The solemnity of Memorial Day tends to get overlooked in our enthusiasm for summer. This weekend it’s all about barbeques and sunscreen, oversized sunglasses and getting out of town. If you live in the Garden State and you’re lucky, chances are quite favorable that you will be spending Memorial Day weekend ‘down the shore.’ This translates to braving bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Garden State Parkway. Your dream is to secure a beach towel’s worth of sand in an overcrowded seaside town. Both bay and ocean will be in the offing, plus plenty of mini golf and frozen custard. Further south, Maryland-ers will be spending their weekend ‘down the ocean’ plying themselves with crab claws dredged in Old Bay seasoning.
My weekend will be spent at a bakers’ bench crouched over pie shells. I will take some time away from the bench, heading ‘down the bakery basement’ to gather flats of fresh berries from a low-ceilinged walk-in. Before ascending the wooden stairs, I’ll grab a few aluminum pie plates for good measure. Memorial Day weekend reminds us to unearth our white shoes from the depths of our closet but more importantly, it's the kickoff to summer pie season.
There is something enormously satisfying about witnessing the shift in season from spring to summer. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the bakery’s walk-in refrigerator. Wooden crates of Pink Lady apples continue to take up valuable real estate and Washington State pears still refuse to ripen. This weekend however, there’s a dramatic shift in color palate. We’ve reached the glorious time of year when it’s all about the berries and the ‘barb. Metro shelving is stacked dangerously high with scarlet fruit and clamshells of purple. Every time you enter the walk-in, it’s impossible to mistake the season. Sure, I’m still tripping over cases of oat milk, whacking my elbow on milk crates, but for the most part, the walk-in feels colorized, less black and white.
Summer pie-ing is risky business, the bounty of fruit totally dependent upon the weather. I am reminded that local strawberries and fragile raspberries are victims of both excessive heat and pelting rain. Behind every six cups of berries tumbling into a pie shell are the hands that transferred those berries from field to consumer. That’s pretty humbling. I hope I don’t screw it up.
In late spring and early summer, pie plate real estate is a highly sought-after commodity. When a relentless winter finally gets its walking papers, we look away from lopsided mesh bags of citrus and focus on the first stalks of rhubarb, aka pie plant. Berries follow pie plant in hot pursuit, and our initial reaction leads us to the dream pairing of strawberries and rhubarb. How did blueberries elbow their way into the rhubarb party?
College freshman dorm assignments are most often random, with roommates becoming fast friends or seen running to the Dean of Housing demanding a single. Based on their appearance, it’s hard to imagine blueberries and rhubarb borrowing clothing, sharing a mini fridge or opting for matching twin bed comforters. Blueberries and rhubarb tend to travel in different circles, the former more comfortable with fruit, the latter seeking out vegetables. Yet, the berry and the pie plant, the fruit and the vegetable are more than happy to share a pie plate.
My earliest introduction to the term ‘Bluebarb” was on page 279 of the Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook, a comprehensive tome originally published in 1959. Bluebarb was not listed amidst the pie recipes but instead was sequestered in the depths of Chapter 10, entitled, ‘Relish Sampler.’ The opening paragraph states, “Relishes do for meat and poultry, what strawberries do for shortcake, fudge frostings for cake.” Bluebarb followed obediently behind Spiced Apple Glacé, Blushing Peaches, and Refrigerator Spiced Prunes. The recipe for spiced prunes should have propelled this baker far and away from Chapter 10, but persevering proved fruitful. Quick-cook Jellies and Jams boast a number of offerings including a concise recipe for Bluebarb Jam. Composed of 3 cups finely cut rhubarb and 3 cups unsweetened, frozen blueberries, the recipe adds a mere 7 cups of sugar and 1 bottle of liquid fruit pectin to the mix. My teeth hurt just thinking about it. Today, Bluebarb has evolved into a popular pie filling with a happily balanced co-mingling of sweet and tart. Thankfully, the sugar component has been toned down considerably.
There are many variations on the Bluebarb theme, some recipes relying on sugar, others turning to honey. The top crust can be lattice-y or crumbly, and I’ve eaten this pie for both breakfast and dessert. I can’t say the same for Refrigerator Spiced Prunes, which are probably better off living in Senior Housing, where dinner is served promptly at 4:30, followed by a rousing game of Bingo.
On December 31st, King Arthur unveiled their Recipe of the Year. A yellow layer cake generously iced in swirls of chocolate frosting, the cake taunted from my phone screen. Every time I clicked on King Arthur’s site, there was that cake, begging me to bake it. I’ve always been more of a chocolate cake girl, but I do have a deep appreciation for a well-baked yellow cake. Yellow cake and I go all the way back to my pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey days.
Some yellow cake recipes swear by whole eggs and cake flour. Others insist on separating yolks from whites, taking care not to beat the whites into a frenzy. My preferred recipe beats way too many egg yolks into a thick, cholesterol-laden batter. Yet something about King Arthur and his band of merry bakers has been haunting my dreams, taunting me at work, interrupting my pie schemes. After five long months, I finally quit cake stalking and got serious.
Walking past the kitchen cabinet, I noticed the freshly opened box of Trader Joe’s graham crackers raising an eyebrow in my direction.
“Still rhapsodizing over that King Arthur Recipe-of-the-Year-Cake?” it sneered. “It’s only been five months, but who’s counting.”
“Watch it graham crackers, or I’ll make a pie crust outta you…” I replied.
The final push came from a subliminal message sent from the bottom of my yellow-lidded Tupperware flour canister. Exhausting the last fumes of King Arthur all-purpose flour, it seemed to say, buy more flour so you can finally bake that damn cake. Who am I to argue with an empty flour canister and a box of wise-acre graham crackers?
I thought about yellow cake enroute to the less than super market, and all the way home. Moving the oven rack from bottom to middle shelf, off-key choruses of Happy Birthday echoed in my head. Without a birthday on the calendar to celebrate, it seemed perfectly reasonable to bake a quintessential celebratory cake. Deciding to drop the King’s title, I returned to Arthur’s website for cake pan directives. The pans needed to please Arthur and his baking team are not springforms and are not 9” x 1½” pans, but are deep-sided 8” pans. The very pans I purchased in 1990-something because a recipe in a now-defunct baking magazine told me were critical to my baking success.
Ten years in the restaurant business acquaints you with more cake pans than you will need in a lifetime. Yet when you are desperately seeking just the right pair of cake pans, they prove elusive. Odds are good that I own a pair of 8” cake pans with a depth of at least two inches. Buried somewhere in the labyrinth of the garage is an unopened cardboard box with the two pans I need.
Wading through boxes, a very tall box scrawled in black Sharpie announces, ‘wedding cake pans and more.’ There were enough cake pans in that cavernous box to outfit every single season of the Great British Bake-Off. Wrapped in an antiquated edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I found what I was looking for.
Cracking four large eggs into a mixing bowl, I relived my yellow cake childhood. Yellow cake provided the candle-blowing centerpiece at most birthday parties. Sometimes it was merely a vessel for a despondent Barbie, waist deep in cake crumbs, drowning in a sea of blue and white buttercream ruffles. Often it was baked in a 9” x 13” rectangular pan, covered with frosting that was generous on the top but a little skimpy by the time it turned the corners. Yellow cake cupcakes were toted to school on your birthday to share with the entire class. They traveled in a cardboard box void of cupcake dividers. If any of our classmates were allergic to anything, we didn’t know about it. Had you asked our mothers for an exhaustive list of cupcake ingredients, they probably would have said, “It’s a cupcake made with what cupcakes need to be a cupcake."
The King Arthur folks promised a recipe that would cater to our nostalgic cake hankerings. Slightly skeptical at the addition of oil and the use of all-purpose flour and not cake flour, I followed the recipe to the letter, even the addition of almond extract. I divided the golden batter between the two serious cake pans, set two oven timers, and hovered by the oven to keep a close eye on things.
The cake baked up as promised; moist and tender and reminiscent of all things celebratory. The frosting was dark chocolate-y, swirly in all the right places. It tasted the way I remembered a happy cake to taste and was so well deserving of its title. With a weekend of pie shells staring me down, I can finally cross the Recipe of the Year off my ‘To Bake’ list and move it over to the 'Bake Again and Again' list.
The pairing of strawberry with rhubarb appeals to those of us who are predisposed to tart over sweet. Both my mother and my grandmother spoke of rhubarb in reverential tones. In the spring, my mother would combine equal parts sweet fruit with tart vegetable, tossing the duo with a generous sprinkling of Domino sugar, grated orange rind, and the juice of one orange. The mixture simmered quietly in a deep-sided Farberware saucepan, just until the rhubarb became tender. My mother tasted it, closing her eyes for emphasis, dramatically puckering her lips, before transferring the compote to a wide mouthed blue mason jar. We devoured it by the spoonful for breakfast and occasionally spooned it over vanilla ice cream for dessert. The alchemy responsible for turning pinky green stalks and freckled berries into the flavor of spring was extraordinary. Unfortunately, strawberry rhubarb pie seldom made it into Jessie’s pie repertoire because she dismissed rhubarb as an overzealous weed. My father deemed rhubarb too tart, even when teamed with strawberries. Jessie kept the dessert peace by tucking strawberries between baking powder biscuits or sponge cake for my father, slathering everything with freshly whipped cream. She stewed rhubarb with strawberries for those of us who celebrated the arrival of rhubarb season and bemoaned its finale.
In the spring of 1980, I was living my very grown-up life in a very tiny apartment in New York City. Jessie had armed me with a hand–held electric mixer, a Hamilton Beach electric frying pan, and an assortment of bakeware. The kitchen was diminutive, boasting an under counter refrigerator and a Barbie-sized black and white stove. Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts followed me up the stairs of my 3-story walk-up, a book I had pored over for weeks in the local bookstore before finally making the extravagant purchase. Page 152 offered a detailed tutorial in the baking of Individual Deep-Dish Strawberry Rhubarb Pies. That recipe alone warranted the book’s lofty price tag. When the produce guy adjacent to the Port Authority set out bunches of rhubarb next to lopsided baskets of strawberries, I was all in.
Maida’s approach to the saucy fruit was to eliminate the bottom crust, which she assured me would be soggy. I listened to Maida, in the same way I listened to Jessie. Maida explicitly said I would need six ovenproof bowls, each with a 10-ounce capacity. My woefully warped kitchen cabinet held individual Pyrex custard cups and one 6” Pyrex glass pie plate. Pouring water from a Pyrex glass measuring cup in all of the dishes, I tried to figure out if collectively my bakeware would accommodate the recipe.
My ingredients gathered on the sole countertop available, an old bow-legged kitchen table that Jessie had relinquished after many years of service. The floor beneath the kitchen table was drenched from my comparative pan size analysis. The kitchen table was covered in little tufts of flour, remnants of piecrust fixings. I filled the pie plate and the glass baking cups with spoonfuls of orange-spiked berries and ‘barb, blanketing them with misshapen rounds of dough. Lining up the custard cups and the pie plate, it became evident that my oven was too small to accommodate a full sized baking sheet. Maida wanted me to place the pies on a jelly-roll pan. She was emphatic that the pan had sides. My jelly-roll pan had the requisite sides but would not fit in the oven. Placing the pie plate, flanked by two custard cups, on the top shelf, and the remaining custard cups on the bottom shelf, I closed the oven door and set the timer. I winced at the jelly-roll pan sitting on the kitchen table.
Maida assured me that after 30 minutes the tops of the pies would be nicely colored. She also told me the filling should bubble and might even bubble over. That sounded about right if you followed Maida’s instructions, but I knew thirty minutes in a custard cup was an eternity.
The unmistakable fragrance of rhubarb and strawberries wafting through the apartment lured me into a false sense of security. Maida Heatter, who had guided me flawlessly through the Queen Mother Cake and the Robert Redford Chocolate Cake wouldn’t let me down. When Maida promised on page 113 that her recipe for Lemon Cake was the Best Damn Lemon Cake, indeed it was. When Maida assured me that my strawberry rhubarb pies would not suffer soggy bottomed crusts, I listened. After 15 minutes, the glorious fragrance of spring had left the building, followed by the unpleasant smell of burning fruit.
It wasn’t Maida’s fault. She had held my hand through the entire recipe, guided me through each step with the patience and kindness of a doting grandmother. I looked at the book cover and there was Maida, hair perfectly coiffed, smiling that smile that told me everything was going to be wonderful. After scrubbing the runaway fruit and singed piecrust from the bottom of the oven and between the racks, eventually it was.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm