It’s been a week filled with festivities, of both the pie and musical theatre variety. On Tuesday, January 23rd, fans of triangular slices raised a fork to National Pie Day. Not to be confused with Pi(e) Day, the March 14th celebration, pie’s lesser-known holiday was launched in 1986 as a marketing ploy by the American Pie Council. The occasion of Crisco’s 75th anniversary seemed the perfect incentive to encourage pie baking and sharing while increasing sales of the famous blue labeled shortening.
Last Wednesday, Phantom of the Opera toasted their 30th anniversary on Broadway with more than a few flutes of champagne. In case you missed a few years between Oh, Calcutta and Cats, suitably elaborate signage outside of the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street firmly establishes the fact that Phantom is Broadway’s longest running musical.
Unlike the standing ovation bestowed upon Pi(e) Day, National Pie Day has more of a reserved audience. You might say Pi(e) Day is the Equity production, a star studded Broadway event while National Pie Day is a non-equity bus and truck tour; a split week between Schnectady and Utica, New York.
It’s not that there aren’t enough pie lovers to go around nor is it that National Pie Day isn’t trying to garner celebrants. It’s simply that people who do not spend their days crafting or consuming or photographing pie tend to overlook January 23rd. March 14th however, summons us to pay attention to pi(e) by nature of its date. As someone who lives, breathes, and dreams in pie, I believe it’s a fine idea to celebrate both holidays, leaning towards the adage, the more pie the merrier.
As glamorous as it sounds, the turn-around from bakery to Broadway wasn’t easy on Wednesday. Anything requiring pantyhose is an effort; combining hosiery with the boarding of a high-stepping train promotes many challenges, none of them good. I have learned to look away from any snags, pulls, or gaping runs incurred enroute to the theatre. No one really notices and if they do, they are generally too self-absorbed to spend much time worrying about the hole in my stocking. Additionally, it never hurts to wear a skirt that borders on ankle length, though that presents an escalator hazard. Secured in one of NJ Transit’s best window seats, I forgot all about the pantyhose once I detected the unmistakable hint of flake coconut and sweet butter. I probably should have worn a different coat.
At six o’clock, the crowd outside the Majestic Theatre swelled from sidewalk to lobby. Adjacent to the bar, Phantom peeps of importance were being photographed and quoted. Windblown and desperately seeking hydration, I inched my way past the over-fragranced and over-cleavaged, mincing my way towards the ladies lounge. Following a brief struggle with the paper towel dispenser, I attempted to make my way back towards the lobby.
Many of the dresses swirling around me were better suited to a balmy summer day, less so a frigid January evening. Spaghetti straps attached to minimal yardage yielded plenty of shivering theatre-goers, yet none of them looked anything shy of fabulous. Damn them.
Tucking the remnants of the shredded paper towel into my evening bag, I looked up to see legendary theatrical director and producer, Hal Prince, standing quite alone. Mr. Prince had directed the premiere production of Phantom and was customarily called upon to deliver a brief post-curtain speech on milestone performances. Attired in a classic black tuxedo, one would never guess that the Broadway icon was a few days shy of celebrating his 90th birthday. Alternately eyeing the crowd, and then his playbill, he only looked up when someone called his name.
Offensive fans are legendary, bordering on maniacal, and for some strange reason, seem to attach themselves to long-running Broadway shows. Wednesday night, an individual attired in what can only be categorized as a Glamour Don’t, practically pounced, lunging towards the dapper Mr. Prince. Grabbing and then shaking his hand too enthusiastically, the fan continued to invade his space, as Mr. Prince immediately recoiled. Announcing that she was a “huge” fan, the woman continued to repeat the word “huge” while stepping in closer. Mr. Prince attempted to backstroke, finally disentangling from the death grip handshake, taking refuge in the rear of the orchestra. In an instant, Huge Fan had disappeared, taking her brand of crazy with her.
I watched the whole thing and yet did nothing. I should have been a better friend to Hal Prince, should have spun on my low-heeled ankle strap shoe and intervened, cutting off the crazy at the quick. That was Hal Prince, for God’s sake! The legendary director, the savvy producer, the man who put pie (albeit deadly meat pie) in a barber shop on a Broadway stage. And did I say anything? I said nothing.
I know a little something about the curious breed of people known as fans. For the most part, they are somewhat rational individuals, guilty of nothing more than enthusiastic adulation of a celebrity. Pre-Twitter and instagram, fans wrote fan mail and waited patiently, watching for the mailman to bring a reply. I know about fan mail because I once answered it, divvying up the letters into two stacks; those that bordered on creepily over-the-top, and those that were heartfelt, deserving of a reply. During that tenure, I amassed more than my fair share of paper cuts, sliding autographed 8x10 glossy black and white photographs into manila envelopes, including a brief note typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter, sealing the heavily-gummed flap, safely clasping them shut.
Today, 10” kraft paper window boxes and shards of caramelized sugar afford me all of the paper cuts I need. Over-zealous pie fans are their own unique breed, particularly during the month of November, or on Fridays, and surely most Saturdays.
In recounting the story to Blondilocks, we both agreed that fans have a tendency to edge in a little too closely, crossing the lines of personal space. But the fact remains that on Wednesday evening, I did nothing to fulfill my unofficial role as Stageland Security. As Blondilocks reiterated, “Mom, if you happen to see Hal Prince and you see something, DO something.” Her message resonated as loudly as any 500-pound chandelier crossing the footlights of the Majestic Theatre.
THE SAGE ADVICE OF MRS. BEETON
For the past week, every time I open the refrigerator door, two discs of pie dough are staring back at me from within their neat see-through wrappings. As added emphasis, an oversized Meyer lemon rolls out from between the packages of pie dough, reminding me to act soon.
The citrus was a gift from my dear pal Mary, and it is by no means an ordinary slice-of-lemon-in-your-tea-lemon. Traveling all the way from Savannah, Georgia’s Skidaway Island, as Meyer lemons go, this southern belle could be mistaken for a grapefruit. She’s a curvy girl, wearing a hoop skirt of sun-kissed yellow and practically capable of filling a pie plate single-handedly. She lends herself to being sliced into thin ribbons for a Shaker lemon pie, but I haven’t the heart to do so; not yet. Instead, I choose a few plebian Meyer lemons from the Trader Joes mesh bag, wash them and send them through the feed tube of the Cuisinart where they meet their fate. From the other side of the kitchen counter, Mary’s Meyer lemon holds its breath. I will be the first to admit that my attachment to seasonal fruit borders on the unnatural.
Fruit pickings are slim in mid-January, making it a trying time for a pie girl. Apples are available but lackluster, their taste a hybrid of wax fruit and the dark recesses of cold storage. Although the audience for classic apple pie never falters, I am certain winter apple pie variations are just within reach. My cookbook shelf is an arm’s length away.
I turn to the all-knowing Mrs. Beeton of Mrs. Beeton’s All About Cookery, published in 1901. Mrs. Beeton’s original Book of Household Management was published in 1861, a comprehensive guide to all aspects of running a household in Victorian Britain. Blissfully, my household is managed more casually, allowing me to skim over sections of the book dedicated to helpful hints for my footman, valet, or lady’s maid. Mrs. Beeton arranged her collection of ‘practical recipes’ in alphabetical order, a refreshing change from today’s seasonally mandated cookbooks. Thanks to the generosity of Rommy’s lovely friend Ann Brown, I have a copy of Mrs Beeton’s New Edition, which has been ‘enlarged, revised, and thoroughly brought up to date.’
Thumbing past adverts, almonds, and anchovies, I land smack dab in the middle of apples. Mrs. Beeton emphatically states on page 9 that ‘apples become flavourless after February,’ reminding me to add a little lemon peel and juice to the mix. Two hundred papes later, I stumble across an intriguing recipe for Lemon Mincemeat. The recipe’s inclusion of suet gives me pause, but I like the idea of apples and lemon sharing space within two circles of pate brisée. Although Mrs. Beeton advises me to get cracking on this recipe in the beginning of December, clearly that mince ship has sailed. I tuck this little bit of cookery knowledge away, earmarking it for a home baking project.
I couldn’t bear the thought of sending Mary’s Meyer lemon through the Krups juicer, tossing the remains of her beautiful yellow skirt into the trash. It was hard enough saying good-by before slicing it paper-thin and cooking it down á la Shaker lemon pie filling. The bountiful lemon provided a generous amount of curd, rind and all. The two discs of pie dough in the fridge stopped glaring at me once I rolled them out and cut them into 3” circles. As a nod to Mrs. Beeton, I tossed a few finely diced apples into the mix. Four hand pies and two cups of coffee later, I felt my exhaustive recipe testing was complete.
The Apple Galette with Meyer Lemon made a quiet debut at the bakery on Thursday.
There’s nothing glamorous about the open faced, rustic tart; just a circle of apple slices and a generous dollop of lemon curd, with nary a whisper of suet in the crust. It is not the sort of thing one would serve alongside glasses of sweet tea on Savannah’s Skidaway Island. Nor would it necessarily be welcome as part of Afternoon Tea service in a Victorian household. It does seem inevitable, however, that sleepy mid-winter apples snoozing in the walk-in and limited edition Meyer lemons are destined to cross paths. I am only following Mrs. Beeton’s advice to usher the fruit into a ‘brisk oven, but not too hot, but not too slack, or the paste (pastry) will be saddened and will not rise nor will it have any colour.’ We will have no slack oven temperatures and no saddened pastes on my watch, Mrs. Beeton. Perish the thought.
FOR THE LOVE OF GRAPEFRUIT
The mesh bag of grapefruits has a gaping hole in it, causing citrus to roll pell-mell across the kitchen table, like wayward bowling balls heading straight for the gutter. One goes careening over the edge, landing with a thud. The thick skin and ruddy complexion of the renegade is now slightly marred by a dimple. I run it under cold water and dry the portly fruit with a clean kitchen towel. “Sorry you bumped your head,” I hear myself apologizing to the citrus paradisi. I am forced to move the Meyer lemons to a separate bowl and crowd the red grapefruits alongside the white in my favorite sweetgrass basket.
Slicing a grapefruit in half is always the slightest bit surprising. Grapefruits can be deceptive, the inner flesh boasting hues as varied as a line of Max Factor lipsticks. White grapefruit ranges from mellow yellow to sun kissed at high noon while Ruby Reds are known to blush pink or rose or downright vampy. When it is January in the northeast and the remnants from last week’s bone numbing bomb cyclone are leisurely melting into big, sloshy puddles, grapefruit feels sun-drenched and hopeful. So does a small condominium in southern Florida.
Grapefruits were once part of the daily breakfast ritual, halved and divvied up by means of a serrated spoon or grapefruit knife. Yellow or pink grapefruit halves were generally the precursor to a cereal bowl filled with Alpha-bits or Rice Krispies. We never topped our grapefruit halves with sugar, but made certain to squeeze every last droplet of juice from the hollowed fruit. I avoided the outside of the grapefruit like the plague. Its bitterness had an almost frightening quality, what I imagined poison to taste like. The tartness of the flesh, however, was just right; not quite as bracing as a lemon, but certainly bolder than an orange. It was also my favorite vocabulary word in the A-LM French Level One, Second Edition textbook; how could you not love the word pamplemousse?
Recently, we have fallen a little bit out of love with grapefruit. Despite its promise to deliver Vitamin C and a wallop of antioxidants, recent studies indicate that the combination of grapefruit with certain pharmaceuticals may result in dire consequences. Medications prescribed for lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, and relieving allergy symptoms are dangerous when paired with grapefruit. Critical studies indicate that many of the individuals who once consumed grapefruit as part of their balanced diet, are now tethered to the very medications that preclude them from eating the citrus. Additionally, a once healthy processed grapefruit juice industry has felt the squeeze from other juices, those touting perceived health benefits and boasting little added sugar.
This leaves Ruby Reds and Whites as dated as the former glamour girl of the 1930s Hollywood Diet and the 1980s low-carb Grapefruit Diet. In today’s grab-and-go world, grapefruit is cumbersome and messy. It’s not as hip as a blood orange or sweet as a Meyer lemon or curious as an ugli fruit. For those of us faced with an empty pie plate, grapefruit is not the first citrus fruit we turn to. Unlike lemons and limes, grapefruits are needier, playing by a different set of rules. In pie, grapefruit can be finicky, the flavor less bright than lemon or lime, the filling crying out for more stability, more sunshine. Covering it under a blanket of meringue is a little like sprinkling sugar over the fresh fruit; it doesn’t enhance, it over-sweetens.
There are a number of grapefruit pie recipes circulating, many from Southern cookbooks, most of them borrowing from each other, all of them a little too sweet for my taste. A recent foray into a clipping from an old Southern Living offers a recipe for Grapefruit Chess Pie, more sweet than tart, with an undertone of bitterness from the zest. A contemporary cookbook suggests a pie made slightly tipsy with a generous splash of Campari. A third version from the stalwart ladies behind the Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook recommends beaten egg whites folded into grapefruit custard. I had to draw the line at meringue, reserving that for the undeniable pucker of lemon.
Having tried them all, I must admit that while tasty, I still prefer my grapefruit straight up. Even the runt of the grapefruit bag litter, the one whose features are marred with a rather pronounced fallen-off-the-table ding are worth their weight in ruby red or liquid gold. Despite my current talks with Punxsutawney Phil’s people, spring’s arrival remains unclear. There is little choice but to continue peeling the pith from the citrus until that first stalk of rhubarb, poisonous leaves and all, lands on my kitchen table and grapefruit returns to its condo in Boca.
Just when I thought I had wrapped my earmuffs around the term Polar Vortex, I am pelted with repeated weather advisories from the Advance Doppler Radar specialists. Apparently the new winter catch phrase, the bomb-diggity expression for frigid temps, biting winds, and popsicle toes is Bomb Cyclone.
The heightened frenzy and repetitive nature of Advance Doppler’s warnings and updates leads me to believe that the storm trackers dotting the tri-state area are gravely serious about this weather pattern. Any doubts about the storm’s severity have been swept away in a gust of coastal winds and tidal flooding. While it’s been no weather picnic in the Garden State, I consider myself lucky. Folks in Quincy, Massachusetts have been met with hurricane force winds and flooding prompting the hashtag #don’tdrownturnaround. Let’s hope that before you turn around, you have the foresight to stock your pantry with marshmallows, a block of 60% dark chocolate and add a gallon of milk to your refrigerator inventory.
Personally, the best defense for the resolution-prone first month of the year is to ignore the advice of every New Year, New You, Listicle. Yes, I hear you, Mindfulness and Meditation, but I’m not listening. Ditto for the 100 Pushup Challenge, Food Journaling, and Learning a New Language. Aren’t the days spent struggling to string coherent thoughts together from one’s everyday language considered sufficient challenge? Adding push-ups to the list seems particularly cruel for someone with wrists impacted by daily pie shell rolling. In my little world, it is best to embrace the New Year with the same fervor that I embrace my horoscope; with diminished expectations.
There is a new calendar in the house with watercolor illustrations of faraway destinations. Flipping the pages to January, I discover the Caribbean, replete with palm fronds, bare toes curling across warm sand, and sapphire skies. NPR’s coverage of the Bomb Cyclone feels the need to assault my senses with the harsh audio realism of snow plows scraping against mountains of rock salt. The contrast to my Caribbean fantasy is simultaneously sharp and painful. Public Radio does offer however, a playlist of songs for weathering the storm.
Rummaging through my kitchen cabinet for that block of dark chocolate, I grab a collection of Caribbean-inspired warm spices and crank up the radio following NPR’s ‘Songs for Storms” advice. January’s blitzkrieg of winter calls for a strong defense; I will call in my reliable cavalry of baked goods and hot chocolate. I give myself bonus points for baking something dunkable in hot chocolate. Because Advance Doppler Radar is unclear as to the duration of the winter storm, I roll out a pie shell for good measure. New Year? Agreed. Same Old Me? As highly predictable as a Bomb Cyclone in January.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm