When it comes to birthdays, some individuals are suspicious by nature, sniffing out surprises, deciphering secretly worded messages. Mr. Sweet As Pie is not one of those people.
The initial conversation took place months earlier in December, with frigid winds pounding against our winter parkas. Master/Master and Blondilocks were insistent that we orchestrate a birthday bash for our Fearless Leader. I reminded them that MSAP was not a fellow who embraced his birthday, preferring to keep it on the down low. The more they insisted, the more I resisted. In the end, youth won the tug-of-war.
Following months of undercover emails and off-hour phone calls, gaggles of folks were poised to descend upon the Garden State. As the surprise drew nigh, the intricacies of preparing savories and sweets right under his nose became my biggest hurdle. Beginning three weeks out with a simple exercise in cookies, I rolled up my sleeves and assembled my triple ginger mise en place.
MSAP: Mmmm, ginger?
NMMNP: (monosyllabic) Yes.
MSAP: For us?
NMMNP: No. Maybe. No.
MSAP: Is there anything for dessert?
NMMNP: (overcompensating with too much information) They are for Sibling Sister From Seattle and her family when they arrive in three weeks. Yes. That’s right.
MSAP: So that means ‘no’ as far as dessert goes?
Seven days prior to the festivities, Operation Biscotti I - Crunchy Fruit and Nut
MSAP: What kind?
NMMNP: Cherry. Pineapple. Pecan. You wouldn’t like them.
MSAP: Sure I would.
NMMNP: I’m working on a recipe.
MSAP: Are you saying I should find something else for dessert?
NMMNP: Here. (Handing over a fresh box of graham crackers.) I think there’s ice cream in the freezer.
Some of you might consider that harsh behavior, but believe me, these were desperate times. Six days out, Operation Biscotti II - Double Chocolate.
MSAP: (Passes through kitchen sans comment.)
NMMNP: (Calling off into the distance) These are for Master/Master when he comes home in August!
Three days and counting, Super Secret Barbequed Brisket Preparation.
MSAP: (via text message) Negotiations running late. Catching the next train but will walk home.
NMMNP: (Still feeling guilty about the biscotti) You don’t want to walk home in 100 degree heat. I’ll be there. (Turning to face the brisket simmering in the oven, ‘PICK UP THE PACE!’ No response from the brisket. A short time later, brisket is sequestered away in the freezer, hidden behind bags of ice and pounds of sweet butter.)
Two days prior, Clandestine Sour Cherry Pie.
MSAP: (uncorking a lovely bottle of dry rosé) Are those cherries for baking?
NMMNP: What cherries? (Stashing a head of lettuce and armful of organic carrots on top of 5 pounds of pitted sour cherries.) Funny you should mention that. (Pause) Yes. (Pause) I really should do something with those. I will. Maybe a nice pie for the weekend. (Dramatic pause) By the way, I’m sorry about your birthday.
NMMNP: Well, I haven’t really planned anything. (Lies.) Just lunch with my folks. Maybe Blondilocks if she isn’t working. (More lies.)
MSAP: (Combing the Arts and Leisure section) That will be fine. We can drive to see them if it’s easier.
NMMNP: (Eyebrows raised) Oh no, no no no. They will be happy to come here.
MSAP: (Glancing up from the paper.) What are you working on now?
NMMNP: Nothing. (Hiding triple batches of pâte brisée beneath an oven mitt.)
MSAP: You wanted to do something with all of those cherries.
NMMNP: Yes. I did. I do. I will.
One of two sour cherry pies was baked in the small window of time between my arrival home from work and the arrival of the Mid-town Direct NJ Transit train. Unable to secure an out of the way cooling place in the kitchen, I spontaneously boxed up the pie with the lid ajar and hid it in Master/Master’s bedroom closet. Yes, the distinctive fragrance of vanilla bean and cherry wafting through the hallway went unnoticed. And then I promptly forgot about it. The second pie, (another Sour Cherry) and the third, (Blueberry) would have to wait until Saturday morning. The birthday cake itself unfolded as follows:
Friday after work, Extreme Baking. Separating eggs, whisking yolks, whipping whites and folding, folding, scraping, baking. The biscotti are out of the oven, the cake is next on deck. Text message arrives indicating another delayed train. NJ Transit is nothing if not consistent. Cake exits the oven with moments to spare before I head downtown to meet the train. Draping a sheet of parchment paper over the cake, it rests near the window, slightly off the main drag of the kitchen. Later in the evening, he notices.
MSAP: You know you have a cake here.
NMMNP: Yes. I know I do. It’s for next week. I’m going to let it cool and then I’m going to wrap it and freeze it. We will eat it next week. (The biscotti are lounging unassumingly on cooling racks.)
MSAP: (eyeing the biscotti.) Are those for next week as well?
NMMNP: Oh. Those. (There are dozens. I don’t have the heart to say no.) Sure, have ONE. (Emphasis on the number one. He does. Actually, he has more than one of each. Now I’m silently glaring, ‘STOP EATING THE BISCOTTI.’)
On the day of the festivities, we hit a glitch. Pretending to go to ‘work’ I drive away, awaiting word from Master/Master, Sweet Soprano and Blondilocks regarding their estimated time of surprise. Instead, MSAP decides to prepare a budget for a Broadway theatrical, settling down before his computer, crunching numbers and wreaking total havoc on the plans. Blondilocks must intervene, sending word that she is arriving by train and needs to be met at the station because I am ‘working.’
In the end, Operation Total Surprise was successfully executed. Blondilocks insisted MSAP run a series of errands including a stop at Target, the Home Depot and Costco. Somewhere between barbeque grills and spackle, who should they stumble upon but Master/Master and Sweet Soprano. Sadly, I missed the surprise reunion because there were lobster rolls to prep, pies to bake and a cake to assemble. None of this would have been possible without the culinary expertise of dear Alicia, cool as a cucumber despite the sweltering temps and sweet Moira Susan for aiding and abetting.
A surprise of this magnitude required step-by-step precision. Particularly when the birthday boy is a focused individual, not one for meandering through retail emporiums on a Saturday. Keeping everyone in line was an excruciatingly detailed flowchart, created by Master/Master, Blondilocks and Sweet Soprano. Penned in hot pink and turquoise Sharpie markers, it even provided “recovery tactics” should things somehow go awry. There was however, no mention in the flowchart where I had hidden one of the pies. In the midst of over whipping the cream and having to begin again, it suddenly came to me; pie box hidden behind the Ithaca college sweatshirt hanging in a closet on the second floor.
Guests arrived in fits and starts with each ring of the doorbell heralding a new surprise. Master/Master assembled a gifted trio of jazz musicians to punctuate the merrymaking. And thankfully, there was leftover birthday pie for mid-morning snack the following day.
Surprise Birthday? It doesn’t take a village. It requires a team of highly trained Secret Agents armed with an intricately orchestrated flow chart. Copy that? Over and blow out the candles.
A tidal wave of fruit has crossed the threshold of the bakery. Arriving by the case and demanding immediate attention, apricots, nectarines, early peaches and sour cherries are vying for valuable pie plate real estate. It’s a challenge, demanding many hands on deck to peel and pit, slice and sweeten. The true fruit warriors are those who fear not the 25 pound boxes of sour cherries. Wearing two pairs of non-breathable food service gloves, we dive in. Cherry pitting is highly personal. Commercial pitters are available, but from my side of the bench, I prefer the paring knife score/twist/thumb pit removal method. What makes cherry pitting incredibly rewarding is realizing at the conclusion of the process that you have somewhere to be that very evening. Nothing says “How do you do?” quite the way extending your crimson stained hand does. “My line of work? Oh, nothing out of the ordinary. Let’s just call it fruit forensics. But enough about me…”
When the crafting of a pie requires so much labor, you become strangely attached. I watch from a distance as the pie boxes leave the building. It is evident just in the way a person carries the box if they are worthy. Are they holding it level? Is it tilting precariously? Have they, heaven forbid, set their iced latte smack on top of the steaming window box? Perish the thought that a freshly baked pie may be locked in an overheated car. One would think the very least a responsible consumer would do is crack the box and the windows.
Living vicariously through lattice-topped fruit is somehow comforting during these dog days of summer. With the thermometer outside registering 90 degrees, the tropical conditions experienced within the bakery are rather stifling, particularly when sharing space with a convection oven. For entertainment, I find myself living vicariously through the lattice-topped fruit. Just last week, an affable fellow stopped by the bakery to place an order. As in previous years, he was flying to Yosemite for a week of fly-fishing with a few good friends. Joining him on holiday were two blueberry, one apple/cherry and one nectarine/raspberry pie. Waving goodbye to the pies and reminding them to wear plenty of sunscreen, I wondered, how would they ever clear security? Clearly it wasn’t an issue because Yosemite Sam (not his real name) returned yesterday and said the pies were a big hit. Maybe they were, but the least they could have done was drop me a postcard.
Another trio of fruit en croute headed off to a company picnic yesterday while a sour cherry number was seashore bound. “Bye bye little pies! Safe journey. I’ll miss you…” It’s been suggested to me that the early signs of heat stroke should not be ignored. I will heed this sage advice.
In the quietude of my home kitchen, there is a pineapple standing proudly on the counter and a lovely bowl of cherries by its side. Do I want dessert? Indeed I do. Dare I turn on the oven? Perhaps. As for the pineapple, it begs for a serious splash or two of rum. I have just the recipe and just the recipient.
Call me old fashioned, and maybe just the slightest bit superstitious. When a food trend crosses the line from dessert to over sharing, to literally pushing the envelope from physician’s office to bakery, I tend to be a touch skeptical. Case in point, the currently popular Gender Reveal.
Admittedly, my years spent toiling in the sugar mines have brought me painfully close to all manner of dessert highs and lows. The 1980s found me as accomplice to chocolate overkill, preparing Death By Chocolate and Molten Chocolate lava cakes. In the late 90s, I was a tiramisu-enabler; drowning savoirdi ladyfingers in rivers of espresso and simple syrup, layering them between mascarpone mousse. Tipsy with rum (the mousse, not the baker) the rich dessert was then heavily dusted with dark cocoa and served alongside macadamia biscotti.
There were days when my fingers were singed on architecturally precarious spun sugar garnishes, tucking them into ganache and gold leaf. With knife skills of a surgeon, kiwis and strawberries were sliced then fanned over fruit tarts à la June Taylor dancers. I bid fond farewells to pâte à choux swans swimming on puddles of chocolate sauce. The only surprise hidden inside a dessert might have been a circle of parchment paper inadvertently left on the bottom of a cake layer. Or in the case of a Mardi Gras King Cake, a tiny plastic baby tucked deep beneath the blinding purple, green and yellow sugar crystals. As every mother knows, this could pose a choking hazard, but who am I to question tradition.
Somewhere between the introduction of Nouvelle and Cajun and Comfort food, was the personal ushering in of Master/Master and Blondilocks. At the time, it never occurred to me to participate in a Gender Reveal. I was all about the surprise.
Fast forward to our contemporary dessert culture. Today, new parents-to-be host parties where the centerpiece on the dessert table announces the baby’s sex. This idea was totally unfamiliar to me until I arrived at my current place of employ. In the beginning, a breathlessly excited mom-to-be dropped off a sealed envelope which was turned over to Team Cake. Direct from the lab tech performing the ultrasound was a handwritten note. We amused ourselves by guessing what was written on the tiny slip of paper, the simple word, “Boy” or “Girl.” The cake was assembled with either pink or blue buttercream between the layers and a neutral, yet festive exterior. When sliced, the assembled party-goers would hopefully rejoice. If not, I’m assuming there was plenty of champagne to go around.
Times they are a changin.’ The last two gender identifying documents required not only pink and blue buttercream, but a copy of the scientific hardcover Gray’s Anatomy. One lab tech enclosed a report written in excruciatingly detailed medical-speak, way above our baker’s heads. The other offered a series of ultrasound photographs identified with explicit language we were ill-equipped to handle first thing in the morning.
Generally I steer clear of these life altering desserts, head lowered, caught up in an intricate fruit vs. sweetener vs. thickener pie equation. Until last week, when potential pre-med college student/barista Harrison ventured back to ask the dreaded question, “Can someone order a Gender Reveal pie?”
Buried in the back of my closet is a slender book, what my mother always referred to as the Baby Book. She kept one for each of her four children. How she juggled the four of us and found any spare time in her life is beyond my comprehension. Tucked between the pages for safekeeping were pertinent papers; a birth announcement heralding my arrival, faded black and white photos of my brothers and I outfitted for Halloween. A small envelope lined in pink holds a tiny hospital wrist bracelet identifying yours truly. My mother kept copious notes, detailed dates of vaccinations, childhood diseases and tonsillectomy. There are photos of the first day of school, “Class Picture Day” and parties framed in crepe paper garlands. In several birthday pictures, I am wearing a ribbon corsage decorated with candy; one with Tootsie Rolls, another with lollipops. Birthday photos always culminated with candles ablaze on a layer cake swirly with frosting, baked by Jessie.
By the time Master/Master and Blondilocks arrived on the scene, I had all good intentions of preserving their milestone moments in similar books. The truth is I faltered miserably, being neither crafty nor indulged with time. When I think back, some of it is a blur, no doubt induced by sleep deprivation. Sorry kids.
Agreeing to the Gender Reveal pie, I awaited word to determine the fruit filling. Not wanting to prematurely divulge the secret, a lattice-woven top crust disguised the berry filled buttermilk pie. After chatting with the lovely mother-to-be, I’ll admit her excitement was just the slightest bit contagious. Steadfastly remaining a Gender Reveal cynic, perhaps now I’m just the slightest bit kinder, gentler. This particular mom-and-dad-to-be will soon be the proud parents of a bouncing baby Blueberry. Congratulations.
In response, I feel compelled to applaud this joyful news with the uncorking of a bottle of bubbly. I will raise a glass to the happy family and then utilize the remainder to poach some local peaches who have a due date with a non-reveal pie.
When workdays are spent elbow-deep in pâte brisée and seasonal produce, it consumes you. Simple words that a non-pie person would glance at and clearly understand conjure a different scenario to an individual fixated with fruit and crust.
Quickly scanning my inbox, I could have sworn the e-mail posed the question, “How do you feel about your Pies?” This instantly captured my attention, edging out Christian Mingle and ProbioSlim. On closer inspection, it appeared to be some sort of food related survey. Why else would the word ‘thighs’ have been tossed into the mix? My thoughts instantly turned to a popular restaurant on the Lower East Side (and also in Williamsburg) specializing in Southern cuisine. Assuming the questionnaire had something to do with Zagat or Urbanspoon was short-sighted as I quickly learned. My response and the reply that followed catapulted me into an adventure of photojournalism with a side order of thighs. Mine.
I might as well live in a pineapple under the sea because the expression “thigh gap” is not part of my vernacular. However, in our obsessively size zero culture, women think about, even agonize about this topic. Say the word ‘thigh’ and I’m fixated on a buttermilk marinade spiked with hot sauce, followed by a double-dip of flour and matzoh meal.
In replying to the aforementioned e-mail, I indicated my disinterest in what Jessie always referred to when frying chicken as the ‘second joint.’ As for my personal thighs tucked beneath my commercial white apron, rarely do I give them a thought. I was thinking about them a few days later however, when my baker’s legs and thighs climbed aboard NJ Transit. Swiping my Metro card in the direction of lower Broadway, I arrived at the offices of The Huffington Post.
Suffice to say that two dozen women (plus one baker) had agreed to participate in a photo essay weighing in on the topic of thigh image. We were a group of various ages, sizes and occupations. The woman being photographed ahead of me epitomized bendy and stretchy; she was a yoga instructor. Waiting just outside the studio, I could hear every exchange between subject, photographer and journalist. It was a surreal reminder of days gone by, sitting in a hallway on a folding chair waiting to audition. When you try to focus and overhear the person ahead of you reciting your monologue. In this instance, seated on a comfy sofa I listened and reasoned. Clearly this woman is capable of downward dog, but can she bake a cherry pie?
Ushered into the studio, not-so-subtly tripping over power strips and barely toppling backdrops and reflectors, it was time for my close-up. The man behind the camera and the woman behind the words were extremely patient and generous, explaining the importance of using photos that were unretouched. I was on board with that. Except when learning that all of the photo subjects were to be barefoot. When you photograph the toes of a runner, there is no good side. The click of the camera shutter helped drown out the cracking of my knees. Echoing in my head were the comments of the previous photo subject, all about strength and power and flexibility. Barefooted with my toes hugging a black mat, there was a hint of dance audition in the air. Step, touch, step, touch, turn and turn, stub toe and again. Clearly there would be no callback for me.
The following day, a new email arrived thanking me for participating in the photo shoot. Subjects were asked to sum up our feelings about our thighs. Reflecting on the part of my leg south of hip and north of knee triggered an honest yet succinct response. One week later, the post went live. Thoughtfully penned by staff writer Rebecca Adams and beautifully captured by photographer Damon Dahlen, there was nary an airbrushed photo amongst the crowd. In my mind this called for celebration.
Seizing the opportunity to recognize my new found thigh-lebrity amidst a small flock of admirers, I rounded up Mr. Sweet As Pie and telephoned Blondilocks. Master/Master was unable to join us from his post in Nantucket, but was there in fried chicken and waffle spirit. Destination? 43 Canal Street, aka Pies n’ Thighs.
You can practically taste the Bain de Soleil in the air. Patrons waft in and out of the bakery screen door with that Holiday Weekend look. White linen and gingham button downs and short shorts pause impatiently for iced cold brew and gluten free scones. Peering through the racks of sheet trays, it appears many of them are already sporting a bronze-y summer glow. I hate them in the nicest of ways. More so when I glance down at my screaming white baker’s legs. There should be a beach designated for kitchen folk who seldom see the sunlight. We could all assemble beneath wide umbrellas the color of crayons, slathering ourselves in sunscreen while exchanging kitchen war stories.
This week’s war zone at work centers around those enroute to their holiday destinations, desperately seeking pie. It’s interesting to note that people who retreat to what Lucy Van Pelt refers to as a “summer palace,” feel the need to tell you so. Four out of five pie conversations began today prefaced by; “I need a pie because we’re leaving for the a) Hamptons, b) the lake, c) the Cape and d) the shore.” When they learn of the double-crusted choices offered, it’s never what they want. One would think that in the height of the summer season, nectarines, raspberries and blueberries would prove popular. There’s silence on the other end of the phone line or on the other side of the counter. They finally sigh and whine/ask, “What about apple? Will you have apple?”
Maybe it’s me, but nothing says summer like cold storage apples. Of course, there’s the antithesis of the July Apple Pie Patron who confided in me just today. “I need a pie to bring to a party. Honestly, I don’t care what’s in it, I’m just going to give it away.” I’m certain your host will be touched by your thoughtfulness, Madam. Might I suggest an empty aluminum pie plate?
In the workplace, I have narrowed down the pie offerings to Key Lime, Blueberry and Raspberry-Nectarine. On the home front, you will find me happily pitting cherries and cutting pieces of cold butter into flour for a batch of short-cut or rough puff pastry. Each fold of the dough is therapeutic, each ridiculous phone interaction eliminated with a roll of the pin. Another turn, and another until the shaggy flour and butter mixture morphs into a silky dough. Stay out of my way- I have big breakfast plans for this pastry.
On Saturday the morning of the 4th, I will don my most serious of pastry personas. Judging the annual ‘Village’ Bake-Off Competition is an arduous undertaking. Anticipating the red, white and blue baked goods that await, it is in my best interest to eat a sensible breakfast before leaving the house. A fresh cherry turnover will save me from the tables of Ready-to-Spread frosted flag cakes. It will provide sustenance so I can judge from a primarily visual approach, holding up my hand, signaling I couldn’t possibly taste another bite. “I’m sure it’s delicious. It certainly screams, 4th of July.”
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my favorite patron of the week. Let’s call her, Woman in Oversized Sunglasses. The exchange went something like this,
Barista: “Can I help you?”
W in O S: “What kind of pies do you have for the 4th?”
Barista: “Key Lime. Blueberry. Raspberry-Nectarine.”
W in O S: Pause. Pause.
Barista: “Would you like to order something?”
W in O S: “Yes. Raspberry-Nectarine.” Pause. “What is Raspberry-Nectarine?”
No More Mr. Nice Pie: Silently screaming, “WHAT IS RASPBERRY-NECTARINE?!”
These are the moments I would miss if I was out of town, spending the weekend at my summer palace, where just like Ms. Van Pelt, I would wear my crown in swimming and everything… and ditch the bandana.
One of these days, I just might buy myself a queendom. Until then, bring on your most bedazzled baked goods. Here comes the judge.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm