The floodgates of summer produce have opened, ushering in peak pie season. This is splendid news for anyone armed with a rolling pin and two (or more) circles of butter flecked pie dough.
July offers a baker an infinite number of possibilities; it also reignites my respect and appreciation for farmers. Those who toil in fields afford us the luxury of filling our oversized eco canvas tote bags with seasonal bounty. Handfuls of verdant herbs, corrugated quarts of sweet berries, creaky wicker baskets of sun blushed peaches don’t just happen. It takes time, coaxing, and a strong back for anything to travel from field to table.
Several members of the team surrounding our baker’s bench are avid, talented gardeners. To say these women boast a green thumb is an understatement; Speedy Icer supplies most of our Village with jewel-like raspberries, Lori shares armfuls of salad greens and Ann bakes pie with rhubarb from her garden. An impressive group, to be sure.
Recent travels have afforded me the chance to pause at vastly different farmer’s markets. One was expansive yet humble, the other kombucha hip, offering uber organic produce. Armed with slender stalks of rhubarb, sweet cherries, and a new bottle of cherry bitters, I had the goods; all I needed was time.
Bitters are traditionally relegated to cocktails, but in the past few years have found their way into pie fillings. I’m all for it- unlike extracts, they add a little edge, neither sweet nor alcoholic. Of course, there’s nothing wrong in adding a dash to whatever it is you’re sipping over ice while you’re making a pie. Incidentally, barkeeps will tell you that a dash of bitters is determined by the cocktail, but I’ve been taught that it translates anywhere between ⅙ and ⅛ of a teaspoon. Unless your kitchen boasts a measuring spoon specifically relegated to a dash, opt for ⅛ teaspoon. It’s like salt; you can always add more but you can’t undo the damage of adding too much.
This weekend many folks are beach bound and pies will exit the bakery without so much as a fare thee well. I’ve overheard the already tan retail crowd waxing poetic about stopping at farm stands on their way to the beach or the Hudson Valley.
The idea of summer produce lounging atop gingham draped tables in country settings is terribly romantic. For a baker wielding a paring knife in a commercial kitchen on a holiday weekend, less so. Receiving shipments of fresh produce from a wholesale vendor is totally romance free. Cases of peaches and flats of berries may sound charming but are unwieldly. Plastic clamshells of blueberries, organic or non, are notorious for refusing to open. When they do open, it’s more of an explosion, sending blueberries scattering beneath the deep recesses of commercial refrigeration grates. Peaches are notorious for their ‘hurry up and wait’ challenge- underripe fruit requires patience, overripe fruit makes for disastrous transport and sends up a flare to fruit flies within a twenty five mile radius. Romantic? Hardly.
As you enjoy your 4th of July eats, raise a glass to the folks toiling in the sun drenched fields, plucking local berries and hauling wooden crates of peaches. When you balk in disbelief at the price of summer produce (guilty) remember to thank your lucky stars that at long last, July. Happy 4th.
A recent poll exploring the dietary habits of women working in food-related industries unearthed a common denominator. Many of the women admitted retiring to their homes after a day in the food trenches to enjoy a hearty repast of popcorn and a glass (or several) of wine. Additionally, women in food share an unhealthy appetite for cookbooks. Not only do I gravitate towards these behaviors, summer only exacerbates the problem. Popcorn, anyone?
The recent summer solstice prompts lists of Must Reads for those stretched out in striped beach chairs, lazily sipping icy glasses of Frosé. As one who rarely brushes hot sand from freshly pedicured nails, seeing the words Summer and Read in the same sentence instantly conjures required reading lists from high school. Literary classics hovered over summer vacation like a relentless thundercloud. One summer in particular, instead of turning the pages of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I explored Everyday French Cooking For the American Home by Henri-Paul Pellaprat. Behind its glossy red and white broad striped cover, Pellaprat’s compendium was much more interesting than the trials of Rodion Raskolnikov. Attempting to complete Fyodor’s endless novel before the first day of school proved punishment enough.
On a recent Tuesday, standing at the kitchen counter tossing back large handfuls of cheesy puffs, I halfheartedly glanced at the most recent compilation of Best New Summer Books popping up on my iphone. The truth is my preferred summer reads are no different than the volumes stacked all over the house, regardless of the thermostat or the season.
I suffer from Cookbook Obsession Disorder. This is a self-diagnosed illness, a recurring malaise that refuses to respond to online food websites nor over-the-counter sleep remedies. Tracing symptoms back to early childhood, kitchen bookshelves weighted down beneath volumes of comfortably worn titles are to blame. The Joy of Cooking, The James Beard Fireside Cookbook, the complete set of hardback (and matching spiral softback) Time-Life Foods of the World and The Ladies Home Journal Dessert Cookbook, are all responsible. Ditto the aforementioned French tome by Pellaprat. Practical illustrations, whimsical drawings, and tempting full-color photographs fueled a young girl’s culinary inspiration, sparking a life-long penchant for the written recipe and accompanying visual.
It would be a lie to claim that I pored over the savory recipes with as much fervor as I dedicated to the desserts. In their early food styling glory, pies and pastries hypnotized, practically leaping off the pages. Anything boasting fresh fruit seemed simultaneously glossy, juicy, lofty. Even low slung pies and tarts were somehow more dramatic. I wanted to bake them all. More accurately, I wanted Jessie to bake them while I served as sous chef.
Summer vacation allowed additional time in the kitchen, a chance to pluck a cookbook from the shelf above my mother’s desk and offer dessert suggestions. It clearly tried Jessie’s patience. I was particularly smitten with Pellaprat’s recipe for Peaches Condé, a rice pudding of sorts, spiked with boozy peaches and glacéed cherries. Jessie would have nothing to do with it, wrinkling up her nose, telling me that rice pudding with raisins was just fine and peaches had no place in rice pudding. Crushed but not defeated, I suggested Peach Glamour Pie from the Ladies Home Journal Cookbook. Unimpressed by the title, Jessie vetoed my request following a quick glance at the recipe. Peering through black-rimmed half-moon glasses, Jessie read through the list of ingredients, shaking her head in disapproval when she arrived at canned peach slices and sour cream. I pleaded while Jessie remained steadfast. Our impasse was resolved when Rommy returned with a few pounds of just ripe peaches in a wicker basket. My mother had a knack for keeping peace; she was the Switzerland of the kitchen.
Jessie’s fresh peach pie with lattice crust was as welcome as fireflies on summer evenings. Without drama, sweet fruit and flaky crust bubbled over the humble Pyrex pie plate, refusing to hold itself in perfect slices. Glamour Pie, with its almond-coconut crust and canned peach slices never had a chance.
When peaches are finally bumped to the front of the summer produce line, I always think about the elusive Peach Glamour Pie that taunted with its star-studded name and glossy photograph. Staying true to Jessie’s peach pie philosophy, I gravitate to the same recipe she used, with one adjustment. Piling fresh peaches into a springform pan lined with pie pastry and covered in lattice offers a slightly dramatic presentation. One might even call it glamorous.
Father’s Day circa 1970 something, we gave my dad a terry cloth runner’s headband and a warm-up suit. Never one for insignias, the athletic wear boasted nothing more than a crimson stripe running up the navy blue leg as ornamentation.
My father has always been fashion classic as opposed to fashion forward. His running shoes were comfortable, sensible without being showy. The running route he chose was repetitive, looping around roads without sidewalks, keeping track of the mileage in his head. He wore neither Walkman nor Fitbit, never carried an ipod or an iphone. I think he preferred the quiet, running that way for decades, and much like the postal service, impervious to the weather. He recorded his mileage on a floppy calendar thumbtacked inside the door of the kitchen cabinet. The pages bumped into the Tupperware lazy susan spinning with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and vanilla.
I ran half-heartedly in college. Freshman theatre majors were required to run one mile before our daily 8 am Voice and Movement class. Cayuga Lake provided the most spectacular backdrop, but I was more fixated on trying to wake up at that ungodly hour to notice. My appreciation for running came a few years later, more as a reaction to late night pizza consumption and a penchant for sweets. When not covered in snow, the hills of Ithaca beckoned and I answered.
My father and I never really talked about running strategies but would talk about footwear in terms of what was available in narrow widths. He ran, I ran, independently save for now and again when I was home and awake before he headed out the door. On those rare occasions, we would run the flatter part of the route first to warm up, back and forth along Woodland Terrace, dodging low-lying tree branches and runaway acorns. Inching down the hill, there was a long stretch along Middlebrook Road before it turned upwards at Woodland again, higher still as we climbed Washington Avenue. We huffed and puffed the steep incline together, gravel crunching beneath two pairs of narrow feet. My father would always comment how he loved running the hills and I would nod, gulping in great big gasps of breath. There was little conversation during these runs, but in my mind, sharing the road with my father elevated me in just the slightest way from little girl to grown-up.
On a recent Saturday beneath early morning skies, runners assembled in Ithaca for a race that stretched alongside farms, waterfalls and a Finger Lake. My father would have loved the route, but not the crowds. In the distance, the freshman towers of Ithaca College perch on a hill, looking eerily the same as they did more than four decades ago. Etched into my brain with amazing clarity is a day in late August of 1975. My parents unloaded the overfilled station wagon, moving me into the 11th floor of the West tower, home to hundreds of freshmen. Weighted down beneath a record player, three pieces of matching Samsonite luggage and an avocado green typewriter, my father was anxious to get back on the road. My mother carried shopping bags filled with clogs, sneakers and extra hangers, simultaneously balancing a spindly spider plant in one hand, a plucky jade plant in the other. Neither plant would survive the semester, succumbing to my black thumb talents; a mix of overwatering and neglect. My mother lingered, unpacking sheets and towels, making the bed. My father was impatient. He looked out the window of the 11th floor and remarked, “Ithaca’s the perfect place to run. You have the hills, and the lake- right there!” I shrugged. Even in late August, it looked more cold than beautiful. My parents hugged me good-bye and we walked to the elevator, passing a party already underway in the room a few doors down. The pay phone stood silently in the hall. “Call us on Sundays,” my father reminded me. Before stepping into the elevator, he added, "Remember- life is a series of adjustments." Was he ever right.
In Ithaca on Father’s Day, my dad’s words seem to resonate more clearly than ever. Some adjustments we embrace, others less so. From a pie baker’s perspective, this is one of the most glorious seasons of the year, happily adjusting to the bounty of summer available. Inspired by my father’s love of biscuits and fruit, I find myself filling a cast iron skillet with nectarines and cherries, covering it with a blanket of biscuit and almonds. My father would advise a pitcher of pouring cream on the side. Good advice. I am also reminded that he is the man who taught me pie really knows no hour. That adage and a sensible pair of running shoes can take a girl quite far.
It’s fairly common for a certain individual wielding a certain rolling pin in a particular bakeshop to complain now and again. Not this week. I’m not saying a word. Things could be worse; I could be toiling amongst the cakes and cookies.
It appears that everyone in our village is celebrating something this week. Layers of vanilla, devils food, and white cake are spinning around icing turntables at a furious rate. The order forms are full of cryptic messages and color directives. I cannot keep track; pastels and pop, bumble bees and elephants. Ombre ruffles are a category unto themselves, ditto mythical horse creatures with curious foreheads. As of this writing, I am unable to politely verbalize my sentiment regarding unicorns and rainbows. Suffice to say that unicorns and rainbows are not flavors. Their sole purpose in the pop sugar culture is to simply elevate the status of Fudgy the Whale.
Sequestered amongst fruit and pie shells, I am trying to tune out the cake and cookie madness, choosing instead to mull over Sunday evening’s Antoinette Perry (aka Tony) Awards. I will be the first to admit how lucky I am.
Should you think I take the luxury of theatre going lightly, rest assured I do not. Each time I crawl over a row of individuals, stepping on toes and tripping on oversized handbags, I pinch myself. The truth is, while quietly negotiating a peaceful armrest resolution with the person next to me, I acknowledge my good fortune. Though diligent in turning off my cell phone, on more than one occasion, I have been guilty of the dreaded wrapper crinkling. Not candy wrappers, cough suppressant crinklings, but only under the most dire of circumstances. It has been a tough cold and flu season, and nowhere is this more evident than in the still of a theatre, namely during the climactic monologue or heart wrenching ballad concluding the first act.
This season, several plays have boasted more than one intermission. This begs the question, when should one attempt a mad dash to the Ladies Lounge? There is no correct answer, though leaving the high heels at home increases one’s chance of success. Personally, I find a low-heeled boot offers both speed and ease of movement, critical when seated in the middle of a row. Boots also mean you can wear any pair of socks and leave the dreaded pantyhose buried in the bottom of your dresser. Though I would love to, I’m not saying toss the pantyhose in the trash. An evening will arrive when you need them. This Sunday evening, for instance.
At six o’clock on Sunday at Radio City Music Hall, theatre lovers will elbow Broadway’s elite in the grand foyer. Overhead, chandeliers weighing approximately two tons each will illuminate the art deco lobby. I happen to know this little bit of trivia as a former member of what was known in the 1980s as RCMH Guest Relations. I vaguely remember being trained to provide a positive guest experience, whatever that means. Honestly, the challenge of memorizing the 6,000 seat auditorium, navigating the labyrinth of backstage hallways and running the dreaded Guest Elevator were the main focus of my attention. Members of the Guest Relations team constantly rotated assignments. As a totally inept elevator operator, I look back and wonder how many people barely escaped irreparable harm traveling from lobby to mezzanine with yours truly as pilot. Thankfully, my stint in Guest Relations was short-lived. Waving good-bye to my former Guest Relatives, I would later find out why I snagged the highly coveted job in the Art Department. Not only was I competent behind a typewriter and a bottle of White-Out, my previous college employment at Ithaca’s Home Dairy Bakery proved I had real life work experience. Unlike today’s unpaid internships, my first job out of college was pretty spectacular.
On Sunday night, I will take particular note of the twenty-somethings working the lobby, taking the tickets, and ushering 6,000 high-heeled and tuxedoed guests to their seats. I’m still on the fence concerning footwear, particularly now that my weather app indicates scorching temperatures. Inside the theatre, the air conditioning will be freezing cold and I’ll wish there was a blanket stowed beneath my seat. Just about 10 pm, a stomach beneath a sequinned dress will start to grumble from hunger, and someone I know will wish she had tucked a rainbow sprinkle cookie (or two) into her tiny evening bag. Hopefully the Tony-goer seated in close proximity will have a package of Peanut M&Ms in his tuxedo jacket pocket. And in case the peanuts tickle my throat, a supply of non-crinkle wrapped cough suppressants.
Long before prom-posals, the wedding website the Knot, and Krispy Kreme Donuts, June was primarily popular with school children and brides. Today, the cause for celebration during the merry month of June stretches way beyond school’s-out-for-summer and here comes the couple.
Since last July, anyone who has wandered beyond the bakery’s espresso machine, meandering through the kitchen, has undoubtedly heard snippets of wedding conversation. Sharing little more than the same title as the 2008 romance drama, the kitchen has been caught up in the happy news that our very own Rachel is getting married. A multi-talented, calm under pressure, early-to-rise 5 am baker, Rachel will walk down the aisle on Friday, June 2nd. Rachel will share her wedding day with the unofficial but very real holiday known as National Doughnut Day.
Created as a fundraiser to help bring awareness to the Salvation Army’s service programs, National Doughnut Day rolled into town in 1938. According to the Salvation Army Website, Chicago was the first city to kick-off the unofficial holiday, now celebrated nationwide on the first Friday in June. During World War I, volunteers known as “Donut Lassies” served coffee and doughnuts to soldiers in the trenches. With the intention of providing emotional, spiritual and high caloric support, Salvation Army Volunteers set up small shelters near the front lines. Restricted by limited space, two crackerjack volunteers, Ensign Margaret Sheldon and Adjutant Helen Purviance began frying donuts in soldiers’ helmets. The mere thought of that pre-Krispy Kreme donut emporium boggles the mind; frying seven donuts at a time in a military helmet in the hopes of boosting morale. Imagine if Sheldon and Purviance had stumbled upon a few Cambro food storage containers of Bavarian cream, chocolate glaze and multi-colored sprinkles. Not necessarily the recipe for world peace, but pretty darn close.
There is more to June than brides and dunk-able baked goods. June celebrates flags and Fathers, acknowledges the longest day of the year and gives a nod to lemonade. It has also been brought to my attention that strawberry rhubarb pie has garnered an unofficial holiday in June. With access to rhubarb rapidly dwindling, I will do my best to promote one of my favorite pie combinations. To be brutally honest however, the month of May saw the comings and goings of more strawberry rhubarb pies than I could keep track of. Baking a single strawberry rhubarb pie or even two is one of the greatest pleasures of spring. Once those numbers cross over to double (even triple) digits, it is easy to become a fickle pie whisperer. My thoughts now turn towards the currently elusive summer peach. I remind myself that good things come to those who wait. You might say the same thing about weddings.
The next time you tuck your fork into a slice of wedding cake, remember; it takes a small village. Cake batters, mousses, buttercreams all require attention to detail. Today’s cake is dressed in vanilla buttercream punctuated with Swiss dots. This afternoon, as Rachel prepares to step into her wedding dress, her cake will slide into corrugated boxes. The stress of transporting a wedding cake and delivering it unscathed to a skirted cake table is very real. Carefully stacking four tiers of cake atop slender pillars requires nerves of steel. I hope there’s a Krispy Kreme on the return trip.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm