Runaway blueberries are dancing under my feet like treacherous blue Skittles. The oven timer finally announces the completion of the pie baking. Donning the elbow-length silicone-coated gloves, I dive in. The heat inside the oven is oppressive, the oven mitts slightly crunchy and mostly unyielding. The pies heave and sigh, bubbling over the crimp and up through the lattice. Setting one scalding 6” pie into a parchment lined box, I must leave the lid ajar. My attempt to contain the purple juices is only moderately successful.
Sprung from the sweltering bakery on Tuesday afternoon, there is just enough time to dash home for a shower and a change of clothes. Paul McCartney and Wings would dub me a Bandana on the Run. The 4:47 is the train to catch and making that a reality hinges on several factors; avoiding the school bus traffic and securing a parking space in the downtown commuter lot. Sufficient iphone charge is also critical, allowing the purchase of a ticket using the NJ transit app.
Dodging the school bus and snagging the only available parking space in the lot appear to be good signs. However, Embark NJ insists on updating new schedules when all I’m asking for is a little recognition from My Tix. They claim not to remember me nor will they allow me to purchase a ticket. Sprinting towards the ticket vending machine, there are several travelers ahead of me. The machine is unable to print tickets although it thanks us for traveling NJ Transit and tells us to have a nice day. Vowing to avoid a penalty for buying a ticket on the train (even though it is someone else’s fault), I return to My Tix with a vengeance and a new password.
NJ Transit’s Midtown Direct is crowded and excessively air-conditioned. The challenge lies in securing a seat, preferably facing forwards. Train etiquette, or the lack thereof always surprises me. You know who you are, ladies and gentlemen. A seat on the train does not entitle you to one seat for you plus one for your laptop/tote bag/overcoat/Styrofoam container of ketchup drenched fries. I must choose between sleeping woman with tote bag and fries or conscious businessman with laptop, cellphone and attitude. While deciding, a fellow passenger swoops up from behind me and grabs the seat with Ms. Fries. I am left with Mr. Attitude. You don’t frighten me, Sir. I am carrying my own blue-stained brown paper shopping bag, steam rising from its interior. This bag is assured safe haven on my lap, never on the floor. Thirty eight minutes later, I trade commuter rail for subway and a crush of strap hangers. Maneuvering ever so slightly towards the middle of the car, I attempt to steady myself as the train lurches forward. I am a breath away from a man armed with charcoal pencil and sketch pad, quietly capturing the weary faces around him. Noticing my stare he explains, “Art student. Final assignment.”
The next stop is mine, a labyrinth of tourists and costumed Super Heroes, as creepy as the street is gridlocked. I raise my brown paper bag a bit higher and hug it closer for safe keeping. At the crosswalk is a man hawking free hip-hop CDs and across the street, a caricaturist. There is a family in front of me, walking six abreast unless you count the baby stroller; that makes seven. I want to clobber them.
A Federal Express man appears wheeling a hand truck of parcels, weaving in front of the family. I seize this opportunity to walk directly next to Mr. Fed Ex who with his handtruck, cuts a swath through the meandering tourist crowd. My brown paper bag is bumped and jostled, and I raise it higher, away from the madness, until I reach the theatre.
After the final curtain falls, I pay a backstage visit to George, Blondilocks’ uber talented friend. I will hand him the brown paper bag, a small gift acknowledging his Broadway debut. Bravo, George. Here’s a little something from my Blue Period. Love, Pie-casso.
THE MERRY MONTH OF STRAWBERRY
A few weeks ago in a west coast kitchen, my friend Bud unpacked a brown paper bag. Setting two containers of California strawberries on the counter, I hardly recognized them. Beautifully crimson and freckled, they actually smelled like strawberries. A far cry from what we’ve been baking with on the east coast.
Our strawberries have been rather lackluster, garishly red but without flavor, tasting a bit like cucumbers. Until today. Just in time for Memorial Day, sweet, local berries are breezing through town, strutting their berry stuff. Unlike their year-round Driscoll counterparts, the early and all-too fleeting locally grown crops are the real strawberry deal. Still-life beautiful, hypnotically fragrant and perfectly sweet. It’s a double-edged temptation; spontaneous strawberry consumption or berry pie-ing. Fields of pick-your-own wave to me announcing greener, warmer days ahead. They are at their best when just gathered from the field, misty with morning rain and warm from the sun. Dangling from their leggy runners, it is nearly impossible to resist the urge to eat them right on the spot. Each berry dots the corners of my mouth scarlet. I use one hand to dab at runaway juices and the other to dismiss the occasional honeybee circling overhead. Strawberry season is a short but sweet reward for having scraped too many icy windshields and shoveled record shattering snowfalls.
The sweetest baking seasons are finite, taunting those of us in the kitchen to exhaust the limited supply. Over-filling recyclable totes with green corrugated quart containers, berries jostle around in the back of the car. Sunshine pours through open windows and the steering wheel is hot under sticky fingers. The radio is kicking off Memorial Day weekend playing the soundtrack of summer. I turn up the volume and steady the basil plant riding in the passenger seat.
Gather your strawberries while you May.
LUCK BE A LADY
Monday evening the outside air was stifling but Trader Joe’s was freezing. The Hawaiian shirted staff can’t fool me. I know well enough by now to wear a serious sweater when crossing the automatic door threshold. Armed with a large block of bittersweet chocolate and a fresh container of milk, I breezed through the check-out line. The cashier was particularly friendly, encouraging me to enter the bring-your-own-bags raffle. In the past year I had spun some sort of wheel and won a jar of Cowboy Salsa so it seemed highly unlikely that my lucky Trader Joe’s streak would continue. Hating to disappoint the fellow behind the register, I scribbled my name and number on an orange ticket. He wished me luck and dropped the ticket into the raffle basket. I tend to group luck into the same category as horoscopes. When I win something I’m lucky; when I lose, not so much. Horoscopes are the sort of thing I believe when they are good and disregard when they are not to my liking.
On Tuesday morning before the temps soared, I logged several running miles prior to work. The air was thick with fluorescent green pollen and weighty with humidity. A series of orange cones cordoned off treacherous potholes causing me to take to the sidewalk. The sidewalks were equally hazardous with upended slabs of cement and wayward Little Tike Cozy Coupes. It was time for caffeine.
Casually glancing at my daily horoscope while consuming my first iced coffee of the day, it posed the seemingly ridiculous question, ”Got healthy?” Damn straight, I replied trying to ignore the remainder of my astrological forecast. Before putting the column aside, I noticed the cautionary advice to look out for and navigate a few potholes. Duly noted and already navigated.
My morning ‘to do’ list included a quick pie tutorial and blind bake. I had unearthed a long-lost recipe that I was determined to assemble before heading to the sugar mines. The pie at hand was all about chocolate, in this case extra dark with a shot of espresso. French Silk Chocolate Pie is Chocolate Cream Pie’s glamorous cousin. Chocolate Cream is comfortable in gingham, French Silk dons a little black dress, heels and triple strand pearls. With the mercury threatening to hover around 90 degrees by mid-day, the pre-baked crust and stove-top filling made it quick and cool to prepare. The pie is crazy rich, but using bittersweet chocolate seems to temper the sweetness. A fluff of unsweetened whipped cream and a glass of cold milk is all you really need to accompany this mousse within a crust. I tucked the pie into the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of seltzer for the road.
Pie crust was on my agenda as I headed to work, envisioning a freezer stock piled with pate brisée within the next few hours. My plan to get a leg up on prep was thwarted at the near conclusion of cubing 6 pounds of sweet butter for pie pastry. My astrological sign proved horribly true in the sweltering heat of the kitchen. The previously chilled but rapidly softening butter and the vicious French chef’s knife collided with my innocent thumb. Got healthy? Nooooo- GOT HYDROGEN PEROXIDE AND STERILE GAUZE??!!
There is a nano second after the accident where you would give almost anything to take that moment back- the one right before the knife does the damage. But it was too late for if onlys. Unlucky with the knife, but oh-so-terribly lucky with the crew on hand. One bit of stellar news presented itself in the presence of calm-under-pressure-Katrina, barista by day, nursing student by night. Entrusting her with my maligned digit, she and the bakers round the bench came to my aid. Propping my arm up on a case of butter, I looked the other way as the thumb triage unfolded. And you know what they say about lemon juice on an open cut? Citrus can’t hold a candle to the sensation of hydrogen peroxide getting cozy with a laceration. Suffice to say that the best place to head was home.
How fortuitous that the injured thumb was on my left hand, allowing me to navigate ice cubes, gin and tonic into a very tall glass with my right. An unopened bag of Cheesy Poofs was within reach and the sofa in the sunroom provided safe haven.
It was probably the throbbing of the thumb coupled with the ringing of the phone that woke me several hours later. To my amazement, the manager from Trader Joe’s was calling with the news that I had won a $15 gift card for bringing my own grocery bags. Luck be a lady with a bum thumb, indeed.
Ah, Yes, Mother’s Day.
Undoubtedly one of NMMNP’s favorite holidays - she often refers to it as the “loathsome holiday.” In lieu of our normal, leisurely brunch celebration, bundles of flowers, stacks of chocolates, and an assortment of kitchen related gifts, we have decided that this guest blog post written by her children will have to suffice.
You may or may not be aware that in our household there is really only one holiday - Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the holiday that brings the entire family together and it is what we look forward to all year long. We go to extreme lengths to enjoy this celebration. We’ve quit jobs that conflicted with the glorious Thursday in November, we’ve made our own feast while abroad, and our Cousin has flown thousands of miles in order to be with us for the day. Beyond Thanksgiving, we celebrate birthday weeks with sweets, fine eats, and on many occasions, a Broadway production. Other holidays are simply trivial in our household.
Mother’s day is no exception and can be stacked next to Valentine’s day, 4th of July, Roshashana, even Christmas. These holidays mark the completion of a long week (or month) and NMMNP simply wishes to put down her rolling pin and relax in peace and quiet.
There were a few occasions in our youth when we tried (and boy did we try) to show our appreciation on Mother’s Day. One example that comes to mind is a slightly rainy afternoon in which NMMNP had just returned from the restaurant she was working in and was greeted by her children about to make waffles for the special occasion. This loving attempt was met with the following interaction:
Blondie - Happy Mother’s Day Mom! We’re going to make you Waffles
NMMNP - Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh, thanks. I don’t know that I’d like Waffles
Master / Master - Come on sure you do
NMMNP - Disappears, returns minutes later… Where is it?
Blondie - Where’s what?
NMMNP - King Arthur
Master - What?
NMMNP - KING ARTHUR! IF YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE WAFFLES IT’S FROM THE KING ARTHUR BOOK… walks over to book shelf, finds book and holds it up. Listen kids, if I die, this is the Book with the Waffle recipe in it.
It is unclear to us now whether or not any waffles were consumed that day.
This was not a rare moment by any means. NMMNP would often (and still does) draw our attention to specific recipes or books for those “just in case I die” occasions. Let’s be real, when it comes to the kitchen NMMNP means business. In addition to her recipe consultations NMMNP is notorious for her kitchen interventions. No, not the A&E TV style come-in-take-a-seat-we’re-all-here-for-you kind of intervention but the I-can-improve-this-situation-by-helping-or-guiding-your-baking / cooking-process intervention. One might refer to it as a “learning” or “teaching” opportunity.
Learning and Teaching opportunities turned into this:
4 cups flour
½ cup of milk
2 teaspoons of cinnamon
Ok, let me just do it.
It tastes better when mom makes it anyways, right? So while you’re enjoying your Bloody Mary or Mimosa this afternoon be thankful that you were taught by the best, hug your mom, and be hopeful that our mom baked your dessert. Thank you Ellen for filling everyday with tasty treats, for being one of the hardest workers we will ever know, and for being a wonderful mother.
We leave you with a recipe:
Blondie’s Perfectly Crafted Ellen
Yields: 1 No More Mr. Nice Pie
Preheat oven to 500 degrees (because you know she’s freezing and hates being cold)
4 cups of charisma
⅛ quart of wanderlust
2 ½ marathons and counting
2 tablespoons of finding the right fruit “in season”
¼ teaspoon of “you don’t want to do that”
6 pints of killer buttercream rose making and cookie decorating
10 dashes of theatrical flare
Pinch of pessimistic optimism
Fair helping of bubbly (but certainly no more than 2 glasses)
a gallon of pie-sonality (get it?)
Combine and bake
Leave on a cooling rack until just right (providing caffeine as necessary)
Let sit until Ellen has finished taking endless photographs of dish and is slightly room temperature.
Serve with a scoop of coffee ice cream and maybe some Trader Joe’s Cheesy Poofs.
Sharing the art of pie making requires special skills. In the case of last week’s LA Pie Social, the ability to wrangle a Baker’s Dozen of pie enthusiasts into a semblance of order required advanced skills. Or if I may borrow a pun from my friend John, it was the best of pies, it was the worst of pies.
Granted, the kick-off was more happy hour than pie prep. Fueled by flutes of bubbly and chilled stems of Chenin-something, the bakers were in fine spirits. Literally. In the span of ninety minutes, we had quite a bit of ground to cover. As stipulated in the invite, participants were required to BYOR, Bring Your Own Rolling Pin. The array of pins was dizzying; Gretchen brandishing a compact cherry red pin, Kelly a cool-to-the-touch marble version. Jeryl was armed with rolling pin and per my request, an assortment of mixing bowls. Thank you, Jeryl. Theresa arrived with a long-lost rolling pin and her strawberry slicing skills. Accompanying Theresa was her handsome son Andrew who turned out to be quite a fine pie baker.
The pie makers cubed and pinched butter into flour, adding just enough ice water to the mix. Armed with their very own pie pastry, they rolled bottom shells and latticed top crusts. The crowd was enthusiastic, just a touch unruly, often times hilarious and for the most part, dedicated to the task. Our host Bud, pampered us with a kitchen as fully stocked as a Williams-Sonoma, down to the freshly ground cardamom and the coarse-grained sugar crystals. At one point, more than just the two commercial ovens were heating up. (Sorry about the fractured wine glass, Bud.) It was indeed tepid around the workspace prompting Julia to eloquently coin the phrase Bikram Baking. She wasn’t kidding- sprung from the confines of my traditional bakery bandana, my curls were working overtime. By sheer determination alone, I steered the pie ship towards bowls of raspberries, blueberries, blush pink rhubarb and fragrant strawberries. The students were chatty and far from shy when it came to filling their pie shells. Bryan was the pie trendsetter, suggesting the teaming of sweet fruit with a hint of savory. Sugar was flying and microplanes were zesting lemons and oranges like nobody’s business. At 8:30 on the dot, the pies entered the ovens. Don’t forget Bud; start the pies on the bottom rack.
Quite unexpectedly, one of the loveliest moments of the evening occurred with the late arrival of two young pie enthusiasts, Jonathan and Simon. Gifted with what I like to call ‘bakers hands,’ the ginger-haired boys maneuvered their rolling pins with ease. Tossing purple berries with a bit of sugar, they filled their pie shells high and wove the lattice tops with great pride. If they ever wish to quit their day jobs as students, I know of a bakery in the Garden State that would welcome them in an instant.
The worst of pies scenario resulted from the overfilling of certain pie shells. Call it what you will, but Pie-nami seems to cover it nicely. Blissfully, Bud’s ovens escaped unscathed. While we waited for the well-behaved pies to bubble up through their perfectly woven lattice tops, we did what one does at a pie social. We ate pie.
Slices of early season peach teamed with vanilla ice cream and caramel bourbon sauce. Wedges of sweet and tart strawberry rhubarb under a thick layer of toasty oatmeal crumble. And the crowd favorite- Best of Philly Key Lime Pie. Who would have thought that a Slice of Heaven recipe from the city of brotherly love would dazzle the west coasters.
As the clock neared ten, rolling pins reunited with bakers. The socialites gathered up their personal pies, screaming hot out of the oven. Steam clouded the cellophane windows of bakery boxes, smudged by fingers sticky with fruit. Baking with friends is a lot like baking with butter. It’s simply better.
HOUSE OF PIES
Other than leaving the raincoat at home and placing the double-sided lattice crimper in carry-on luggage, my holiday has been happily without incident. Brilliant sun pours down from a cobalt sky, feeling deliciously warm against a baker’s kitchen white skin. For an individual emerging from a lengthy east coast winter, the west coast weather is cause for celebration. Lace up the running shoes and strike up the itunes.
My feet are traversing the sunny side of Vermont Avenue inching their way towards the corner of Franklin. There is no turning back; I push the pause button on my running app and allow the LA landmark, House of Pies to draw me in. My melted self and running gear look totally out of place amidst the 8:00 am-ers tucked into naugahyde vinyl booths, heads bowed over cups of coffee. The House of Pies is as retro as the day is warm. Anytime Breakfast permeates the air. Skillet eggs and huevos rancheros vie for attention against imitation maple syrup and bacon just off the flat-top griddle. To my right is a carousel of pies, lazily spinning in circles. Standing tall behind the counter are bakers racks lined with sheet pans of freshly baked pies, some sporting woven lattice. Double door refrigerators hold lofty creams and towering meringues. Rumor has it the strawberry cream has a passionate following. Being on foot eliminates the cream pie option. Not to worry- there’s plenty more from which to choose.
It’s early in the day, but my running shoes cannot be stopped, propelling me towards the mustached gentleman behind the counter. Blinded by the sunlight, I squint and point at the pie in closest proximity, steam rising through the lattice weave. I hear myself order one slice of pineapple pie to go. The pie meister retreats to the bakers rack, selects the still-warm pie and slices it generously. Four dollars and one square styrofoam container later I am on my way.
Cradling the precious cargo and running more cautiously now, the wait at the traffic intersection of Sunset and Hollywood is interminable. Having learned the intricacies and penalties of jay-walking on my last visit, I wait patiently. Finally, the green light teamed with the white silhouette of the walkin’ man indicate it is safe to cross.
The pineapple pie proves to be a hearty traveler, the lattice crust still intact, the thick filling holding on to the confines of its triangular slice. In the warmth of the sun with a tall glass of icy cold coffee, this is California dreamin’ come true. Pineapple pie for breakfast under a canopy of leggy palms and purple Jacaranda. Pass the sunscreen, please.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm