My father favored lake vacations over sandy beaches, gravitating towards the Adirondacks most Julys. Packing the car with a Coleman cooler, he worked his way north along the thruway towards Route 87. My mother, buckled up in the passenger seat with a AAA road map folded neatly within reach, passed the hours with knitting or needlework. Her feet were practically invisible beneath a bag stuffed with skeins of multi-colored yarns. Blanketing her lap was either an alpine inspired sweater or a vertical flame stitch canvas known as Bargello.
For many years, my younger sister occupied the back seat of the car, occasionally passing an open box of Snyder’s sourdough hard pretzels to my father, relentlessly offering radio station suggestions to my mother. With the advent of the SONY Walkman, car travel was forever changed, a blissful dome of silence hovering between the front and back seats.
Their destination was White Pine Road and the elusive Northbrook Lodge, tucked away on a 10-mile peninsula somewhere between Saranac Lake and Paul Smiths, New York. Built in the 1920s in the style of the Great Adirondack Camps, Northbrook was a vast property, situated smack dab along Osgood Pond. Everyone referred to the pond as a lake, a body of water ample enough for a handful of canoes, a few rowboats, a solitary kayak. My father was one of the occasional fishermen circumnavigating the lake, his signature bucket hat just visible from the screened in porch of the boathouse. Ducks bobbed along the glassine surface of the water while in the distance, a pair of devoted loons conversed.
The boathouse/lodge cozied up to the edge of the water, its stone foundation steadying high-beamed ceilings and an airy porch. In the evenings, my father and sister enjoyed spirited games of Scrabble, often in hot debate over the authenticity of words. The threat of delving into Webster’s Universal Unabridged two-volume dictionary was a constant. If it wasn’t in ‘A to Pocket Veto’ then it wasn’t a word, my father insisted. My sister remained skeptical, watching him add up his double word scores with a dull Dixon-Ticonderoga pencil.
My visits to Northbrook were far less frequent than my sister’s. My inaugural visit was in the 1980s, as a party of two. In the 1990’s, we were a party of four, preserving the dome of silence in the car with a VCR player strapped precariously between the front and back seats. Our days started early and ended late. We hiked nearby Whiteface Mountain, taking in vistas of green worthy of their own box of Crayolas; fern, forest, pine, mountain, and meadow. We ran the winding trails of White Pine Road, soft trails underfoot framed by white paper birch. On more than one fishing expedition, Master/Master and Blondilocks enthusiastically cast-off, contributing their fishing poles to the lake. In the afternoons we swam, jumping from a less-than-seaworthy dock into the bracing water, trying desperately not to touch the questionable lake bottom with our toes.
We fortified ourselves between lunch and dinner with soft ice cream from Donnelly’s, a Saranac Lake institution. Waiting our turn, we watched swirls of soft-serve cascade from a vintage machine purchased in 1953. The Donnelly’s unusual business model dictated that they would choose the flavor and we would choose the size. Standing in the parking lot, we tackled the precarious swirls, catching the drips with paper napkins that stuck to our fingers. A panoramic view of Whiteface Mountain stretched beyond the fields opposite the ice cream stand. Returning to Northbrook, we burned up the calories with an energetic game of shuffleboard.
Northbrook Lodge was sold a few years ago, probably to a developer with grand plans to monetize his investment. On a recent holiday to Lower Saranac Lake, we attempted to find our way back to Northbrook, now on the National Register of Historical Places. When Google Maps disappointed, a local pointed us in the right direction.
Turning onto White Pine Road, the air was still heady with balsam, the ground generously cushioned with pine needles. In the distance, Osgood Pond sparkled, but the sound of the loons was drowned out by a drill. Trucks dotted the grounds, workmen diligently installing upgrades and alarm systems. We crept along the grounds like undercover spies, working our way to the boathouse. My father was always one to admonish my sense of nostalgia with the adage, “You can never go back; things change, life goes on.” He would have been disappointed with the sale of Northbrook, the contemporizing of the old Adirondack camp. He would however, have been happy to know that on Wednesdays, Donnelly’s still serves chocolate twisted with vanilla.
Oh, how quickly we forget. The bitter cold and frosty windshields that plagued us in January and February are as long forgotten as Phil from Punxsutawney. While we waited for spring and the first stalks of blush red rhubarb, we pacified ourselves with thick-skinned oranges and jumbo grapefruits. We poured sassy lemon filling into fluted tart shells, blanketing them with mile-high meringue. Graham cracker crusts welcomed sweetened condensed milk spiked with Nellie and Joe’s lime juice because we craved the taste of warm weather. In between bites, we rhapsodized about the season still out of reach, hidden behind March, April, and June. Dreaming of summer and its fantasy of sweet berries and perfect peaches, we wondered; would July ever show its sun-warmed face?
Why is it, that once we unwrap the gift of summer fruit from the local Farmers’ Market, we forget our manners? In the midst of our quest to secure just the right peach or the sweetest melon or the perfect Jersey tomato, we get pushy and demanding and on occasion, downright rude. Elbowing our way from vendor to vendor, the casualty count is highest amongst the fruit and vegetables sprawled across rickety wooden tables. My greatest fear is always for the peaches.
Peaches are gentle creatures who don’t respond well to excessive poking, squeezing, and handling. It doesn’t matter how many times you turn that peach over, Madam, there is nothing written on the underside, no secret code indicating whether or not it will bake up successfully in your newly installed Gaggenau oven.
It’s true, I’m as guilty as the rest of the lemmings, reaching out and cradling the peaches in my hands, inhaling the intoxicating perfume of summer that lies just beneath its fuzzy exterior. But I’m practical, well versed in peach etiquette from years of seeking out “soft but lovable” fruit to bake into pies. Sometimes, peaches are sleeping, requiring a few more days to ripen. When that’s the case, you can adopt the peaches and bring them home to sleep on your kitchen counter. You can also let sleeping peaches lie and move on to the blueberries. Nowhere is it written that jostling and squeezing coaxes the sweetness from the fruit. Emblazoned with the markings of freshly manicured nails, the poor peach will only be bruised beyond recognition long before the market closes. Peaches may very well grow on trees, but we can still treat them with respect.
Wouldn't a little camaraderie amongst shoppers and farmers be grand, an easy-going, sip-your-morning-coffee kind of feeling. More often than not, there’s a heightened sense of urgency in the air. I'm all for being a knowledgeable consumer, but we needn't be so pushy. The shoppers hell bent on securing their provisions while pontificating what they’re about to create ruins the experience for folks like me, who just want a few ears of corn and a quart of peaches.
As Blondilocks reminds me in my everyday life, ‘we can do better.’ This includes Farmers’ Market behavior and the ability to mingle well with others. Farming is probably one of the hardest ways to make a living; we often lose sight of that as we elbow our way from stand to stand. No matter how many people you have invited for dinner, it doesn't hurt to be courteous and respectful. This courtesy should not be limited to farmers, it extends to other shoppers and the perishables set before you.
It’s also a fine idea to do your homework, or as Irma and Marion Rombauer like to say in The Joy of Cooking, Know Your Ingredients. Sure, there’s something wonderfully casual about ambling through the market, inspired by the myriad of just-picked options. But take a page from the Ladies Rombauer (or the cookbook author of your choice) and know what you need and how much you need. If you know in advance that you are going to bake a pie for your weekend guests, take a glance at your pie plate before you leave the house. It’s also important to figure out just how many blueberries or peaches you’ll need to fill that over-sized, 9½”deep ruffled Emile Henry pie plate that you’ve never used before. Please don’t wait until you are standing in line in front of me, your arms full of berries and peaches, to calculate. As you jockey back and forth between the register and the fruit, debating how much more or less the recipe (which you’ve never made) calls for, I’m still waiting. My advice would be to buy more than you think you need; those pie plates are cavernous. And since we’re standing in line together, your blueberries bouncing out of your basket onto my white sneakers, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a little advice. The pie plate you’re about to fill is really deep and since you strike me as a Pinterest kind of gal, if you’re hoping to embellish your double crust pie, you might want to make a little extra pate brisée.
Farmers’ Market-ing can be taxing, which is why it’s a good idea to seek out the coffee roaster standing by for all of your caffeination needs. I’ve also learned from Master/Master and Sweet Soprano, that tucked away amidst the seasonal produce occasionally stands a vendor offering local brews and fine spirits. At 9 am on a weekend morning, that might seem out of line. Then again, it all depends on who happens to be standing in front of you as you wait in line, juggling a few ears of corn and a quart of sweet Jersey peaches.
In the summer months, women hidden behind retro-mod frames with mirrored lenses begin their weekend on Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning, men with Ray-Bans perched like crowns on top of their heads pause for coffee before their pilgrimage to the shore. From my perch in the depths of the kitchen, I can see them, pausing by the wobble-legged table of baked goods up front. The brown craft boxes filled with cookies are a constant, ditto for the low slung chocolate cakes and the banana breads without a whisper of gluten. The pies however, are the wild cards, adapting to the whims of the season. Occasionally, the pies have to adapt to the whims of the fruit.
I watch the summer throng shuffle through the window boxes, picking and discarding pies like oversized poker cards. They rifle through the blueberry which just last week, was a hot commodity. Some pause at the strawberry rhubarb, just recently a highly coveted limited edition, but now so less newsworthy, so early June.
In mid-July we’re pre-occupied with peaches and assaulted with peach pie inquiries. When and why not and how about now and what do you mean, not yet? The truth is, it’s hard to say. Perhaps more so than any other fruit of summer, pie worthy peaches are ready when they say they’re ready. They are the starlets of July and August, waiting to make a blushingly sweet entrance.
A few flats of early peaches have made their way into the bakery, not quite ready for prime time, requiring hibernation in brown paper bags to achieve optimum sweetness. It is best to let sleeping peaches lie, 3 or 4, occasionally more days before disturbing them. You know they are awake when the fragrance hits you as you cautiously open the Trader Joe’s bag and peer in.
This week, the peaches are marginally sweet, taunting of peach days yet to come. Stone fruit lemmings are flocking to the farmers’ markets, getting a little too up close and personal with the fruit. Green quart containers line gingham covered makeshift tables. The fragile fruit is over-handled, sniffed to death, tossed back pell-mell on the table, ruining the Rockette-like precision an early morning farm staffer worked hard to achieve.
Peach pie seekers are no better, pushing aside boxes until they uncover the lattice or the crumble or the double crust that calls to them. Then it is just a matter of time before someone calls to me, asking for an update on the pies bubbling in the oven. Taking a sip from a formerly fresh cup of coffee, I remind myself that a few short weeks ago, it was all about the rhubarb. From now until late August, it will be a peach pie-palooza until the Granny Smiths come rolling in followed in hot pursuit by orange gourds.
Non-peach enthusiasts will never understand what the fuzz is all about, the taste of summer dripping down your chin and permeating your fingers. For the rest of us however, those clamoring for summer’s sweetest stone fruit, the time is now. Gather ye peach pies while ye may.
THE GREAT VILLAGE BAKE-OFF
My decision to attend our local 4th of July Great Village Bake-Off on Wednesday morning was spontaneous. The last time I donned a judge’s badge, arming myself with a plastic fork and mini bottle of tepid water, was in 2015. That was the year one contestant submitted a red-white-and-blue ice cream cake packed in a corrugated box, lined with aluminum foil and ice cubes. Based on the number of entries sprawled across the star-studded plastic tablecloths in Memorial Park on Wednesday, the event has grown in popularity since my last visit. For some, it is as riveting as a popular British baking competition available for binge watching on Netflix.
Absent from our friendly competition is a starched white tent standing regally amidst the English countryside. Instead, a yellow and white striped tent sways languidly in the heat, shading metal banquet tables and folding chairs. Industrial strength oscillating fans stand like sentries, panting and wheezing in an attempt to circulate the air. Inside the tent, it feels slightly cooler than Death Valley; the poor baked goods are feeling it, too, fighting valiantly to hold their frosted heads high.
Perhaps most affected by the sweltering heat is the Unicorn cake. Anyone who works with me knows how I feel about this particular cake craze. Wednesday’s Unicorn entry was well executed, its buttercream mane a dizzying combination of all colors patriotic, piped with a star tip, capped off with a golden horn crafted out of gumpaste. Starting the day standing proudly amidst the other contenders, the mythical cake quickly became a victim of the beastly heat and humidity. By the time the judges had circled the table, the poor Unicorn, particularly the horn, was suffering from a severe case of wardrobe malfunction. I had no choice but to look away.
The contest rules insist that each entry be accompanied by an exhaustively detailed index card. Stating more than the recipe’s particulars, the card offers the judges a glimpse inside the baker’s kitchen. One would think that a list of ingredients and a brief blurb about the origin of the recipe would suffice. However, the index card is chock full of food safety warnings, informing us whether the baked good has had a brush with peanuts or gluten or edible markers. As we like to say, the more you know.
True, our Bake-Off may be lacking in British-ness, but we more than make up for it in allergy sensitivity awareness. Sure, we’re pleasantly casual, more Mayberry and Aunt Bea and less starched and proper, less BBC. Though we may be shy on treacle tarts and Victoria Sponge, we boast ready-to-spread frosting and tri-color sprinkles with unbridled abandon.
Had Mary Berry been judging the competition, she would have undoubtedly pointed out the occasional soggy bottoms (there were a few) and the aforementioned gum paste meltdown. What would the doyenne of British baking have thought of the over usage of red, white, and blue embellishments? Though she might have applauded the enthusiasm of the participants, I suspect she would have admitted that some of the flavor and visual pairings didn’t really work for her.
This year, participants were encouraged to submit their best cherry pies for consideration. This was the category that egged me into attending, based on my great respect for strictly-from-scratch cherry pie bakers. Sadly, only two cherry pies attended the festivities, though both were well executed and quite tasty. One pie boasted a generous splash of bourbon with a side chaser of bourbon infused ice cream. The second pie was more traditional, supported by a fine crust and no soggy bottom. Cherry pies are tricky business, and kudos to anyone willing to tread the cherry pie waters. Special mention goes to a young pie baker who crafted an impressive blueberry-cherry slab pie, complete with pastry stars and stripes.
Noticing that my water bottle had been drained dry and becoming slightly dizzy from the onslaught of sugar fumes, I decided it was time to go. Bobbing beneath the tent and stepping out into the park, I was assaulted by everything fair-goers love and I tend to avoid. There were whirly-gig amusement rides guaranteed to induce queasiness, antique cars baking in the sun, a neon cupcake truck, and plenty of unhappy, over-heated children. Wandering from one end of the parched field to another, I attempted to negotiate my release with the local authorities. “You have to go around,” they informed me, pointing to the opposite side of the field. Taking matters into my own dehydrated hands, I scaled an ever-so-small wire mesh fence, only to encounter the cognoscente of the crosswalk. I was immediately turned over to a man of the law. “I just want to leave,” I explained, feeling the slightest bit like Burt Lancaster pleading with the no-nonsense guards in Alcatraz. Feigning heat stroke and promising to cross with the light, I was released on my own recognizance. Pausing for mere moments at the corner, I looked right, then left, then promptly jay-walked across the rainbow intersection at the corner of Oakview and Valley.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm