence Market. My initial plans will undoubtedly change once again until my sister, the wise one, will stop the madness by saying, “Why do you ask for input when in the end, you will just make what you want to make?” Which is the very reason why an expandable, recipe file filled with inspiration is as critical to the holiday as a reliable pair of stretchy pants with an expandable waistband.
Timidly embracing the New Year 5780, I remind myself that resolutions are an ongoing process. Well over a year ago, my sister encouraged me to be ‘rigorous and ruthless.’ She suggested I comb through my closets and cabinets, consolidate my kitchenwares, organize the attic, burrow through the basement. My attempts have been woefully inadequate. As a not so gentle reminder, a Danskin leotard in dark purple and a pair of Capezio ballet slippers stare down from high atop a shelf in the attic closet. I remember that leotard, one of many holdovers from far too many required dance classes. Reaching up to investigate, the leotard takes a nosedive off the shelf, landing at my feet. The nylon/cotton/quiana blend still has some stretch to it. With my sister’s voice resonating in my ears, I pause for just a moment before tossing the leotard in a trash bag. There’s plenty of room in the bag for a faded green Williams Sonoma apron and a pair of tired kitchen clogs. Baby steps.
Just this week, October slipped in through the kitchen door, forcing me to accept the cold, harsh truth of autumn. This was a challenge as the mercury hovered around 80 degrees on Wednesday, taking a dip into the 50s the next day. All of this dramatically impacts my little corner of the pie world. October may well be here, but she’s barely unzipped her L.L. Bean fleece and made herself comfortable. I hate to tell her, but somebody needs to remind October that she can’t add pumpkin spice to her latte in this kitchen.
I’m already tired of apples. Having exhausted the crates of Galas and Honeycrisp in last week’s holiday frenzy, I’m left with a few dozen plums begging for attention. They hint at fall but still resonate with summer, deeply violet on the outside, amber on the inside. Sliced in half, the plums twist and turn, exposing their stubborn pits. With screamingly tart skins and sweet flesh, the stone fruit requires sugar intervention. I sprinkle them a little too generously and toss in some almonds for good measure. Their purple skin is reminiscent of the leotard I recently tossed. Was I too hasty?
Sliced thin and fanned across a less-than-perfect circle of dough, the plums resemble a Busby Berkeley/Rockette geometrical dance formation. And five, and six, and seven-eight, the border of dough hugs the fruit, holding it in place. Brushing the pastry with egg wash, I jazz-hand some almonds across the edge of the galette and slide it into the freezer. Crossing the kitchen to turn up the convection oven to 375, I notice a line-up of loaf pans filled with pumpkin and chocolate chips. In the far corner of the kitchen, I hear October laughing. I look away.
Staring down six crates of Paula Reds, Galas, and Honeycrisp that have recently rolled into the bakery, I am feeling the slightest kinship with the woman in Cornelis Bisshop's oil painting, "Woman Peeling an Apple." Unlike the subject in Bisshop's painting who is peeling a single apple, my weekend features apple-ing on a much larger scale.
When the sun dips into the sky this Sunday evening, Rosh Hashanah begins. The Jewish New Year is a time of celebration and reflection, culminating ten days later with Yom Kippur. Apples and honey are notable throughout the holiday, symbolic of a sweet New Year.
Unlike the maidservant in Bisshop's painting, I am neither leaning casually against a door jamb while peeling, nor taking a pause from my apple madness. Apple cakes on a singular level are a pleasant task. On a large scale, apple cakes are labor intensive and require expansive workspace. Swimming against the tide of unwieldy tube pans, weighty cake batter, and pounds of cinnamon-sugared apples, there is nary a lifeguard in sight. The cake is composed of four layers; batter, apples, batter, apples, tipping my new digital scale at nearly 3 pounds of batter and 2 pounds of apples, per cake. A crazy labor of cake love, it's excessive in the most celebratory of ways,
In my apple cake reverie/purgatory, I cannot help but think back to last October, and my all-to brief visit to Amsterdam. Smack in the middle of the city's Museumplein (Museum Square), Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is the grande dame of art museums, boasting a staggering assemblage of iconic art and artifacts. Reflecting more than 800 years of Dutch and global history, the museum’s collection spans the Middle Ages to present day. Designed by renowned Dutch architect P.J.H. Cuypers, the Rijksmuseum is the largest museum in the Netherlands. Surrounded by expansive gardens and impressive sculptures, the museum boasts a dramatic history.
The museum weathered years of political unrest and war, yet remained intact until Germany’s invasion during World War II. In order to protect and save their most prized collection of Dutch masters, the paintings were removed from the frames, rolled up and secured in wooden tubes, then smuggled out of the museum through a trapdoor. The trapdoor was located in the room housing Rembrandt’s famous ‘Night Watch.’ The valuable artwork traveled through the trapdoor to a small door in the garden where it was transferred by boat to a secretive location in the south of the country.
The Rijksmuseum holds the distinction of being one of a small few in an occupied country during the Second World War that was able to save its major collection. Miraculously, only a few minor pieces were lost. When the museum re-opened its doors in 1945, the outpouring of visitors determined to see The Return of the Masters exceeded those who had visited the museum during the entire war. Today, the Rijksmuseum's Dutch neo-Renaissance building is home to more than 2000 paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. It deserves another visit, but not this weekend.
I can rhapsodize over Amsterdam's stunning art collection and perfect slices of Appeltaart, but the truth is my immediate focus is on American apple pies and Jewish apple cakes. We could however, all take a little lesson from the Dutch, whose iconic Appeltaart is an integral part of Dutch food culture.
History traces the first Dutch apple pie all the way back to 1514. An early recipe for the dessert can be found in the Notabel Boecxken van Cakeryen, one of the oldest printed Dutch cookbooks. The recipe is more reflective of the famous Appeltaart, a deep-dish version combining thick apple slices with cookie crumbs, blanketed beneath a generous pastry crust. Often served with pouring cream or 'mit schlag,' (whipped cream) the Dutch embrace their traditional apple extravaganza throughout the day. It's quite common to see folks enjoying a slice with a cup of strong coffee for breakfast, or tucking into a wedge mid-day, or capping off a celebratory evening meal. The Dutch approach to apples, and more specifically apple pie, proves that the Dutch were truly Masters of this 'taart' form.
The true barometer of fall is not pumpkin flavored, it is the arrival of the autumnal equinox. This year, it swings through town on Monday, September 23rd, giving you permission to trade in your casual linen shirt for a broad striped plaid, your open-toed sandals for Chelsea boots. For the women surrounding the Baker’s bench at my workplace, this is great news. While they have been itching to unleash the pumpkin/chocolate chip quick bread since Labor Day, I have been less inclined to rush the season.
Well aware that cider doughnuts coated in a deluge of cinnamon sugar are readily available, it still feels a little early. I will however, admit to purchasing a mega-ginormous bag of miniature chocolate candy bars because Costco offers a fine selection. It’s been a few days since the bag arrived in my kitchen and if you look closely, you might notice a few of the peanut butter cups are missing. I can’t vouch for the handful of Snickers or remember eating the Milky Ways, but not to worry; they found a good home.
Personally, the sad-but-true harbinger of fall lies not in a latte brimming with nutmeg, but in the fresh onslaught of coughs and colds and early influenza. You need look no further than the person approaching you on the street, seated next to you on the train, or handing off their shopping cart at the local market. Thanks everyone, for sharing.
We are taught to share at an early age, and if you were lucky enough to grow up with siblings, learning this skill was critical to your survival. My older brothers were pretty good about sharing, particularly common colds and childhood diseases. I shared right back, offering my latest sore throat or fever into the mix as we circled a Milton Bradley game board or wrestled in the living room. My sister was much younger and in most cases, just as we were rallying from our latest malaise, she was coming down with it. My mother tried in vain to keep us isolated in our rooms at the first sign of a cold, but our lives were so intertwined, it was nearly impossible. Thankfully, doctors made house calls back then and mothers or grandmothers, and always Jessie, stayed home with us when we were sick. We were entertained by Colorforms and Dot-to-Dot and an endless stream of cartoons. It was a very different kind of day care.
I was thinking about this on Tuesday as I waited on a gray, molded plastic chair at the local pharmacy. Before there was a vaccine for one of those connect-the-dots childhood diseases, we actually had the disease. As adults, we run the risk of revisiting the chicken pox all over again in a less desirable version. My health care professional administered my first dose in June with the reminder that I needed the second dose three months later. Begrudgingly, I heeded his reminder.
The pharmacist was an affable sort, armed with a serious looking syringe. I looked away. “Any reaction to the first dose?” he asked, pausing for a moment.
“Nothing terrible,” I explained. “A little headache, a little pain…”
“At the site of the injection?” he asked as he administered what could only be described as kryptonite through a fine syringe. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “Hurts, doesn’t it?” Slapping a vibrant red band-aid on my upper left arm, he added. “A number of individuals have reported a more severe reaction to the second dose. Take some Tylenol if you feel feverish,” he suggested. “And don’t forget to get a flu shot!” he called after me.
Feverish was the tip of the post-shingles shot iceberg. My side effects vacillated between teeth-chattering chills, a raging headache, and a fever that continued creeping high enough to prevent any reading or Netflix consumption. I watched the thermometer climb with the steadiness of a candy thermometer attached to a pot of simple syrup. I slept, dreaming the same dreams over and over again; a feverish tangle of Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone, and Magilla Gorilla. I used my one good arm, my right arm, to flail about for more Tylenol every six hours, as directed. Not a single piece of chocolate from the giant bag in the kitchen crossed my lips.
The post-vaccine side effects were more than a little inconvenient, but not dire. The headache lasted for too many days and my left arm still hurts like the dickens. Actually, it hurts with a very familiar pain. The pain reminiscent of the shot in the arm administered by my brothers when we were horsing around, and it was funny until someone got hurt. To clarify, that someone was usually me.
I love a recipe with a little wiggle room, one that invites you to use blueberries or apples, peaches or plums, or a combination of any. Such is the directive in the original version of the famous Plum Torte recipe. First published in the New York Times in 1983, Marian Burros’s recipe for Plum Torte became one of the most popular recipes to grace the pages of the Times. The truth is, the recipe was lounging in a paperback cookbook on a shelf above my mother’s kitchen desk for years before I read it in the paper.
Marian Fox Burros and Lois Levine co-authored The Elegant But Easy Cookbook in 1960. A compendium of recipes geared towards entertaining, the premise of the book was that a host could be a guest at their own party. Burros and Levine clasped readers firmly by the oven mitt as they made their way through hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, main courses, breads, vegetables, starches, salads, and sweets. The painstaking notes in each chapter coaxed party throwers to prepare menu items in advance. No longer tethered to the kitchen, hostesses with the most-ess casually defrosted, reheated, and waited for the doorbell to ring. The recipe for the Plum Torte appears on page 154 in the chapter dedicated to sweets. It is quite similar to any number of ‘blitz’ type tortes, kuchen, or cakes prepared by generations of women; women who were generally in a hurry to get a meal on the table.
My copy of the Burros/Levine treatise on entertaining is wedged between books by Jennie Grossinger and Joan Nathan, on a shelf dedicated to Jewish Holiday cuisine. I like to think of that portion of the bookcase as the ‘Hadassah Ladies;’ women well versed in tzimmes and rugelach, mandelbrot and kneidlach. The paperback book once belonged to my mother who handed it to me when we were in a hurry, packing up a box of kitchen essentials for the move to my first New York City apartment. When I asked my mother if she wanted to keep the well-worn book she replied , “I have two more copies; one belonged to Mama Minnie and one was Aunt Lily’s.” The book retailed for two dollars and ninety-five cents but felt as valuable as a priceless family heirloom. Over the years, I extracted a number of recipes from the book, gravitating towards quick hors d’oeuvres and many of the simple icebox pies.
Today, my copy of the paperback book is weary, cracked along the spine, the front and back covers a touch brittle around the edges. The book opens to page 154 with minimal intervention. The recipe for the original Plum Torte is actually titled Fruit Torte and is identified with #3. (This has nothing to do with social media; instead it indicates that the cake can be prepared up to 3 days prior to serving.) According to an article written by Marian, she credits Lois with bringing the recipe to their original book, Elegant but Easy, in 1960. The edition that sits on my bookshelf was updated in 1967, and stands at the ready should I decide to host a mid-week luncheon or a casual midnight buffet. To date, I’ve hosted neither but I have often turned to page 154 when plums roll through town.
There is something comforting and grandmotherly about the Plum Torte. When I assemble the ingredients, the kitchen suddenly feels crowded with grandmothers in heavy stockings and aunts with monogrammed handkerchiefs peeking out of pockets. They are not shy in offering their opinions on how they make their Plum Torte and why their version is a little bit better. The cake portion of the dessert is dare I say, somewhat dowdy. What gives it spunk are the plums; deeply hued, they dress up the torte like one of those beloved grandmothers or aunts wearing a little too much lipstick.
With apologies to Marion and Lois, I prefer to bake their cake not in a springform, but in a cast iron skillet measuring 8” in diameter. The batter fills the pan generously, resulting in a thicker slice. Call me a nonconformist, but fanning slices of sweet/tart plums over the batter creates a vibrant circle of fruit that bakes up as a beautiful mosaic of fall color. Truly a harbinger of autumn, the Burros/Levine recipe is one of those desserts with a long history and a dedicated following. For so many of us who grew up enjoying this cake, it wouldn’t be September without it.
When I think about blueberry pie in summer, I think about my father loading us into the forest green station wagon at the ungodly hour of 6 am, with the sole purpose of getting on the road before rush hour traffic. No matter how you sliced it, Maine was eight hours away and for the passenger wedged between a Coleman cooler and the ‘way back’ seat, it was interminable. We seemed to manage without water bottles or juice boxes, relying instead on cold water dispensed into Dixie cups from an unwieldy thermos. Our navigation system consisted of a series of AAA paper maps, folded neatly and secured in the glove compartment. My father was well acquainted with every thruway and turnpike, beltway and parkway, only asking my mother to pull out the map when an unforeseen traffic incident snarled his plans. He rolled the window down periodically to feed the tollbooths with coins easily accessible from the unused ashtray. The radio stations vacillated between up to the minute traffic reports and easy listening. Occasionally, my mother would lean over and change the dial to a contemporary station. We stopped infrequently along the way; once for a picnic lunch, once to fill the thirsty car with gas, and mid-afternoon for gravity defying scoops of ice cream perched high atop sugar cones. For more years than I can count, the sole purpose of our trip was Visiting Day/Parents Weekend at the summer camp my brothers attended.
My sleep-away camp experience was less successful; an eight-week stint in the Maine woods left me more homesick than emancipated, with no hankering to return. In between lake swims, non-competitive sports, and skit night, we hiked along trails cushioned with pine needles, edged in sun-dappled ferns. One of our counselors was a botanist, keen on identifying plant-life while steering us clear of poisonous shrubs and ivy. Guiding us towards meandering clusters of wild Maine blueberries, we ate them by the handfuls, dotting our fingers and our white middy blouses in violet. We were foragers way ahead of our time. The berries were both vibrantly sweet and tart, much like the candy options available from the camp’s daily canteen. Sprawled across my bunk popping Sweet-Tarts into my mouth, I wrote letters to my parents imploring them to let me come home. In return, my mother’s letters were breezy and newsy, reminding me how much I would miss camp when it ended. My father simply wrote in his signature scrawl; “I miss you but remember, life is a series of adjustments.” He was right.
To this day, a Maine license plate still causes a double-edged tinge of homesickness and carsickness. After years of little adjustments however, a trip to ‘Vacationland’ is a much welcome respite. It also boasts quart containers of wild blueberries begging to be consumed.
A really fine slice of blueberry pie made with wild Maine berries conjures summer camp in the very first forkful. It is a totally different pie experience than the plump cultivated, (“highbush”) berries suspended in sugar and Minute tapioca that most of us grew up with. When faced with an empty pie shell and 6 cups of blues, I am always reminded that blueberry pie in particular is tricky business, a balancing act of sweetness and thickener, capable of standing up to a fork, yet saucy enough to spill across a dessert plate. The collision of warm berries against a pool of melting vanilla ice cream, all tangled up between a flaky pie crust epitomizes summer, but it’s challenging to execute successfully. Just back from a road trip to ‘Vacationland,’ I’ve opted for the least bit of intervention between wild Maine blueberries and my pie plate. Combining them with a shy amount of sweetener and just enough thickener to contain the juices, the berries are topped with rich biscuit dough and baked until bubbly. Had my father been joining me, he would have insisted on dousing the cobbled biscuits and fruit with pouring cream. Like father, like daughter.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm