A WEEKEND IN THE COUNTRY
Nothing launches a freshly vacationed baker back to reality faster than a customer query. I have patiently (and not so patiently) addressed inquiries pertaining to ingredients, allergens, gluten or the lack thereof. Customers with anemic cellphone service have asked me to determine the dessert preferences of people I have never met. It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what the Birthday Boy or Girl prefers. Tuesday’s query was so novel, so surprising, I was forced to set down my rolling pin.
The first day back to the bench following a blissful holiday guarantees a front row seat on the struggle bus. Sensing storm clouds swirling around my bandana, the friendly barista crew attempted to ply me with caffeine. Two shots over ice with a wide berth of steamed milk beckoned from its recyclable cup. I was grateful but unmoved. The shift from upstate back to the Garden State was sobering. A recent image of sweeping cornfields beneath sapphire skies was rapidly fading. Fluorescent lighting overhead and checkered linoleum underfoot was disquieting; the steady punctuation of Motown on Sonos was enough to push me over the edge.
In my Happy Place, I was revisiting the meandering hills of western Massachusetts and the no-name county roads of the Hudson Valley. Local produce had been a highlight of the weekend, neat green corrugated boxes of berries and cherries lined up to resemble a patchwork quilt. Wicker baskets held short pyramids of purple skinned plums and early apples. Fresh onions the color of cream, overspilled blue-edged enamel bins. “Salt & Pepper” cucumbers and “Lemon Cukes” tumbled across burlap tucked within deep wooden crates. Carrots were staged as dramatically as a Rockette kickline. Holding on to that image, I pried open the heavy door of the bakery’s walk-in refrigerator.
Glaring plastic clamshells of melancholy blueberries were stacked high atop Metro shelving. Leaning against the corner, to the right of the cold brew coffee, horse-sized carrots were crammed into a food-service plastic bag with a drawstring neck. Unripe peaches sequestered in plastic lined boxes, were as fragrant as the cardboard in which they slept. Pausing to consider the week’s pie options, I armed myself with a few lemons. Digging through a ceramic crock overflowing with rubber scrapers and squeeze-handle cookie scoops, I unearthed a microplane.
Replying to an email, one of the management team asked me to weigh in on a cake order. Rolling out pie shells, half-listening, I heard something about dairy free or maybe it was gluten free. “What about the butter?” the manager asked. “What about the butter?” I replied, accent on ‘about.’
“The customer wants to know if our butter is grass fed. Is our butter grass fed?”
I crossed the brown and yellow floor to where a case of room temperature butter was wedged against a Cambro tub of semi-sweet chocolate chips. The information on the wrapper indicated many things, but particulars concerning the cow’s eating habits were not revealed on the red and blue wrapper.
“Sorry,” I replied. Without provocation I found myself mouthing the words, “Not sorry.” I checked my watch; it was barely 9 o'clock.
A few days prior, my sneakered feet happily cruised alongside fields of proud cornstalks and casually sprawling wild flowers. On the opposite side of the road, dairy cows ambled within a grassy field edged by a split white fence. Why did the runner cross the road? To get to the other side so she could ask the cows what they prefer to eat.
BITTER IS BETTER, OVER ICE
A perfect rosette of meringue has jettisoned from the pastry bag to my sneaker. Almost instantly, a ravenous mosquito picks up the sugar signal and descends like lightning on my exposed ankle. The culprit is greedy, leaving a scarlet red insignia where sock meets sneaker. It pauses momentarily before zeroing in at the crease just where my elbow bends. “Aarrgh- off damned fly!” I cry, swinging and swatting with my food service gloved hand. It’s too late; I can feel the itch begin, subtly in the distance, then more pronounced forcing me to abandon my latex-free glove, scratching with unleashed enthusiasm.
Residual juices from the berries and stone fruits of summer seep into my skin and onto my clothing, making me a magnet for gluttonous mosquitos and fruit flies. It is a hazard of my profession that has followed me from restaurant kitchen, to farm kitchen and back again to retail bakery.
I am convinced that my fruit fly/mosquito magnetism knows no season. If there is a flying, buzzing, sweet seeking insect within a reasonable radius, that insect will hunt me down and pinpoint my location without benefit of Google Maps. It has gotten so extreme that I can anticipate the high-pitched incessant buzzing, the whining, long before they descend within earshot. My immediate response initiates the flailing of hands followed by a few choice words. Is it possible to hear mosquitoes the way a dog hears a high-pitched whistle, or is it simply that I need a vacation?
It has been well over a year since my visit to Italy’s floating city, Venice. As promised, the city fed my appetite for homemade pastas, silken gelato, buzz worthy espresso, and staggering views. I reciprocated by feeding the appetite of the city’s insatiable mosquitos. What Venice boasts in water transportation and ornate cathedrals, it severely lacks in window screens and air conditioning. The unseasonal heat coupled with the steady buzz of mosquito wings made sleeping impossible. I pulled the sheets up tightly over my head, mummifying myself in non-breathable mosquito netting. One of my savvy travel companions voiced concern over my lack of oxygen. A muffled reply came from deep within the sheets. “Sometimes, Master/Master,” I gulped, “you have to make a choice.” The mosquito droned on.
Venice redeemed itself in numerous ways, most notably with the classic Venitian aperitif, the Aperol Spritz. The mathematics required for mixing the signature drink are designed for anyone slightly math challenged or sleep deprived. Three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol, and one splash of soda share an ice filled glass, capped off with a slice of fresh orange. The Italian aperitif is deeply orange flavored, more bitter than sweet, with the slightest hint of rhubarb, vanilla and a medley of herbs. Aperol was created by Padua's Barbieri brothers, later purchased by the Campari company. Initially touted as a ‘tonic for active men,’ the liqueur was advertised as an ideal drink for the fitness conscious, gaining enormous popularity among women. Aperol is less acerbic, more drinkable than its sibling beverage Campari, with about half the alcohol content. Raising a glass filled with ice and neon orange creates drama, an instant cause for celebration. The cocktail is intensified by late afternoon sunlight, when Spritz drinkers are out in full force.
There is also an unmistakable civility associated with the Aperol Spritz. Much like Austria’s Kaffee und Kuchen, or London’s Afternoon Tea, Europe takes a pause between lunch and dinner. Some countries feel the need to add alcohol to the mix; a fine addition. We could take a lesson from the Europeans. In the states, we tend to drink and dash; grabbing a beer or balancing a cuppa joe in one hand while fishing for a Metro card with the other. We are always rushing for a train or a bus, heads buried in smartphones. I didn’t see a single Venetian bolting down the narrow streets, hell bent on being the first in line for the vaporetto. People linger over glasses shimmering with orange and ice, nibbling small bites of crostini until they move on to the next bar and the next round.
I can attest to the fact that a bottle of Aperol fits snugly in a suitcase. Incidentally, when the stash from the suitcase runs out, the blue-labelled aperitivo can be found in many liquor stores and a few select supermarkets. While you’re there, don’t forget to pick up a bottle of sparkling water and an orange to round out your spritz needs. It’s also a fine idea to swing by the Seasonal aisle for a few citronella candles and some insect repellent if you’re thinking about Spritz-ing al fresco, day-dreaming of Venice. I'll drink to that.
STONE (FRUIT) LOVE
It was inevitable, much like the peach stains splattered across the bib of my apron. Removing a sheet pan of bubbling hot peach pies from the oven, I searched for a vacancy on the overfilled baker's rack. In the distance a woman was eyeing the pies. She flagged me down to talk not peach, but rhubarb.
“These are peach,” I explained, flinching from the heat of the oven mitts as they grazed my arm.
“What about strawberry rhubarb?” asked Wrong Season.
“Rhubarb season is over, I’m afraid. Now it’s peach season.”
Wrong Season insisted. “I’ve had your strawberry rhubarb pie, with the lattice crust. I want to order a strawberry rhubarb pie for this Saturday.”
“It just so happens you’re in luck,” I said, indicating a pair of pies sitting in a pool of crimson juice on an adjacent rack. “One of those is for an order, the other is up for grabs. Strawberry rhubarb- the last hurrah.”
“But I don’t need the pie until Saturday.”
“This is it. I’m sorry, we won’t be getting any more rhubarb before Saturday, if at all. Take the pie home and let it cool down. Then you can keep it wrapped and refrigerated, reheating it gently on Saturday. It will be fine.”
It wasn’t fine for Wrong Season. She was flustered and unwilling to purchase a pie for Saturday on Thursday afternoon. I get it, it’s not the ideal scenario, but it’s pie, not world peace. Taking a moment to collect her fruit and lattice thoughts, Wrong Season shook her head. She then pointed to the peach pies. “What about peach? Are those the peach pies?”
“Still. Peach.” Perhaps not my finest customer relations response, but honest nonetheless. I waited for the pie light bulb to go on.
“Maybe… we will have peach. Yes! Let’s have peach. On Saturday- could we have a peach pie on Saturday? You’ll make it Saturday morning?”
“Of course,” I lied.
For a moment I was afraid Wrong Season might hug me.
“See you Saturday,” Wrong Season waved.
“Uh huh,” I nodded while mumbling the mantra, Rhubarb-Spring. Peach-Summer.
Tucked inside the walk-in refrigerator behind buckets of cold brew coffee sits a wooden crate of near ripe peaches. To generously fill one dozen 9” pie shells, nearly 36 pounds of peaches will have to fall on the blade of the paring knife. This is an exercise that will be repeated for the duration of peach season. I have no idea how many peach pies will exit the bakery between now and Labor Day but my wrist has a pretty good feel for it. What makes peach pie-ing all the more challenging at this time of year is the stubborn clingstone. The fruit from a clingstone refuses to surrender, hanging on to its pit for dear life.
The early harvest clingstone peaches will eventually make room for freestones later in the summer. Freestone peaches have more of a devil-may-care attitude, happy to slip out of their fruit with just a simple slice down the middle. This attribute makes them more popular, but in terms of flavor, a sweet ripe peach is more often about the variety and when they were picked, than the pit. From a baker’s vantage point, I’m all for ease of application. Freestone peaches surrender more readily with less of a struggle and fewer fingertip casualties. My favorite Red Haven freestone peaches have yet to make their way to the bakery. Until then, I will toil over what’s on hand.
Most people forgive the challenge of finding and pitting a sweet summer peach the moment they take their first sunny bite. They instinctively use the back of their hand to wipe away the juices dripping down their chin, casually tossing away the pit when the fruit is gone. I’m less cavalier about tossing peach pits because the truth is, peach pits and I go way back.
My grandmother and Jessie used to bake an open-faced pie in a large Nordicware cookie sheet with deep sides. One half of the pie was covered in peaches, the other half in blueberries. The peach peels, pits, and excess juices were cooked down with a drop of almond extract to create a shiny glaze. The fragrance created from this process was distinctly seasonal, unmistakably summer. Today this “slab” pie would be the hippest pie at the party, and the almond glaze made from almond pits would be uber cool. I’d also be commended for using every bit of the peach and start to feel pretty good about myself. That is until someone else would chime in, “Did you ever make peach pit ice cream? I had the most amazing peach pit ice cream served in a hollowed out peach half served on a bed of peach cotton candy…” Sure, I’ll get right on that.
Peach pits are a little bit like rhubarb leaves, dangerous if left in the wrong hands. Inside the hard shell of a peach pit is a small kernel, with an aromatic almond flavor. In French, the kernel is called noyau. It can be used to make almond extract, marzipan, even amaretto. The scary word on the street associated with peach pits is that they contain traces of cyanide. According to the brilliant pastry chef Stella Parks of BraveTart, noyaux (plural of noyau) contain something called amygdalin, which becomes hydro-cyanic acid when it is digested. Cooking the peach pits tempers the dangerous substance giving you the green light to use them in many recipes.
Despite spending multiple Sunday afternoons chomping on the last bit of sweet fruit clinging to peach pits, I have no recollection of Jessie issuing a peach pit advisory. It’s possible she mentioned, “You don’t want to break a tooth on that pit,” but other than cautioning against bruising the delicate fruit, peaches came with no warning attachments. I only wish my pie mentor had warned me about people desperately seeking rhubarb in peach season. Channeling my inner Jessie, I’m thinking a peach pit wrapped in a rhubarb leaf might make a lovely parting gift.
It is officially travel season. While Master/Master and Sweet Soprano explore London and Austria (check out this week’s Pies About Town), Sibling Sister and family are settling into their Toronto digs. The former Seattle-ites arrived just in time to witness their newly adopted home’s 150th Canada Day celebration. As one anchored in the Garden State, my Independence holiday-ing was celebrated beneath a beach umbrella. My culinary adventures were no more daring than a twist of chocolate and vanilla frozen custard dipped in chocolate, but I’m not complaining. Frantically commandeering a soft serve ice cream from its perch high atop a sugar cone is my July rite of passage. Few things capture summer better than the combination of dripping chocolate, flimsy paper napkin and sun-screen tainted fingers.
A seasonal maiden voyage into the sunshine requires serious SPF preparedness. Folks who toil in kitchens experience plenty of burns; on forearms, between thumbs and index fingers, occasionally on necks from a splash of butter or bubble of scalding hot pie juice. We are the palest people on the beach, easy to spot amongst the honey skinned sun worshippers who have season (not day) passes, wrapped casually around their wrists or pinned to their striped umbrellas. Exposure to sun, salt water and cobalt skies sends me into a mild state of euphoric despair. I love being there, I loathe leaving.
2017 summer travel plans are sketchy at best; at the top of the list is a quick jaunt to Toronto to visit the newly ensconced Canadians. A bakery crawl in search of the glorious Portuguese custard tarts known as Pasteis de Nata is mandatory. And as I recall from my last tour of that fine city, Toronto does ice cream very well, specifically at a shoe-box sized retailer on Ossington Avenue called Bang Bang Ice Cream.
The culinary (and music) dream of a summer is being played out in Graz, Austria by Master/Master and Sweet Soprano. As of our last correspondence, we’ve touched on savory pies, kaffee, und küchen. Their summer is young and ripe with adventure. My summer is young, my day-to-day adventures feature cases of ripe fruit. Determined to put down the paring knife and see what’s outside the bakery, I am cautiously optimistic. Conjuring the line of people waiting on the narrow sidewalk, I can almost taste the hand-rolled waffle cone overfilled with Bang Bang ice cream.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm