Oh poor baristas, I realize you’re only doing your job but you should know better. When the mercury hovers around 90 degrees outside and inside the bakery we're struggling like the Jets and the Sharks to keep cooly cool, please don’t ask me, “What’s the pie situation for the weekend?”
There will be pie, that’s the situation.
“What kind of pie? There’s a lady at the counter and she wants to know what kind of pie.”
Does it really matter? Whatever I bake will be exactly the flavor they don’t want.
“Tell her nothing old. Everything new. Something red. And definitely something blue. “ Barista is off to the counter to provide excruciatingly detailed pie information. He’s back in a flash. Do we make gluten free pie?
No, no, no we do not.
Memorial Day marks the beginning of warm weather pie season. The kicking-off-summer crowd is as trendy as I am melted. Floral sundresses and uber cool short shorts are waiting in line, oversized sunglasses perched on top of their heads. Brand new flip-flops grind wayward scone crumbs into floor tiles dotted with espresso. Clutching cold brew coffee with perfectly manicured nails, the beach bound stop by the table weighted down with baked goods. I like to think there’s a fine assortment of pies; Blueberry, Strawberry/Rhubarb, Sour Cherry/Apricot, Maple Buttermilk. There will be a slight pause as a pie is considered, picked up, set down and rejected. “Is there any apple?”
My workstation at the bakers bench is as colorful as a Memorial Day parade float. I am up to my elbows in rhubarb, strawberries, fresh apricots and not-yet-ripe peaches. I’m trying not to advertise the peaches, tucking them away in brown paper shopping bags. Unfortunately, someone has let the peach out of the bag. A barista can be overheard saying, “Yes. I believe they’re making peach pies for the weekend.” I’m mouthing the word “Noooo” to the back of the barista’s head. It’s too late- they reach for an order form and start scribbling. I’m doomed. “Offer them Key Lime!” I propose in a stage whisper. Barista hears me, confers with a customer then turns around to inform me the interested party is traveling to the shore. “How long can the pie stay out of the refrigerator?” I don’t have the heart to subject a perfectly healthy Key Lime pie cloaked in whipped cream rosettes to an extended car ride. I’m using both of my rhubarb stained hands to indicate negative on the Key Lime. “Suggest the gluten free cranberry orange bread instead!” I hiss. Barista confirms, “They’ll take the Key Lime. It’s only a three hour drive.” It’s too late. I am sending one of my own to the battlefield known as the Garden State Parkway. The poor pie doesn’t stand a chance.
There’s a sign in the window of the bakery announcing the Memorial Day Duck Race. After nearly five years of calling this Village home, I still don’t understand it. It has inspired sheet trays of sugar cookies, resplendent with sugared wings and orange beaks. Realizing it is high time to squelch my ignorance, I follow baker Baylee’s advice and Google Village Duck Race. I learn it is a local event in its 18th year. Hundreds of rubber ducks, each emblazoned with a Sharpie inscribed number will bob their way down the neighboring creek, crossing the finish line in the name of charity. That’s pretty impressive. Make way.
One mainstay of the holiday formerly known as Remembrance Day is the distribution of the Buddy Poppy. Red crepe paper petals attached to wire stems are the international symbol of remembrance for veterans of war. Inspired by John McCrae’s 1915 poem, “In Flanders Fields,” a YMCA volunteer from New York (Moina Michael) is credited with proposing the poppy as a symbol of remembrance in 1918. The poem was written well over one hundred years ago, long before gluten free and cold brew.
Memorial Day was also dubbed Decoration Day, stemming from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, flags and wreaths. We are doing our part in terms of sugar decorations. Our friends at Sprinkle King never disappoint, this time providing the teeniest of patriotic stars for dotting cookies and cupcakes. Team Scone has joined in the holiday spirit by adding fresh strawberries and blueberries to several batches of buttermilk biscuits. More alarmingly, red, white and blue sprinkles have found their way into another. Nothing says Memorial Day quite the way Funfetti scones do. (For the record, I may color outside the pie lines from time to time, but I accept absolutely no responsibility for tri-color sprinkle enhanced scones.)
I’m struggling with the fact that the month of May is drawing to a close. With each day that passes, my recent holiday slips farther away. My daydream of the Italian countryside dotted with poppies, far from the maddening bakery crowd is interrupted by the incessant beeping of the oven timer.
The strawberry rhubarb pies are bubbling furiously through their lattice, leaving the oven mitts sticky as I navigate the scalding hot tray to a Baker’s rack. An inquiring mind on the other side of the rack points to the pies and asks, “Are those the strawberry rhubarb?” Dabbing the sweat trickling down my forehead with the corner of my apron, I nod.
She’s practically giddy. “My husband loves strawberry rhubarb. It’s his absolute favorite. Strawberry and rhubarb. ” She takes a sip of her iced coffee then continues. “Do you have any apple?”
Happy Memorial Day.
It feels like I never left.
There’s a jitney barreling down behind me as I turn into the train station. I hope the short white bus follows my lead as I pause, allowing a parade of commuters to leisurely cross the parking lot. One car ahead of me, a couple is saying good-bye. They kiss and kiss again and finally, the man in the passenger seat gets out of the car. This must be a sad parting because instead of walking towards the train, he pauses, turns around and blows kisses to the driver. This tender moment at 7:45 in the morning leaves me feeling slightly nauseous. The lovebirds part, having completely snarled traffic in the narrow asphalt corridor. Gaining the slightest momentum, a glance in the rearview mirror indicates Mr. Jitney Driver is none too pleased with the delay. Pulling up near the curb, I barely slow the car down and gently, maybe not so gently, nudge Mr. Sweet As Pie towards the door. “Get Out! There’s a jitney on my tail!” Vacation? What vacation?
The middle school crossing guard waves me through the stop sign and I’m facing the Village Ice Cream Parlour. Spelled with a “u” to conjure visions of ice cream draped in hot fudge and double scoops teetering atop sugar cones, I’m not smitten. There’s a sign suggesting I surprise Dad with an ice cream cake for Father’s Day. Cool.
My merchant parking pass allows me to park alongside the train tracks, several blocks from the bakery. Adjusting my bandana I’m dragging my clogs, thinking back to the week prior. In exquisite detail I remember every scoop of every cup of gelato I consumed. My tongue twitches in sense memory of precariously overfilled sugar cones.
My daily gelato intake during our holiday in Italy came as naturally as kaffee und kuchen had in Vienna. Not only are the displays of the frozen treats visually breathtaking, the flavors are intensely pure and not overly sweet. I wandered the gelato alphabet, starting with amarena cherry, working my way past the darkest cioccolato all’arancia (studded with candied oranges). Pausing at gianduja (hazelnuts and milk chocolate), I may have bordered on overkill with the pistachio.
Thankfully, numerous fruit flavors were available when some of us needed a moment to refresh the palate. I always found room for what should be considered health food, a scoop of intensely sweet and tart mixed berries. Surprisingly, one of the most memorable gelato moments took place on the island of Burano in a scoop of sour lemon and fresh sage. Regaining consciousness following a mild gelato coma, I remember thinking that any and all of the flavors would be ideally suited to pie.
Little has changed at the bakery since my European hiatus. This week’s cookie chatter features Memorial Day stars, graduation caps and Father’s Day ties. The phone continues to ring incessantly with requests for last minute birthday, anniversary, and holy moly cakes. Based on the thick stack of orders clipped to the double door refrigerator, my bakery cohort Rita wasn’t kidding when she forecast a weekend cake tsunami. I’ll agree there is indeed a tidal wave of buttercream on the horizon. Armed with a rolling pin, I will desperately paddle my way towards calmer seas aboard the S.S. Pie.
The walk-in is filled to capacity with fruit options; lemons to squeeze, oranges to zest and a riot of rhubarb waiting to be rid of its poisonous leaves. Plastic clamshells line the metro shelving with strawberries that are not quite in season, but if given the chance, should play nicely with the rhubarb. Eyeing two flats of blueberries, I know their fate; hidden beneath a blanket of cornmeal crumble.
In a perfect world, I would be back in Italy, agonizing over which flavor best complements my scoop of berry gelato. I can assure you, it would bear no resemblance to Carvel's Fudgie the Whale.
Master/Master was slightly exaggerating when he suggested our Italian itinerary should have been dubbed the Kiss Me Kate tour. True, there were signs along the way for Mantua and Padua and yes, you could say we opened in Venice. There was more than a fair share of fol-de-rol frivolity, but I attribute that to the Aperol Spritzes and the Chianti Classicos.
Italy does so many things well, it’s hard to know where to begin. I wanted to begin with gelato but Blondilocks had other plans. Gathering us together for an early morning language refresher, the youngest of our group was emphatic as she asked us to repeat after her; “I Duomo. You Duomo. He/She/We Duomo. Duomology- the study of Duomo.” She had a point; one Duomo (cathedral) is more staggeringly impressive than the next.
Clearly I was traveling with a woman whose special skills would enhance our trip. Not only did her acting chops and years of dialect training provide the illusion that she was fluent in many languages, she is also highly trained in stage combat. This artistry served us well as we squeezed onto overcrowded vaporettos in Venice. It also came in handy as we attempted to navigate cobblestoned alleyways riddled with tourists.
The truth is that collectively, our troupe of strolling players are moderately conversant in French, German and Spanish. One of us can even say “Thank you” in many languages. But despite furious tutorials, we ventured into Italy with little command of the vernacular. I saw this as more of a challenge than a deterrent.
With more ease than a Rosetta Stone Learning System, a few sips of local Chianti uncorked my Italian voice. With surprising spontaneity, I found myself discussing the attributes of organic olive oil with the owner of a local vineyard. Food can serve as a great equalizer between cultures and languages. Gesticulating with one hand while popping cubes of bread doused in olive oil into my mouth with the other, I smiled. Grazie. Prego. Prego. Grazie.
Inspired by my new linguistic prowess, I took my Italian skills into the kitchen of the Hotel Leopoldo in Radda in Chianti. Breakfast was prepared and served each morning by a woman named Maura. Spelled with an R but pronounced with a D, Maura served as cook, baker and barista. Dusting the daily torte and crostata with powdered sugar, she then disappeared behind the doors of the compact kitchen. Returning moments later steadying a tray of frothy cappuccinos, Maura carried it out to our table on the terrace. She set it down with a nod and a “Prego.”
I questioned her about the crostata, specifically the pastry dough. “Pasta frolla?” I asked, making sure to pronounce it ‘fro-yah.’ With great seriousness Maura nodded, “Si. Frolla.” She gestured and I followed her towards the kitchen. A new crostata was in the works, a circle of dough with jagged edges tucked into an ordinary baking pan. “Marmellata?” I asked. Another serious nod and then with great precision, my Italian baking mentor demonstrated how she cut the lattice strips using a fluted pastry wheel. The same type of wheel that I utilize to weave pie crust into lattice tops. Blondilocks would have been proud; I lattice. you lattice, we all lattice.
The view from the terrace was as magnificent as a Renaissance painting. We lingered long after our cappuccino cups were empty, plates dotted with crumbs of crostata and smudges of apricot
jam. We scribbled in journals, penned business plans, mapped out a strategy for converting an oral recipe into a written one. I looked out over the hillside of Tuscany and wondered, exactly how many bottles of olive oil and Chianti could receive safe haven in the bottom of my suitcase?
Spring has sprung in Seattle. For those more familiar with Garden State climes, that translates to 72 and sunny on Monday through Thursday dipping down to 58 and cloudy on Friday. A steady drizzle will settle in just in time for the weekend with the opportunity to rinse and repeat. Milder years boasted three or more days of 80-degree weather in a row. We had one of those a week ago and it was divine. And although I work in a climate controlled building, I would not need to leave the confines of the elevator bank to know when the warmer weather had rolled in. The elevator conversation during three days of consistent 75-degrees or higher starts off casually enough:
Day 1—Joyful and Spirited
“How about that weather!”
“Sure is lovely.”
“I hear we are in for a few days of this!”
Day 2—Tolerance, Masquerading as Joy
“I’m loving this weather!”
“Thought that rain would never end this year.”
“True that—it was pretty hot out there today.”
“Yep, I hear we are in for a few more days…”
Day 3—Exaggerated Patience Searching for Camaraderie in all this Madness
“It is a scorcher today!”
“I can’t bear the heat—I hear it was nearly 80 in some parts of the city.”
“Seriously. Home Depot was completely sold out of fans and air conditioners last night, I thought I would die.”
“I hear it is going to cool down this weekend—maybe down to 60 or so.”
“Oh thank goodness. I mean, I don’t mind a day or two of this weather, but really. Enough of the heat already!”
As a former Jersey girl, who for years suffered through 98-degrees and 98% humidity, I am annually amused by this most reliable banter. Day 3 and most Seattleites have had more than enough of temperatures in excess of 80-degrees. You can hear the city as a whole breathe a collective sigh of relief once the temperatures return to a more suitable 70 or less. Good, solid, Scandanavian stock out here. Very few of the southern Mediterranean types that crave the heat. They only last so long in the Pacific Northwest.
But enough about the weather. As NMMNP would say, “Enough about you, why don’t you talk about me for a spell?” So I will. I am far from being a jealous person by nature, but I am filled with jelly at the well-deserved trip that NMMNP and family are currently enjoying: London, Paris, Venice and the Tuscan countryside. So. Much. Eating. I bet that when you tune in to future weeks at this very site, you will be treated to pictures, snippets of Italian lore and recipes galore. I look forward to those as I’m sure you do. No one tells a food story better!
Speaking of food, today I went to the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market—it’s a great one with a strong following. My little eye spied (in addition to possibly the cutest 14-week old corgi puppy named Mocha) a pile of rosy red rhubarb bragging that it had sprung free from the ground that very morning. I got a few pounds and, in keeping with the theme of NMMNP am threatening to make them into a pie or pie-like item before the sun goes down. I also got a lovely mother’s day gift for my most lovely mother. I’d tell you what it is, but as she is a big fan of NMMNP, I don’t want to spoil the surprise.
Happy early Mother’s Day to all the fantastic mothers out there in the world, but especially to Rommy—may your day be filled with flowers and another well scented surprise that is coming in the mail shortly….
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm