As I await the rumored Blizzard of Awes, I take inventory of my kitchen. The Weather Scolds are insisting there will be anywhere from 24 to 36 inches of the white stuff when the flakes are tallied. I am not at risk of starving to death, but there are a few glaring gaps in my baking pantry as well my snack stash. A Trader Joe’s run will do the trick except for one item. Joe and his merry band of tropical shirted colleagues only sell steel cut oats. Tasty when swimming in a bowl of milk with a splash of maple syrup, a toss of walnuts and dried cherries. But for baking purposes, I must turn to a trusted friend, a man after my old-fashioned non steel-cut heart. A man who smiles at me from the cereal aisle, all 42 ounces of him.
You may not have been paying attention, but The Quaker Oats Man has had some work done. If he has in fact, been a part of the same company since 1877, a tweaking is perfectly understandable. He’s a little bit trimmer, his hair-do a little bit shorter, his shoulders a touch broader. Still outfitted in Quaker garb, he remains my baking oats go-to guy. Mr. Quaker and I are minding our own business, simply trying to proceed through the self checkout line at the neighborhood grocery store. There is a voice instructing me, no, scolding me to scan the item, then place the item in the bag, which I do. I am then
reprimanded, told to place the item back on the belt and scan again. Jeez, I just did that, but I do it again. I’m beginning to get annoyed and trying not to mutter an expletive in the company of my pious oatmeal friend.
I scan, machine beeps, Mr. Quaker settles into the plastic bag. Machine beeps again. And again. Five, six, seven, eight! Scan. Beep. Bag. Repeat. I am having a flashback moment- Ken Malone’s Intro to Tap Class. At long last, a super employee from this super market arrives. She scans a mysterious card which has the power to release My Guy Oats from the evil clutches of the self-check. Setting 42 oz. of 100% whole grain goodness in the passenger seat, I proceed to Trader Joe’s to complete my pre-blizzard mission. Big mistake.
I admit, I’m part of the problem, flocking to stock up on non-essentials with the other minions. Don’t worry- I will not fight anyone for a loaf of bread or trample a young allergy-free child for a jar of peanut butter. Just be sure to leave me one container of whole milk, not skim, for my coffee, a 17.6 oz. block of dark chocolate and several bags of white cheddar corn puffs.
It is impossible to determine where one checkout line ends and one begins. I join the line snaking alongside the winter produce running parallel to the freezer cases. There appears to be a snag ahead of me and while I wait, I pluck a bag of frozen berry medley and place it in the wagon, just because. With predictions of 3 feet of snow, you can never have enough pie fixings.
It’s impossible not to overhear the excited children in front of me stating matter-of-factly that there will be an early dismissal tomorrow and a snow day the next. Where’s the fun in that?
Long before Snowmageddon and Polar Vortex, we went to sleep without knowing if school would be cancelled. Monumental decisions could not be made until the light of day. Too excited to sleep, I fought to stay awake, watching the illuminated dial of my Westclox alarm clock inching its way towards dawn.
Schools were listed alphabetically, and in later years by number. If you didn’t tune in to your radio at just the right time, you had to wait until the entire list was repeated. Or wait until out of a sound slumber, you would hear knocking on the bedroom door. My father would kindly wake us up to tell us to go back to sleep. Unless, in a cruel twist of fate, there was merely a delayed opening. On several occasions, when the school bus couldn’t navigate the hilly terrain of our neighborhood my father was all too happy to pile us into the station wagon and drive us to school. Thanks, Dad.
Some children I know (Blondilocks) believed that wearing your pajamas inside out would insure a day off from school. I will have to ask her if that really works. Because when Tuesday’s blizzard turned into what the weather folks ashamedly now refer to as the Fizzard, I felt cheated of my snow day. I want one more morning to sleep in late and enjoy another slice of jumble berry pie in its oatmeal crust.
No such luck. I'm back to work in time to bid January adieu and warm up that carpal tunnel just as February rolls in. Two weeks and counting, until they line up again, for the next holiday. It’s downright despicable. I quake in anticipation.
Random Acts of Pie-ness
In my line of work, everyday is pie day but this Friday is actually Pie Day. Dubbed National Pie Day by the National Pie Association in 1986, January 23rd serves as a day to celebrate single, double and lattice crusted sweets (and savories). The original Pie Day in 1986, commemorated Crisco’s 75th anniversary. I am all for “random acts of pie-ness” as the NPA advises, but honestly, Crisco is not an integral part of my pie crust repertoire. I am neither mathematician nor scientist, but in the workplace, math and science factor into my days making me more of a 3.14 Pi Day (March 14th) celebrant. Nevertheless, I will consider wearing my Pie Queen crown instead of my regulation bandana on Friday. It’s possible I may even rustle up some pies for the slicing. The question is, lemon meringue or chocolate cream?
There are lemon people, and there are chocolate people. In mere weeks it will be February, and it will be all about the chocolate. This month, which is rapidly dwindling, cake and pie forks are poised above the lemon. (I understand there is also a good bit of escarole and sumac going on amongst the New Year’s resolution cleanse crowd, but my Metro card refuses to swipe at that station.) From a baker’s perspective, mid-winter citrus provides a welcome change from eggnog and gingerbread.
I am reminded of the importance of January citrus on a daily basis by means of incessant emails from a certain gourmet food, gift and cookware emporium. It has been many years since I worked for the company that required staff to don green logo aprons before venturing out to the retail floor. Right on the heels of the peppermint bark and winter jacquard tablecloth markdowns, we of the green apron brigade were responsible for stripping display windows and shelving units bare of everything Christmas. On January 2nd, the store was attired top to bottom in sunshine and citrus. Floor to ceiling window banners were splashed with montages of fruit juicers in action. Kitchen towels were stacked in varying stripes of lemon, lime and orange. We served up samples of lemon quick bread and offered spoonfuls of tart lemon curd. Soaps, hand lotions, and kitchen cleaning supplies were available in lemon, lime and pink grapefruit. The famous Pop-Up sponges in screaming yellow were overflowing the shelves adjacent to Cooks Tools, which featured more of the same citrus color palate. The entire store smelled suspiciously like Love’s Fresh Lemon, circa 1970. There were bowls of real lemons and faux lemons tumbling across wooden tabletops and Kitchen-Aid mixers the color of butter. In stark contrast to the fruit mayhem, inventory was taking place behind the scenes. The stock room was located through a pair of swinging doors directly behind Tabletop and Glassware. Working in the stock room required more circus expertise than culinary skill. You can’t fully appreciate a Kitchen-Aid K5 until you are dangling precariously from the top of a moving shelving unit, attempting to count the number of boxed mixers stacked to the ceiling. I needn’t have worried- I’m certain the cases of Christmas red rubber spatulas on the bottom shelf would have broken my fall.
The beautiful perk of working in January was being selected to unpack the February inventory. With each new product came a brief tutorial from the Merchandise Catalogue, a behemoth assemblage of information that weighed more than I did. In hindsight, it seems kismet that I was entrusted with cases of kitchen torches and fragile French porcelain ramekins. The floor plan indicated setting up a display opposite the butter-yellow K5 mixer. Didn’t everyone intend to prepare crème brûlée in the privacy of their own kitchen with their very own kitchen torch?
Once I had navigated the awkward boxes through the swinging doors past Glassware, I was practically in the clear. The only thing standing in my way was Bakeware. The combination of white ceramics and petite flame throwers, against a backdrop of canary yellow table linens made for a beautiful still-life. Had it but remained still.
In honor of National Pie Day and because it is January, I have chosen to bake a lemon brûlée pie this week. You may be surprised to note that my kitchen torch is not from Williams-Sonoma. It was purchased at Killian’s hardware store in Chestnut Hill many years ago and could probably burn the house down if one were not paying close attention. Might I suggest the next time you wander through Williams-Sonoma post-Christmas and pre-Valentine’s Day, check out the citrus displays. A bowl of faux lemons, accidentally knocked off their perch by a case of kitchen torches has the potential to create retail ramekin havoc. Trust me on this one.
Happy National Pie Day.
Praha to Wien
My traveling companions claim I exaggerate, but I was there and saw it happen. Not once, but on two separate occasions, they tried to ditch me at a crosswalk. They insist it was not deliberate, but I wonder. It had been nine days since our journey began and quite possibly patience was wearing thin amongst the travelers. Just maybe my fixation with strudels and kaffee, weather updates and historic architecture was beginning to be a source of irritation.
That might explain the crosswalk quick step. I blame it on a poor travel bag selection on my part. Cautious with my post-holiday Baker’s back, I opted not to be tangled up in a backpack. No matter how I carried it, my small overnight bag was unwieldly, impossible to juggle. As Master/Master summed it up, “Even if you carry the bag on its side, it’s still a rectangle.” As they dashed across the intersection towards the Prague train station, I was fumbling with my mittens, my bag, and desperately trying to unearth a package of Kleenex from the depths of my coat pocket. In the distance I could see Blondilocks’ curls against her navy blue coat and dashed to catch up with them. As we waited on the chilly platform, I forgave them, focusing instead on 4 o’clock, Kaffee hour in Vienna. I wondered if we would be back in time for strudel and schlag?
It never occurred to me to check my ticket, but apparently we were seated in the “Free For All” entertainment car. The opening act was the child seated behind me singing the Barney theme song in Czech. The second act was Cutlery on Empty Water Bottle and Metal Luggage Rack playing from their greatest hits LP, Dinga, Donga, Ding. The main attraction, and by far, the most irritating, was Read Aloud Story Hour, a selection penned by Czech novelist and horror writer, Milos Urban. I knew this because the book was inches away from me. I could not understand a word of it, but it sounded very dramatic, a tale of loss and longing, of moose and squirrel. A 20ish year old woman was reading the story to her travel companion, another young woman, who feigned sleep. They took up four seats between the two of them and were oblivious to the world. The reader barely paused for a breath between sentences, speaking in her outdoor voice. I looked directly in her eyes, silently pleading ‘přestat!’ She ignored me, her voice a touch conspiratorial, louder, more annoying with each word.
I turned my attention to the green landscape unfolding beyond my window where the sun was peeking through a blue-gray sky. Wide ribbons of olive then emerald then celadon created a patchwork of farmland. A border of post-season corn stalks huddled together for warmth. Dimpled rooftops the color of cinnamon and nutmeg exhaled little puffs of chimney smoke. A meandering stream hugged the countryside, interrupted by an occasional farmhouse, a neglected barn. The sun brightened the vista and then it was gone. Sadly, the woman to my right was not.
Was this any worse than a cellphone over-sharer on Amtrak? Probably not. Master/Master had reached his limit and politely but firmly implored the storyteller to lower her voice. She interrupted her narration for but a moment, offered a curt “Sorry” and continued. Master/Master decided to fight Czech literary fire with Hemingway literary fire. Not even his interpretive reading of “To Have and Have Not,” helped drown out Milos Urban. Two rows behind us, curled up next to a young man, was an over-sized shaggy dog who barely fit the confines of his seat. The Czech horror novel had lulled the animal to sleep. On the Euro Rail bound for Vienna, it’s a dog’s life. For me, not so much.
Like a fickle heroine in a romance novel, I refuse to choose. I love them all. The Melange, the Brauner, the Grosser Schwarzer. They are a far cry from a cuppa joe in a paper cup. Viennese kaffee culture is unhurried and downright civilized. It is gentle in the way it is phrased; our coffee break is their kaffeepause. I'll drink to that.
There are newer, hipper, smoke-choking-the-air coffee houses in Vienna, playing American Top 40 and serving chai lattes. I am drawn to the direct opposite; impossible-to-find cafes, hidden behind arched doorways in the narrowest of cobblestone strasse.
If your coffee habit is fueled by Dunkin or Starbucks or your neighborhood independent, odds are slim that coffee service is a formal affair. There are more than enough options for kaffee und kuchen in Vienna, all blissfully lacking an impatient line of humanity oversharing on cellphones.
Easing myself through heavy drapes positioned to keep out the cold, a stern looking gentleman indicates with his hand that I should follow. He is outfitted in somber black trousers, matching dinner jacket, white shirt and perfectly tied black bow tie. There is nary a laptop to be found in plain sight.
The interior of the dining room is a variation on one theme, Classic. Curvy banquettes and marble top tables circle the room, a contradiction of dark woods and brilliant light play. The burgundy upholstery is velveteen, smooth beneath my icy fingertips. Plump cushions sigh as you sit back. Or maybe that's me. My boots spill tiny puddles of snow on the tired carpet.
I am reminded of a favorite pair of my grandmother's earrings in the sparkle of the chandeliers. Heavy mirrors fight for wall space with framed renderings of European composers. Light sconces dripping with tiny crystals interrupt every so often, their reflection in the mirrors casting more glimmer across the room. The overall effect is magical; two parts old world Vienna, one part Lite-Brite. The hushed quiet is punctuated by the occasional clinking of glass and the whoosh of the espresso machine.
My favorite waiter thus far is bespectacled, bald headed and no nonsense. I want to linger over the descriptions of the coffees, but his watch is ticking. He reaches for the menu, impatient, gently scolding. The wording for one beverage describes double espresso with froth and a 'good deal' of warm milk. Bitte, danke, danke, bitte, I'll have that. Oh- and bitte, the plum strudel, the "PFLAUM STRUDEL." I sound like an idiot. Danke.
Mr. Personality returns with an oval silver tray and sets it down before me. It holds a bracing cold glass of still water gussied up with a lace doily. The star attraction is a stemless glass of coffee resting on a saucer. A slender silver spoon is perfectly poised across the top of the glass, as daring as a Cirque du Soleil balancing act. I almost hate to take that first sip and smudge the line between foam and coffee. Not only is the milk perfectly frothed, the rich espresso that lies beneath is ideally hot and remains so.
My dessert arrives a few moments later in a cloud of powdered sugar. I am lost in the plum strudel- paper thin layers of crust that shatter beneath the tines of the silver fork. There is barely a layer of fine cake crumbs separating strudel dough from the thick spiced plums. The fruit is jammy and tart, the intense flavor of slowly cooked preserves. An occasional raisin provides just enough sweetness and walnuts just enough crunch. Pausing between bites for a sip of still hot kaffee, I am absolutely certain about the strudel. This is it, no doubt, my plum and only.
Until the next silver tray comes along, with a glass of water, a perfect kaffee and a slice of lemon meringue torte.
Waltzing in the new
Let me begin by saying that although I may be riding the struggle bahn of cold, the following comments should be construed as observations, not complaints. For purposes of authenticity, feel free to pipe in a few strains of The Blue Danube with just a splash of Lara's theme from Dr. Zhivago.
Jet lag is a real thing and despite my best efforts, I cannot put this lag to bed nor can I sleep more than 3 consecutive hours in a row. I must share the blame with the individual seated in row 20, Seat C for my inability to sleep on the plane. Anyone who robs you of your overhead bin privileges then insists on fully reclining his seat and crossing his arms behind his head for an eight hour flight is nothing if not totally self absorbed. I've moved on and can only wish this fellow all that he deserves in the New Year.
The weather Gods deceptively welcomed me to Vienna, quietly luring me in, a snow globe's worth of winter dusting the ground. One architectural wonder after another circles the city, illuminated for the holiday season in gossamer strands of twinkle lights. Following the doctrine of Lucy Van Pelt, I try to avoid December snowflakes. Vienna's snow is somehow different, confectioners sugar light, sparkly as it falls. The city's idea of bling is mirrored in Klimt's applied layers of gold leaf, massive bronze statues and imposing pillars gilded with 23 carat gold. The apfelstrudel is pretty darn tasty, too.
There is a common woolen thread weaving its way through the snow covered streets of Wien; Austrians love to stand outside in the bitter cold, eating and drinking. My personal thermostat registers only one temperature, freezing. I am downright Dr. Zhivago cold. Master/Master and Blondilocks remind me we are not in Siberia nor do I respond to "Lara." I do not understand how the women of Vienna, despite their age, appear impervious to the weather. The young women sport Barbie doll ski pants and fashionable fur trimmed boots. Yes, they wear hats, and yes, the hats are top heavy with Pom-poms, but their hair looks Breck-girl perfect and their mascara does not run. I am sporting more of a stay-puft marshmallow look. I have layered thermal gear beneath woolen turtlenecks, wide wale corduroy, ear muffs, knee high waterproof insulated boots, down vest and hooded parka. Plus a woolen scarf for good measure and two pairs of mittens. I am still freezing from the tips of my ice cube fingers all the way down to my Popsicle toes.
Standing amidst the throngs cheerfully noshing on wurst and warming themselves with steaming mugs of Gluhwein, I wonder. Perhaps no one has suggested that it's perfectly acceptable to gather up their eats and drinks and bring it all indoors. I am willing to start this trend. Master/Master has lived in Wien and assures me that this is the way things are done. Multi-generational families are standing in this crazy cold, babies and elders and little dogs dressed in tiny booties.
On New Year's Eve, fortified by a few rounds of Wieselburger Bier plus an additional sweater and pair of socks, I join in the festivities surrounding the Rathaus. To my left, the Rathausplatz is dizzying with couples waltzing. To my right, a large family is setting up champagne flutes and preparing to uncork a few bottles at midnight. The sky is dazzling with fireworks. At the stroke of twelve, the waltzing and the fireworks reach a deafening crescendo. There is a huge assemblage of law enforcement to prevent celebrants climbing the treacherous staircases surrounding the City Hall. What I witness is controlled chaos and then the loudspeakers grow quiet for just a moment.
Maybe it's the jet-lag. Maybe it's the beer. I am certain that on the heels of the Blue Danube the next song is unmistakably a non traditional Viennese tune. Do I hear a waltz? I do not. The crowd goes wild as the opening strains of "Celebration" by Kool and The Gang saturates the frigid air.
This is certainly not Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve. But based on the crowd, the music is easy to dance to. I'll give it a 7 out of 10.
May your New Year be merry and bright and as warm as toast. Except for you, sir, previously seated in Row 20, seat C.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm