The last of the macaroons have finally left the building, leaving the screen door wide open for rhubarb. I’ve been staring down the pie plant train tracks for weeks now, and much like the 4:57 enroute to Penn Station, New York, the rhubarb train is nowhere in sight.
Stalks were rumored to be hiding out in the produce aisle of Whole Foods last weekend, but I found that to be blatantly untrue. Despite confirmation from Mike-in-Produce, the rumors proved unfounded.
Someone, someone, got their greedy little hands on the slender stalks of pink and green, and it wasn’t me. I’m the type of pie girl who respects the next baker following in hot pursuit. Acknowledging my tendency to swoop in and purchase highly coveted produce in excess, I always leave behind just enough (roughly 6 cups worth) for the next pie baker, because that’s the polite thing to do.
Shame on you, whoever you are, who got there before me and filled your handheld basket with the last bunch of my rhubarb. I’m fairly certain that the guilty party was a formerly-from-Brooklyn-currently-living-in-Maplewood, husband and wife team spotted last Saturday in Whole Foods. Boasting perfect yoga postures, standing smack dab in what would have been the rhubarb aisle, they were in heated debate directly in front of a pyramid display of over-priced organic mandarin oranges. “I want to serve the raw cheesecake,” the woman whined. “The one you said you knew how to make.” They were going on and on about layering uncooked strawberries with the ‘other’ fruit (my rhubarb) which they were going to sweeten with some sort of agave/sorghum concoction. “And then we’ll put a layer of the non dairy coconut cream cheese on top of the fruit. Do you think that will work? It should work, shouldn’t it? You said you knew how to make this.”
I envisioned them dramatically hand mixing the faux dessert into a frenzy before pouring it into a springform pan lined with gluten free unsweetened cookie crumbs. Unless cookie crumbs were unacceptable because they had once been baked and were no longer considered raw. I know they took the very last of the rhubarb, rhubarb that was destined for me, rhubarb that almost had a happy home in a baked dessert. For just a moment I considered reminding the raw couple that the leaves of the rhubarb plant are poisonous and must be removed before not baking. Surely they must know these things because they know about everything raw, especially leaves. Bitter? Not me.
There is a snowdrift of coconut swirling around my worktable. A ginormous commercial mixing bowl is filled to capacity with a medley of unsweetened shred, desiccated chip, and sweetened flake coconut. Although the ingredients sound more like packing materials than cookie fixings, they will ultimately bake up into appropriate Passover dessert fare. Keeping track of the macaroons sprinting from my one-ounce scoop onto parchment lined sheet pans is a challenge. I scribble numbers on wax paper with a coconut covered Sharpie marker. It’s not the Sharpie’s fault; everything I touch leaves behind a coconut fingerprint. My macaroon tracking system is imperfect to be sure, but the hope is the numbers will correspond to a detailed master list of holiday orders. As I scoop, I’m contemplating Variations on a Theme of Coconut.
A gentleman enroute to the restroom pauses by my table, glances at the bowl and asks, “Whatcha got there?”
“Macaroons,” I reply, without looking up.
“Oh,” he responds knowingly. “The pastel-y ones, the pretty ones, with the filling. What kind of filling?” he implores.
“Not macaron,” I reply. “Macarooooon.” My emphasis on “ooooon” is unmistakable but he doesn’t get it.
Nooo,” I continue. “Mac-a-rooooon. Coconut, not almond. Scooped, not filled. For Passover.”
“Enjoy your holiday,” he says and walks away.
In my fantasy world, I call after him. “HEY! Don’t come waltzing back here again until you learn the difference between macarons and macaroons! This is not difficult stuff, pal. Both cookies share European lineage, but the macaron is typically made with almond flour, egg whites, and sugar. In a macaroon, coconut plays the starring role, supported by sweetened condensed milk and egg whites. You could say macarons walk the fashion cookie runway, strutting about in pastels, accessorizing with buttercream, ganache, or jam. Macaroons are more casual Friday, less fashionista, a comfortable cookie that doesn’t wear make-up. The macaron is jewel-like, to be nibbled; the macaroon is a chewy cookie, chock full of history and tradition. Both cookies laugh in the face of leavening, relying simply on egg whites for lift. Made without flour, both the macaron and the macaroon are gluten-free. (Imagine their popularity, based on that fact alone.) If macarons could talk, they would boast a distinctive French accent. If macaroons were doing the talking, I suspect they would gesture with their hands while offering grandfatherly advice. No doubt, macaroons would tell you not to worry about the other kids, particularly the macarons.
In trying not to touch my face with a coconut-covered glove, I realize there’s something about this whole macaroon process that makes my nose itch. I’m fairly certain it’s from residual coconut fumes congregating around my face. Setting down the purple scoop, I use my left hand to remove the food service glove from my right hand and reach into my pocket, fumbling about for a Kleenex. There is none to be found, but now there’s a wad of coconut in my pocket. I don a fresh pair of gloves, give the macaroon mix a little stir, and return to my coconut reverie.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that macarons can be patronizing, a touch condescending towards macaroons. Macarons demand pristine packaging with elaborate wax paper liners and sweeping bows. Macaroons fit agreeably inside a no-frills bakery box or a humble brown paper bag. There’s a lot of pomp associated with macarons and honestly, aren’t they just sandwich cookies all dressed up, with no particular place to go? Macaroons have a destination, a Seder, and they better not show up late.
Macaroons border on, dare-I-say, dowdiness. They’re happy-go-lucky in their coconut selves, and for decades, enjoyed little embellishment other than the occasional drizzle of dark chocolate. Macaroons will jostle together in airtight containers, packaged without bells and whistles, arriving at the Passover dessert table in fine fiddle. You don’t tiptoe around macaroons the way you tiptoe around macarons.
According to my Sharpie marker and wax paper/scrap paper, I believe Friday’s and Saturday’s macaroon orders are complete. That’s critical at this stage of the double holiday weekend. After a thousand macaroons, I’m beginning to feel just the slightest bit flakey. Unfortunately, many of my peeps, (not the marshmallow variety) will come barging into the bakery today and tomorrow, desperately seeking macaroons. My purple handled scoop has many macaroon miles still to travel. I am counting down the hours between now and 4 pm on Saturday. If you're looking for me, just follow the trail of coconut.
Celebrity chef was a term not yet coined when Edna Lewis was born, April 13, 1916. The granddaughter of an emancipated slave, Miss Lewis grew up in Freetown, Virginia, learning to cook under the tutelage of her mother and grandmothers, honing her skills on recipes handed down and tinkered with by generations of relatives. I read her cookbooks like novels, paying strict attention to menu titles such as, “Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast.” I devoured her conversational recipes, the kind that might be shared across a kitchen table while trimming green beans or removing the stems from blueberries.
Miss Lewis chronicled her life in several books; The Edna Lewis Cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, In Pursuit of Flavor, and The Gift of Southern Cooking. She explained, “Freetown was a community of farming people, so named because the first residents had been freed from chattel slavery, and wanted to be known as a town of Free People.” The food of her childhood would shape her culinary career.
When Edna was a teenager, she moved to Washington, D.C., then in later years, found her way to New York City. In the late 1940s, she was the chef at Café Nicholson in Manhattan, garnering raves for her legendary chocolate soufflé. She returned to the south for decades, cooking and writing thoughtful, comprehensive cookbooks. What made her cookbooks so refreshing was her conversational narrative. There was a frankness coupled with a little bit of hand-holding throughout the pages. At a time when celebrity chef narcissism was the norm, it was unusual to equate humbleness with a chef.
Miss Lewis was lured back to New York in the late 1980s, at the age of 72, to become the chef at Brooklyn's landmark restaurant, Gage and Tollner. Edna Lewis’ style of cooking was soulful, but it differed from traditional soul food. Miss Lewis brought a more gentrified style of country cooking to the restaurant, a straight-forward approach that focused on seasonally fresh, local, organic ingredients. Her influence on the restaurant, and on Southern cuisine, impacted a new generation of chefs and home cooks.
While the popular culture was noticeably tiptoeing around butter, salt, and sugar, Edna Lewis embraced it. In her “Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast,” Miss Lewis recounts a menu of black raspberries and cream, eggs sunny-side up, oven-cooked fresh bacon, fried sweetbreads, country-fried apples, biscuits and corn bread, butter, preserves, jelly, and coffee. She also insisted that making your own baking powder made for better biscuits.
I am unashamed to admit I house too many bookshelves, buckling under the weight of cooking magazines. One of the features I loved from those now defunct subscriptions was the end of the magazine query, “If you could invite anyone from history to join you for dinner, who would it be?” I would start with breakfast, and invite Edna Lewis to pull up a chair around the kitchen table; hopefully, she'll bring the biscuits.
Despite a moniker that depicts me as a curmudgeonly baker, I like to think of myself as a caring pie person. I worry about the big things; cold butter, fresh fruit, the right mix of flour-to-sugar-to-salt in a pie crust. I agonize over the not so little things; spices, thickeners, crimps, and lattice. Staring at a freezer full of pie shells and a walk-in stacked precariously with fresh fruit is daunting. There's a reason we refer to Friday as Pie-day.
Pie baking at home is not the same as pie-ing en masse. Imagine two perfect containers of early spring fruit handpicked from the Farmers’ Market. Now multiply those two containers of fruit by ten, or maybe twenty, or maybe more. Unlike the safe refuge of a home kitchen, a retail baking environment requires sharp navigation skills. At every turn you face racks of adorable cookies and gluten free quick breads and layer cakes, begging to be iced. Someone else selects the Sonos station, and maybe it just doesn’t align with your current mood. And imagine, instead of the beautiful Emile Henri pie plate with the dimpled edge sitting on your immaculate kitchen counter, you’re staring down a deluge of aluminum pie plates, begging to be filled.
Don’t misunderstand. My workplace has a number of formidable qualities, namely the fine folks working there. It is important to understand however, that a pie baker’s life is dictated by the quality and availability of ingredients at their disposal. Fresh fruit is as mercurial as the weather; one day it pleasantly surprises and the next it downright disappoints. Additionally, pie requires a waiting game. Hot pies need plenty of time to pull themselves together before slicing. Icebox or refrigerator pies need time to cool down, to steady themselves before facing the knife. A pie baker's life is also dictated by the people wielding the knife once the pie leaves the bakery.
For quite a luxuriously prolonged stretch, I’ve been spared any retail customer unpleasantries. Until today, when it all came to a screeching halt. Henceforth, I declare April 5th to be named, “No Blueberry Pie For You” day.
The gist of the sad tale is that an already unhappy individual couldn’t choose between two kinds of blueberry pie. Following a lengthy back and forth with a most solicitous member of the bakery staff, a pie was decided upon. No sooner had the pie exited the oven, it was summoned to exit the building. The still-warm pie was placed in a windowed box and the recipient was given strict instructions to let the pie cool, because slicing a hot pie ends badly.
Clearly, the ‘pie cooling’ directive was tossed aside like an empty plastic clamshell heading towards the recycle bin. What ensued was a pie puddle, a heated discussion by phone, and more unhappiness than anyone needed at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon.
In a perfect pie world pies would bake until golden, bubbling around the edges and peeking through their lattice at just the right temperature to be warm, yet sliceable. Custard and cream pies would set up instantly, offering the cleanest slice with no refrigeration necessary. The reality is however, that pie, like many things worth waiting for, requires patience.
Days like today encourage me to reflect, fantasizing ever so slightly about other careers. Walking to my car in the bracing April rain, I see myself as the host of a new reality tv show called, Pie Seekers. Contestants attempting to slice a hot pie would be interrupted by a deafening oven timer. I would then utter the dreaded words, “No Pie For You,” and hand them an empty pie box as a parting gift.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm