“You have a little something on your cheek.,” an affable customer mentions to me as our paths cross outside the bakery. “You might want to, you know,” she indicates wiping her face with her hand. “Just in case you’re going somewhere…” she calls after me. “It’s not bad- it looks like, maybe butter, or cornmeal…?”
I toss a “thank you” over my shoulder and wave.
The side view mirror of my car confirms it is indeed cornmeal with a hint of butter and a smudge of brown sugar. Rummaging through my bag for my car keys, I stumble upon a small ziploc bag of cherries formerly known as fresh. Earmarked for a snack, only to be replaced by a handful of day old potato chips, the poor cherries deserved better. As I explain to the cherries, I am a creature of convenience, nibbling on cake scraps and bottom of the bowl pieces of fruit, occasionally stale potato chips. Bakers can’t be choosers.
Cavalierly tossing my water bottle and car keys on the dining room table, I can’t help but wince at the not-so-subtle olive oil stain on my recently repaired dining room chair. A Google search encourages me to apply a small paste fashioned out of baking soda and water to the stain. Cautiously optimistic, I do as Google instructs. What Google doesn’t tell me is that the bag of cornmeal in front of the baking soda has a slight hole in it. My sneakers crunch all the way to the dining room and back again. I need a vacation.
Inspired by the trail of cornmeal and the ignored cherries, in less than an hour, a tray of oven roasted fruit and a cornmeal olive oil cake have whisked me off to the tiny village of Radda in Chianti. No passport required, no long line at TSA, just some fruit, a good jug of olive oil, and a 9” cake pan.
Radda in Chianti is known for superlative wines and olive oils. It is a medieval village with haphazard architecture, local shopkeepers torn from a page out of Central Casting, and local restaurants sharing space with grocery stores. One constant during my stay in Radda was an olive oil and cornmeal cake spiked with salt and served with fresh fruit. It was both gritty and moist, a little bit savory, just sweet enough. I consumed triangles of it with morning espresso, and kidnapped slivers of it to combat mid-afternoon hunger. When you travel, some of the best souvenirs are the food memories that you tuck away and revisit. Recreating a travel experience through a recipe is indeed a mini vacation. As tempted as I am to stay, I’m due back in the dining room to check on the progress of the baking soda paste. I fear the olive oil is winning.
Patricia Murphy’s Candlelight Restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida was a short drive from my grandmother’s high-rise apartment building in Hollywood. On Saturday evenings, Mama Min and “the girls” loved going out to dinner, making a reservation slightly later than the traditional early bird, but not so late as to interfere with the Lawrence Welk Show.
I was privileged to accompany my grandmother and her canasta-playing pals on many Saturday nights. Sophie Lane was my grandmother’s best friend and the designated driver because she had the largest car. My seat was the least desirable, wedged between two women with silver-blue hairdos teased to epic heights, their nails polished in shades of peach or tangerine with lipstick to match. The air was perfumed with the conflicting scents of Jean Nate, Joy, and Arpege. I smelled of Noxzema. My hair was held in place with a headache inducing hairband or a Goody barrette. As the car breezed along palm-tree lined roads towards the Intercoastal Waterway, the conversation predictably turned from the weather to popovers.
Patricia Murphy’s was known for their infinite offering of freshly baked popovers, served steaming hot from a gingham-lined basket. The simple combination of milk, eggs, salt, and butter followed by an uninterrupted stay in a hot oven, yielded towering domes with wispy centers. Curls of sweet butter melted into every crevice of the ethereal dinner roll before dripping down my fingers and dotting the linen napkin sprawled across my lap. Strawberry jam accompanied the popovers, sticky sweet and as crimson as my sunburn.
The dinner menu boasted everything you could dream of baking, broiling, breading, or frying. Compound butter was a popular accessory to steaks, chops, and fish, a generous disc of cholesterol dotted with herbs, melting slowly, dramatically, across and over and down, pooling alongside the edge of the plate. I was keen on their jumbo butterfly shrimp, sometimes served as scampi, sometimes fried and dressed with tartar sauce and lemon. During the dinner portion of the meal, I always kept an extra popover on my bread and butter plate in the hopes of smuggling it home in a doggie bag.
Dessert seemed anti-climactic following those popovers, but I always managed to struggle through a parfait of vanilla ice cream swirled with emerald crème de menthe. Sophie Lane was a fan of the fresh peach pie crowned with peach ice cream, while Mama Min leaned towards the baked ice cream meringue pie. The ladies concluded their meal with Sanka, or Postum while I played with a Lipton teabag and a spoonful of honey. Drunk on popovers, shrimp, and ice cream, I was half asleep before the ladies divvied up the bill and gathered up their crocheted wraps. Leaning against my seat mates, I could spot a blur of the orange sun as it disappeared into the Florida sky. With easy listening pouring out of the radio, and my dinner companions humming along, I hoped one of those popovers had found its way into my doggie bag.
On Tuesday morning at 8 o’clock, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market is just waking up. A slightly warped table is stacked high and wide with early July peaches. The fruit hints at ripeness, all fuzzy and pinky-yellow, but they know and I know they are not yet ready for prime time pie-ing.. These are stubborn peaches, clearly ripening on their own schedule, refusing to yield beneath my cautious thumb and index finger. “Quit pinching!” the stone fruit scolds. I move along. Looking back I let the peaches know, “I wasn’t pinching! I was just checking to see if you were ready, and clearly you’re not. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
I have high hopes for a quart of peaches waiting for me at home. Left alone to ripen in my absence, lately I've been fixated on grilled peaches sandwiched between baking powder biscuits. Fueled in part by a partial container of heavy cream “going begging” (to quote my grandmother, Minnie) I turn to James Beard’s recipe in The Fireside Cook Book. The recipe yields 7 biscuits, just enough, not too many. My knuckles shudder as I unearth the box grater from the kitchen cabinet. Flakes of frozen butter tossed with flour, baking powder, a little salt, and cold milk is all that is required. (Beard also has a wonderful biscuit recipe that relies on heavy cream, but the heavy cream is already spoken for.) I had envisioned grilled peaches boasting perfectly aligned grill marks, but the torrential downpour has squashed my grill dreams. There is no room for weather optimism; my phone incessantly beeps, reminding me of a flood watch in my vicinity. I crank up the oven to 450 degrees and make room on my stovetop for a cast iron skillet. The peaches flinch ever so slightly beneath my fingers. Unlike their peach relations in Philly, these peaches mean shortcake business.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm