There’s a tiny window in the morning, somewhere between asleep and awake when I almost forget; the world we recently took for granted has landed on its head. We’ve been flipped upside down like a buttermilk pancake free-falling towards a sizzling griddle. Consumed by social distancing and self-quarantine, some days feel downright dire. Padding across the kitchen in slippered feet, there is no sense of urgency, no scramble for car keys, no train to catch. The house is too quiet and the neighborhood eerily silent. Overdressed in a thinsulate turtleneck, hooded sweatshirt, and corduroys, but hellbent on coffee, I forget to remove the lid from the burr grinder. Coffee beans skittle across the counter, pausing briefly before hitting the floor. Sunshine is tentatively peeking through the window, illuminating the coffee beans circling my slippers. What day is this, I wonder? I answer my own question; a good day to bake.
What I’m hearing these days are stories from pie pals across the country. We are baking out of boredom, out of desperation, out of fear. Baked goods and carbohydrates are what we crave when we struggle to feel better. For many of us, baking is the perfect tactile activity. Looking for a temporary escape from media saturation? Pre-heat your oven. Need a little control in your life? Set the butter on the counter, grab the brown sugar and reach for an unopened bag of semi-sweet chocolate.
Recently, I’ve noticed a damn‘demic surge of bakers seeking solace in sourdough. I am inundated with images of chubby jars filled with pouffy mixtures of flour and water. While I’m more than happy to accept a warm slice of sourdough bread slathered in butter, I draw the line at feeding and caring for an activated bread starter.
Sourdough bread starters remind me of houseplants. There is such promise in the beginning, the joy of nurturing, the gratification of success, until things go south. I recall each houseplant debacle with utmost clarity, beginning with a leggy spider plant my mother carried on her lap on my inaugural car trip to college. As the first semester of freshman year rolled into the second, it was obvious that the spider plant was on a downward trajectory. Sophomore year, a healthy jade plant weathered the four hour car ride wedged between the complete works of William Shakespeare, a small desk lamp, and a pair of tap shoes. The Shakespeare compendium, the desk lamp, and the tap shoes survived. Thankfully, study abroad Junior year negated any chance of transporting greenery overseas. Senior year I lived off-campus and one of my housemates boasted a true green thumb. I took a part-time job at the local bakery, entrusting the plants to someone else. The houseplants thrived and the Pleasant Street housemates (plus much of the theatre department) enjoyed day-old black and white cookies and cream horns.
My very first New York City apartment had an “S” hook screwed into the ceiling, suitable for hanging a macramé planter. My mother provided a healthy wandering Jew plant that fit easily between the intricate knots and twine. Uncertain if by nature the plant prompted guilt, I tended to the plant with great care in the hopes it would flourish. The wandering Jew shared sunlight with an Amana Cool Zone window unit air conditioner. Neither the plant nor the air conditioner survived past August and yes, I felt guilty. The guilt plagued me through unhappy encounters with African violets, Christmas cacti, Paperwhites, and orchids. Even the impatiens of my adult life ultimately grew impatient with me, losing their joie de vivre.
I’m probably overthinking this, but sourdough starter feels very plant-like to me, and perhaps that is why I avoid it. Comfortable yeast doughs appeal to me; pizzas and focaccia, tightly swirled cinnamon buns and babka, top-knotted brioche. But my true love, the dough that serves as a blank canvas for every season, is crafted in an over-sized Pyrex bowl filled with pieces of cold butter, pinches of sugar and salt, and handfuls of flour, In order for pie dough to be tender, not tough, it needs to be spoon-fed just enough ice water to hold itself together, but not too much. I suppose pie dough is akin to sourdough starter in that they need a little nurturing and some time to relax in the fridge.
Situations dictated by unusual circumstances nudge bakers to be creative, to consider hidden treasures tucked away in pantries and freezers. Throughout history, pie bakers have been forced to use what was readily available, more so when times were difficult. My freezer boasts snippets of pie dough made from various flours, each parcel carefully wrapped in plastic. Although the leftover dough is too small to fill a 9” pie plate, it is too large to toss. A deluge of leisure during a difficult time has encouraged me to be crafty, something I'm not. Pie dough shies away from re-rolls, but with some gentle coaxing, odds and ends handily fill a make-shift pie tin. Frozen rhubarb and a few handfuls of fresh strawberries bake up into something that tastes less like the Ides of March and almost like spring. If the world is still upside down once I exhaust the freezer supplies, maybe I'll take up macramé.
Neither my pantry nor my fridge mirror any of the images currently flooding my inbox. Today is a fine day to unearth and regroup, tidy and pitch. My initial foray into the double door Jenn-Air refrigerator meets with immediate tragedy. An overfilled container of San Marzano tomatoes jettisons from the top shelf to the floor, spreading its contents with great abandon. Careening to a halt at the edge of the stairs, spilled tomatoes are not dire. It could have been far worse, it could have been egg whites. Tiptoeing to avoid the river of tomato puree as I secure a mop, my mood teeters between simmer and parboil. In light of the world around us, the idea of taking a deep dive into produce, dairy, and dry goods feels petty.
Grabbing more space than they deserve, incidentals roam freely amongst sensible groceries. Cookie dough studded with dark chocolate should move to the freezer. but the freezer is full. Combing through the yogurt, skim, and whole milk, I see nothing that boasts an imminent expiration date. There's little if any spoilage, and cobbling together a recipe based on odds and ends is do-able. It's also something our grandmothers did religiously, before groceries and meals were delivered via Amazon and Fresh Direct.
Neediest items will jump to the head of the line. I venture into the warped drawer identified as the “crisper.” It houses the remnants of a butternut squash and an unopened bag of rainbow carrots. As colorful and leggy as a Rockette kick line at Easter, I’m tempted to bake something with the carrots. Carrot cake? Morning Glory Bread? The butternut squash, sequestered since Sunday, should take priority. I close the drawer to the crisper and give the contents one last once-over. Dairy shelf real estate is too valuable for whole milk to stand upright, so I tighten the cap and turn it on its side. Tempting fate, I stack a narrow carton of eggs atop the milk.
The pantry is next, shelves over-filled with spices, dry goods, and canned goods. A lonesome can of organic pumpkin vies for attention. I see you, Pumpkin, and you, paper and cello bags of assorted grains. A package of jewel-toned candied fruit lounges against an unopened tube of chestnut paste. Smuggled home in a suitcase from a previous holiday, their shelf life is waning.
Wandering down a shelf, canned milk stretches out from end to end. Each one has value, but are they all necessary? These are baking milks, not coffee milks; sweetened condensed, evaporated, coconut, and powdered. I cannot part with a single one but reorganize things just a touch. An unopened can of dulce de leche seems better suited alongside a can of Eagle Brand condensed milk. Coconut cream is a little too self-important with a flashy label and flip-top lid. I transfer the cream behind the coconut milk and close the cabinet doors. A weighty bag of dark brown sugar insists on propping the door open. A cello bag overly secured with rubber bands free-falls from the top shelf. One corner of the bag has the slightest hole, large enough to cause chaos. A significant trail of semolina flour covers the tomato stained floor.
My chaotic pantry longs for order, jealous of what taunts from the great wide web. The pantries posted on social media are tidy to a fault. Organized alphabetically, they boast a color story direct from Pantone’s newest hits. Every pantry in fantasyland sports pristine canisters in various sizes, standing at attention. My pantry doesn't fall into place with precision; neither does my fridge. If self-quarantine doesn't encourage kitchen organization, I don't know what does. But it is a process, not a one day endeavor. More critically, I do know that the butternut squash in the fridge and the neglected can of pumpkin in the pantry deserve each other. They will also provide a little wiggle room in both my refrigerator and my pantry in the midst of a pandemic. Additionally, the marriage of the two squashes will fill a blind baked pie shell that is feeling neglected.
The latest article to land in my newsfeed instructs me to update my "storage system" which I interpret to mean, organize the Tupperware. More lids don't fit than do, and my favorite containers are triangular, (better suited to pie slices) or square, from decades ago. A wave of Corona blues hits me like a tidal wave and I slam the drawer shut. The Tupperware project can wait for another day of self-quarantine.
My knees crack as I kneel down to fetch the brown sugar from the bottom shelf. There's a 2 lb. bag of Fleishmann's yeast next to the dark brown Domino, separated by a slim paperback book. Glancing at the title, I'm shocked to see The Fleishmann Treasury of Yeast Baking. I'm organized and I don't even know it.
Reaching for a manual can opener, I explain to the ingredients set before me, "It's spring, Pumpkin. Both you and butternut are so much more November than March. But in this ever-changing world, who am I to judge?" I cross the kitchen to the sink, grab the liquid soap, turn on the tap, and sing two choruses of Happy Birthday. What a world.
March 14th, also known as Pi(e) Day, is an opportunity to commemorate the mathematical constant and acknowledge Albert Einstein’s birthday. Math geeks will sharpen their No. 2 pencils, enjoy number games, and perhaps nibble on squares of sheet cake celebrating Einstein. For lovers of lattice and triangular slices, Pi(e) Day is an excuse to bake and consume pie. Generally, Pi(e) Day is as welcome as the first crocus peeking up through the last remnants of winter. This year, however, Pi(e) Day is yet another casualty of the Coronavirus.
In the commercial world of butter, sugar, and flour, Pi(e) Day provides a bump in sales following a wintry January and February. Those dedicated to the craft of pie baking look forward to a holiday that encourages creativity and celebrates spring. No longer tethered to flavors dictated by cool temps, (I’m looking at you, Thanksgiving), Pi(e) Day tends to spark joy. Unfortunately, everything changed in March of 2020, and not in a good way.
With colleges extending spring breaks, workers hunkering down at home in the comfort of their pajamas, and the closing of schools, the life we normally enjoy has screeched to a halt. We are guilty of binge-buying toilet paper and dried pasta, emptying the shelves at Trader Joe’s, and have replaced handshakes and hugs with elbow bumps. Supplies of hand sanitizer have been exhausted, face masks and latex gloves have been greedily snapped up from health care professionals. Fun times? Hardly.
According to my pie peeps across the country, pre-ordered pie sales are facing cancellation. Office workers who traditionally celebrate March 14th en masse are now working off site. Those who traditionally dedicate the second week of March to filling pie shells at a (no pun intended) feverish rate, are forced to scale back. Small businesses are struggling in the throes of the pandemic. Unlike pie dough that knows the importance of relaxing, (it helps inhibit the formation of gluten) we can’t help ourselves. Swept up in the frenzy, we are all-Corona, all day, seven-days-a-week. It's frightening and exhausting.
In an attempt to maintain proper social distancing, we are abandoning athletic and cultural extracurricular activities. Air travel and dinner reservations are to be avoided like the plague. Never before have we washed our hands with such fervor and repetition. A virus that is going viral is not a good thing. To quote Ella Fitzgerald, “Spring will be a little late this year.” Pie won’t solve this crisis, but a slice or two couldn’t hurt. Just make sure to wash your hands first.
Before we started enhancing hamantaschen with funfetti and tahini, the triangular cookie was tethered to simple fillings. Poppyseeds, sweet prune Lekvar, and bright apricot jams were traditional. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers followed Eastern European recipes, rolling out yeast doughs enriched with eggs and butter, leavened with yeast. Traditionally, kuchen dough was the go-to pastry, a buttery canvas that was adaptable to all kinds of coffee cakes yet agreeable stepping in as a triangular cookie. In the 19th century, the advent of baking powder changed everything, including the sweets served at Purim. Yeast-risen doughs took a back seat while bakers embraced the short cuts afforded by cookie doughs leavened with baking powder. The dried fruits, poppyseeds and jams revered by our flour-dusted grandmothers suddenly had to make room for some forward-thinking fillings. Nutella and s’mores were far more hip than dowdy prunes, raspberry jam cooler than apricot.
Anyone who begrudgingly spent weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings in Hebrew school remembers the commercial hamantaschen doled out during Purim. The cookies were both dry and cakey, a thick, unremarkable dough with rick-rack edges enveloping a jammy filling. The cookie part of the hamantashen was lackluster, the justification for the triangular sweet was the filling. Dressed in costumes that were assembled the night before, all of the girls chose Esther, crowned and bejeweled and majestic in fancy dresses and in some cases, floor length nightgowns. (I don’t recall a single Vashti-Queen-of-Persia among us.) All of the boys wore bathrobes over their chinos or dungarees, signifying royalty. There were a few penciled-in mustaches amongst the Mordechais and Hamans and we celebrated loudly, shouting “boo” when Haman’s name was mentioned and cheering for Esther and Mordechai in the reading of the Megillah. We assembled small gifts packages of food known as “shalach monos” which were distributed through the community via the dedicated moms of the Sisterhood.
Hamantaschen provided an opportunity to empty our kitchen cabinets of flour, in anticipation of Passover which fell four short weeks after Purim. Hamantaschen were tedious to prepare and the only one who followed the traditional Eastern European baking style which called for yeast dough, was my grandmother Minnie. Most of the time, my mother purchased an assortment of hamantaschen from the bakery. They were tasty in an old-fashioned-baked-good kind of way. They were not however, nearly as exciting as a cheese-filled Danish or a cream horn.
Contemporary hamantaschen options border on dizzying, with filling and dough choices as gaudy and over-the-top as the costumes we once donned for Purim. Any pastries signifying the triumph of good over evil are worth the time required to make them. Embarking on the hamantaschen journey requires a little planning and a generous amount of patience. Taking the time to chill the pastries before baking will pay off in the end, keeping the cookies intact, avoiding the dreaded misshapen triangles. A holiday that encourages merriment and celebrates the bravery of a woman named Esther seems like a fine way to usher in spring; costumes optional.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm