When Mardi Gras "roulez-s" around, I'm reminded to give a nod to Anna Laura Squalls, head baker at the Pontchartrain Hotel from 1960-1985. Squalls' ingenuity is responsible for elevating Baked Alaska to the iconic Seven Mile High Pie. A gravitational wonder composed of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and peppermint ice creams, it was blanketed in torched meringue then drizzled with chocolate sauce. Mile High Pie stands tall on my list of indelible food memories from the Pontchartrain's Caribbean Room.
For breakfast, the hotel's Silver Whistle Coffee Shop served muffins bursting with blueberries. Most mornings before hopping the street car to the Saenger Theatre, I bought one muffin, still warm, tucked inside a waxy bakery bag. Diligently breaking off small pieces, the challenge was making it last for the duration of the trip from the Garden District to Canal and Carondelet. I was introduced to Squalls on my first day at the hotel and would wave and say good morning whenever I caught a glimpse of her in the kitchen. Very much the driving force behind the hotel's iconic baked goods and desserts, I was a little in awe of her but she was warm and engaging. Revered by the staff and the guests with good reason, she was a female culinary icon who sadly received far less recognition on the national and world culinary stages than she deserved. I think about her with the same sort of affection I felt for Jessie who had such a mastery of kitchen knowledge and innovation, a skilled trouble shooter and creative. I'm pretty sure both women would have advised me to leave the ice cream pie in the freezer (at the very least) overnight before slicing it with a hot knife. (Neither freezer patience nor waiting for chocolate sauce to cool is among my strong suits, as evident in the photo.) Squalls' addition of peppermint ice cream ends this dessert on a jazzy note; refreshing but not overly minty.
The calendar flip from January to February triggers a food memory involving neither chocolate nor conversation hearts, but one of pineapple. A former stint turning out desserts in an Italian restaurant coincided with February 14th. Hours spent in tiramisu purgatory were paused to accommodate several cases of baby pineapples. The executive chef rhapsodized over a dessert for two; a baby pineapple, halved, scooped out, filled with oven-roasted pineapple, topped with gelato, garnished with cookies. Good news- mini pineapples lack a tough inner core. Bad news- they still require plenty of painstaking knife skills. Turns out that dunking Savoiardi in espresso is far less fuss.
With the fruit resting comfortably in a large Cambro container, my attention turned to cookies. Biscotti played nicely, but Pizzelle, less so. Requiring a brief spin through an antiquated iron, the anise spiked waffle cookies were needy. The waffle iron was cranky, with a history of shorting out mid-bake. Pizzelle were finicky and fragile and popular amongst the line cooks. During service, the same person responsible for salads was the person plating desserts. (That always troubled me; pesto and pineapple sharing tight quarters.) Pleading with the kitchen crew not to snack on the cookies, I pitched my hours old cappuccino in defiance. Due to its popularity (with both patrons and back of house), the dessert special became a regular menu item, pausing only briefly when the Pizzelle iron drew its final anise scented breath.
A recipe suggestion tagged along with each case of baby fruit. One was no different than a recipe from a 1920s cookbook for "stewed pineapple compote." I incorportaed the compote into a classic Italian crostata, sandwiched between a short-crust pastry, aka pasta frolla. What makes this filling particularly appealing now is that it doesn't call for eggs, and if you opt for a cookie crumb crust, there's not much butter involved. I'd be lying if I didn't acknowledge that pineapples trigger some less-than-stellar memories for me. I'm still a little skittish around anise extract, Pizzelle irons and baby pineapples, but that's strictly a personal problem.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm