When the thermometer taunts with a 77 degree Wednesday, followed by a 35 degree Thursday, it’s perfectly rational to drown one’s sorrows in the over-priced produce section of Whole Foods. I select a shopping cart that clearly has suffered an injury of Olympic proportions, as evidenced by its limp. Sporting three good wheels and one refusing to spin, I push/pull the cart away from the apple display. I’ve had enough apples, thank you. I am on a citrus mission. Combing the aisles of lackluster grapefruits, Technicolor mandarins and roly-poly clementines, one lonely 8 oz. package remains. The only citrus with skin more edible than its pulp beckons from behind a plastic clamshell. Oh, happy day! Long time no see, Kumquat.
In celebration of the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Dog, it seems only fitting to track down the elusive kumquat. Symbolizing good luck and prosperity, they are often part of Lunar New Year celebrations. With a bittersweet skin and slightly acidic pulp, no-need-to-peel kumquats are neatly packaged in one bite. Like most things citrus, I inherited my love for kumquats from my mother. They are also nostalgic for me; the slightly exotic fruit is inextricably linked to two restaurants from my youth; the Joy Inn and the Bamboo Inn.
Other than the occasional can of La Choy or Chun King chicken chow mein, (with its separate vacuum-sealed can of crispy noodles,) our adventures in Chinese cuisine were limited to dining out. Dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the 1960s promised more than a meal; it was dinner and a show. Boasting the pomp of sizzling pu-pu platters, we sat at a table against a backdrop of deep reds and flashy golds. Frowning waiters circled the dining room brandishing stainless steel pedestal dishes in one hand, tall glasses garnished with maraschino cherries in the other. The Chinese/American cuisine of my youth catered to non-daring tastes. Our menus offered nothing too exotic, nothing too spicy, and certainly nothing of the sushi variety. Cantonese dishes were liberal with the soy, the sweet, and the monosodium glutamate. Crispy noodles floating in wonton soup and overfilled egg rolls provided more than a daily serving of sodium. Cloyingly sweet and sour dishes were heavy on the pineapple and red dye number 2. At some point between Column A’s spare ribs and Column B’s subgum chow mein, a waiter swooped in bearing a plate of hot towel-ettes, an antidote to sticky fingers. It was generally around this time that my father would ask for a few more crispy noodles and another pot of steaming tea. I was already thinking about dessert.
Ice cream was the star dessert player, served in frosty, stainless steel dishes. A single scoop of chocolate, vanilla, or pistachio, crowned with a paper parasol felt celebratory. Occasionally there were almond cookies, as large as a saucer, studded with one perfect almond on top. We divvied up the fortune cookies, some of us believing the message inside to be gospel. (If the fortune was not to my liking, I insisted it had been destined for one of my brothers.) The most intriguing of the dessert offerings was the one my mother favored; candied kumquats. Swimming in neon orange syrup, I loved that they were simultaneously sweet and bitter and sour.
Following my mother’s lead, I learned to appreciate kumquats straight-up in their natural state. Particularly in winter, their jolting taste is addictive, offering what feels like a bite of sunshine. In baking, kumquats pair happily with other citrus, sassing up sweet Meyer lemons and clementines. Their bold flavor is a welcome addition to rustic desserts, especially those featuring nuts and flours with a little bit of texture, such as cornmeal or almond meal. Paper parasols and fortune cookies notwithstanding, kumquats seem happiest amidst the holy flavor trinity of chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio. As for the maraschino cherry? My fortune cookie advises me to avoid anything with red dye number 2. In honor of the Lunar New Year, I’m listening.
Cupid has taken wing, with a quiver full of pink buttercream and a few lingering sugar cookies. The holiday overlap was brutal, with Fat Tuesday getting elbowed out and Chinese New Year sneaking in under the royal icing wire. Bakery holidays, whether real or faux, are relentless. If you look away, the holiday you thought was on tap will, just like Dolly Levi’s parade, pass you by. I’m too late for National Chocolate Covered Cherry Day, and too early for National Cherry Cheesecake Day. I could have sworn these would align with February 14th and George Washington’s imagined cherry tree chopping festivities, but I was wrong.
The cold, hard, February fact is that young George never chopped down a cherry tree. The story was a folk tale crafted by a biographer in an effort to paint George as an honest fellow. One would think that crossing a river while maintaining an iconic hairstyle would have guaranteed George significant holiday recognition. But George would eventually have to share the spotlight with a whole gaggle of presidential folk. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was created, lumping together George’s birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and all of the other POTUS peeps. Poor George; you start out with your very own holiday and before you know it, it’s all about selling cars and mattresses and a 3-day weekend in February. Take heart, Mr. Washington; as a nod to the cherry tree you didn’t chop down, there will be plenty of mediocre cherry pies flooding the supermarket aisles. Overly thickened, flagrant red cherries suspended between a soggy bottom and a meandering lattice could prompt its own holiday; Bad Cherry Pie Day. I wonder how Mrs. Washington, the original Martha, would have reacted to a Presidential holiday weekend. I suppose she would have headed to Costco to stock up on groceries, dropped the perishables home with George and continued on to the mall.
Michigan cherry growers tell me that a typical tart cherry tree boasts about 7,000 cherries per tree and an average cherry pie is filled with approximately 250 cherries. Oscar Wilde must have filled his shopping cart with a signature Kirkland Brand Costco cherry pie when he coined the phrase, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” One Kirkland Brand Costco cherry pie weighs in at a whopping 72 ounces. Somewhere, someone is chopping down cherry trees.
It has also been brought to my attention that tart cherry pie filling is the number one pie filling sold in the United States. My response to this is the quintessential Blondilocks phrase, “We can do better.” Cherry pies and tarts, while clearly a labor of love, need not be relegated strictly to canned fillings. While many of us grew up happily devouring Comstock filled cherry pies, today make-your-own is more easily doable. Thanks to the wizardry behind individually quick frozen fruit, bags of cherries are no further than the freezer cases of your local supermarket, Trader Joes or God-help-me-any-day-of-the-week Costco. While you’re there, you might add an 8 oz. or 3 pound package of cream cheese to your cart. For some of us, cherries call out for a schmear of cheesecake, and possibly a good dose of chocolate.
I’m not alone in my February cheesecake hankering; just take a gander at ancient food history while you’re waiting for the stream of commercials to end and the Winter Olympic coverage to resume. It’s a little known fact that during the first Olympic games held in ancient Greece in 776 B.C., athletes were without access to CLIFF bars. Instead, they found energy in slices of cheesecake. The cheesecake was a combination of cheese, wheat flour, and honey, weighted down and baked beneath a brick. Also noteworthy is the fact that Greek brides and grooms often celebrated weddings with cheesecake.
As the shortest month of the year dwindles down, you are free to pick your poison. Whether you are a lover of cherry pie or chocolate, cheesecake or holiday sales, American history or athletics, all of these things are as intertwined as the Olympic rings. And if someone truly loves you, they will do the Costco run and leave you happily at home in your pajamas.
With more birthdays this week than you can shake a whisk at, the unmistakable fragrance of melting wax on buttercream is in the air. Cakes and pies ablaze with candles will commemorate milestones; some dramatic, others traumatic. I know of one party launched on Thursday that is rumored to stretch out well into Sunday, possibly Monday. That’s the event I will be attending, causing me to swap out my bandana for a suitable party crown.
In birthday circles, the number ninety is fairly monumental. It reopens the ongoing Cake vs. Pie debate and requires thoughtful flavor consideration. It also means Sibling Sister and her Toronto crew will be flying in for the celebration. In light of Canadian border crossing regulations, the transport of any jams, liquids, or fine baked goods into the Garden State is strictly prohibited. This leaves me assuming the role of dessert facilitator for the weekend.
Deciding what to bake is less of an obstacle when the celebration spans several days. Additionally, it is with unbridled joy that I am allowed to embrace the dessert challenge with neither dietary nor allergy driven restrictions. In today’s world this is pretty remarkable, if not extraordinary. In fact, had there not been the constraints of persistent, seasonal malaises, I could have ordered party invitations declaring in a bold, cursive, font: There Will Be Gluten.
In an attempt to be all-inclusive, both Cake and Pie will be featured in the festivities. Thankfully, the birthday girl’s flavor profile features a fondness for anything lemon, particularly those of the Meyer variety. And unlike my father who was known to proclaim his preference for vanilla, my mother is always about the chocolate, a quintessential February flavor.
Over the course of the weekend there will be plenty of lemon and copious amounts of chocolate. However, unlike the birthday parties effortlessly orchestrated by my mother for decades, I will fall short. There will be glaring omissions, specifically in the area of decorations. Don’t look for curling streamers of pastel crepe paper suspended high above the dining room table, thumbtacked securely where stray cobwebs meet ceiling corners. Blatantly absent will be pudgy balloons adhered to the wall by means of static electricity. Severely lacking will be a Happy Birthday centerpiece fashioned out of Gibson or Hallmark party papers. We won’t need a blindfold or a donkey likeness, a limbo pole or floor space for Twister. Knees, hips, shoulders, and necks have a way of out growing party games. Instead, we’ll amuse ourselves in remembrances, overdo with too many slivers of pie and cake. Thumbing through black and white photos and Polaroids will resurrect bad memories of dreadful hair-dos and dated fashions. In our excitement we will talk over each other, repeating classic family stories destined to embarrass. Eventually a glass of something will be accidentally knocked over, requiring a generous dousing of seltzer which will only make things worse. As the small puddle gains momentum, it will sprawl across the table littered with crumbs and droplets of wax from birthday candles that set off the requisite smoke alarm. All of this in the name of happy and healthy and many more. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Let’s just hope someone remembers the goody bags.
Blissfully, the month of January has finally left the building. This means most eyes will be turned to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on Friday morning, specifically to a groundhog named Phil. Before the sun rises, I will unearth one arm from beneath a sea of quilts, fumble for the remote control, knock a few things off an over-filled bedside table in the process, and turn on the news. Phil may not boast a Grammy stylist, but he will certainly assemble his entourage, known as his “Inner Circle” before he stumbles out of his western Pennsylvania burrow. Six o’clock in the morning is not my best hour, but I’m always listening, (if not actually focusing) as Phil shares his weather prediction with the masses. Braving the bitter cold in Gobbler’s Knob is clearly not my style, which is why attending the festivities remotely, attired in flannel pajamas, is preferable. Truth be told, from where I perch in my Nick and Nora doughnut emblazoned pjs, seldom does Phil tells us anything new. Yes, there are years and years of statistics indicating when he sees his shadow and when he doesn’t, but truthfully, it seems to have no bearing whatsoever on the atmospheric conditions swirling around me. No matter what happens in Gobbler’s Knob on February 2nd, we still have to weather the storm of February followed by March; both traditionally brisk, often snow-walloped months.
As the weather turns colder, we tend to fall victim to a little additional padding, as a means of warding off the approaching chill. Groundhogs are no different, although they start earlier, long before they’ve buried their white shoes in the back of their closets. As a species, we are known to hunker down on our couches, with easy access to Netflix and salty-sweets. Groundhogs probably don’t have access to cable, but I understand they seek refuge in comfortable burrows, ranging from 8 feet to 66 feet in length. This leads me to believe there very well may be a Bed, Bath, and Beyond for Groundhogs, specializing in extra long sheets. (Parents who experienced sending a child off to college and a freshman dorm, know all about XL sheets. They also know that less than one semester later, their college freshman will decide to move off campus, insuring the XL sheets will never see the light of day again.)
Not limited to ranch style homes, groundhogs often hibernate in multi-level burrows, spending the warmer months in their “summer” burrow. Decorated in wicker and shades of sea glass, with an infinite supply of Bain de Soleil and neatly folded, thirsty beach towels, I imagine the burrow easily accessible by the Garden State Parkway. In keeping with the need to add a few layers of fat in anticipation of their pending hibernation, you can bet the summer burrow is nicely situated between a Five Guys and a frozen custard stand.
According to the folks at National Geographic, groundhogs are close relations to the squirrel family, and are formally known as Marmota monax or marmot for short. Folks who have spent time with me know my leanings towards winter are about the same as my leanings towards squirrels. The squirrels living in my neck of the woods are cunning and crafty and downright belligerent. They have been known to scurry down a maze of tree branches, dashing directly in my running path, before shooting me a look that clearly says, “Watch it lady! I’m acornin’ here!” Learning that groundhogs are giant ground squirrels leads me to distrust them.
The Punxsutawney Phil that will sprawl across my tv screen on Friday morning will have just stepped out of hair and make-up. He will toss his shiny coat made brilliant by Extreme Bed Head product, bare his Crest-white-strip teeth, and smile for the cameras before declaring a little more or a touch less winter. At which point I will return to my burrow, hunker down beneath several quilts and dream of wicker and sea glass and Bain de Soleil, until the alarm reminds me to rise and shine, and not forget my booties, ‘cause it’s cooooold out there.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm