Two words truly capture the essence of Pie-mageddon; one is “never” and the other is “enough.” The words can be used individually, for example, “I am never going to be able to cram another pie shell in this freezer” or “Enough already!” referring to the number of pre-orders haunting my dreams. The words can also be used back-to back when discussing the number of hours in a day, the numbers of racks in an oven and the number of hands available to peel bushels and bushels of apples. This year it seemed that there was never enough apple/pumpkin/pecan in the offing to satisfy the pie hungry throngs that forgot to order in advance.
The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving are fraught with drama. Add to an already stressful holiday a global pandemic, and you’ve set the stage for some lengthy days and bleary-eyed nights. Small annoyances become monumental; sneeze-inducing masks with ear bending elastics, in-operable linen service aprons, a pair of jeans that desperately requires a belt, but you've forgotten the belt. Normal, everyday occurrences take on a sinister life of their own.
The truth is there will never be enough oven time, freezer space, fridge space, nor pie to satisfy the hunger of those who don’t bake. This year felt more unsettled than years past, especially when Thanksgiving pre-orders closed. The distinctive hint of a small uprising lurked just beyond the bakery door. Reminiscent of the angry mob waving torches and pitchforks in Beauty and the Beast, my version featured an angry mob wielding pie forks. Despite copious amounts of caffeine, there were days in November that felt as topsy turvy as a good, old fashioned Thanksgivukkuh.
Clearly, 2020 is the uninvited houseguest who doesn’t know when to leave. It is the least welcome addition to the holiday table, snagging the last slice of pie when you aren’t looking. While we wait impatiently for this crazy year to gather up its belongings and see itself out, the best we can do is fortify ourselves with a little pie, a little Zoom and an abundance of kindness.
Pumpkin pie has been on my radar since early July, when HGTV Magazine contacted me wanting some insight on pumpkin pie mishaps. Clearly they had landed in the appropriate pumpkin patch. Pumpkin pies are the neediest in the Thanksgiving pie line-up. Maybe not when you're baking at home with an oven that speaks your language and classical music pouring out of the radio. Loading convection ovens from top to bottom with dozens (and dozens) of pumpkin pies requires cajoling them into almost doneness. Knowing when to pluck them from the oven while they still jiggle is tricky. What's needed is a gentle heat that will woo the spiced custard just enough, but not too much.
Commercial ovens are equipped with feisty heating elements and fans that circulate hot air. These ovens can be both breezy and hot headed. The last thing a custard pie wants is too much hot air blowing down its crimp. If you could wrap each pie in its own cashmere pashmina for the last ten minutes, you might have a shot at even baking. Instead, the oven doors tiptoe open to reveal pies at varying degrees of readiness. Cookbooks once suggested the "clean test" knife approach, but that only leaves a chasm sprawling across the pie's surface. The cautious manipulating of the not-quite-baked-pies is a delicate dance. The more you jostle them, the more apt they are to grimace.
Pumpkin pies do not appreciate a draft or a chill, much like my first piano teacher, Mrs. Poblack, who wore a cardigan sweater regardless of the season. While I plunked out the C major scale, Mrs. Poblack fanned herself non-stop with my copy of "A Dozen a Day." You might say her fanning was as relentless as a convection oven without a fan switch. Which is what makes Thanksgiving fraught with challenges worthy of magazine copy.
Anyone who has ever dabbled in the performing arts knows instinctively what the term Anxious Patience refers too. It is a state of anxiety where you are desperate to learn the facts but terrified at the outcome. Generally, it conjures images of a high school bulletin board announcing the cast list for the annual spring musical. As a lowly freshman, know-it-all-sophomore, or arrogant junior, it felt like the end of the world if the role you saw yourself playing went to somebody else, namely a senior.
In college, Anxious Patience required more of you because there was a semester's worth of shows to audition for amidst far greater competition. Cast lists were posted on the Call Board, a backstage bulletin board that could determine your fate by the simple inclusion or omission of your name. Hopes and dreams were dashed more often than highly coveted roles were snagged. The disbelief accompanying the news unfolded amidst your competitors. The Call Board provided one of the most demanding of all acting skills; how to be a gracious loser. Combing through a blur of names to find your own, or not, helped aspiring actors steel themselves against the competitive nature of the business. It also helped propel some of us directly across campus to the student union where peanut M&Ms and mint lentils were sold by the pound.
As I practice Anxious Patience/Pandemic Version, I am grateful for the pie support of @maggieschweppe (aka Blondilocks). I see nothing wrong with adding a little (more) sugar, salt, and butter to my diet as I wait for someone to please, point me toward tomorrow.
The minute we extinguish our Jack-O-Lanterns and turn the clocks back, we are in the thick of Thanksgiving preparations, specifically pie. It doesn’t matter whether you align yourself to a double-crust apple, rich pecans suspended in buttery brown sugar, or vibrant pumpkin spiked with warm spices; pie takes center stage on Thanksgiving. But first, let us consider the last moments of October.
This will be an a-typical Halloween weekend for most of us, unless your tradition includes hunkering down at home, armed with a binge-worthy selection of Netflix and an over-sized bag (or two) of your favorite candy treats. I am ashamed to say that I didn't purchase a single Halloween sweet this go around, preferring to drown my 2020 disgruntlement in daily consumption of peanut butter cups, neon-colored DOTS and bagfuls of Cheesy Puffs. Bemoaning the fact that I totally missed Ocktoberfest-ivities, I opted to turn my attention to beer and pretzels. Pumpkin-stout soft pretzels with candied cider apples and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream was a fine distraction from the fact that Halloween, like most events of 2020, have been put on hold. Maybe October 2021 will prompt a grin from a Jack-O-Lantern, but I can't swear to it. I can, however, vouch for the fact that on Sunday, there will be an extra hour of sleep and plenty of half-priced Halloween candy for the choosing. I am in no hurry to embrace November, but armed with a bag of Hershey miniatures and the last of the Reese's peanut butter cups, there's a glimmer of hope in the November distance.
The world has yet to right itself; last week Canadian Thanksgiving came and went and I never received my Porter Airlines boarding pass. It felt like being uninvited to both Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport and New Jersey's Liberty Airport. The socially distant dinner hosted by my sister and attended by my Canadian peeps was not an option. Border crossings during a pandemic can be funny that way/not funny. The more I thought I about it, the more pie I consumed. I didn't discriminate; leftover pie, frozen leftover pie, fresh pie, collectively they made me feel better. Slightly buoyed by carbohydrates and pumpkin custard, I felt incrementally better until I glanced at the statistics flooding my inbox. The fact is domestic November festivities are also in a state of flux. Will we gather, should we gather, do we gather? Indoors? Outdoors? I wish I knew.
The day before yesterday, after closing the commercial freezer door on a leaning tower of pie shells and wandering towards my car, the NY Times Food Section posed a timely 2020 question in my newsfeed; “How Big a Bird Will Be Going Into the Oven?" https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/dining/thanksgiving-turkey-coronavirus.html
When I saw the words, ‘Big’ and ‘Bird’ used in the same sentence, for a brief instant, I thought perhaps this was a warm, fuzzy story about Muppets. Instead, it was a thought-provoking article exploring the plight of the turkey industry amidst an anything-but-normal Thanksgiving.
On a personal level, this Thanksgiving will be almost as unusual as last year. Unlike last year's surreal holiday without family, this year, we will expand our place settings from two to five. While maintaining a reasonable distance, we will circle a table that once accommodated upwards of a dozen guests. It is both sad and strange and undoubtedly, the turkey will be smaller than in years past. There will be no need for my over-sized roasting pan, the one I keep sequestered in a box on a metro shelving unit in the basement. An ordinary pan will do and there will be no brining and whining that the turkey is too heavy to maneuver from counter-top to oven. It will be a Goldilocks turkey, not too small and not too large, but just right with a little extra for leftovers.
The pie equation however, is dire. Not on the home front, but out in the retail bakery world. One of the great unknowns of this holiday is how much pie will be enough without being too much, and (perish the thought) without being too little. I have to believe that after many months of kitchen quarantine-ing, folks may very well have learned how to roll a pie shell, how to bake a pie. Maybe they watched a few hundred YouTube videos or actually signed up for a Master Class on Pie 101. Perhaps those on lockdown had time enough to peruse every single cookbook on their bookshelves and studied pate brisee, blind baking, and crumb crusts. It’s quite possible that during a seven or eight month time frame, you could binge watch every episode of MARTHA ever filmed, honing in on her pie tutorials.
The truth is we won’t really know what to expect until we (much like Wondra flour and gravy) are in the thick of it. Until I get a pulse on the state of pie and its holiday forecast, I’ll keep the butter cutter busy and the dough sheeter plugged in. My personal pie decisions will be made last minute; with Master/Master and Sweet Soprano on the other side of the border, it’s doubtful we’ll need an oversized Wild Nut Pie. The pumpkin selection will remain faithful to James Beard, but it’s the wild card pie, the one culled from a freezer stash of warm weather fruit that is uncharted territory. To be honest, the turkey is less stressful than all the pie shells swirling around in my subconscious and my reality.
It’s comforting to know that any unresolved questions can be fielded by the steady folks at the Butterball Turkey hotline and those in the know at the King Arthur Baking company. The sad truth is that the only certainty circling Thanksgiving is the uncertainty. Since I’m unable to travel to Canada and Canada can’t travel to me, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
October slipped through the kitchen door, arriving unannounced and without invitation. The Italian prune plums have exhausted themselves playing back-to-back performances in in Marian Burros’ plum torte. Now it’s simply a matter of weeks before Pie-mageddon sucks the life out of every retail driven baker.
As clear as a cello windowed 10” x 10” x 2”½” pie box, I know that lurking behind every sugar cookie ghost is an empty pie shell begging for attention. Spooky Halloween sprinkles do nothing to distract from the fact that October is followed in rapid succession by a series of weeks lost in a blur of flour, butter, sugar, and burn cream.
Recently, a weighty, corrugated box arrived at my doorstep. Nestled beneath a mountain of neon yellow paper shred, I unearthed an impressive collection of cast iron bakeware, courtesy of LODGE. As promised in the accompanying literature, this very well may be the last bakeware I ever have to purchase.
Setting aside the stately loaf-pan for a lazy Sunday in January, I turned my attention to the generous baker’s skillet. Lining the pan with whole wheat pie pastry, a mix of local apples and the very last of the fresh blueberries, a wide lattice sprawled across the behemoth pie.
Cast iron and I originally bonded over a mutual love for fried chicken, but cast iron is equally comfortable sharing the oven with baked goods. More importantly, one of cast iron’s best baking features is affording a perfectly baked bottom crust. I have enough to worry about without Mary Berry weighing in on the integrity of my pie crust.
My new bakeware pan yielded enough pie to feed a rather large gathering, if in fact, we were gathering. Since circling a table with a large group is more 2019 than 2020 (and fearfully 2021 as well) I will continue cutting sliver after sliver, making my way through the maple-y fruit, dotting the crust with whipped cream or ice cream or yogurt. I’m anxious to take my brand new cast iron loaf pan out for a spin, but that feels like a commitment better suited to a season sans pumpkins, turkeys, or gingerbread. Short term planning seems more prudent at this juncture, standing at the crossroads of Holiday 2020, facing chaos in all directions.
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.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm