I am handed a parting gift before my holiday begins. It arrives in the form of a phone call on Wednesday morning.
Whining Consumer- “Are you a nut free bakery?”
NMMNP- “No, we are not nut free.”
Whining- “So you use nuts?”
NMMNP- “Yes. We use nuts.”
Whining- “So you’re saying there are nuts in the bakery?”
NMMNP- (Shall I take this question personally?) “Yes, you could say that.”
Whining- “Oh, so there are (punctuating each word) NUTS IN THE BAKERY. You’re not nut free.”
NMMNP- (Under my breath, coining a double negative. Are we ever not nut free.) “Yes. We are not.”
Whining- “Oh… But you are gluten free?”
NMMNP- “There are certain gluten free items prepared with a gluten free flour blend, but we use flour, we use gluten and we use nuts.” (And in a little less than 3 hours, I’ll be free… from the gluten and the nuts.)
Whining- “So you’re not nut free…”
My answer has not changed. People are just plain nutty.
There’s more than enough nutty to sustain me on a flight departing from Newark Airport at 7:30 pm that very evening. This particular form of in flight entertainment is provided by two parties. One is composed of a couple to my left who agree to disagree about everything, beginning with how to stow a bag in the overhead compartment. The second party is inching their way in my direction, preceded by an oversized baby stroller and a squirming toddler sporting a red onesie.
None of this matters anymore. I have landed in the city Cousin Katie now calls home and I call jubilicious. We are met with a canopy of blue sky as we climb out of the Gloucester Road station. One of our first stops is the fourth floor of Fortnum and Mason. There is no mention of gluten free amidst the Tiffany-blue tea service and generous helping of clotted cream. Blondilocks and Master/Master assure me that a selection or three from the Cake Carriage is hardly considered excessive in this particular setting. I am unafraid; in an effort to maintain a semblance of moderation, I’ve packed both running shoes and rain gear.
I need not fear losing touch with reality and forgetting about life in the bakery. The next leg of my journey affords the opportunity to encounter a wide assortment of nuts, primarily in hazelnut and pistachio gelatos. There’s a very good chance I could get used to this.
My grandmother’s kitchen was never outfitted with a food processor. When Jessie needed to chop walnuts or pecans, she had two options. One was to use a hand-held chopper in a faded wooden bowl. The other was to attach a weighty hand-cranked grinder to the side of the Formica countertop. I’m thinking about the weight of that vintage kitchen appliance as I retrieve the food processor from too high atop the metro shelving in the bakery.
Setting the machine on a more navigable work surface, I’m about to feed eighty ounces of pecans into the plastic bowl fitted with the blade attachment. Unless I want to end up with a bowl of pecan butter, I will need to perform this exercise more than once. The finely-but-not-too-finely ground pecans will be suspended in a Passover torte that is heavily spiked with Medaglia d’Oro espresso. Seventy egg yolks will be beaten within an inch of their lemon colored lives while I gradually add the sugar. Seventy egg whites will surrender to a giant whisk until they are fluffy but not dry. It’s a delicate dance, folding the components together just enough to combine them without losing their lift. Once the cakes are prayerfully rising in the oven, I’ll separate another seventy eggs, pulse another eighty ounces of pecans and coining a lyric from Steely Dan, Do It Again.
Passover desserts were never considered the best dressed on the dessert sideboard. In hushed tones, I imagine they were referred to as a little bit dowdy but with winning personalities. There was something comfortably predictable about those nut-laden tortes and sponge cakes. Unlike a peanut butter filled Funny Bone or a cream filled Yodel, unleavened desserts offered no surprises. Until the 1980s when a little black dress of a cake with a raspberry sauce chaperone was invited to a Seder. Dusted with cocoa or flawless in ganache, the flourless chocolate cake was low slung on the dessert pedestal but certain to turn heads. The once appreciated Passover offerings were left feeling frumpy alongside the box of Barton’s chocolates.
Today, one needn’t look beyond Google for Passover dessert inspiration. While nut flours have risen through the unleavened ranks, matzoh meal and matzoh cake meal remain common denominators in most recipes. Despite my best research and hands on efforts, Passover tart shells and pie crusts always seem to fall flat in both taste and texture.
It is possible to tuck fresh fruit into a pie plate lined with a crumb suitable for Passover. A liberal hand with citrus zest and a generous addition of ground nuts helps distract from the matzoh-y taste that is always lurking in the background. It also makes a fine breakfast for a week long on matzoh brei and cinnamon sugar.
The onslaught of holiday orders at the bakery this week reinforces the notion that too many folks prefer to let someone else prepare their desserts. It also occurs to me that there may exist widespread fear of cross contamination between gluten free flour and pristine black yoga pants.
Having fallen woefully behind on my own holiday dessert preparations, I have opted to streamline the operation. Combining cocoa, butter, (I’m not one for margarine) walnuts and the slightest bit of matzoh cake meal, I brazenly poured the mixture into a tart pan with a removable bottom. It baked for a mere twelve minutes without leaking all over the oven and after cooling its heels on the counter, stepped easily out of the pan. The food processor slept in the kitchen cabinet throughout the entire production.
The end result was a fudgy chocolate base that was more than agreeable to a glaze of ganache and a gilding of fresh berries. Without a single ounce of drama, a few old recipes were reinvented into a new one. Everybody got along famously in one bowl and no one had to be separated; not even the eggs.
If the four questions of Passover reflected the queries posed at the bakery, they might read like this.
1. Why is this holiday different from all other holidays?
On all other holidays, we provide both gluten filled and gluten free baked goods to the masses. On this holiday, we continue to offer both with a slight emphasis on accommodating those I affectionately refer to as my peeps.
2. Why on this holiday do we eat only unleavened desserts?
On this particular holiday, we eat unleavened desserts because we are celebrating and remembering the Exodus from Egypt following generations of slavery. It is also because that is what our grandmothers served at their Seders; primarily in the form of towering sponge cakes and dry macaroons because flourless chocolate cakes had yet to come into fashion.
3. Why is this year at the bakery different from all other years at the bakery?
This year is different because the bakery has doubled in size allowing more elbowroom amongst the macaroons.
4a. Is this a Kosher kitchen?
4b. Are you Kosher for Passover?
See answer 4a.
As we approach the week of leavened flour deprivation, there are a few holiday traditions that we maintain around the Baker’s bench. There will be a brief conversation about Cecil B. DeMille’s epic film starring Charlton Heston as Moses and my former boss as Pharaoh Ramses. Three, possibly four of us will confirm seeing the film. A few members of the staff will claim to have heard of the movie or vaguely acknowledge that their parents have heard of the movie. This will segue into a conversation about The Sound of Music and then The Wizard of Oz, popular with and seen by everyone. We will then play the game, “How many macaroons were sold last Passover?”
Elijah’s big night kicks off next Friday but the week leading up to the holiday is fraught with customer anxiety and staff uncertainty. As the sole employee with decades of Seder attendance and Seder preparation under my bandana, I can confidently say that Passover brings out the whine in the matzoh munchers.
There is a tendency for people who are too busy to bake or simply don’t bake to ask a myriad of questions. Is the pecan torte a cake or a tart or a sponge cake? Is there gluten? Is there dairy? Does it taste like a Passover cake? Can you put half a dozen chocolate dipped macaroons in the same box with half a dozen plain? Do you use butter or margarine? Is it Kosher? (Still no.) Is that the cake that was featured on Martha Bakes?
I hate to tell you but before Martha became Martha, it’s doubtful that she was crafting intricate Afikomen coverings and baking her own matzoh. Tablescapes wasn’t a word. Passover meant the dining room table was set with a tablecloth and napkins that required ironing. Sterling silver had its chance to shine as candlesticks and place settings. Additional chairs were squeezed around a table stretched as far as it would go. The fragrance of spring flowers mingled with the aroma of matzoh ball soup, chopped chicken liver and if you were lucky, homemade gefilte fish with freshly grated horseradish. I was lucky.
We never thought to dub the final course of the meal a Passover Dessert Buffet. Jessie would prepare a Kiss Torte, over-filling a gigantic springform pan with meringue as thick as marshmallow then baking it in a very slow oven. Split and filled with whipped cream and strawberries, this often served as a birthday cake for my father. There was also a towering sponge cake served with a fluffy lemon sauce that reminded me of lemon meringue pie without a crust. Chocolate and vanilla macaroons tumbled out of canisters and a box of jellied fruit slices lounged on the server. In the event there wasn’t enough to sustain us while we hunted for the Afikomen, a cut crystal dish was filled with toasted coconut marshmallows. Marcy Goldman had yet to invent matzoh crack crunch and Danny Macaroons wasn’t old enough to launch his coconut empire.
For the ultra observant, Passover is a sacred holiday with a very explicit code of behaviors; if you have to ask, then it’s unlikely you fall into that category. For the rest of us, those I like to think of as Casual Observers, Passover has sufficient restrictions implemented to make us pause and remember.
As a baker, Passover teaches patience and discipline. Patience in dealing with the retail public and discipline in working in an environment filled with baked goods that you can’t eat for 8 days.
Though rooted in the past, Passover is a changin’. With a tinge of sorrow, I read Joan Nathan’s column in the food section this week advocating vegetable court-bouillon instead of fish stock in gefilte fish. Call me set in my fish poaching ways, but it seems just the slightest bit sacrilegious. For decades, my mother burned up the telephone wires with her friend Elaine talking carp, whitefish and pike, fish stock, fresh horseradish and beets. Their Passover dialogue was as predictable as the nine, no twelve egg Passover sponge cake found on page 120 of my grandmother’s Settlement Cookbook.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I found myself in the Seasonal aisle at Shop-Rite, seeking a fresh box of matzoh cake meal, one that hadn’t expired last year. Standing face to face with a wall of macaroon canisters, I realized it has been years since I’ve purchased a commercially prepared macaroon, longer still since consuming one. In all of their 10 oz. plastic lidded glory, the choices were positively dizzying, bordering on the ridiculous. In a state of coconut shock, I snapped a picture and sent it to Sibling Sister, a superb macaroon maker in her own right. She replied almost instantly; “Man, oh, Manischewitz.”
In March of 1969, my parents, older brothers and I sat clutching our Playbills, waiting for the curtain to rise on a new musical at the 46th St. Theatre. My sister was a mere 3 year old at the time which meant she stayed home with Jessie. Rear orchestra seats were $25 each, a pretty extravagant birthday celebration for my brother. It was a good thing none of us were thirsty or hungry, because the telling of the story was about as lengthy as a hot summer in Philadelphia. Before the show began, my father offered me a square white candy from a blue foil pack of C. Howard’s peppermints. My mother tucked her ticket stub and Playbill into a black leather handbag then clasped it shut. In 1969, no one had to worry about turning off a cell phone. The entertainment unfolded on the stage, not in the audience.
One week ago, I had the privilege of attending a concert version of that same show, 1776, performed as part of New York City Center’s Encores! Series. Forty seven years later, the story of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence is still fascinating. The Encores! ensemble was first rate, particularly my college crony Ric Stoneback in the role of Samuel Chase. Far less appealing and downright appalling is how theatre-goers have changed. Not all of them, not even most of them, just enough to spoil it for the rest of us.
Much of City Center’s audience is composed of season ticket holders, theatre enthusiasts who faithfully attend year after year, sit in the same seats and respect the simple behaviors associated with good manners. Friday night’s crowd was more mature, and based on those seated around us, just the slightest bit fragile. Attempting to climb over a dozen individuals on the way to our seats, I was painstakingly trying not to bump into anyone. Without realizing and certainly without meaning to, my purse brushed up against a woman sitting in front of me. The City Center subscriber turned around, pointing her finger, scolding and calling me a “Dangerous Woman.” I apologized (for what I’m still unsure) and took my seat. The man seated to my right was as old as Mame’s best pal, Vera Charles; somewhere between 90 and …
Act I concludes with a poignant soldier’s song delivered by a courier for the Continental Army. A thirty-something woman seated in the row ahead of us had her handbag wide open, the glowing light of her cellphone blatant in the dark theatre. She was busy texting and talking to her husband, much to the frustration of an elderly man seated to her right. Quietly, the man, a City Center subscriber nudged the woman’s armrest with his Playbill, a subtle plea for her to stop. She didn’t stop, nor did her husband who told the subscriber to “shut up.”
Act I ended but not the Bickersons’ diatribe. I was dumbfounded, observing two individuals who clearly should have stayed home, hurling insults at a man old enough to be their grandfather. I looked at Blondilocks who looked at me and then we heard a familiar voice tell Mr. Bickerson to stop. A man who knows a thing or two about theatre operations, Mr. Sweet As Pie was chastising Mr. Bickerson. “You ruined it for all of us! Talking and texting, the light from your phone …”
Blondilocks and I (and now everyone seated in close proximity) watched as the enraged Mr. Bickerson abruptly turned around and threw a misguided punch at Mr. Sweet As Pie. Oh look- we’re witnessing a play within a play, but tell me, how on earth did we get here?
I blame it on the Sippy Cup. Somewhere around the year 2010, soon after Rock of Ages came screaming onto the Great White Way, it was decided; theatre goers will be allowed, no, encouraged to drink their way through two acts of a Broadway musical. And drink they do; wine, beer, liquor and soda. Don’t worry about the upholstery or the carpeting, there’s a lid on those cups.
Have something to drink, unwrap your cellophane crackling Twizzlers, rattle your bag of M&Ms. By all means, when everyone in the theatre is asked to turn off their cell phone, that couldn’t possibly mean YOU. You’re special; you’re the only one who may need to check with your babysitter/mother/late-to-the-theatre date/best friend/ex/instagram. And while you’re at it, please, sit directly in front of or next to or behind me. I insist.
The second act of 1776 continued without incident and without the Bickersons, who chose not to return. It turned out that the fellow who had been badgered by the ill-mannered cell-phoning-talk-texting couple was indeed a long time City Center subscriber. From what I could tell, he was a gentleman who loved the theatre and thought a gentle nudge on the armrest with a Playbill would stop the madness.
The madness continues. Just three nights ago, Blondilocks attended a performance at the Roundabout Theatre. Seated in front of her was a woman who spent the first twenty minutes of the performance having a little snack. As the cast of She Loves Me dazzled, a woman consumed a container of banana pudding purchased from the Magnolia Bakery. When she was finished, she left the cup and the plastic spoon on the armrest of her seat.
Ill mannered, badly behaved theatre patrons can be as prolific as rhubarb in April. I baked my first rhubarb pie of the season yesterday and was able to secure a case of the blush pink and lime green stalks for work. It’s unfortunate that I have no way to contact Mr. and Mrs. Bickerson from last week. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to bake them a fresh rhubarb pie; light on the sugar, liberal with the leaves.
Maybe it was their sense of style or maybe it was their penchant for badges. Whatever the reason, few of us attending P.S. 104 in Far Rockaway chose Girl Scouting as an afterschool activity. I was more intrigued with the escapades unraveling in Brooklyn Heights between Patty Duke and her identical cousin, Cathy Lane. There was barely enough time to squeeze in an episode before piano lessons or Hebrew School or the torturous wire tightenings of the orthodontist.
Girl Scouts raised flags and recited some sort of motto and wore uniforms. They were prepared and helpful and did good turns. With enough advance notice I too, can be moderately prepared. As for sporting Brownie-brown or scouty-green, my leanings were more towards a black leotard, pink tights and a pair of Capezios. What I didn’t know was that the Girl Scouts of America were smart cookies. The connection between the Scouts and the sweets was totally under my radar.
As a result, the Girl Scout cookie drive was something I successfully avoided as a child. In later years, I attempted to pass this trait on to my children. Master/Master admits that other than the occasional Thin Mint that was smuggled into the house or a wayward Samoa, Girl Scout cookies were never his go-to biscuit.
This year however, is radically different for my son. Working in the corporate arts world where treats lay in wait by the fax-machine, there is more pressure to support the Girl Scouts of Boston. Master/Master explains;
“Growing up, it was very rare for us to have these brown-sash-peddled-biscuits in the house because, well, Mom, you're a baker and your reaction has always been, I DON’T WANT GIRL SCOUT COOKIES IN MY HOUSE!” (That sums it up pretty accurately.)
I am a little more prone to supporting the Scouts and eating some cookies when a ‘general distribution’ email is sent to the entire department from not only my boss, but the Director of the department. If interested, there’s an order form conveniently located in the office. Apparently, I’m interested.
Seeking an order form, I arrive to find the Director of HR pensively looking at the same sweet document. Having forgotten her glasses, I read the choices aloud:
Thin Mint, Lemonades, Tag-a-longs, Shortbread (I had no idea there were so many options) Trios, Caramel deLites, Wait a minute! Caramel deLites?!
Director of HR responds: They’re the ones with coconut.
Master/Master: Oh, you mean Samoas.
Director of HR: They’re called Caramel deLites, here.
Master/Master: Really?!? Oh, okay, thanks.
NMMNP (might I interject): You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.
Master/Master walked away in disbelief, convinced something was terribly wrong in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Caramel deLite implies that the majority of the cookie is caramel! Everyone knows a Samoa is coconut all the way…
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t quite sure what made a Samoa a Samoa without Googling it first. More disturbing to me is the spelling of ‘deLites.’ It seems to me that if you are going to go to the trouble of properly spelling caramel, the very least you can do is correctly spell the word ‘delights.’
But as Master/Master likes to remind me, that is something he considers a personal problem, as in I’m the person with the problem. It seems to me the only way to right this wrong, set this Caramel deLite debacle on its ear is to re-imagine the Samoa as a pie. This is something for which I can certainly prepare for. In fact, I'd be delighted.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm