When the game show Jeopardy features Pie-pourri as a category and the Food section of the New York Times discusses pie whispering, clearly my dessert of choice has established itself as a formidable presence within popular culture.
In a vocation revolving around butter, flour and fruit, it is not unusual to refer to yourself as a pie whisperer. Easing a slightly warped sheet pan of buttermilk pies into a commercial oven requires a steady hand and a calm inner voice. The need for patience is paramount when convincing graham cracker crumbs flecked with almonds to cling to the sides of an aluminum pie plate. Believe me, pleading with pie plant and strawberries to meld into a perfect balance of sweet and tart takes some coaxing. (In case you missed the Jeopardy category dedicated to pie, pie plant is another name for rhubarb.)
Standing on the cusp of spring, my rhubarb connection at Whole Foods has yet to deliver and folks are starting to get antsy. Winter citrus provided a sunny respite but months of Meyer lemon seed removal has grown tiresome. Living in a state known for its bounty of stone fruit and berries in the summer months, the bakery’s walk-in refrigerator currently holds little in pie-spiration. Desperately seeking fruit in the big box stores, it has been easy to bypass Costco’s consistent offerings of underripe bananas and seedless grapes stacked high in vented plastic. On Fridays, hand trucks roll into the bakery offering wooden crates of fujis and galas and grannys named Smith. This simple act can turn a former pie whisperer into a pie hisser, ultimately into a pie screamer. Don’t take it personally Lancaster County apples; it’s not you, it’s me.
On Wednesday, I read with great interest as Pie Coach Kate McDermott explained the importance of listening to pies, describing the sound a pie makes when perfectly baked. I’m all ears, Kate but the struggle is real. Trying to hear the pies amidst the din of a Marcuzzi espresso machine, the incessant beeping of an oven timer and the tidal wave of retail conversation as it sweeps across the bakery is challenging. My cues are more visual; pies seeking refuge on a baker’s rack have their own heartbeat, a pulse of fruit beating steadily beneath a top crust. Opening the double doors of the convection oven unleashes a fragrance of sweet fruit and almost too much butter. The center of the pies bubble rhythmically, a puddle of wayward juices pooling around the edges. Somewhere in the distance, an oven timer beeps.
For those who believe pie baking is a cakewalk, I beg to differ. It is a labor of love, a lesson in patience requiring all of the senses. I’ll take Pie-pourri for a thousand, Alex.
The answer is: What you bake when rhubarb is not yet in season.
What is, Bittersweet Chocolate Tart with Blueberry Conserve.
At this time of year, I like to offer a shout-out to January. A chance to start anew, January has much to offer in clean slates and little to offer in holidays. Sure, it’s cold, and yes, evening descends early and stays late like a stubborn blackout drape in a hotel room, but January is pretty self-sufficient. Unlike late March and early April, January isn’t beholding to a set of calendar-dictated festivities, doesn’t force you to give up an hour of sleep. Other than frigid temps and the occasional snow day, January simply is.
Monday marked the first day of spring meaning it is officially too late to slow down the Holiday Express. Once the clocks have been turned ahead, there’s no turning back. Boxes of matzo and pastel marshmallows are vying for space adjacent to People and Us Weekly at Kings. Bypassing the tabloids, I plucked a bag of mandarins from the produce aisle. According to my calendar, Elijah will be expecting his place to be set at the Seder table on April 10th and the Easter Bunny will be weighed down with jellybeans and Cadbury eggs on April 16th.
Today the master plan for Passover/Easter 2017 was unfurled on a sheet of parchment paper. Penned in Sharpie marker for clarity, the numbers are exhausting to ponder; thousands of cookies, macaroons by the hundreds, too many chocolate tortes forsaking flour, carrot cakes, coffee cakes, and just possibly rhubarb in a pie shell. Lenten sacrifices will be tossed aside to the bunny trail, while anyone remotely Jew-ish will swear off anything containing chametz. (The Spark notes definition of chametz is any of the five grains- wheat, oats, spelt, barley and rye –that have come into contact with water for more than 18 minutes. Why 18 minutes? When combined with water and left to ferment for longer than 18 minutes, the grains become leavened. Avoiding chametz during Passover commemorates the fact that the Jews left Egypt in a hurry –no time for bread to rise- and symbolizes removing the ‘puffiness’ or arrogance from one’s soul.)
Personally, Passover baking is more challenging than baking for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The questions posed at the Seder table are limited to four; at the bakery they tend to be limitless. The flourless connotation doesn’t necessarily mean that all Passover items are gluten free. Having to explain that we are baking Passover desserts using kosher-for-Passover ingredients in a non-kosher kitchen is a mouthful. Man-oh-Manischewitz.
Easter also presents a fair share of questions and comments. Carrot cake tends to have universal Easter appeal, but what I consider a mandatory ingredient in a carrot cake may be something you consider sacrilegious. The controversy over raisins, nuts, pineapple and coconut is as predictable as the misspelling of macarons and macaroons. There is also debate concerning sweetened, flaked coconut as opposed to unsweetened desiccated coconut. Here’s a suggestion- use both.
It is also important to consider what the best-dressed carrot cake will be wearing for spring. If the calendar read 1980-something, the answer would be easy; basketweave. Contemporary carrot cakes can’t make up their minds whether to go naked or mummified beneath pounds of cream cheese frosting. Do you want the replica of a carrot fashioned out of fondant in excruciating detail or are you an Instagrammer solely pinterested in sprigs of sugared herbs?
In the two weeks leading up to the holidays, I will continue my quest for the elusive rhubarb, (baking it into breakfast tarts such as this one) and try to remove the “puffiness” (translation: holiday cynicism) from my demeanor. If anyone should ask, you can find me hunkered down on the rear baker’s bench, amidst boxes of matzo cake meal, potato starch, ground pecans and two kinds of coconut. I promise- you won’t hear a Peep out of me.
Poor Pi(e) Day, you never had a chance. When Stella blew into town on Tuesday, dreams of double-crusts and woven lattice were tossed to the curb beneath a wintry mix of snow and pelting ice. I waved farewell to Mr. Sweet As Pie who braved the wrath of Stella in search of NJ Transit’s Midtown Direct train. You have to admire the tenacity of a man hell bent on saving both literally and figuratively, The Great White Way. From an ice-spattered window I watched the L.L. Bean Nor’easter Commuter Coat with Gore-Tex disappear in an angry squall of snow. Professor Marvel’s words to Dorothy rang in my ears- “Poor kid, hope (s)he gets home alright.” He didn’t, until Wednesday.
The bakery was shuttered for the day, leaving me to settle in. Comfortably attired in piejamas (yes, the fabric is adorned with pie slices), I grabbed a fresh filter for the Chemex, filling it with a special blend from the Ballard coffee roasters of Seattle. (Thank you, Master Master.) At 5:30 pm I emerged from my sanctuary to shovel the walkway from front door to sidewalk and just enough driveway to street, allowing access to the car. Two hours later I returned, combing the refrigerator for liquid libation that would ease both popsicle fingers and toes. By the time my back started to complain, I was mentally moving cross-country to southern California.
With Pi(e) Day a no-show and an uneventful Ides of March, St. Patrick’s Day is next on the holiday docket. The onslaught of shamrock cookies and cupcakes swirled in green and orange buttercreams will be as pervasive as a company of Riverdance. I will however, admit a fondness for the dark chocolate Guinness cake, save for buttering and cocoa-ing the Bundt pans. Popping the lids on cans of dark stout at morning o’clock in the workplace seems somewhat incongruous. The recipe calls for heating both molasses and Guinness, providing a most welcome change to the tangle of butter, sugar and coffee that generally permeates the bakery air.
From my pie perch, I can contribute little to the St. Patrick’s Day menu. Thankfully, true Key Lime pie is more pale yellow than screaming green. From what I’ve witnessed over too many years in the sugar trenches, it seems folks tend to make a beeline toward anything sprinkled, shamrocked or Irish-sodaed.
I can vouch however, for the assemblage of Granny Smith apples, Jameson whiskey and brown sugar coated pretzels and nuts in a pie shell. It offers just enough holiday spirit without crossing over to the dark side of Irish potato candy. More so than the wearing of and drinking of the green, it is the Irish potato confection that prevents me from boarding the shillelagh shuttle. As luck would have it, in just a few short weeks the next holiday rolls into town and that one has my name written all over it. We call it Passover.
For those of you relying on your iphones for notification of the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar, I’ve got you covered. The celebration of Purim sweeps into town in all of its Megillah glory this Saturday, March 11th at sunset. Right on the heels of International Women’s Day, the common thread between the two seems obvious.
Purim tells the story of Esther, a resilient, plucky woman who dramatically impacted history through the use of intellect and bravery. The Book of Esther is the story of a woman who essentially risked her life in order to save the exiled Jewish people from Purim’s evil villain, Haman. Within the text is the message that the vulnerable, particularly those living in exile, can achieve success without relinquishing their heritage. A timely message, indeed. From where I stand rolling, cutting and folding small circles of cream cheese dough, there’s something terribly unfair in naming Purim’s trademark baked good in honor of the villain, rather than in celebration of the female super hero.
Tri-cornered Purim cookies fall under various headings and spellings, depending upon which cookbook you pluck from the shelf. My grandmother’s Settlement Cookbook calls the yeast-risen sweets Purim Cakes or Haman Pockets. Jennie Grossinger’s The Art of Jewish Cooking offers both yeast-risen and cookie dough recipes under the heading of Hamentaschen. A more contemporary take on Hamantaschen is offered by Judy Rosenberg of Rosie’s Bakery Cookie Book, opting for egg yolks in the dough and store bought poppyseed filling. Besides getting stuck in your teeth, poppyseeds play an integral part in the history of Purim sweets.
Mohntaschen (mohn meaning poppy or poppyseed in German) were popular baked goods in medieval Europe. Taschen means pocket or pouch in German. It’s quite possible that the word Hamantaschen was simply a mash-up of mohn, Haman and taschen. As for the shape of the cookies, they are said to resemble either Haman’s ears, pockets or his three-cornered hat. What history doesn’t mention is that Haman was probably in desperate need of a personal stylist.
Where does this leave Purim’s brave female protagonist? Clearly deserving of her very own pastry title, prompting me to propose the word Esthertaschen.
This week’s recipe includes mohn (poppyseeds) and a splash of beets to give it color, plus a little dark cocoa because history has taught us that red plus cocoa plus cream cheese is a winning combination. Cherries shine like jewels in the filling, tucked inside an over-sized taschen meaning you only need to roll, cut and fold one circle.
I like to think if Esther were around today, whether attired in trousers or royal robes, you can bet your poppyseeds her wardrobe would have included pockets. Because not only was Esther a super-hero, she was one smart cookie.
The green and purple sanding sugars on Tuesday’s Mardi Gras cookies were barely dry before March marched into the bakery on Wednesday. Fat Tuesday and its good times had just started rolling only to be squelched by Theodor “Ted” Seuss Geisel’s March 2nd birthday.
Dr. Seuss’ birthday has earned its very own Fiestaware platter of sugar cookies; red and white striped hats, green eggs with a side of ham and for those with places to go, tri-colored hot air balloons. In fact, when a woman stepped up to the counter yesterday afternoon attired in Cat in the Hat street clothes, it seemed almost ordinary. Almost.
Dr. Seuss’ penchant for word musicality can be traced back to his grandfather and his mother. According to biographers Judith and Neil Morgan, Grandpa Seuss was a baker, and Ted’s mother, Henrietta Seuss, worked in her father’s bakery before becoming Mrs. Geisel in 1901. The Morgans claim that Ted and his older sister, Marnie, often went to sleep to the sound of their mother chanting to them “softly, in the way she had learned as she sold pies, ‘Apple, mince, lemon … peach, apricot, pineapple … blueberry, coconut, custard, and SQUASH!’” Theodor “Ted” Seuss Geisel credits his mother for inspiring “the rhythms in which I write and the urgency with which I do it.” Without discrediting Dr. Seuss’ contribution to literature, imagine Grandpa Seuss’ contribution to the culinary world, specifically anything double crusted, lattice-topped or hand-held.
In peak citrus season, my focus tends to be dominated by Meyer lemons, pink grapefruits and
chin-drenching sweet oranges. At Trader Joes, pineapples stand sentinel over baskets of free-wheeling lemons and limes. Having been fooled in the past by pineapple’s harlequin exterior, hinting at ripeness only to find disappointment, I casually select one for closer inspection. Just because it looks like a pineapple and claims to be a ripe pineapple, doesn’t make it so. Inhaling first one, then another and finally another, I invite the final pineapple into the front seat of my shopping cart. “What are you doing?” a neighboring produce shopper asks me. “The label says ‘Ready-to-Eat.’” Steering my cart with the three good wheels towards the checkout line, I reply, “Sometimes the labels lie.” Longing to say, “I do not like you, Ma’am you am,” my limping cart hobbles to the express checkout where thankfully, the man in the Hawaiian shirt is less judgy. “Nice pineapple,” he comments. I nod.
This week pineapple pie is on the menu, my menu. There are several fine recipes from which to choose, but I’m intrigued by one from brilliant pie-ess Allison Kave who adds a splash of dark rum to a tropically inspired filling. Taking the time to pluck a ripe pineapple from the clutches of Trader Joes and making a few tweaks to the recipe yielded sweet results, indeed. (Check out the recipe page.)
Would I eat this pie in the rain? On a train? In a car? I would eat this here and there and anywhere. Happy Birthday, Theodor Seuss Geisel. It's quite possible Grandpa Seuss could have impacted the baking world the way you impacted literature. Sadly, we'll never know.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm