There are two major events vying for our attention this weekend. One involves a football and highly caloric eats, the other has us fixated on a groundhog with the power to determine the longevity of winter. I am only mildly interested in the latter.
The football portion of the weekend will go unnoticed in my little world; my disinterest in the game stems from more than enough rough-and-tumble touch football as a youngster. It was all fun and games until someone got hurt and with two older bothers, it always ended the same way. I will acknowledge however, the Super Bowl was a fine excuse for my mother to fill her shopping cart with fixings for Pigs-in-Blankets, a few bottles of popular and neon soft drinks, and a large red and yellow bag of Fritos corn chips. Even then it wasn’t about the game, it was about what was happening in the kitchen.
As for Punxsutawney Phil, he and I go way back to the days when jovial weatherman Willard Scott bounded across the television screen, interrupting my soggy breakfast cereal reverie. Willard captured the groundhog excitement, providing a play-by-play from Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania. The brouhaha generally reached its exciting conclusion just as I was racing down the driveway, attempting to catch the school bus. The unknowing was torturous; would Phil see his shadow and if so, was that a good thing? Was Phil a sunny-side-of-the-street groundhog and did the sun even shine in Gobbler’s Knob? I never could remember and quite honestly, regardless of what Phil saw or didn’t see, winter trudged along undeterred. (It seems counter-intuitive for a shadow sighting to trigger six more weeks of winter, but those are the facts.)
This weekend, Punxsutawney Phil will be represented in a sugar cookie likeness at the bakery, right alongside Super Bowl-appropriate sweets. I am less inclined to dabble in groundhog/football brown icings, more likely to focus my attention on seeding and slicing Meyer lemons. Regardless of whether the groundhog sees his shadow and retreats to a comfy den with his weighted blanket, or embraces a spring-like forecast, we remain in the thick of citrus season. This provides plenty of incentive for my sport of choice; a solitary pursuit requiring select kitchen equipment, no particular uniform, and boasting zero commercials. The half-time show is low-tech; simply rotating the baking sheet 180 degrees in the oven. The post-game show begins when I deem the baked good cool enough to slice and enjoy. Go, Pie, Go.
For anyone participating in Dry January or Clean Eating, we really don’t need any distractions. Being reminded to eat more pie by Pi(e) Day’s distant relation, National Pie Day, seems unfair. Elbowing it’s way onto the calendar, pie’s lesser-known celebration has chosen to land on the seemingly random date of January 23rd.
Originally credited to American engineer Charlie Papazian, Charlie proclaimed his birthday, January 23rd, as National Pie Day. The American Pie Council took up sponsorship of the holiday in 1986 on the date that coincided with the 75th anniversary of Crisco shortening. Aimed to increase sales of the famous blue-labeled shortening, the marketing ploy worked. Today, National Pie Day is recognized as yet another excuse to bake and eat pie. Hard-core Pi(e) Day loyalists remain tethered to March 14th, unwavering in their dedication to the mathematical/double crust celebration. Whether you choose the January or the March date, (and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating both) here’s a true tale from my workplace of the restorative power of pie.
I am convinced that pie is more powerful than any bar cookie or frosting slathered cupcake or gluten-free quick bread. Pie has a sixth sense- a way of knowing when it’s most needed. Pie prides itself on being the center of attention in November and again in late May and early July, but it seems to me, pie is most restorative on ordinary days.
About a year ago, a giant cloak of sadness, of profound loss, engulfed the bakery. While we were in the thick of it, pie helped cushion the blow. Not just in the eating, but in the baking. The repetitive nature of rolling and crimping, of juicing lemons and whisking eggs, peeling apples and weaving lattice, provided a welcome distraction. The term Misery Pie seemed an apt description; a dessert whose sole purpose was to alleviate the excruciating pain. As promised, the pain eased but never really went away. Grief seemed like a word reserved for people (other than hipsters) dressed in black, in a state of constant mourning, and it felt a little bit self-indulgent, so I renamed it Melancholy. Melancholy liked to breeze in and out, hiding around corners, jumping out and dragging me down when I least expected it, but allowing me to get on with my day.
Strongly believing that most days can benefit from a triangular slice of pie, a faux food calendar telling me to celebrate National Pie Day feels hollow. Eyeing a stack of empty pie shells in the freezer and choosing how to fill them is enough of a reminder. Shivering in the walk-in and considering my options, cold storage apples feel better suited to fall. Folding up the hem of my apron to create a pocket, two lemons nestle easily into the linen-service-quality polyester. Cradling a flat of eggs and two quarts of buttermilk in my arms, I open the door of the walk-in with my elbow. No sooner do I start cracking eggs into a bowl and zesting the lemons, a customer walks through the bakery door, scanning the front table in hopes of a buttermilk pie. When asked if there was a chance I’d be baking the tangy custard pie any time soon, I hold up the orange capped Five Acre Farms Local buttermilk in reply.
Without prompting, the customer confides that she is having a bad day and a buttermilk pie might turn things around. Clearly, this wasn’t any old pie request; I sensed this was in fact, a Misery Pie. “My father passed away in December. It was his favorite,” she whispers. That not-so-old hole in my heart ached in sympathy. I nodded.
Pie seems to know when it’s needed. The same way a piecrust cradles a filling, protecting it from the heat of the oven, pie can also cushion us from some of life’s harshest realities. The English writer and dramatist John Lyly, is credited for a series of books written around 1579, titled, Euphues. Lyly wrote, “In misery it is great comfort to have a companion.” It seems plausible that on certain days, faux or factual holiday, or plain old Thursday, pie makes a fine companion, indeed.
Nothing wipes the smile off the face of a gingerbread man faster than the month of January. A few short weeks ago, overstuffed cookie boxes were in all their insta-glory, only to be replaced in January by vegan breakfast bowls. No wonder we’re feeling curmudgeonly; we’re hangry.
The sugar buoyancy we experienced in December is gone, replaced by sacrifices made in the name of clean eating. We’re not drowning our January selves in pink packets of Sweet-n-Low or heaping spoonfuls of Cremora into our cuppa joe, but the New Year changes things. Splashing soy in our coffee, and oat milk in our oatmeal, we bump up our water intake, hanging our January selves out to dry. Adding a shot of bitters to a glass of seltzer might be good for our health, but it doesn’t take the sting out of a long workday.
Clean slates and diet trends change with the times. We once swore by Atkins and oat bran, grapefruits and South Beach. We hunted, we gathered, counted points, and tried to slim fast. Carbs were good until they were bad, kale was king until cauliflower thought it was pizza. You can’t fool me; a sheet pan cradling oven-roasted vegetables cries out for melted cheese. If we could navigate our wellness journey with ease, we would certainly download the app with the most expedient route. Instead, we’re stuck in late night traffic with a driver who can’t decide between WAZE and Google Maps. From the back seat I want to tell the driver to take the butter-sugar-flour-eggs-it.
There are plenty of faux food holidays to embrace. A few days ago, National Bagel Day slipped into town, but without so much as a slab or a schmear of a greeting, I missed it. My workplace is already in the throes of February planning. Christmas Red has been bumped out of line by Rose Pink and the Christmas cookie cutters have been relegated to an airtight bin for hibernation. Sprinkle King is gearing up for the diets-be-damned holiday with a vast collection of sugar hearts and edible pearls. Above the din of the espresso machine pumping out skinny drinks, you can hear the sound of the bakery door slamming. A disgruntled, solitary gingerbread man sees himself out.
January takes a little getting used to. A snow-globe’s worth of flurries isn’t dire, but faced with a long road of winter yet to travel, I’m already itching for spring. My kitchen clogs remain firmly planted on the same brown and yellow linoleum squares they frequented in 2019, within earshot of early morning caffeine-ators. There’s been a lot of conversation this week about less dairy and zero sugar and sheet pan vegetables. Reaching for my insulated cup spiked with two shots of espresso and capped with whole milk foam, I’m thinking how much better my coffee would taste with a little laminated dough swirled with dark chocolate. Someone is going on about sheet pan dinners and meal prep. Remembering when sheet pans were called cookie sheets and meal prep was just making dinner, I’m already irritated and it’s not even 9 o’clock. Thank goodness I didn’t weigh myself down with a list of impractical resolutions about being patient and understanding.
January cautions us to be mindful but my mind is elsewhere. A recent foray into a top shelf of cookbooks unearthed a recipe, clipped from a box of Nabisco graham cracker crumbs. The cardboard is rough on the underside, smooth and perfectly legible on the topside. It’s a recipe for "Graham Cracker Pie" wedged alongside a recipe for "Rich Vanilla Cream Pie." Both recipes are basically identical; custard and meringue in a graham cracker crust.
Graham cracker crumbs tossed with melted butter and sugar were an integral part of Jessie’s piecrust repertoire. The crumbs were also used to stretch along the bottom and up the sides of a cavernous springform pan, a vessel for cheesecake as award-worthy as Lindy’s or Junior’s. The same graham cracker crumbs lined Pyrex pie plates, playing host to custards and creams. One of our favorites was a humble vanilla cream crowned with toasted meringue. The filling required a stove-top application, and was the same custard Jessie used to fill éclairs, cream puffs, and Boston cream pie. Jessie had a tendency to “fix” recipes and in this case, she always bumped up the number of egg yolks, creating a richer custard than what was called for, and increasing the number of whites for a loftier meringue.
Our version of vanilla cream pie was no different than the pies dubbed “Prairie Pie” and “Flapper Pie,” homespun desserts made from simple ingredients tethered to no particular season. Prairie Pie dates back to the 19th century, a pie that enjoyed popularity throughout western Canada. Scrappy bakers all across the country offer a similar version of this vanilla cream pie. In the 1920s, “Prairie Pie” was contemporized with the name “Flapper Pie,” and in some recipes, cinnamon (which was more costly) was added to the graham cracker crust. The women behind the pie plates in Prairie kitchens were less likely to rouge their knees, but they knew how to transform farmhouse staples into gossamer desserts. For those of us in suburban kitchens, if the milkman didn’t deliver fresh milk and eggs, we turned to our local A&P or Waldbaum’s.
Vanilla cream pie with toasted meringue in a graham cracker crust feels like January. It’s not particularly fussy, but it’s flashy enough. It’s exactly the kind of pie to ease the January blues, to forgive resolutions broken or never made. It reminds us that even the most humble of desserts, a pie popularized well over 100 years ago, is still relevant. “Flapper” pie was so-named to mirror a time when women were questioning political, cultural, and technological advances. The more pie changes, the more it stays the same.
Armed with a remote control, I watched 2020 waltz into town Tuesday night from the comfort of a sofa in Toronto. Ryan Seacrest was at the helm of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in Times Square. Canadian crooner Bryan Adams headlined from Niagara Falls. Just before midnight, I flipped the channels, stumbling across Celebration Square, Mississauga. You can always distinguish the Canadian revelers from the New Yorkers. Canadians dress in smart Canadian winter jackets, laughing in the face of wind, water, and snow. New Yorkers are more fixated on slimming pouffy waist-length jackets and oversized Party City New Year’s eyeglasses. I suspect it’s a cultural thing.
I’m not sorry/sooory to wave good-bye to 2019. It was a year as mercurial as a bowl of egg whites and sugar, with some lofty highs and far too many lows to count. In my line of work, the year spins like the gears on a Kitchen-Aid mixer, accelerating from modest holidays to dangerously high-speed holidays. In the confines of a bakery, we’re in the business of making lives a little sweeter, a little more (or a lot less) gluten-y, a little nutty, unless of course you’re allergic. In most cases, we’re here to help you douse your everyday in caffeine and celebrate with copious amounts of butter and sugar.
A bakery strives for success every single day. When things go wrong, the epic fails feel monumental; until the next one comes along. Some of the failures are out of our control, like oven timers with laryngitis. Others are tethered to human error, cold and flu season, a finite labor pool. Like egg whites and sugar clinging optimistically to the sides of an impeccably grease-free bowl, I dream of success with every pie. I want the crust to be flaky and the filling to be memorable. It should be the kind of pie that announces itself when you carry the bakery box through your front door and set it on the kitchen counter. It should be a pie that beckons you to cut one more sliver before you leave the table and another morning sliver with your first cup of coffee. There’s nothing cavalier about pie baking. Pie is needy and finicky and seldom perfect. On Thanksgiving, all of the pies nag, tugging at the sleeves of my bathrobe. The pies of 2019 were no different.
Not much will change in the minutiae of my New Year. I’m not one for resolutions or monumental adjustments. Maybe I’ll eat more vegetables and fewer cheesy puffs; probably not. A new decade is humbling, reminding us that the oven timer of life continues to tick down. Seasons and holidays will once again tumble one into the other like dominoes, empty pie shells will haunt. Pie-bye, 2019. Sorry to see you go; not sorry.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm