The sugar cookies drying on the rack are sporting bright white, reds, and blues, but there is a distinct hint of apple pie spice in the air. For some of us, the upcoming holiday has the potential to trigger Pie Traumatic Shock Syndrome, a malady afflicting professional pie bakers who have experienced one too many Thanksgivings. As the 4th of July inches its way towards the bakery, it feels all too familiar; I can only think of it as Thanksgiving Junior.
Pie seekers become a touch over zealous this week, tossing about words like ‘lattice’ and ‘double crust,’ ‘crumble,’ and the dreaded ‘torched meringue.’ In the bakery, we are combing through flats of blueberries, trimming green caps from strawberries and removing lethal foliage from the last hurrah of rhubarb. What troubles me is the fact that the 4th falls on a Wednesday this year, making it nearly impossible to pinpoint the ebb and flow of the retail public. Some folks will kick off their star-spangled holiday this Friday, celebrating throughout the weekend and returning to work on Monday. Luckier still are those embracing this weekend and tacking on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for an abundant holiday. Those who return to the office next Thursday will have a mere two-day work week before staring down another weekend.
From my flour-dusted vantage point in the kitchen, it appears that much of the neighborhood is already on a summer long vacation. There is a steady stream of individuals sporting untucked gingham, cherry splashed sundresses, and cropped nautical stripes. There is a fair share of madras, as well. Sipping cold brew through paper straws, they are footloose and gluten-free, carrying beach reads purchased from the local bookstore. They pause for iced caffeination, and I watch them with envy. Their summer days are filled with organic gardening, chlorinated swims, lazy lunches and firefly lit evenings. Something called Zen Habits tells me to stop being so judgy, but old habits are as difficult to quit as two shots of espresso over ice every morning.
In anticipation of the uncertainty of this weekend and the onslaught of last minute pie orders, we are gearing up at the workplace. Butter is melting out of the pate brisée and blueberries are rolling underfoot. The walk-in refrigerator is stacked high with strawberries, ‘barb, and out-of-season apples. On Saturday morning at 8am, sixteen pies sliced to feed 150 guests will leave the bakery enroute to a wedding many exits off the Garden State Parkway. The weather channel indicates Saturday’s mercury will reach 95 degrees. Come on; doesn’t that sound like a Kool and the Gang celebration to you?
My dance card is too full this week to squeeze in time for personal pie-ing. Pitting the requisite seven cups of cherries needed to fill a deep-dish Emile Henri 9” vessel will have to wait. Instead, I’m letting the pie plates in my kitchen sleep late, dreaming of sweet cherries and peaches yet to come. Instead, I’ve opted to bake an open-faced, free-form, slap-dash pastry. Suitable for both breakfast and dessert, it is filled with early summer cherries and yellow nectarines. Despite what summer revelers believe, it’s just too early for peaches. Good pies come to those who wait, and those who refuse to wait will probably celebrate with apple pie this weekend. There’s no joy in being the Debbie Downer of pies, but trust me, it is too early to tuck your forks into apple or peach pies. For those who hurry and order between the hours of 8am and 4pm tomorrow, strawberry-rhubarb and blueberry pies can be part of their 4th of July festivities. I’ll be baking, lattice-ing and crumble-ing for as long as supplies last. After that, you can celebrate the Nation’s birthday with apples brimming in cinnamon and a hint of nutmeg. A scoop of good quality vanilla ice cream will certainly enhance your Thanksgiving Junior experience, but remember to acknowledge the seasonality of fruit. For those of you haunted by the fear of missing out, relax; everything will be peachy in just a few short weeks.
Currently, the Ithaca Farmers’ Market is not accepting pictures or resumes from oversized strawberries in plastic clamshells, hoping to play the lead role in your weekend dessert fantasy. For the month of June, the role will be played by just-picked strawberries, assembled and choreographed by local farmers, staged on hand-hewn wooden tables. It is an inter-active strawberry show, assaulting your senses as you enter the market, following in close step as you meander the length of the open-air pavilion.
Last weekend, Ithacans flooded the market, filling canvas totes with loaves of multi-grain bread and wide-mouthed jars of local honey. Shoppers juggled small pots of lemon verbena, just-cut peonies, and cold brew coffees. There were hunters, hunting down unruly bunches of leafy kale, and gatherers, gathering coils of fiddlehead ferns. There were also those, like myself, on a mission, making a beeline for farmers offering pints and quarts of perfect strawberries.
A far cry from pedestrian year ‘round berries, June berries are gem-like, deeply scarlet and freckled, with a shock of green at the stem. So brief is their season, so fragile the fruit, it seems sensible, no, non-negotiable, to cradle the brown paper bags of berries in your arms. Glancing through the market, I was not the only one with a weighty tote bag over my shoulder and two quarts of strawberries in my hands. One would think we were carrying jewels from Harry Winston.
June strawberries struggle to contain their sweetness, each berry bursting with crimson juice with just the slightest touch. They love to stain fingertips, white linen, and gauzy sundresses, not just red, but the deepest of reds. (In food coloring speak, we would dub this ‘Red-Red,’ or ‘Christmas Red,’ or ‘True Red.’) The unmistakable fragrance of the fruit taunts from the back seat of the car, or the floor of the passenger seat where you painstakingly avoid the slightest ankle/berry confrontation for fear of bruising the precious cargo. Every now and again you steal a glance, making sure there are no renegade berries tumbling out of their corrugated confines, no casualties. Should any of the strawberries try to make a run for it, there is no choice but to eat them.
June strawberries always conjure a lengthy stint at a Bucks County farm kitchen, where the only thing separating my workspace from a sun-drenched field ablaze with berries, was a screen door. It also reminds me of carrying flats of local strawberries up a steep flight of concrete stairs, setting them down in a darkened restaurant kitchen, flipping on the fluorescent lights, the radio, and the espresso machine.
My summer workdays have always been filled with fresh strawberries. Sometimes they lounged on lemon-spiked ricotta cheesecake. Often they stood sentinel, snug inside a chocolate lined tart shell, dusted with powdered sugar. A riff on old-fashioned biscuit shortcake proved the most popular; strawberries tucked between slightly warm orange cornmeal biscuits, generously slathered with mascarpone cream. At the end of the shift, all that remained of the strawberries were indelible stains of crimson on a white food service cutting board and on my fingers.
As tempting as it is to toss peak season strawberries into a pie shell, this limited edition fruit is almost too good to subject to an oven. They beg to be eaten out of hand, unadorned, exploding with quintessential strawberry taste. As summer officially rolls into town, I confess to having already experienced the perfect strawberry moment. Last Saturday, in Ithaca, NY, somewhere along Mile Marker 10, or maybe 11, an earnest volunteer from a local cross-country team handed me a slightly warm cup of Gatorade with one hand, and a locally grown strawberry with the other. Certainly the Gatorade wasn't the inspiration I needed. Wrapped up inside that berry was
the joy you feel on the last day of school as summer stretches out before you; a taste that can never be captured within a plastic clamshell.
I spotted my first seersucker this week, a non-traditional blueberry blue striped blazer. Worn by an individual all white shoed and wrinkle-free linen-ed, the outfit practically screamed, summer-in- the-city. It’s summer in the bakery walk-in, too. Valuable metro shelving real estate is overcrowded with flats and flats of early blueberries. Upon close inspection, the berries suggest the slightest hint of early June. More blue than green, every third or fourth plump berry almost tastes the way we want blueberries to taste. As is, they’re fine tucked into a coffeecake beneath a crown of brown sugar streusel, or dotting Sunday morning pancakes doused in dark amber maple syrup. I want the blueberries rolling every which way across the butcher block to taste like pie, but they don’t. Not yet.
Blueberry pie is hard to do well. A contradiction of flavors teetering between sweet and tart, blueberry pie longs to resonate with the flavor of berries plucked by the handful, still warm from the sun and dropped kerplunk into a pail. The blueberries smiling from their green corrugated containers at the farmer’s market require attention to detail, watchful eyes and nimble fingers to orchestrate stem/faulty berry removal.
The blueberries stacked dangerously high in the walk-in are needy berries, risky pie business. Not yet sweet, not yet tasting of summer, the blueberries staring back at me are notoriously fickle, demanding the right amount of sweetness, the perfect combination of thickener, spice, and zest. Heavy handed with the sugar only masks the taste of the fruit. Overkill with the thickener and the berries hang on to each other for dear life, resulting in a slice that refuses to puddle on the plate. Too shy with the thickener means I worry.
Blueberry pie enthusiasts love to talk about the perfect blueberry pie experience. What they never talk about is the waiting period, the time required by a hot-out-of-the-oven pie to settle down, find its footing, before facing the knife. Folks hell bent on slicing into a still warm blueberry pie have a totally different experience from those who wait a little longer. I hate to point fingers, but I’m looking at you, lady in brand new Madewell skinny jeans in ‘Pure White.’ Sure, I'm happy to recommend a good dry cleaner in the area.
The dream blueberry pie from a home kitchen covets a dimpled, earthenware pie plate lined with a butter rich piecrust. Berries spiked with just enough sugar, just enough lemon zest, and the right pinch of Vietnamese cinnamon are blanketed in an intricate lattice top. Painted in pastry brush strokes of egg wash and gilded with a generous sprinkle of sanding sugar, the pie bakes up beautifully, bubbling in all the right places. Optional yet preferable to the experience are a pair of pristine oven mitts recently purchased from Anthropologie. Any old oven mitts will do, but overpriced oven mitts seem de rigueur for escorting the pie out of the oven and on to the vintage cooling rack snagged at a yard sale for an exorbitant price.
My work reality features blueberry pies bubbling furiously (sometimes dangerously) through their woven lattice, adhering to parchment paper lined sheet pans, leaving streaks of blue-violet where I am least likely to notice. Our blueberry pie food memories conjure forks shattering a blistery crust, a tumble of warm berries, a swirl of blue-violet against melting vanilla ice cream. When you get it right, it is one of the greatest joys of summer. When you think you can do better, you open the door to the walk-in and try again. And if it’s a really good day, one of your co-workers will let you know you have streaks of blueberry on your face before you head out the door.
George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was once required summer reading for high school students. I know this for a fact because it was Shaw, not Rex Harrison, who introduced me to the guttersnipe with a penchant for lots of chocolate and strawberry tarts. Eliza Doolittle, Professor Henry Higgins, and Colonel Pickering were tucked between the pages of a biting yet witty social commentary penned by Shaw in 1912. I was in no hurry to peel back the cover of the slightly worn Penguin paperback edition buried on my desk. Less desirable and begging to be completed before Labor Day, was the accompanying worksheet peppered with multiple choice and essay questions. The tale of a wordsmith intent on transforming a Cockney flower seller into a duchess was not nearly as interesting as Seventeen magazine’s back-to-school issue.
Shaw’s pointed observations required the reader to ponder socio-economic inequality. The topics for consideration in Pygmalion included the power struggle associated with food, the broad language barrier separating gender and class, and a hint of the burgeoning suffragette movement. Language is front and center in Shaw’s play, occasionally inclusive, most times divisive. Pygmalion was the non-Cinderella version of the sweeping cinematic My Fair Lady. I had seen the 1964 film adaptation on the big screen, juggling a Coca-Cola in one hand and a noisy box of Raisinettes in the other. Starring the talking-not-singing Rex Harrison, and the no-singing-allowed Audrey Hepburn, the movie musical was visually stunning, the repetitive soundtrack memorable. The film garnered 8 Academy awards in 1965, including Best Picture. Those who attempted to watch the movie in lieu of reading Pygmalion did not fare so well on the summer worksheet, or so I’ve been told.
The current Lincoln Center Theater revival of My Fair Lady has earned 10 Tony Award nominations proving that the story still resonates with contemporary audiences. Though Eliza still has a fondness for 60% dark chocolate and the occasional organic strawberry tart, the former flower girl is no shrinking violet. Despite the restrictions imposed by her social status, Eliza finds her feminist voice. Henry Higgins continues to serve as Shaw’s spokesman, asking those in attendance at the Vivian Beaumont to consider the same social inequalities broached by the playwright in Pygmalion. Shaw’s story may be more than one hundred years old, but my guess is it will find its way back to the top of many required reading lists for the summer. Right about now seems to be the perfect time to pore over Shaw’s socially charged commentary. You might want to enhance the experience by arming yourself with a few pints of all-too-short-a-season local strawberries. A little dark chocolate would be loverly, too.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm