Good blueberry pie is terribly easy to eat, not always easy to execute. A lattice-topped pie busting with blue signals the shift from spring to summer. In the weeks leading up to Memorial Day, the very first blueberries appear, over-packaged in plastic clamshells, bearing little resemblance in taste to the sweet blues of July and August. The same way Lucy Van Pelt waits until January, never eating December snowflakes, I imagine she would take a pass on May blueberries. It’s too early.
May berries are tart, almost crunchy, quite a bit larger than their wild blueberry counterparts. A heavy hand with sugar and spice doesn’t improve the flavor of the fruit; it only masks what you really want in a blueberry pie- a forkful of summer. Unfortunately, in our haste to jump start the season, the pie that takes center stage on many picnic tables is often over-sweetened, heavy with spices, and more puddle than slice. Blueberry pie can be hard to do.
Among bakers, the sweetening/thickening debate circling a blueberry pie plate is as contentious as opinions concerning pie crust. A properly sweetened, properly thickened blueberry pie is a challenge. When the fruit is just right, you should be shy with the sweetener, adding the slightest splash of lemon and barely a hint of your preferred spice, if any at all. What you really want to taste is the fruit.
Those tasked to arrive at Monday’s barbeque with one 9” blueberry pie, will be wildly popular. Amidst the Weber grills and Pottery Barn faux antique beer coolers, a 9” pie plate dripping in blue will be most welcome at a red and white-checkered table. When you are baking dozens of pies for the retail world however, the challenge is real.
The road to holiday weekend blueberry pie is fraught with more than its share of potholes. Over the years, I’ve toyed with many options. I’ve blind-baked the shell in hopes of encouraging a crisp bottom crust. I’ve broken up some of the berries with a rubber spatula, attempting to coax the juices from the fruit, encouraging the berries to mingle with the sugar. I am in favor of pre-cooking some of the berries with sugar and cornstarch then adding uncooked berries to the mix. It’s a viable option for a home baker, less so in a commercial bakery within earshot of the local fire department. I’ve painstakingly measured tablespoons of cornstarch, arrowroot, all-purpose flour and tapioca. Oh, tapioca. I’ve pulverized the living daylights out of you in hopes you would be provide just enough, but not too much stability to each slice. Yes, I know. You want your slice to stand neatly, with just enough purple juice swirling attractively against the scoop of vanilla ice cream puddling on the plate. Why? Because that’s how you saw it on Instagram and Instagram doesn’t lie.
Over the next 48 hours, free-wheeling blueberries will be rolling pell mell, from corrugated containers to wood-handled mesh strainers and perforated sheet pans, pausing for a moment beneath a shower of cool water. Unlike stone fruits that adhere stubbornly to pits, blueberries need little more than a once over for stems before joining the pie party. I’ll be at that party, armed with sugars and starches, zests and juices. Nesting pie shells will be plucked and filled, latticed, egg washed and sugared. They will bubble over the tops, stubbornly refusing to release their grip from sheets of parchment paper stained purple. Amidst all of the strawberry and blueberry mayhem swirling around the bakery, someone will come in looking for an apple pie. In the nicest way, I will whisper, “Never eat Memorial Day apple pie. It’s way too early.” Good-bye spring. Hello summer.
Cherry pie and hot black coffee seems to be the topic of pop culture conversation this week. Many of the individuals all abuzz about an iconic television series were mere babies when Twin Peaks first aired in 1990. Thankfully, Netflix offers both seasons of the cult classic for millennial viewing pleasure.
A new season of Twin Peaks returns this Sunday, May 21st, airing exclusively on Showtime. In anticipation, there have been a number of pop-up events celebrating the fictional town and characters of Twin Peaks. Both the food and style section of the New York Times shared cherry pie and Snoqualmie Falls inspired fashion tips this week. While many pies claim the title of “Twin Peaks Cherry Pie,” it’s best to separate the show from the pie due to strict licensing agreements. Better to simply dub the lattice top dessert, “Not Twin Peaks Cherry Pie.”
I can’t speak for other professional pie bakers out there, but when I need roughly 64 pounds of plump pie cherries, neatly pitted and lightly sweetened from Fish Creek, Wisconsin, there’s only one person to call; Loretta.
Thankfully, Loretta Robertoy, the matriarch of Hyline Orchards answered her rotary phone last week when I called. Hyline Orchards has been a mainstay of Door County, Wisconsin since 1958 and I’ve been ordering cherries from Loretta since 1984. I have yet to hear anyone else’s voice on the other end of the line when I dial the number.
Loretta answered, “Hyline Orchards” in her signature voice, slow and measured, somewhat welcoming, but clearly busy doing things that took precedence to my phone call. I told her I was hoping to place an order for cherries to which she replied, “Can you hold on?” I suspected she was searching for an invoice pad and pen. Loretta doesn’t use the computer.
“Who is this?” Roberta asked, waiting for me to explain who I was and where I was. I explained I was calling from New Jersey to which she replied, “Aren’t you the one in Philadelphia?” Gently reminding her that I no longer owned a restaurant in the city of brotherly love, I gave her my current Garden State particulars.
“Ok, just a minute, can you hang on?” Pause. “Just hang on.” Roberta set the phone aside to continue a somewhat heated conversation taking place in Fish Creek. “No, I don’t want you to paint the roof. Not now. Maybe later.” Loretta returned to the phone.
“Hello? Are you there?” I hadn’t moved. “What do you want to order? The tubs?” Yes, yes, that’s right, I needed the 8-pound tubs of Wisconsin cherries. “Well, how many?”
Frantically doing some quick baker’s math in my head, I arrived at the number eight. Eight 8-pound tubs would yield 64 pounds of cherries, enough to fill sixty 9” pie shells. I hoped it would fill sixty 9” pie shells. Loretta wasn’t quite finished with the painter on her end of the line. I waited.
“I don’t want you to paint the roof now. I wanted you to paint the roof when I called you.” Hating to interrupt, I timidly cleared my throat.
“Loretta? Are you there? Eight. Eight tubs of cherries. That will be two packages of four tubs each. Can you do that?”
“Oh, sure” Loretta replied.
“Can you do that tomorrow? I need the cherries by the end of the week.”
“I’ll try and get to it tomorrow. What’s your address in Philadelphia?”
The following day I started to panic. In all the years I’ve been ordering frozen cherries from Hyline Orchards, it’s always questionable when the order will be delivered. Many things can effect shipping; excessive snow or summer heat, lack of packing materials (each tub of cherries is hand-wrapped in the local newspaper) or the simple fact that Loretta is busy running an orchard and farm market. Over the years it has been evident that Loretta is a tireless woman who runs the cherry show at her own pace. I dialed the number once again and eventually Loretta answered.
“Hi, Loretta. I’m just calling to see if you were able to ship the cherries I ordered from you yesterday.”
“No. I’ll try and get to it today.”
“I’d be most appreciative if you could ship them today. In fact, I was wondering if you could send them 2nd day freight instead of standard freight.”
“Oh sure,” Loretta agreed, “I could do that.”
“Will you be able to ship them out today?” I realized I was holding my breath.
“Oh sure, I have to go back there and pack them. The bill will be on the box.”
“Thanks so much.”
“Ok. I’ll send them 2nd day. Where are you?”
For over 30 years, Loretta has yet to fail me, and this order was no exception. Two brown corrugated boxes of white plastic tubs wrapped in the Advocate, arrived on Friday. Slipped into a sleeve on the side of one of the boxes was invoice #1200. The bill was as always, hand written by Loretta in blue ink on a blue lined invoice. Directly below the total amount due were the words THANK YOU. No, thank you, Loretta.
Sixty cherry pies means one hundred and twenty circles of pie dough, dozens of 10” bakery boxes, and the calm presence of Master/Master. On Tuesday, a little after 1:00 pm, pies still slightly warm from the oven were loaded into the back of a Honda Odyssey, piloted by an Uber driver with nerves of steel. As we veered onto route 78, through the Holland Tunnel and deep into the heart of Brooklyn, pie boxes stacked three high leaned against each other, only once taking a nosedive. Thankfully, no cherries were injured in transit. The feeling in the pit of my stomach was reminiscent of the mild nausea one experiences delivering wedding cakes. The stress of baking pales in comparison to the stress of delivery.
On Tuesday evening, slices of the “Not Twin Peaks Cherry Pies” were served up alongside damn good cups of coffee against a reimagined Double R Diner. The all- immersive event might have taken place in the outskirts of Brooklyn, but inside it certainly felt like a remote Pacific Northwest logging town.
This coming Sunday night, a huge audience will tune in to watch the continuation of a story created by David Lynch over 27 years ago. There will be viewing parties and slices of cherry pie. No doubt, many of the pies will feature canned cherry filling which is perfectly acceptable to many. For those of us lucky enough to have access to Loretta’s telephone number, we’ll be tucking into forkfuls of sweet Wisconsin cherries.
The word on the street this week is Mother. Like most retail holidays, the bakery is up to its ears in sugar, butter and flour. I am fighting an onslaught of rhubarb and strawberries. Lopping off poisonous leaves from stalks of pinky-green rhubarb gives a girl time to think. A formerly white high-density plastic cutting board is splashed in crimson, reminiscent of a Law and Order crime scene.
In an attempt to accommodate all of Mom’s needs, the front counter will be offering a little something for everyone. If you are a Mom with dietary frailties, we’ve got you covered. Both the gluten free banana bread and dairy free zucchini bread fairies have been toiling overtime this week. There are also scones with a modest hit of sugar and a healthy blend of brown rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch. What better way to celebrate your mother than with a heartfelt splash of xanthan gum. If you have recently broken up with sugar, might I suggest drowning your sorrows in a bracing cup of black coffee or an iced cup of cold brew.
This week a perfectly agreeable woman asked me how much sugar goes into the pies. I replied that it depends on the pie. It’s a little bit like children, each one unique in their own way. Certain pies need more sweetening than others, (rhubarb for example) but I would be hard pressed to love one more than another.
Rhubarb requires a steady hand with the sugar; too little and the pie will be screaming tart, too much and the bright flavor of spring will be lost beneath a tidal wave of sweetness. It’s a delicate dance, to be sure. I credit my mother for instilling in me a love of rhubarb, for encouraging me to wander outside my frosted flakes sweetened comfort zone. Maybe that’s why I always preferred the pucker of lemon filling to the swirl of toasted meringue on a slice of pie.
I honestly don’t remember food struggles and ingredients being the source of conversation in my childhood. We certainly never stood in line at the Cedarhurst Bake Shop pondering gluten free anything. My nose pressed against the glass, the array of Barbie-doll birthday cakes festooned in buttercream roses was staggering. My mother would point to a seeded rye bread and we waited while the baker sent the loaf through a rumbling slicer then eased it perfectly intact into a white paper bag. Still slightly warm and fragrant with caraway, I nibbled on the very end piece of the loaf as we walked to the car, one of us in fashionable high heels, the other in sensible white Keds.
Food trends are as fickle as fashion and hairstyles, but memories created over food are steadfast. Forgive me Mom, if I throw caution to the wind and bake you something riddled with sugar, butter and all-purpose flour. As for the high heels, you wore them best; I’m better suited to kitchen clogs and running shoes. Happy Mother’s Day.
Sometimes inspiration arrives on your doorstep in the form of a postcard. On Monday afternoon, a glossy photo of a pecan pie poked its head out from beneath a stack of window envelopes and the latest L.L. Bean catalogue. Gold letters against a green backdrop announced a recipe for Old South Pecan Pie. The ingredients tempted diabetic fate; white sugar, brown sugar, Karo pancake syrup and real maple syrup. Intrigued by this bright spot of correspondence in an otherwise ordinary day, I turned the card over. Cursive black letters scrawled across the 4” x 6” white space, penned by my pie pal, Deanna. A gifted food journalist, Deanna had just returned from a southern road trip. Postmarked from Atlanta, the card arrived in the Garden State in timely fashion for this weekend’s Run For the Roses. I temporarily shifted my pie radar from rhubarb and strawberries to pecans and chocolate.
The text at the top of the postcard provided detailed instructions in a miniscule font. Squinting like Mr. Magoo, I realized the card offered not only a recipe for Old South Pecan Pie, but what they called a Yummy Variation, as well. Adding 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips to the mix would yield a chocolate pecan pie, commonly referred to as “derby pie.”
Dating back to 1950 and the Melrose Inn of Prospect, Kentucky, derby pie is rich in both calories and controversy. Created by Walter and Leaudra Kern, the Inn’s signature dessert called for walnuts suspended in a cloyingly sweet corn syrup custard, sans bourbon. Over the years, the pie has morphed into its present state of dessert overkill, a boozy pie spiked with Kentucky bourbon and enhanced with chocolate. Pecans are just as common in the filling as walnuts, and bourbon whipped cream as fitting as wide brimmed hats vying for attention at Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs.
Family history claims that in the beginning, Grandma Kern baked a mere three pies at a time, cooling them on a windowsill. Unable to decide on a name for the pie, family members placed suggestions into a hat. “Derby Pie” was plucked from the hat and ultimately trademarked by the Kern family shortly after they closed the Melrose Inn in 1960. The pie business continued under the name Kern’s Kitchen.
Kern’s Kitchen in Louisville, Kentucky holds a federally registered trademark for the pie, protecting both the recipe and the way it is made. The Kern family means business; a curtain closes off the mixing area in the production facility where a production manager prepares the filling in private.
In kitchens all across the country, imitation is often considered the sincerest form of flattery. Not so in the case of derby pie. Restaurants have received ‘cease and desist letters’ from the Kern family, citing trademark infringement. While names can be trademarked, recipes cannot. Restaurants can sell a dessert composed of traditional derby pie ingredients, but they cannot call it ‘derby pie’ without the risk of a potential lawsuit.
In 1987, Bon Appetit magazine was taken to court following their feature on “derby pie.” The magazine won the initial case citing that the pie was a generic term, but an appeals court later upheld the Kern’s trademark. Rather than going to trial, the magazine settled the lawsuit. Kern’s continues to staunchly defend their trademark and what they believe is an integral part of their family history.
Kentucky Derby Pie will be featured on many menus this weekend, some boldly using the Kern family name. Others will call it Chocolate Bourbon Nut Pie, Run For the Roses Pie, Kentucky Pie or May Day Pie.
If one were to follow the recipe on Deanna’s postcard for Old South Pecan Pie, the last name seems most apt, as in, “May Day! May Day! I’m Goin’ Down! There’s too much sugar in this pie!” Instead, I’m baking a Chocolate Bourbon Nut Pie, adapting two recipes, choosing pecans over walnuts and ditching the corn syrup in favor of brown sugar and a little bit of browned butter.
The Kentucky Derby will have little impact on the bakery this weekend, save for a few orders of chocolate pecan pies enhanced with a splash of Jack Daniels. Daring to call them “derby pies,” I promise to ‘cease and desist’ should a Kern family representative appear at the bakery. With Mother’s Day looming on the horizon, my attention will be turned away from chocolate and pecans and back to rhubarb and strawberries. Four cases of rhubarb in the walk-in call to me. It’s a good thing that bottle of Jack Daniels hasn’t been drained dry. The weekend is young.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm