In the midst of the Passover/Easter apocalypse, someone phoned the bakery asking to order a Key Lime pie for Mother’s Day. Without looking up from my 45 quart container of macaroon fixings, I sighed. Is it too much to ask that we usher the current holidays out the screen door before we start talking about the next one?
There is something unmistakably challenging about the retail side of Passover. The anxiety surrounding a holiday steeped in restrictions hovers like a fine potato starch mist over the bakery. Why is it that Seder sweets encourage a mild hysteria in otherwise agreeable individuals? I like to think that if people baked a little more they might worry a little less. Perhaps they would understand that in the grand scheme of things, a flourless torte or a coconut-studded cookie is simply dessert.
No one seems to agonize over Easter sweets. Unabashedly colorful, there is no subtlety whatsoever in a package of Peeps, a bag of jellybeans or individually foil wrapped bunnies. Passover’s color palate is quite the opposite, taking its cues primarily from the beiges and whites of matzoh meal, potato starch, egg whites, and coconut.
Yes, there are bound to be a few rumblings from the carrot cake audience. Better with or without raisins and pineapple? Yes or no to coconut? How much cream cheese between and surrounding the layers; a slab or a schmear? But the truth is carrot cakes require nothing more than refrigeration to keep their cool and a long-bladed sharp knife to insure a clean slice. It also helps to carry the cake box without tilting it and set it in the car where it is least likely to encounter a 45-degree angle.
Passover desserts are needier, relying heavily on the alchemy of large, room temperature eggs, copious amounts of sugar, and either finely ground nuts or matzoh derivative flours. Macaroons, more confection than cookie, enjoy a blend of both sweetened, flaked coconut and unsweetened, desiccated flakes.
Strictly observant Jews tend to seek out kosher bakeries for their dessert needs. A bakery without a kosher kitchen however, must perform a delicate dance, tweaking recipes and ingredients. Passover sweets depend on whipped egg yolks and whites to do the heavy lifting. Flour is replaced with finely ground nuts or matzoh cake flour, stirring up additional concerns for anyone with food allergies. Hold on to your Haggadah- the adventure doesn’t end there, it only takes on speed.
The wheat flour found in matzoh can prove troublesome for those with wheat sensitivities, forcing them to find matzoh alternatives. I thought matzoh was the alternative until we could return to our regularly scheduled eating habits.
While matzoh can be made out of wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oat flour, traditionally wheat flour is the most widely consumed. For those wheat sensitive, spelt matzoh is the go-to unleavened bread. Those challenged by gluten however, may turn to matzoh made from oat flour. Not even Google maps can navigate the current dietary restrictions and allergens imposed by Passover. No wonder Elijah is late to the table; he took the wheat exit instead of exiting at spelt.
Which begs the question, decades ago, before faux gluten-free Passover products, sumac-infused matzoh balls, and meringue ‘stacks’, we somehow managed to enjoy the holiday. The major obstacles were red wine stains on a white damask tablecloth and being seated next to your least favorite relative. The Ninja slow cookers of our childhood were our mothers and grandmothers, and in my good fortune, Jessie. There was no time, and quite frankly, no inclination to stand in line at the neighborhood butcher or bakery or A&P and over share one’s food sensitivities.
Without benefit of food processors and microwaves, multi-generations of strong, thoughtful, intelligent, family-centric women orchestrated the multi-course Passover dinner with precision. White fish, carp, and pike was methodically ground then shaped into patties. Hands dusty with matzoh meal gently lowered ovals of gefilte fish into a heavy, enamel stockpot of simmering fish stock. The sting of onions and freshly grated horseradish was softened by the sweetness of apples and grape juice, the warmth of cinnamon. Walnuts fell topsy-turvy into a weighty hand cranked nut grinder attached to the side of the kitchen table. Dozens of eggs were separated, the yolks beaten ribbony thick, the whites almost too voluminous to be contained within a mixing bowl. The air was sweet with sugar and toasty from walnuts. We were not allowed to jump or open the oven door for fear of impacting the 9-egg sponge cake slowly rising in an ungreased, footed tube pan. Stray crumbs from sheets of Streit’s matzoh left a trail between the kitchen and the dining room. Certainly my grandmother wanted everyone circling the table to be happy, but if you were served something that you couldn’t eat, you simply didn’t eat it. If something didn’t ‘agree’ with you, there was Alka-Seltzer or Bromo-Seltzer in the medicine cabinet.
The many degrees and ideologies of Judaic observance spark uncertainty when faced with a week long on deprivation and short on leavening. This applies to everything served at the Seder, including the final course. And for the record, despite the fact that the Hagaddah tells us to eat matzoh (also known as the afikomen) for dessert, we would much prefer a few chewy macaroons or a slice of something chocolate.
Clearly this is the case in our immediate area. Faced with the challenge of baking 200 dozen macaroons in a few short days, I did what any thinking woman would do; I reached out for Macaroon Support. Blondilocks arrived on the scene, armed with a bandanna and a ¾ oz. purple handled ice cream scoop. Over the course of 3 days, we listened as customers voiced concern and uncertainty over gluten and wheat; someone actually asked if there was flour in the flourless Passover torte. Exasperated, I turned to Blondilocks, rolling my eyes and shaking my head. My Passover retail rant continued, peppered with snippets of new information fueled by articles such as “What You Don’t Want To Eat At This Year’s Seder.”
Maybe we know a little too much, or we think we do. Maybe we should just stick to reading the back of the box of matzoh cake flour. Blondilocks listened to me rattle on and then responded with the calm, sage, advice of a woman wise beyond her years. She reasoned that Passover is truly personal and maybe I shouldn’t be so judgy. Gathering up her bag she suggested the upcoming holiday be dubbed, “Choose Your Own Adventure, Passover edition.” And with that, she handed me her bandana and hugged me goodbye, brushing a few wisps of sweetened, flaked coconut from the toggle buttons of her navy blue coat.
Macaron, macaroon. Easter, Nor’easter. Flower, no flour. A new round of holidays is hopping down the trail, making a bee-line for the bakery. You would think the next color palate would feature strictly pastels, but March is insisting there’s room for one last hurrah of winter white. It was delivered on Wednesday of this week, blanketing pavements and trees in thick drifts of powder. Coupled with the wind, the snow assaulted horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, much like an open 4 lb. bag of Domino Confectioners sugar as it hits the floor.
The first day of spring marked not only free Rita’s Water Ice Day, but National Macaron Day as well. Mon Dieu! While macaron aficionados were celebrating le petit gâteau français, some of us were staring into the coconut eyes of a totally different cookie. Beginning next Friday, macaroons (two ‘o’s, not one,) will grace many Seder tables. In my place of work, macaroons are a hot item, with data telling me that 163 dozen left the building last year. I guestimate that this year, roughly 200 dozen of the coconut confections will be scooped, baked, and drizzled with chocolate. This preliminary math leads to a more troubling word problem. If 2,400 macaroons are scheduled to exit the bakery next weekend, how many pounds of coconut need to enter the bakery this week? How much desiccated and snowflake coconut is enough without being too much? I suppose it all depends on what time Elijah’s train leaves the Maplewood station and whether or not it stops in Hoboken or New York Penn.
It is difficult to mentally prepare oneself for spring holidays in the wake of recent Nor’easters. Clearing mountains of snow from the driveway while trying to avoid patches of black ice conflicts with the slightest hint of spring fever. Personally, until the first stalks of rhubarb cross my kitchen countertop, I will continue to seek comfort in dark chocolate and warm spirits. Recently inspired by a Maple Sugar Festival in Toronto, I also caught a glimpse of how Canadians embrace March. We could all take a lesson.
The contradiction of seasons is clearly visible at Toronto’s Sugar Beach. Situated adjacent to the Redpath Sugar Factory, (think Canada’s version of Domino) the sand beach is spiked with cotton-candy pink umbrellas. The 2-acre park was once a parking lot in a former industrial area. Today, it serves as a public event space and waterfront refuge. Before my visit to Sugar Beach, I had never witnessed the making of maple taffy, nor experienced a highly competitive battle between chainsaw ice carvers. I was also woefully unaware that pure maple syrup teamed with cream filling and stuffed inside a cannoli shell could taste so exquisite. Holy Cannoli, indeed.
Somehow, winter seems better suited to Canada. The snow feels less threatening, more appropriate. Bakeries and bars are welcoming, their offerings as stunning as fine art. I was also happy to note that Canadian bakers are generous with the butter and the maple. It is also apparent that despite the frigid temps, Canadians remain passionate about ice cream; an endearing quality. So passionate in fact, that our small group opted out of standing in line on a frozen sidewalk, deciding instead to grab two quarts of Bang-Bang ice cream to go.
Walking back to Sibling Sister’s digs on a dusky March evening, the local Cadbury Chocolate factory was softly illuminated. Unable to see the Oompa Loompas at work behind the smoky windows, one could only imagine a dedicated team getting a jumpstart on their famous Cream Eggs.
When holidays collide, as they will next week, the best defense is a well-calculated offense. Determining just how much coconut will be needed to feed the macaroon beast is a challenge. Almost as challenging as a snowstorm at the bunny-tail end of March.
Chocolate Guinness cakes have been tumbling out of bundt pans this week. The cake borders on overkill, a riff on many chocolate tube pan cakes showcased this week in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Nowhere is the excess of this holiday more evident than in baked goods all shamrocked and sugared green. We’ve traveled quite the distance from Irish potato candy and clover cookies to weighty, dark chocolate cakes fueled with molasses and stout. Was there a turning point when we transitioned from simple, almost dowdy, Irish desserts to our current list of ‘Must Bakes’ for St. Patrick’s Day? I find myself turning to the doyenne of British desserts, Nigella Lawson.
Long before Nigella penned her 2004 holiday compendium Feast: Food that Celebrates Life, Guinness was more apt to belly up to a smoky bar in a pint glass than to hang around the kitchen in a 9” springform pan. Traditional Irish desserts, particularly puddings and cakes, were often chock-full of dried fruit and fortified (translation: doused liberally) with porter, or what is known today as stout. Early home bakers in Ireland did not have the luxury of a self-cleaning Viking oven. More often than not, baked goods were tucked into a three-legged pot with a tight fitting lid, then set upon coals or suspended over a coal burning fire. Cakes had to be good keepers, living out their days in an airtight cake tin, awaiting the guillotine of a serrated knife. The beverage served alongside these sweets was a cuppa strong tea.
Why did we turn from sultana-studded fruitcake doused in dark beer to Nigella’s sultry chocolate stout cake cloaked in cream cheese frosting? I suspect because we were hungry for it and restaurateurs, particularly pub owners, were more than happy to boost the check tab with expanded dessert offerings.
We started small, adding splashes of whiskey to bread puddings, spiking brownies with too much mint extract and white chocolate ganache. Cheesecakes and cream pies green with envy, boarded the St. Patrick’s dessert bus. Like any food and drink fueled holiday, we seem to forget that the origins of these holidays were religious. St. Patrick’s Day is no exception. What began as a celebration commemorating St. Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints, has strayed significantly from holy day to pub crawl day.
History reminds us that until the 1970s, pubs in Ireland were closed on St. Patrick’s Day. The day was considered a religious day, not a day of revelry. Times changed dramatically in the 1990s, when the Irish government, opting to promote tourism and boost the economy, began sponsoring festival events in conjunction with St. Patrick’s Day.
On our side of the pond, St. Patrick’s Day is a massive celebration of Irish and Irish American culture. You needn’t be Irish to participate, and for those lacking inspiration, a quick visit to Party City will provide all that you need, with more Leprechaun hats than you can shake a shillelagh at. Fortified with a pitcher of green beer, you’re ready to hop aboard suburban mass transit. Enroute to the city, drink in all that the tri-state area has to offer in means of inebriation and debauchery; conveniently it’s all around you.
For those preferring a celebration of the chocolate and stout variety, there are plenty of Guinness chocolate cake recipes circulating the web. Nigella’s ‘traditional’ St. Patrick’s Day dessert is available, and as evident by the images accompanying the recipe, both the cake and the baker are gorgeous. But most of us don’t resemble Nigella when we’re toiling in the kitchen. Some of us have smudges of molasses on our face and handprints of cocoa on our formerly white aprons. We pick up an icing spatula that has barely brushed against a bottle of Ameri-gel green food coloring, and we’re suddenly covered in indelible shamrock green. We don’t wear lipstick and our curls are wedged beneath bandanas. The fluorescent lighting overhead doesn’t bring out the warmth in our complexions and we are not attired in fabulous, casual wear, Nigella. Hoisting sheet trays of bundt pans filled with 48 oz. of chocolate batter is as grueling as a one-on-one with Shaun T.
So forgive me if on this holiday, I take a pass on the chocolate and the Guinness. Ditto the diminutive sugar shamrocks and the tri-color Irish flag swirls of buttercream. I prefer to pair my Guinness with a generous wedge of gingerbread and a hit of lemon, a little meringue. Cue the Chieftains.
The month of March did indeed receive the “Come in like a lion,” memo but total silence regarding lamb-like weather. Perhaps this explains the recent onslaught of wintry mixes punctuated by thunder snow and raging winds. I shouldn’t complain; my days are warmed by convection ovens, my evenings by the miracle of PSE&G. Far too many in the tri-state area have been waiting for power to be restored, downed wires repaired, and the arrival of Asplundh teams to help facilitate tree removal.
I imagine that at the turn of the 19th century, long before bomb cyclones headlined Doppler radar, gentlemen farmers and avid Philadelphia gardeners weathered the winter months with little more than brooms, shovels, and weather diaries. Garden club members and plant enthusiasts were known to gather, weather permitting, to discuss and share interesting and unusual plants. Perhaps, they reasoned between bites of cheesesteaks, there was a wider audience, individuals desperately seeking a breath of spring in anticipation of the first crocus.
We can thank Pennsylvania Horticulturists for planting the seed that has blossomed into the nation’s oldest and largest indoor flower show. The Philadelphia Flower Show was launched in 1829, housed at the Masonic Hall on Chestnut Street. It went on to various Horticultural Halls before spending decades at the Philadelphia Civic Center. The weeklong festivities were moved to the expansive Pennsylvania Convention Center in 1996.
Based on the tour bus gridlock lining Arch Street last week, the flower show continues to grow in popularity. Considered by some to be the most prestigious of flower shows, visitors gather in the City of Brotherly Love from far reaching destinations. Having relocated from Philly to New Jersey, it’s been years since I’ve attended the botanical festivities. Last week, I had the opportunity to come face to face (and tennis shoe to tennis shoe) with hundreds, no thousands, of attendees. Due in part to a winter storm plaguing the Philadelphia area, many flower seekers had rescheduled their bus tours, creating a tidal wave of ticket holders last Monday. Spilling out of buses, flower seekers crowded against the Convention Center's automatic doors. Once inside, they formed a haphazard line, attempting to gain entrance to a bank of escalators flanked by a topsy-turvy cup/saucer/spoon art installation. Impatient ticket holders opted for an early lunch at the Reading Terminal across the street.
Ticket scanners were at the opposite end of the lobby, forcing short-fused attendees to travel from one end of the convention center lobby to the rear and back again. Thankfully, my travel companion was exceedingly patient, maintaining her proper place in line, yet perfectly willing to raise an eyebrow should any interlopers attempt to jump ahead. Gingerly stepping onto the escalator, we arrived at the second floor and inhaled. I was disappointed to find only the subtlest fragrance of spring tempting from the entryway. We were pleasantly distracted by a floor-to- ceiling display of intricately crafted paper flowers. Once inside the exhibition hall, it was suggested to me that the best plan of attack was to circle the room first, affording an overview of exhibits, before returning to further explore our favorites. Lastly, we would head towards the flower stalls and crafts. The approach sounded sensible and honestly, who was I to question the sage advice of a woman well-acquainted with the flower show? With my mother in the lead, we
Despite the overwhelming number of attendees, I watched in amazement as my mother (aka Rommy) maneuvered nimbly in and out of the crowds, commenting on the overabundance of eucalyptus, tossing around phrases such as ‘sweet alyssum,’ ‘fiddlehead ferns,’ and ‘cymbidium orchids.’ Pausing to capture photographs on a cell phone, Rommy lamented retiring her former camera, wistfully remembering the lenses she carried for close-ups and panoramic views.
Winding her way through the crowds, leaning on a walker that she preferred not to use, she bumped into nary an ankle, nor a parade of over-priced big-wheel baby strollers, or the crowd of south Jersey-ites fixated on taking selfies. I found myself remembering how skilled my mother had been at parallel parking, particularly in the overcrowded streets of Manhattan. At 90, her navigation skills were as sharp as ever.
We sat only briefly for a cupcake break; my mother’s green jacket framed against tiers of roses and rows of grape hyacinth. “Hold this,” my mother said, handing me the cupcake. “I’d like to take another picture.” She adjusted the infernal cellphone, capturing a backdrop of orchids in varying shades of coral. Her enthusiasm was contagious; you would have thought we were on a European holiday. Our brief search for African violets was halted by the realization that we needed to find our way back to the entrance in order to reconvene with our traveling pals.
Stepping out into the cold, it was evident that March wasn’t quite ready to make room for spring. We were fortified however, from the Philadelphia Flower Show experience. Let’s just hope the kinder, gentler, version of Mother Nature that overfilled the convention center can sustain us through the next few weeks, or until March decides to shed its North Face Parka and don its lambswool.
History may not be my strongest suit, but I’m fairly certain that King Ahasuerus was noshin’ the Hamantaschen long before Sprinkle King arrived on the bakery scene. Yet in 2018, Hamantaschen are donning all manner of bling; confetti sprinkles and pistachio dust, chocolate dips and red velvet. In the ongoing quest for excess, classic fillings such as poppy seeds and apricot jam have been pushed aside. Make room for Nutella and cookie butter and please take note; the sticky/sweet filling Formerly- Known-as-Prune has been rebranded Plum.
Not only have humble tri-corned cookies been studded with marshmallows and poked with lollipop sticks, Rice Krispie treats and Fruity Pebbles have boarded the Purim train. More troubling, teetering on ungodly, is notification from BuzzFeed that the Unicorn Hamantasch has left the stable. It is doubtful that Purim’s heroine, Queen Esther, was referring to a unicorn when she asked for “…a horse the king had ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head.” I am also skeptical that a woman hell bent on overturning Haman’s plot to massacre the Jews would have had time for kitchen crafts. Staging a whimsical Purim dessert buffet seems somewhat incidental in light of the whole megillah. If Esther was anything, she was definitely more of a poppy seed/prune sort of gal.
Before Hamantaschen were featured in rainbow colors, they were simple cookies, traditionally filled with mohn, (poppy seeds) nuts, dried fruit or jam. In some parts of the world, Purim ‘cakes’ were yeast risen, with a rich cheese or sweetened poppy seed filling. Brushed warm from the oven with honey, “Haman Pockets,” might have been considered more of a breakfast treat than a cookie. Additionally, Purim sweets provided the opportunity to empty one’s home of flour in anticipation of the next holiday on the Jewish calendar, Passover. Sadly, none of this information is made available to the slightly anxious ‘taschen seekers we encounter at work.
Writing the word Hamantaschen on the bakery chalkboard creates a little bit of a feeding frenzy. Hundreds of triangles later, I’m ready to return to a 9” aluminum pie plate. What ‘taschen noshers don’t realize is that there’s more to the cookie than choosing a filling. The dough is by nature a one-roll-wonder, meaning it prefers to be rolled and cut only once. Any scraps that are re-rolled automatically shrink, creating more of an oblong than a circle. Placing filled cookies in the oven without allowing them time to chill causes them to unfold in the oven, creating distorted cookies and burnt jam puddles. Commercial bakeries that fill their cases with towers of Hamantaschen are often selling cookies made with oil, not butter. The taste is dramatically different, the shelf-life hovering somewhere between that of a Twinkie and a Tastykake.
It is not that I am unfeeling; I know what it’s like to have my Hamantaschen hopes dashed. Not once, but twice this week, in the city most likely to boast triangular Purim cookies at every turn, I came up empty handed. Bakeries I swore would be overrun with poppyseed and prune offered nothing in the way of Purim sweets. In some cases, the front of house staff had no idea what I was talking about. A few bakeries told me they don’t make them any more because they’re too time consuming. One baker told me, “We can’t make enough and then people get angry and it’s supposed to be a happy holiday.” I nodded, eyeing the black and white cookies lined up behind the glass case. They looked just the slightest bit smug knowing that no one would be poking them with a lollipop stick or studding them with cold cereal.
Traditional baked goods featured on the Jewish calendar beg for improvisation because by nature, they are unadorned, simple, classic. The flour dusted hands of our grandmothers would set down their rolling pins in both amusement and horror at today’s take on Hamantaschen. I know that it’s just a matter of time before poppyseed and prune jump to the top of the BuzzFeed list, rebranded as ‘retro-old school’ classics. Is this a good thing? Yes and no. It means the price of these humble ingredients will sky rocket. It means that folks will start sprinkling and garnishing everything with splashes of prune and runaway poppy seeds. (This will also generate an uptick in dental floss sales.) I’m hopeful that before Esther and Haman swing through town again, Unicorns will be upstaged by something less glaring and sprinkles will calm the heck down. Until then, I have more immediate holidays in front of me. In just two short weeks, my favorite holiday comes to town in all of its 9” aluminum pie plate glory. See you next time, Esther. Don’t let the bakery door hit you on the way out, Haman.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm