In a feeble attempt to feign warmth and a devil-may-care attitude towards single digit temps, I ignore the fact that my shoulders have inched up to my ears, refusing to budge. The bakery kitchen is warm, perfumed with butter, offering a respite from January’s cold, cold, heart.
There are slim pickins’ in my little corner of the pie world. A case of apples taunting with the word organic are tired and gnarled, almost as depressing as the incessant rain pounding against the cracked skylight above my workbench. Last week’s pears remain about as flavorful as the wooden crate they rode in on. Despite my daily glaring and prodding, they are unmoved, refusing to ripen. Change is hard but the pears are harder. They should be ready around Valentine’s Day.
A stack of pie shells doze in the freezer, amidst five pound bags of wild blueberries offering more color than flavor. The tiny berries cannot stand alone in pie and are best left to crumb-topped coffee cakes. Ziploc bags busting with chopped cranberries are frosty beneath a veil of freezer burn. I haven't the heart to pair them with the organic apples. I shift my attention from freezer to walk-in.
Pie options are limited to a case of lemons, one of oranges, and bottles of tart-tongued key lime juice. Key lime wins, with lemon a close second. The oranges are better suited to cakes, rarely associated with pies, although their fragrant zest is a welcome addition to the pies of summer and anything cranberry. Two of winter’s brightest additions haven’t crossed the walk-in threshold; fragrant Meyer lemons remain elusive and grapefruit never makes the cut. It’s such a shame, because Meyer lemons with their floral sweetness, and grapefruits with their sweet and sourness provide the perfect antidote to the drab, gray of winter.
Disengaging from a cavernous Cambro tub filled with graham cracker crumbs mixed with sugar and melted butter, I toss my slightly used apron in the laundry bag. Braving the steady downpour, the car knows its way to Trader Joe’s. Paying careful attention to any and all display items likely to come crashing to the ground as I breeze past, I navigate my shopping cart towards the produce aisle. Wandering amongst the bright pyramids of citrus, I pretend I’m on vacation. Grabbing a bag of Cara Cara oranges and a handful of small but respectable pink grapefruits, I totally bypass the pears, without so much as a sideways glance. I know better.
Based on the number of Amazon delivery truck sightings in and around my neighborhood, it appears much of the world shops online. I prefer to see and handle things up close and personal. On-line shopping gives me pause, unless I’m receiving support from one of the friendly phone operators on the other end of the 1-800 L. L. Bean telephone lines. They understand me, provide guidance, answer my questions, never force me to click that tiny little shopping cart that pops up in the right hand corner of the computer screen. That shopping cart icon causes me anxiety, never willing to accept one single item, always making additions. It loves to taunt with the promise of express check-out, only to leave me dazed, confused, and exiting the site having purchased 13 baking pans when all I want is one.
My housemates will tell you that I will never, ever, need to purchase another baking pan for the remainder of my baking days. From their perspective, they are constantly attempting to free a simple item from a cabinet, or a drawer, or a shelf, only to face an onslaught of bakeware. The pans range in size from diminutive tartlets to individual springforms to cavernous cake pans capable of easily feeding one hundred wedding guests. I have pans with removable bottoms that love to separate and crash to the floor, assorted cupcake pans of varying depths, and more than enough pie plates to satisfy a calendar’s worth of offerings.
The same can be said for the cabinet filled with sugars, flours, and extracts. Following a series of
interventions, it was suggested that my baking items be shifted from the entire kitchen to one substantial cabinet. It is a struggle that I have learned to acknowledge, re-aligning decorative sugars and quirky spices to accommodate various bags of flour and a wide assortment of sweeteners. Although one would think that I couldn’t possibly need to add to this baking pantry, I have recently, and joyfully, made room for a few additions.
A few weeks back, before the holiday craziness breezed through town, I received an extravagant package from the kind folks at Jones and Co. Flavorings. The company prides itself on sourcing vanilla from small-plot vanilla cultivators, local farmers often overlooked by large producers. In addition to vanilla, they offer many wonderful extracts, sugars, and flavorings from all over the world. My work and home kitchen environment is tethered to vanilla extract; it is an integral part of every baker’s pantry. It is the ingredient that is linked to our childhood baking memories, a small, red-capped bottle that when opened, unleashed a flood of baking possibilities.
I have made room in my chaotic baking pantry to welcome some beautiful sugars and extracts, just begging to be used. This week’s recipe takes advantage of January’s abundant citrus crop. Before the three-day weekend envelops us in snow, make a stop at your local grocer and pick up some lemons, limes, and oranges. In the midst of winter, we can all use a little sunshine and if you’re lucky, a very good bottle of vanilla.
January, barely two weeks old, is jam-packed with conflict and contradiction. On my short drive to work, I am assaulted by an abrasive commercial crackling out of the car radio. It seems the only way one can find happiness in 2019 is to contact Dr. L-O-S-E-W-E-I-G-H-T-N-O-W. The overly exuberant radio personality provides me with the 1-800 phone number necessary for connecting with the good doctor. Impatiently turning off the radio, I emancipate my paltry 8 oz. water bottle from the cup holder, adjust my bandana, and trudge down the street to work. Is this persistent commercial a sign to clean up my act, focus solely on fruits, vegetables, and the occasional rice cake? Will Dr. L-O-S-E-W-E-I-G-H-T-N-O-W be simpatico with my daily dessert intake and more critically, how will the doc feel about my day job? Staying faithful to a profession where the primary focus is filling butter-riddled pie shells with sweetened fruit may not align with the doctor’s orders. Do I follow in the Teva-sandaled, Sorel-booted footsteps of those embarking on a clean eating journey? As I watch my resolutions continue to waver, then falter, it seems unlikely. I’m struggling with my feeble promise to consume less than half a bag of Cheesy Puffs in one sitting. As for skim milk in coffee, that resolution kicked off on January 1st and promptly ended on January 2nd.
Contrary to what the general population believes, individuals who spend the months of November and December plying others with holiday treats often feel deprived themselves. It is my belief that professional bakers deserve a sweets pardon, allowing them an extension on sweets consumption. The occasional gingerbread man with the broken arm and the crumbled meringue mushroom abandoned by a Bûche de Noël do not constitute a holiday dessert buffet. While the rest of the world is swearing off sugar, I’m hungry for something sweet, and someone to share it with.
How fortunate that Sibling-Sister-of-Toronto is swinging through town this weekend. There is only one woman who will patiently listen as I tick off my ‘Greatest Hits’ list of pies, cookies, and cakes, imploring her opinion, only to disregard her input. As the one driving the dessert cart, it is my job to choose and this weekend, I choose chocolate with a side of strawberry/rhubarb.
My week has already been filled with too many pie shells and graham cracker crusts. Taking a step back from my rolling pin feels necessary and restorative. Reaching into the depths of an unruly kitchen cabinet, I unearth my grandmother’s 9” Bake King cake pans and take them for a spin. Lined with parchment circles, they submit to buttering then flouring, then knocking out the excess. There is nothing flashy about these pans; they are steadfast and reliable, not too shallow, not too deep. The pans hold just the right amount of rich, chocolate batter that perfumes the kitchen, announcing ‘clean-test’ just before the oven timer beeps.
This particular chocolate cake was originally served at a very long table, in a very small Manhattan restaurant, at a milestone celebration, several milestones ago. It was one of the few times in my life that Jessie didn’t bake my birthday cake, a sobering realization that Jessie’s presence in our kitchen was finite. Jessie taught me the hows and whys of cake baking, defining and demonstrating ‘springy to the touch’ and ‘clean test.’ She preferred dramatic swoops of frosting to buttercream roses coaxed out of piping bags. One year, yielding to elementary school peer pressure, I pleaded for a Barbie doll cake from the Cedarhurst Bake Shop. Behind her black-framed glasses, Jessie raised her salt and pepper eyebrows in disdain. The Barbie doll cake was wildly popular with my fourth grade classmates, but couldn’t hold a candle to Jessie’s towering checkerboard cake with dark chocolate frosting.
For decades, Jessie’s vast repertoire of cakes held center stage at our dining room table. Years later, my sister whipped up some of the most exquisite and delicious celebratory cakes. When life-changing cakes were in order, my dearest pal/professional pastry chef, Betsy, outdid herself. We bakers are a strange lot, spending much of our lives turning out cakes (and pies) for people we will never meet. And when it comes time to don the paper crown, some of us whine and complain. Maybe what we’re really saying is, we don’t want someone else to do it.
A celebrated pie baker/author once whispered to me, “I don’t want someone else to bake my pie; I want to bake my pie.” I understood exactly what she was saying. Cake, just like pie, creates indelible food memories. We want to get our hands on those memories and re-create them. And we think we are the only one who can do it.
So when I head to the kitchen with the intent of baking a very specific, triple layer chocolate cake, it’s because my food memory is telling my brain, this is a proper candle blowing cake. The kind of cake that should be blanketed in great swoops of frosting, crowned with but a single candle to signify celebration. The very cake to slice with a multi-pronged, silver cake breaker that will dot the tablecloth with confetti crumbs. The cake that calls for the very best butter and cocoa the color of midnight and maybe, because it’s January, something that hints at the promise of spring. A cake that will became fixated in one’s food memory, the fragrance of chocolate and flame and candle wax permeating the air, long after the last licks of frosting have been scraped from our plates.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm