Speedy Icer is piping seascapes atop circular sugar cookies with great precision. I take a brief turn with a tray of flip-flop cookies, ranging in size from AAA narrows to EEE wides. They remind me in the slightest of the Dr. Scholls wooden sandals of my youth. The ball of my foot instinctively hurts when I think of the weighty wooden soles affixed to leather straps. The cookie flip-flops cool their heels while I rotate several trays of pies and reset the oven timer. A customer wants to know the difference between a mini pie and a regular pie. I have no patience for this but less patience for the lemon bar order lurking on the refrigerator door. I am in lemon bar denial as I nod to the bathing suit cookies Speedy Icer sets down in front of me for detailing.
Taking a page from Miraclesuits, I add a ‘distraction’ ruffle, horizontal stripes, a cinched waist and a ruffled skirt. The cookies instantly look pounds lighter. Desi Arnaz’s rendition of “Cuban Pete” is in full swing on Sonos, adding the slightest spring to my step. Rita and I talk over each other as we recap the “Cuban Pete” episode of I Love Lucy for the baristas. They have no idea what we are talking about.
I need to have a word with Barista Keenan’s mother. This is the second time in a few short weeks that Keenan has placed an order for lemon bars. I’m sorry Keenan, you’re a fine fellow and I know I said yes, but I don’t want to make the citrusy bar cookies with the shortbread base. It seems to me that Keenan and his mother could have lemon bars at the drop of a hat if they learned how to bake them at home. They deserve the joyful experience of whisking together sugar, freshly squeezed lemon juice and eggs. Who am I to monopolize the thrill of painstakingly transferring the lemon mixture to a hot pre-baked crust? Let the two of them bond over the moment the liquid filling sloshes over the side as they coax the warped sheet pan into the oven.
The oven timer indicates the pies need another 30 minutes. They are barely beginning to bubble around the edges and smell vaguely of peach. I lower the oven temperature and slide the lemon bar crust onto a vacant shelf.
Clamshells of blueberries are giving me the eye although my initial pie plan had featured a different summer crop. Though deceptively blush-pink and yellow on the outside, the fuzzy freestones have proven less than peachy on the inside. I’m disgruntled; the heat is as thick as marshmallow fluff on a s’mores cupcake and my bandana is restricting the air flow. There’s a young mom at the front counter attired in a breezy calico dress. She is balancing a toddler on her hip, a chubby-cheeked little boy sporting a straw hat. I want that hat. It has a brim suitable for providing shade plus open webbing for ample ventilation. In keeping with our dress code, I’m certain a thin ribbon could be fashioned out of my bandana and tied around the hat’s crown. I must mention this to the other bakers when things calm down.
There’s been quite a flurry of excitement around the bench. Rachel, our talented and stalwart early morning baker returned from a beach weekend sporting an engagement ring. Wedding bells continued to ring as methodically as a fully charged ipad oven timer. On Tuesday we learned that another one of the am team, Margarita, was getting married. The news sent cake pans flying. Rita armed herself with a piping bag suitably fitted for the application of Swiss dots.
At 1 pm on Thursday, we gathered to toast the bride-to-be. Paper espresso cups bubbled over with Prosecco. Speedy Icer brought in her exquisite bridal headpiece for the bride’s consideration as something ‘borrowed’. Rita assembled a cake filled with Nutella and espresso buttercream while Elisabeth fashioned a spectacular cake topper out of fondant. Lori’s participation required nerves of steel and a steady hand; she was delivering the two-tiered cake in 90+ degree heat.
Kiersten is to be commended for coaxing the happy news from the shy bride-to-be and Ann is a champ for covering Margarita’s 5 am shift on Saturday. My send-off gift to the bride was ‘something blue’ or in this case, something blueberry. Yes, it takes a village. We wish you a happily ever after, Margarita filled with wuv, twue wuv.
NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE
As predictable as fruit flies and humidity, mid-summer at the bakery heralds the arrival of peach season and the departure of many college-bound staff members. This week, we are suffering two fare-thee-wells around the bench affording extra elbow room but leaving us with difficult bandanas to fill.
I like to think that we are more than sugar and butter enablers. The kitchen crew in particular is part of an ensemble. When folks we care about move on, it is reminiscent of a cast change in a long running show. Let’s be honest, change is hard.
Even on mornings when the baristas are too busy to ply us with caffeine, we are a welcoming bunch. Once a new member of the kitchen crew scores their first baking sheet pan burn, (generally on flesh situated above an oven mitt and below a t-shirt sleeve) they become inextricably part of the team.
I would never refer to the kitchen as confidential. We are more kitchen confidants, sharing intimate details of our lives beyond the bench. Our idea of standing around the water cooler is to hover around a Costco-sized bag of Krinkle Cut potato chips. No stories are too mundane, no opinions are ever left unspoken. We repeat and embellish, re-enact I Love Lucy episodes, recap dog park shenanigans. Favorite movie musicals are performed with both lyrics and choreography. There is endless banter about the weather, the Village parking authority, customers we love and those we loathe. Both verbal and non-verbal reactions to the Bunny Hop and Volare are interspersed with some pretty good moves in conjunction with anything Motown or 80s. A few of us have been known to scold and chastise in motherly fashion not simply because we’re old enough, but because we play mothers in real life. This also gives us free rein to worry.
There's a constant exchange of verbal recipes, freshly baked sourdough breads (courtesy of Emily) and sadly in the cold and flu season, a fair share of germs. Each player takes a turn, red noses conspicuous against flour-dusted cheeks. Though none of us (except our fondant artist extraordinare) can boast a background in medicine, we alternate playing the role of doctor, advising and prescribing for any and all ailments. We have even diagnosed each other's malaised cellular devices, tossing around such words as gigawatts and gigahurtz. I can offer little assistance in this area, although I can say with authority that between my neck and my back, everything hurts.
Often, it’s not until people move on that you realize what a swell party it’s been. Baylee and Emily exit the building this week, leaving a huge void in the kitchen. Both women are part of a rare culinary breed, extremely talented and two of the most splendid people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. I would be lying if I didn't admit to being the slightest bit jealous of the fabulous opportunities awaiting them and the music they will be listening to as they embark on their journeys. Truth be told, I miss them already.
HOW SWEET IT IS
An unusual and wonderful thing happened last Saturday. A young couple walked into the bakery, picked up a 9” blueberry almond crumble pie from the stack of windowed boxes, paid for the pie, grabbed two forks and sat down at a table. The intention was to eat some of the pie for lunch and enjoy the rest of it when the mood struck. They introduced themselves to me as Megan and James. This couple could very possibly be my new best bakery friends. Would that the rest of the bakery-going public viewed sweets the same way.
I returned to my stack of unrolled pâte brisée feeling positively jubilicious. It was just a matter of time however, for my buoyant mood to deflate. Not long after Megan and James departed with their half-eaten pie, a woman approached the counter with a question. Just back from a two year stint in Philly, my pal Quinn is moonlighting for a few weeks before he leaves us for his hip Soho barista gig. Quinn listens, looks thoughtful, then makes his way to where I am easing pie dough into aluminum tins.
“What??” I responded, my rising blood pressure pulsing faster than a package of Fleischmann’s rapid rise yeast dissolved in warm water. “You’re kidding, right? Someone wants to know how much sugar is in the banana bread? We already took the gluten out. Now we’re supposed to remove the sugar?” Poor Quinn. I was in the throes of a mid-afternoon caffeine needy downward spiral. “For God’s sake, this is a bakery! Maybe she’d like a nice glass of water…”
With more annoyance than interest, I thumbed through the butter smudged red binder that houses the recipes. My baker’s math aptitude needed an espresso jump-start. “I don’t know! This yields 30-something loaves! There’s sugar and oil and bananas, and if she needs to know what’s in the gluten free blend, it’s written on a chalk board up front.”
Quinn saw the look in my eyes and stepped back. “Wait a minute!” I hissed. “Is this a question based on a health issue?” Even I can be sympathetic when a dietary question is based on a bona fide medical condition. It also helps if the consumer brings both a doctor’s note and a second opinion.
“No, no,” Quinn assured me. “Nothing like that. It’s not a health question, it’s a Millennial question.” Squinting and scanning the crowd at the counter, I grilled Quinn. “Which one is she?” Quinn indicated a woman seating herself at one of the outside tables. She was armed with an iced coffee; no doubt, unsweetened.
Several days and many pies later, a customer had a baking question and I dared cross the linoleum, moving from kitchen to front lines. I carried my rolling pin in case things got ugly. The short of it was a local congregation was hosting an event and wanted to purchase Russian pastries. Specifically, upside down cakes and miniature pastries filled with sweetened cheese. “You mean like the filling one might put in blintzes?” I asked. The woman nodded enthusiastically and I shook my head “No.” It had been several hours since I had entered the bakery, but I was fairly certain that we were still operating as Team Butter, not The Russian Tea Room.
On Thursday, a customer interaction involved a woman of slender build debating whether or not to purchase a flourless chocolate cake. Would it be possible to prepare a different cake, a birthday cake, using half the amount of sugar and still have it taste good? Could I do that? Would I do that? I was thinking a nice unsweetened cheese filled blintz might be what she had in mind.
Good grief. I paused without blurting out, “This is a BAKERY. BAKED GOODS. Sugar makes things taste good. Unless you don’t want sugar in your baked goods and in that case, there are bakeries that specifically bake with sweeteners other than sugar. We are not that bakery.” Instead, I contained myself and replied in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice, “Yes, it’s possible to bake a cake with less sugar.” Slim began to interrupt me saying “Half. Half the amount of sugar. I like sugar, I just want half as much.”
I continued. “It’s not really about the sugar, it’s more about the science. If you remove the sugar, odds are you will need to replace it with something else. Sugar does more than simply sweeten; it affects the structure, the texture. Might I suggest,” I pointed to the cake nestled in her slender hands, “The flourless chocolate cake. Pick up some fresh fruit and serve it on the side. You won’t be burdened with too much sugar. The chocolate will be just sweet enough, but not too sweet. Is that what you had in mind?” Bingo.
It’s ghastly hot outside and our in-bakery weather forecaster Sharon has shown us on her phone that a threat of severe weather is inching its way in our direction. As I scrape down the bench, there is a clap of thunder and the skies open. Through the front window you can see the rain pouring both vertically and horizontally. Sharon has her finger on the weather pulse. She is also a big proponent of pie for dinner. I like the way she thinks. Thirty minutes later, the rains veer north and I make a break for it. It is just as sticky and ghastly as it was before the deluge.
It’s too hot for anything but maybe ice cream. Glancing at the crowd in the local ice cream parlor, I’m not the only one with this idea. If Megan and James believe that pie makes a fine lunch, it surely follows that pie and ice cream are perfectly acceptable for dinner. Megan and James should meet Sharon. I'll bring the ice cream and we won't worry about the sugar.
I’ve had my share of lonely times when I could not find a friend, but such was not the case last Sunday. When you share lawn space with approximately 12,000 people, odds are pretty good that you will make some new acquaintances. Tanglewood offers that opportunity regardless of whether or not you simply came to hear the music. Along with a corkscrew, it’s a good idea to pack some patience in your picnic basket.
Had it not been for Sweet Soprano and Master/Master’s credentials, we might still be inching our way towards a parking spot. Securing a space in a highly coveted lot near the Orchestra Gate, we waited under the watchful eye of the gate tender for five o’clock to roll around.
Tanglewood concertgoers are a serious bunch. They are hell bent on finding their little patch of green, and heaven help you if you get in their way. I watched in both amusement and horror as people poured in from the gates, dashing across the wide expanse of lawn to stake their claim. We toted a demure plaid blanket, the aforementioned picnic basket, a cooler to house the Aperol Spritz fixings and compact folding chairs. I had baked a wild nut pie for dessert thinking it was a touch extravagant. Our humble spread was somewhat pedestrian in comparison to the buffets springing up around us.
An extended family positioned their compound directly in front of us, spreading out what seemed like miles of a blue tarpaulin. Next came a line of canvas folding chairs emblazoned with the Tanglewood logo. There were grandparents and grandkids, brand new babies, disinterested moms and one Super Dad. I watched in utter amazement as Super Dad assembled a pop-up tent while his young wife sat sipping a cocktail. One of the greatest moments of the evening occurred before a single note of music had been played; an official from Tanglewood arrived and explained that the pop-up tent was a no-go. From where I lounged on the blanket, that little piece of news was worthy of a standing ovation. One of the grandfathers in the group was mildly offended by this and announced that he was going to buy ice cream for the children. At $6.50 a pop per cone times “x” number of children in his entourage, the math was staggering. I shifted my attention elsewhere.
A young man arrived juggling a stack of folding chairs in bright summer colors that coordinated with his madras shorts. He was attempting to secure ample space for his little group that had yet to arrive. In doing so, he was clearly trying to inch out a family that had set up camp earlier. A turf tug of war ensued complete with the exchange of some unpleasantries. Everyone wanted their little piece of the landscape. I lost interest in the war of words when I spotted a full size table complete with candelabra and floral centerpiece.
We were surrounded by an impressive array of foodstuffs, picnics straight out of the glossy pages of Martha’s July issue. Wine bottles were uncorked and unscrewed, emptied into high-end outdoor insulated glasses. Charcuterie boards groaned under the weight of sausages and cheeses, meats sliced paper-thin and crusty breads.
Bags of crunch spilled across the lawn; thick rippled chips spiked with black pepper and blindingly orange Doritos. We were swimming against the tide as we attempted to make our way through the crowd towards the rear of the lawn. Bobbing skewers of watermelon and feta while sideswiping Tupperware containers overflowing with fruit salad, we finally arrived at a clearing. The dramatic view of the Berkshires tempered the frenzy behind us.
Shortly before show time, we divvied up dessert, sharing with newly made friends to our left. They handed me a plate filled with local berries, whipped coconut cream and gluten free biscuits. Before offering them a taste of our humble pie, I made sure they did not suffer from any nut allergies and reminded them there was gluten in the crust.
As for the nuts in the lawn chairs in front of us, I didn’t even ask them. They were so preoccupied snapping selfies of their prosciutto-fueled selves, they didn’t deserve dessert. And one row ahead, Super Dad was pacing back and forth across his sea of blue tarp, unsuccessfully cajoling a crying child. His wife was outfitting the rest of the children in glow-in-the-dark-necklaces just in case they should wander off in the sea of 12,000.
At eight fifteen, just a few chords from a guitar made the crowd fade away. The lyrics are indelibly etched in my head, songs that once poured out of a blue Magnavox portable record player. For so many of us, James Taylor penned our Great American Songbook. I have plenty of time to mull this over as we wait in the parking lot for the crowds to thin.
Having grown up on the east coast in close proximity to salt water, I prefer my summer memories straight up; hold the shark.
Blondilocks assures me that the word on the street is to live each week as if it were Shark Week. I’m not sure what that entails, but devotees of the Discovery Channel certainly do. This faux holiday extends beyond the television screen, warranting special attention at the bakery. Menacing fins crafted out of fondant are swimming across waves of blue buttercream. Sugar cookies inscribed with quotes from an iconic 1975 movie suggest we get out of the water. And while we’re at it, we should strongly consider upgrading to a bigger boat. I may be dreaming, but I swear if you hold one of the Shark Week cookies up to your ear, you can faintly make out the infamous theme music.
I’m not particularly interested in Shark Week, fixating instead on the flats of blueberries and strawberries stacked neatly in the walk-in. There’s one dwindling case of rhubarb remaining and because it’s the 4th of July, one case of Granny Smith apples. In the spirit of our founding fathers, I cannot tell a lie; the apples do not taste like apples. Even so, I have carved out ample oven time for what I lovingly refer to as Ye Olde Colde Storage Apple Pies. Call me old fashioned, but I think apple pie should taste more like fruit than spice, with just enough sweetness and a generous hit of autumn. That’s hard to replicate in July.
Beneath our holiday bandanas, the ladies circling the bench are singing the red, white and blues. Tri-color non pareils and sprinkles may be out in full force, but the novelty of royal iced stars, oversized fours and Lady Liberty is wearing thin. We amuse ourselves chattering about holiday travel plans. Two of my favorite co-workers will be celebrating the 4th in foreign countries. Rita may venture to the beach but due to the aforementioned 1975 movie, will not go in the water.
Thank my lucky stars and stripes, I have the good folks at Solo Foods to keep me in the culinary loop this holiday weekend. In honor of Independence Day, the Solo-ists are sending me recipes and snippets of information pertaining to baking circa 1776. I haven’t the heart to tell them I am staunchly independent of their prepared pie fillings, passionately dependent on what’s in season. What a relief to learn that domestic cherry trees and apple trees provided fruit for the picking by 1776. This news inspires me to forgive the apple pie enthusiasts, allowing me to turn my thoughts to the quintessential July pie, cherry.
If ever there was a patriotic pairing, it can be found in a few pounds of sweet cherries and a generous splash of serious bourbon. Fresh cherry pie is a small summer luxury requiring the tedious act of cherry pitting; I am unafraid and have the indelibly stained fingers to prove it.
There will be a steady parade of customers winding through the bakery today. Most are already on holiday, many enroute to the beach. They pause at the counter, collecting an iced latte and a gluten free scone before wading out into the Garden State Parkway. Some of them will juggle pie boxes and ask, “This doesn’t have to be refrigerated does, it? I’m driving to the shore.” Refrigeration is like sunscreen; it’s always a good idea.
More years back than I care to count, my 4th of July was literally a day at the beach. There was the cautious optimism of a golden tan uncapped in a brand new tube of Bain de Soleil. We worried about the undertow, not the gluten as we unwrapped vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two cakey chocolate rectangles. We ate cherries by the handful and wedges of sweet watermelon.
I miss those days, as much as I miss the chill of Noxzema against sunburned skin. Enjoy your holiday and remember to be generous with the sunscreen. Oh, and one more thing; refrigerate any leftover pie. Even the apple.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm