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.
The woman behind the counter at Williams Sonoma is smiling as broadly and sweetly as a jack o’ lantern with a mouthful of candy corn. Assaulted by the distinctive combination of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, my nose twitches. I feel a sneeze of September coming on. To my left, an expansive table is decked out in autumnal splendor; harvest blooms and botanical gourds sprawl across linens, soup tureens and mugs destined for hot cider. Salad plates, conveniently sold in sets of four, compete with over-sized dinner plates edged in meandering vines. Adjacent to the register, a serving dish fashioned out of restaurant quality French porcelain is garnering interest. Customers are flocking to the Apilco-brand platter dotted with samples. I stand back, allowing a group of four full access to the accordion pleated white paper cups. Several of the hungrier shoppers double-fist the miniscule samples of pumpkin quick bread. Having sported a green Williams Sonoma apron in a Philadelphia outpost for several years, as a former “Casual Employee,” I consider myself well versed in their autumn line-up. However, the closer I scrutinize the offerings, the more evident it becomes that yesterday’s pumpkin bread has received a makeover. She is positively gourdeous.
I am blindsided by a display of not one, but six versions of the famous Pumpkin Quick bread; traditional, spiced pecan pumpkin, pumpkin caramel, pumpkin chocolate chunk, and pumpkin chocolate swirl. There’s also a gluten free version of something called pumpkin cheesecake quick bread mix. Not only are the quick breads available solo, you can now purchase them paired with a jar of traditional pumpkin butter, pecan pumpkin butter, or caramel pumpkin butter. In order to schmear or slab your butter of choice on your pumpkin-y bread, you may add to your cart your very own set of ivory handled butter spreaders. I must have been living under a rock for the past twenty years.
“Pumpkin quick bread?” the salesperson proffers with enthusiasm. I hold up both hands in a panic, shaking my head in the negative. A manager sidles up to me gushing, “Don’t you just love fall? Have you tried our Spiced Pumpkin Seed Brittle Bites?” the retailer inquires, barely coming up for air. I cannot for the life of me understand what she’s talking about. A brittle pumpkin bite sounds like something that might require a tetanus shot. “And don’t miss our new autumn tabletop collection…” she calls after me as I backstroke towards the exit. Temporarily blinded by enamel cookware in blazing shades of orange, I whack my elbow on a heavy lidded cast iron coquette shaped like a Cinderella pumpkin.
Once again, I decline an offer of Spiced Pumpkin Seed Brittle Bites. Standing at the intersection of pumpkin mole and pumpkin pie spice macarons, I vacillate between dizziness and nausea. Realizing I have forgotten what brought me here in the first place, my seersucker Topsiders start edging towards the mall entrance, but not before the designated “Greeter” asks me if I’d like to sample the Pumpkin Gooey Bar Mix. I would not. The word ‘Medic!’ is about to tumble out of my mouth. Whatever it was that I thought I needed will have to wait until January when the quick breads return to routine citrus flavors, sans spice. What is our fascination, no, our obsession with pumpkin? Remember the time we were obsessed with oat bran, carob, and kiwis, or am I the only one?
On a much smaller scale, we have a fair share of pumpkin enablers at the bakery intent on jumpstarting the season. A certain pie baker refuses to unearth the number ten cans of pumpkin before absolutely necessary. I am as unwilling to retire my white capris to the rear of my closet as I am to open the pumpkin chocolate chip quick bread floodgates. “Let them wait until October 1st,” I snarl, much to the chagrin of the retail public and a few of the eager bakers waiting for loaf pan direction. “It’s not even Labor Day!” I continue, exasperated with both the end of summer and the onslaught of a holiday-riddled season. There seems to be something inherently wrong with launching pumpkin anything when there are still peaches in the building. Disgruntled and dismayed, I head for home where my spices live singular lives in the kitchen cabinet, and orange is limited to a generous curl of peel in an icy Aperol Spritz. I will embrace autumn when the time is right, roughly September 23rd, the official first day of fall. Until then, you can spot me wearing white shoes and white pants and possibly seersucker because under the rock where I live, it’s still summer.
National Waffle Day will be celebrated this Saturday, August 24th, yet another unofficial food holiday that continues to gain momentum via social media. In the days prior to insta-everything, we relied on word of mouth for generating pop culture momentum. Today, we turn to #nationalwaffleday for all the waffle news fit to consume. Before you begin scrolling Yelp reviews in your quest for the best syrup smothered waffles, let's take a moment to learn a little bit about early waffles and what the holiday actually commemorates.
Waffles have been traced all the way back to ancient Greece, where flat cakes called Obelios were roasted between two metal plates attached to a long wooden handle, Obelio batters were originally unleavened and unsweetened, more akin to a religious wafer. Over time, the humble batter was enhanced with cinnamon or ginger, honey, butter, and cream. Leavening agents created thicker waffles, and the waffle irons themselves were no longer imprinted with coat of arms, landscapes, or religious symbols, as they had been in the 14th century.
In the 15th century, Dutch waflers (single ‘f’) opted for rectangular waffle iron plates instead of round. Grid patterns were a result of both the forging process and artisan craftsmanship. We have the Dutch to thank for bringing waffles to America where we opted to pair them with maple syrup; at the time, it was a less expensive sweetener than sugar. What began as a humble between meal snack in Europe would later take center stage on breakfast tables throughout America.
As for the seemingly random August date affixed to National Waffle Day, there’s a reason behind it. History tells us that the American inventor, Cornelius Swartwout, received the very first U.S. patent for the waffle iron on August 24, 1869. Fashioning his waffle iron out of two large cast iron plates secured by a hinge, Swartwout’s rudimentary stove-top appliance was a precursor to General Electric’s freestanding waffle iron, introduced in 1918. This relatively small kitchen appliance would forever change Sunday mornings for sleepy-eyed Americans.
I was one of those tired Sunday morning waffle-seekers, fixated by the light on the Sunbeam electric waffle iron, waiting for the red light to indicate that the iron was hot enough to accept the Bisquick batter, and then again, impatient for it to turn green signaling 'done.' Armed with a fork to emancipate the four cross-hatched squares from the iron, it was traditional for a wall of steam to hit you smack in the face upon opening the appliance. It was well worth the wait and the facial because waffles, with their crispy/crunchy edges and deep pockets, were infinitely more fun than pancakes.
The Sunbeam was merely a pre-cursor to the waffle irons I was yet to meet. In my restaurant-owning days, we poured a rich, eggy batter into a cavernous commercial waffle iron, notorious for overworking the electrical service. Its preferred time to short out was at the peak of the brunch rush. The fragrance of butter, vanilla, and bacon was often overshadowed by the hint of something burning; residual batter that had dripped onto the heating element. Praying for brunch service to end and armed with a ginormous oven mitt, I timidly unplugged the damn iron. Years later, the restaurant job that required hotel pans of tiramisu also tethered me to a pizzelle iron with a fondness for electrical fireworks every time I plugged the tired cord in or out of the wall socket.
Recently, on a trip to picturesque Amsterdam, I waited in several long lines in order to secure a very different kind of waffle. The stroopwafel, (Dutch for syrup waffle) is a sandwich composed of two very thin vanilla waffle cookies filled with a dream of dark caramel.
The stroopwafel dates back to 1784, when a humble baker from the town of Gouda created a waffle made from leftover crumbs and spices. It was as unappealing as it sounds, causing the baker to doctor up the cookie by filling it with syrup.
A smaller version of the stroopwafel is now available worldwide, even offered as a snack cookie on certain airlines. There is no comparison between the commercially made cookies and a fresh one hot off the waffle iron, but in a pinch, I've been known to purchase a package at Trader Joes. To truly enjoy a stroopwafel, fragrant with butter and caramel, and just the slightest hint of cinnamon, you need the stroopwafel experience. It’s so interesting to think that the stroopwafel, a dowdy cookie that began as a popular pastry among the poor, has been elevated to pop sugar status.
Standing in line surrounded by people from different cultures, all sharing the same stroopwafel goal, is both humbling and eye opening. A sign on an adjacent building quietly speaks volumes, "Be Excellent To Each Other." Amidst the crowds and the distinctive fragrance of a commercial waffle iron, you realize we have much more in common than we have to keep us apart. #happynationalwaffleday
The last hurrah of summer fruit is taking its toll on me. I am bombarded from all sides with ripe peaches and right now nectarines. “Stop the madness, Stone Fruit!
“You know I love you, but you’re killing me!”
Friday was a particularly brutal day in the pie trenches. By 8:30 am it had already been a day. I was quietly fuming over the re-telling of an incident from Thursday, Julia Child’s birthday. There was some commotion over a beautifully decorated sugar cookie with a Julia quote painstakingly written in royal icing. A disgruntled individual felt the cookie was perpetuating a negative stereotype about women in the kitchen. Funny thing- our entire kitchen crew is female, not to mention forward thinking.
The curmudgeonly cookie disparager should know that yesterday I conducted a totally casual social media poll, based on a Julia-ism. Julia Child once said, (and I quote) “I think every woman should have a blowtorch.” It turns out that blowtorches are quite common in home kitchens, with 70% of those polled (many of them women) claiming to own one. I like to think that we have Julia to thank for the popularity of kitchen torches. Her television career spanned decades, with many episodes dedicated to the art of flambé. (Some episodes more successfully than others, but she always cautioned her viewers to be careful around an open flame.) I think about Julia (and my eyelashes) every time I torch a meringue.
I continue thinking about Julia all the way home. The way her Mousse au Chocolat handily snagged my High School French Club Presidency. The way she casually introduced me to cream puffs piped as swans, swimming on a pool of chocolate sauce. It was Julia as the French Chef, who gave me the courage to arm myself with a kitchen torch, a critical skill requirement for every restaurant job I ever had. Her greatest lesson was reminding all of us to stop apologizing for mistakes in the kitchen. Sage advice, indeed.
Lacking the foresight to pick up some heavy cream on the way home, I am unable to satisfy my hankering for chocolate mousse. There is a gaping hole in the evening’s dessert course, and it's making me cranky. Still preoccupied with the events of the day, I begin rummaging through the refrigerator in search of inspiration. Nothing leaps out at me save for a container of caramel sauce. Scanning the kitchen counter for fruit, a solitary fuzzy peach and a smooth skinned nectarine look lost in a cavernous fruit bowl. Turning my back on the paltry fruit offering, I'm forced to forage through the freezer. The sound of the ice machine echoes through the kitchen. From the depths, I unearth two plastic wrapped discs of what look like pie dough. I set one of them on the counter just a little too loudly. The fruit in the fruit bowl jumps.
Peach turns to Nectarine then to me. “Rough day? You seem a little, well, pre-
occupied, a little down in the mouth." Nectarine nods then adds, “Maybe talking about it will help.”
“What are you talking about?” I reply, whacking the ice-cold pie dough with my heaviest rolling pin.
Peach treads cautiously. “It’s August, isn’t it?” Brushing the leaf out of her eyes, Peach elaborates. “We’re talking about you. How you seem unable to live in the moment, refusing to embrace August and accept the season in front of you.” Peach is on a roll and can’t seem to stop herself. “There’s a reason you’re constantly pining for a different season, living in the past or the future, never in the now.”
I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. “Did you ever think that possibly it's the fault of the fruit? Maybe it's under ripe, or over ripe. Or there’s simply too much of it at one time! You don’t understand,” I explain. “August isn’t the problem. August foreshadows the problem. Once we’ve crossed mid-August, it’s too late. Yesterday was Julia’s 107th birthday, August 15th. It’s practically September. Costco is decked out in Halloween and the Farmers’ Market wants me to buy apples. Apples?! I don’t want apples!” I hiss through clenched teeth.
The stone fruit leans back in the bowl. “Could it be,” Nectarine suggests in her best Dr. Fraser Winslow Crane voice, “that the problem isn’t the apple? Perhaps,” Nectarine pauses before continuing. “Perhaps the problem is your inability to live one fruit at a time. Think about it, Nice Pie. Try it. One. Fruit. At. A. Time.”
Peach nods solemnly. “We know that you’ve put up a good front. But the truth is so much of this stems from that nasty break-up with Rhubarb. That was heart-breaking…”
Catching my reflection in the tempered glass of the oven door, I weigh their words carefully, if only momentarily. Grabbing the fruit bowl and whacking the circle of pie dough once again for emphasis, I preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Plucking my well-worn copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking from the shelf, I wonder- how much bourbon is considered too much bourbon in a caramel sauce?
It appears my wood handled Androck brand kitchen utensil is an antique. The curved and slotted batter-beater, preferred by grandmothers and great aunts, is a hot item on etsy and ebay, highly sought after by anyone who speaks fluent Martha. I remember it rattling around in the kitchen drawers of both my maternal and paternal grandmothers, as well as my great aunt Lily. The popularity of the 10½” kitchen tool was driven by its ability to multi-task. The Androck company was not shy in boasting the utensil’s talents, imprinting them directly on the curved, metal whisk. “BEATS EGGS, CREAM, BATTER, ETC.” it exclaims in all caps. I wish I had known its cult following before inadvertently knocking it off the counter. Turning to catch it I missed, grabbing nothing but air. On its way to the floor, the batter-beater paused just long enough to whack me on the ankle. The smooth wood handle escaped unscathed. My ankle is beginning to throb.
Frittering away my afternoon with a bunch of ripe peaches, I’ve peeled away their five o’clock shadow, pitted them and diced them into sensible cubes. Peach juices creep between the edge of the cutting board and the countertop, running dangerously close to an open drawer filled with kitchen tools. It’s been suggested that my collection of kitchenware borders on overkill. It’s not so much the new stuff that I can’t part with- it’s the wood handled, rotary operated, clunky, heavy, weather-worn pieces that I covet. Kitchen gadgetry speaks to me, filling my contemporary, high-tech workspace with a connection to the past.
Over my shoulder, a pot of oil heats to a perilous 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisking together a simple fritter batter, the recipe calls for Wondra flour, popularized by General Mills in the 1960s. Promising lump free batters and gravies, the blue canister of Wondra was a mainstay in our kitchen, sharing cabinetry with boxes of Soft-as-Silk and Swans Down cake flours.
Dropping spoonfuls of peach-studded batter into the heavy bottomed pan, I stand back. The fritters bob and float on a sea of sizzling oil, requiring nothing more than a bit of coaxing and turning. This is where the curved and slotted batter-beater steps in. Providing just enough guidance, the arched whisk separates and strains, lifting the golden brown fritters out of the scalding oil, maneuvering them safely to a baking sheet lined with absorbent paper towels. Gathering the edges of the paper towel, I drop the still-warm fritters into a Pyrex bowl filled with spicy sugar. Patience never being my strong suit, I bite into a hot fritter, burning my lip. Behind the crunch there’s a sweet peach encased in eggy batter. I take another bite. It tastes of summer and forever ago.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm