One does not travel the roller-coaster hills of Rensselaerville in search of retail therapy. Folks amble down the street, cyclists head for the rolling vistas and the occasional car is generally just passing through. Main Street is a sleepy stretch with a single restaurant and a diminutive library.
I had no intention of perusing the stacks at the Main Street Library’s Book sale. The tiny voice in my head whispering, “Cookbooks” led me directly to the 1994 Kraft General Foods, Inc. edition of Simple Desserts Made Special With Cool Whip. Unlike organic heavy cream, sugar and vanilla bean which are part of my personal and work repertoire, Cool Whip is most definitely not. Standing in the tiny hallway of the Main Street Library, I couldn’t help myself. The cover of the skinny hardbound book had me at Jell-o parfait. Practically jiggly in excitement, I desperately wanted to know what was inside the pages. Alternating shades of neon yellow, orange and green suspended in waves of Cool Whip, graced the cover. Unfolding a crumpled $1 bill that was buried deep within my jeans pocket, I handed it to the capable bibliothec. Upon closer inspection, I was giddy to learn that my new cookbook boasted 94 pages of seasonal Cool Whip recipes!
Following the dictates of the season, I began on page 50, “Summertime Celebrations.” Leafing through, I found myself pausing on the page that boasted Lemonade Stand Pie and Summer Lime Pie. The past three weeks had been a touch lackluster in the citrus department and I was fixated on the glossy photographs. All that I needed was accessible at the Tops Supermarket, a mere 30 minutes away in the neighboring town of Greenville. Before I had time to think it through, I was traveling the gravity-defying turns of Rensselaerville, heading thirty-five-miles-an-hour-and-not-a-mile-more towards Greenville.
Tops is a humble supermarket, sequestered in a small shopping center. I made my way to the Jell-o aisle, scanning the display of puddings and gelatins. Boxes the color of Crayolas lined the shelves of Aisle 6, top to bottom. “Pick me! Pick me!” the neon green box of lime Jell-o waved. With strict instructions from my fellow Scholars to adhere to the recipe to the letter, I filled my cart with a pre-made graham cracker crust, a 16 oz. container of Cool whip and one fresh lime. En route to the check out line, I paused in front of my old friends, Nellie and Joe, known for their authentic Key Lime Juice. I was a goner.
By the time I arrived at the express check out, my shopping cart had all the fixings for my Summer Lime Pie, but also everything necessary to replicate a genuine Key Lime Pie. The pie tide was about to turn in Rennselaerville.
On my drive back to the land of the Scholars, it occurred to me that with my limited access to the kitchen, I needed a solid reason to be walking into the house with fixings for two pies. I had 30 minutes to hatch a plan.
I crafted a baking challenge for myself, and plans to capture it in words and photos. Pitching my idea at dinner, I calmly and rationally explained that I would be hosting a Bake-Off. True, I was the only one participating, but it had far reaching benefits.
Researching Jell-o salads for an Iconic Dish of the Midwest assignment, I felt rather well versed in the world of gelatin. Additionally, my Key Lime Pie had won a Best of Philly Magazine Award in 1994. The end result would be that the house of Scholars would have the opportunity to try both pies. It was decided the best plan of action was to have the Bake-Off culminate in a blind taste test.
Following dinner on Friday night, pie forks and plates at the ready, we assembled around the long wooden dining room table. Our brilliantly talented art intern Matthew, pulled up a chair and was blind-folded. The taste test was short-lived, with Best of Philly Key Lime Pie beating out Cool Whip Summer Lime Pie in a single bite.
I bet the local library will welcome my donation of a gently used 94 page cookbook.
In Rensselaerville, I am a baker without a kitchen, a writer without a desk. I do boast, however the tri-fecta of technology; an iPhone, an iPad and a MacBook. This up-to-the-date-technology-is a far cry from a time long ago, that I remember fondly. We called it the 1980s.
I remember that decade wistfully as a time when I was always on the move, my job a veritable game of the states. The one constant in every new city was my office. Situated backstage in close proximity to the star dressing room (which was always painted chocolate brown), I set up shop. My workspace was a lesser dressing room, my desk, always a dressing table. Surrounded by marquis-style vanity light bulbs, it housed my Rolodex, a spiral bound calendar, and a memo pad boasting “From the Desk Of.” Seated on a metal folding chair scrunched against laminate, I felt terribly efficient. My make shift desk was stained with smudges of Bob Kelly theatrical make-up and was just wide enough to support a dual-line push button phone. I kept copious notes known as Daily Progress Reports. It was imperative that these reports be typed in all caps using pica, not elite, typeface. To facilitate this, I rented an IBM Selectric typewriter in each city. If I needed to make a copy of something, I journeyed to the box office and asked to use the Xerox machine.
Part of my job description entailed coordinating interviews and photo shoots with folks from 60 Minutes and Entertainment Tonight. Arrangements were made by telephone, contracts and releases traveled by snail mail. There was an air of mystery surrounding these celebrity moments and we had less of a remote-control mentality. That was before social media.
To be honest, the banter amongst the LongHouse Scholars is in a language I vaguely comprehend. There’s an awful lot of conversation concerning social media. We are urged to compose pithy blurbs in fewer than 140 characters and send them off into the Tweetosphere on a daily basis. I have been exposed to something called Vine which I fear may result in a rash. There’s Pinterest but there aren’t any thumbtacks. We speak hashtag and fan page, making certain our calendars are in sync. I am surprised to learn that this does not refer to a boy band. There is also fervent conversation about branding, and every time I swear I can hear the opening bars to Bonanza. Cue the steer.
It seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that a LongHouse photo shoot featuring Chef Alex Young and Al the Steer would be like any other shoot. Photographer-to-the-Stars, Dudley Reed was setting up the shot when we arrived. In his divine Masterpiece Theatre British accent, Dudley commented on the beautiful bonding going on between human and steer. Dudley was using a Polaroid instamatic camera for his test shots, putting me instantly at ease. Here was technology that I could wrap my head around.
The ever affable Farmer Tim was standing at the ready to ensure harmony between the two photo subjects. Chef Alex was seated uncomfortably on an overturned farm bucket. Al’s excessive chewing had me concerned that he would develop TMJ. Was he suffering from stage fright? Chef Alex inched forward to hug Al whose tail was swinging steadily like a metronome. I observed this from a safe distance, the Chef’s ruddy midwestern complexion framed by Al’s impressive horns. Al was feeling comfy enough to cozy up to the Chef. Both photographer and farmer were making steer sounds. With one hand Chef was scratching Al between the ears. Al’s tail was now swinging more allegro than adagio. There was a comment from the Scholar crowd to capture the moment on social media.
Dudley announced “it’s a wrap” and Al retired to his dressing room. The LongHouse Food Scholars utilized their tiny iPhones to introduce Al to the world. Al was instantly ‘liked.” This just might make Al a Celeb. Clearly he will now need People around him; stylists, make-up artists, managers and agents. As his Personal Assistant I will have to insist that Craft Services provide him with a gluten-free, vegan diet.
Just promise me one thing; whatever you do, don’t mention the word branding to Al.
It has already been stated by my brother and my west coast aunt that my family’s relationship with food is a little out of the ordinary. We love the 2pm ice cream hour and are very particular about what food we consume and where we dine. We do not frequent meals at chains, and we can only eat at certain restaurants if they are filled at a 43.5% to 86.8% capacity. And don’t even get us started on desserts. We are particularly persnickety when it comes to the after dinner meal. Growing up, I was blessed with the gift that is my mother’s baking. However, that means it is a rare occasion when I eat desserts from “the outside.” It’s not that I don’t crave dessert, it’s just I know that some things will never be as good as my mother’s. A little harsh? Perhaps. But it has served me well. (Of course, desserts in Europe are an exception).
For this week I thought, what would be more fun than to do a pie tour of New York City? When I am in the mood for something sweet I usually ask my mom where I should go and what I should eat. However, this week I did not seek her advice. I took a chance by simply googling “best pie in NYC” and allowing the Internet to guide me. After conducting some research from various articles and blogs I decided that I would taste pies in Upper Manhattan. The places were selected, all I had to do was find friends to join me... and go for a run. Like my mother, I love a good run, and I thought it was only appropriate to exercise before eating many pies. Recruitment was easy; I selected three of my closet companions who had an extensive knowledge of Ellen’s pies. Elaine, Erica, and Adrienne were in and so our afternoon of pie began.
As much as the tour was about enjoying different pies of the city, we were also to judge each slice. Based on a 1-5 scale (with 1 the worst and 5 the best), the following were evaluated:
1. Presentation- was it sliced beautifully or did it look like a mess?
2. Crust- crust is always tricky because most of the time it is not handmade and tastes lackluster
3. Overall Taste
The first stop on my list was Sugar and Plumm on 78th and Amsterdam. During my research I had learned about their key lime pie with oreo crust. Unfortunately, the key lime was not available as a slice and so Elaine, Adrienne, and I decided that we would order peach pie and peanut butter pie. Knowing that those are two of my mother’s best pies, I tried to dive into the first slice with an open mind. The pies smelled good, but would they taste it?
1. Presentation 2.5. Although it looked pretty with the caramel decoration and whipped cream, the pie itself looked sad. It was falling out of the crust and the crumble on top looked peculiar.
2. Crust 1.5. It was mediocre, but the crumble topping was surprisingly delicious.
3. Taste 2.5. We were sad to discover that the peaches were perhaps not fresh.
peanut butter pie
1. Presentation 4. It looked pretty with its decorative Reese’s cups and chocolate/peanut butter chips.
2. Crust 3.5. It had a graham cracker crust that was nice, but you couldn’t really taste it.
3. Taste 3.8. It was very tasty, all of the flavors worked, especially with some chocolate between the peanut butter and crust. It was rich, but not overpowering. It also had a nice consistency.
Our experience at Sugar Plumm set us off to a great start!
Leaving Elaine on the Upper West Side, Adrienne and I hopped in a cab heading east to meet Erica at our next location.
Agata and Valentina’s on 79th and 1st Ave was next on our agenda. Agata’s is actually a fine food store, but they have a gorgeous dessert section with cakes, napoleans, cream puffs, tarts, you name it. I was strictly advised to go to Agata’s by a co-worker (whom I lovingly refer to as Mama Bird) who praises the store night and day and says that I must try the fruit tart. I know fruit tart is not pie, but I always listen to Mama Bird.
for the fruit tart...
1. Presentation 5. Beautiful for a tiny tart.
2. Crust 3.5. It tasted like a cookie and was a little difficult to maneuver with plastic forks and spoons.
3. Taste 3.5. Tasty custard and fruit, but the fruit did not taste as fresh as I would have liked.
We then selected the Cherry Berry Crumb “Tart”/Pie
1. Presentation 3.5. Erica and Adrienne thought it looked fine, I thought it looked lame. I would have given it a lower number, but I didn’t want to seem like a snob.
2. Crust 1. It was SUPER mushy. Unfortunate.
3. Taste 4. The filling was delicious. It had the right amount of tart.
Next stop was Two Little Red Hens on 86th and 2nd. The bakery was adorable and had tasty-looking cakes and cookies.
We sampled a classic Apple Crumb
1. Presentation 5.
2. Crust 3. Dry but not terrible
3. Taste 4 (I’d give it a 3.5). We thought it was tasty, but the other desserts were most likely better. If only the slice had been served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream…
The last leg of our journey was at Yura on Madison located at 92nd and Madison. (We did lots of walking that day- but it was good because it made us feel like we didn't each so much pie). Yura very much embodied the Upper East Side vibe and I liked it. While I carefully looked at the pie options from behind the glass, Adrienne already chose our last pies. I’m so glad she made the decision because they ended up being the best pies of the day.
coconut custard (on left)/ lemon chess (on right)
1. Presentation 3. Looked appetizing!
2. Crust 4.5. We thought it was the best crust of the tour. Nice and flakey.
3. Taste 5. So incredibly delicious. Just the right amount of tangy and sweet.
1. Presentation 3. Nothing special
2. Crust 4.5 (I would have given it a 3, it was fine, nothing special).
3. Taste 5. Perfect custard. Best pie of the tour
6 pies, 1 tart, 4 locations, 4 hours, 4 friends, I would say our tour was a great success. We ate some great pie and some mediocre pie, but if there is anything we all agreed on it was that no one can make pie like our very own No More Mr. Nice Pie.
As you can well imagine my relationship with dessert as a child was somewhat out of the ordinary. There were three major factors that played a part in coming to terms with my extraordinary experience with baked goods and other sweets:
First, I found it odd that none of my friends had a commercial refrigerator, a 6 burner gas stove / oven, or 3 different sized mixers in their kitchen like I did. Second, it took entirely too long for me to realize that no one else was prohibited from touching a tall rack of freshly baked pastries, pies, biscotti, breads, and cakes in their kitchen that was far too tempting in mine. And third, (as I am constantly reminded of this by my uncle) it is not ‘normal’ to implement a 2pm ice cream course in between lunch and cocktail hour on a daily basis. Despite these somewhat devastating realizations, pie and other desserts have played a very defining role in my life and I am grateful to have consumed such fine foods growing up.
My go-to pie has always been Pecan or Mixed Nut. These pies are a staple in our family’s favorite holiday, Thanksgiving but for the sake of ‘Pies About Town,’ I would like to talk about Boston Cream Pie.
It was recently brought to my attention that Boston Cream Pie is not in fact a pie at all but is actually a cake. I immediately dismissed this blasphemous claim as sass… After all it was, wasn’t it? A pie a cake? I think not. I knew I had to investigate further. In order to do so some ethnographic work was necessary.
Instead of researching the origin of Boston Cream Pie like any intelligent person would, I thought it would be more entertaining to ask locals about their experiences with Boston Cream Pie and what they believed the true origin was. This did not prove quite as beneficial as I had hoped…
As my loyal best friend and I set off on a Boston Cream Pie Tour we first traveled to a local barbershop / hair salon to question a Boston native and trusted companion.
NMMNP: Tell me about your experience with Boston Cream Pie
Cliff: I grew up in Hyde Park with 6 siblings and my mother used to make Boston Cream Pie from scratch. She would make her own custard but it made all 7 of her children sick! When I was 17 years old I worked at a restaurant while I went to school at BU. One night one of my tables did not finish their pie so I took it to the back. My manager wanted me to throw it out but I said f*ck it and ate it. It was delicious and I had no idea it was Boston Cream Pie. Now I love it.
Our trusted companion then suggested that we go next door to Zaftigs, a Jewish delicatessen that serves the infamous pie.
At Zaftigs we each ordered coffee and a slice of pie. As we enjoyed our coffee and waited for the pie to arrive I asked the waiter his thoughts on the matter:
NMMNP: So… Boston Cream Pie, Pie or Cake?
Waiter: CAKE. Definitely.
NMMNP: You seem pretty sure.
Waiter: I mean you’ll see, it’s clearly a cake.
NMMNP: What do you define as pie verse cake?
Waiter: Well, I think a pie should be 1 layer with crust. Boston Cream Pie is at least 3 layers and doesn’t have the traditional pie crust.
Ah, good point sir. We were making progress.
The pie… uh, cake arrived. Stacked tall in a large bowl that smelt slightly of Matzo Ball Soup, we both looked at each other and simultaneously said, “Cake.” In fact, that was all we said for the following 15 minutes as we devoured the delicious custardy cake, pie, whatever. After this experience we had pretty much made up our minds that this pie was a cake.
The waiter then explained that Zaftigs orders their Boston Cream Pie from Dianne’s Fine Desserts based in Newburyport, MA.
Let me just tell you, Dianne, Your pie cake is damn good. Although we were happy and extremely full, we had not yet finished our task; if this pie is a cake then what is its origin?
We paid our bill (thank you Ellen) and strolled to another bakery down the road. Kuples bakery has become our Sunday morning destination despite the ever present 45 minute wait. During the week however, it’s not so bad and we have befriended the manager who often gives us free or ‘extra’ cookies and hamantaschen. Although the baker was not in, I thought I would pick the manager’s brain about the origin of Boston Cream Pie:
NMMNP: What do you know about Boston Cream Pie?
Manager: Umm… it originated in Boston?
(Mind you this is a rather fair question considering Boston Cream Pie is not a pie at all so it very well could have originated in Slovakia).
Manager: Hmm… maybe Dunkin’ Donuts?
Manager: Yeah hmm, I donno. You know what you gotta do? You gotta find a really old person. Whenever I want to know something like this I just find a really old person and ask them… like that guy. He’s not that old, but he’s old enough.
NMMNP: No tha-
Manager: (To a random not so old man) Hey, excuse me sir. Is Boston Cream Pie from Boston?
Random not so old man: Yes
NMMNP: What else do you know about it?
Random not so old man: Nothing
Solid. We thanked our friend and were on our way. As we left the shop, he put his hands out, shook his head reassuringly and slowly mouthed, “old people.” I’m not going to lie, it did cross my mind to ask Ethel, purveyor of toys and wisdom but alas, her shop is only open from 1:00-3:00pm and it was at least 4:00.
Coming up slightly short thus far I was forced to take my journey to the interweb. I quickly learned that THE place to eat Boston Cream Pie is at the Omni Parker House located across from the Boston Common. The Omni Parker House claims that the Boston Cream Pie was created in their ovens in 1867. Other sources however, cite the date as 1855. It seems that the original concept of a custard cake in Boston began earlier than the Boston Cream Pie we know and love today. What’s 12 years anyways?
The alleged first use of the term ‘Boston Cream Pie” appeared in The Methoidist Almanic of 1872 with an accompanying recipe calling for 1 pint of new milk (emphasis on new), 2 eggs, 3 tablespoons sifted flour, and 5 tablespoons of sugar. The name derives from the method in which the cake / pie was baked. Put simply; the earliest Boston Cream Pie pastry chefs baked a cake in a pie tin and it was advertised as “pudding” or “custard” “pie cake.”
Now that we solved the mystery I had to head to the so-called ‘birth place’ of Boston Cream Pie. I traveled to the Omni Parker House and ordered myself a slice. The bartender who served me was friendly, handed me a few pamphlets about the hotel and noted that he knew absolutely nothing about Boston Cream Pie other than it is popular during the holidays. My pie arrived and I was in awe of its presentation and its accompanying dollop of whipped cream.
Although the Omni Parker House’s pie looked heavenly, Dianne’s Boston Cream Pie was embarrassingly better than the ‘original.’ AND THAT ladies and gentlemen is why you must always seek out the locals when searching for a fine meal or piece of pie.
I arrive a touch late to the Longhouse mug match-up taking place Sunday evening in the dining room. My mug reminds me of a damask print in waves of taupe and ivory. It is smooth and cool to the touch. Clearly this ceramic object is about more than just morning coffee. It serves as a visual, a writer’s inspiration, but at daybreak tomorrow, it will cradle a steaming cup of french press with a heavy dose of whole milk.
Monday, our tiny Hamlet dawns sunny, nudging me to greet the day. There is just the slightest hint of iced triple shot latte deprivation pulsing through my temples. I trade pjs for shorts and sweatshirt, coax sleepy feet into socks and running shoes. Like a petit cochon seeking truffles, my nose slightly twitching in anticipation and desperation, I descend the creaky wooden staircase. Where is the onslaught of rich French roast mingling with earthy Italian? The kitchen is dark, the french press snoozing on the counter. It is too early for coffee and I am crestfallen.
Pushing open the unlocked screen door, the sunlight is temporarily blinding. Looking right and then left, I am convinced that I am stepping into Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners.
My sneakers opt left, navigating the uneven slate walkway that winds past wrought iron fences dotted with black-eyed Susans, The road is now inching upwards, paved black gravel meeting road sign 85. My knees are getting cranky, and the hill winds steeper still, finally leveling off opposite a small wooden shed, bleached light gray from the sun. There is a table set with a still life of yellow squash and vivid tomatoes, priced at 3/$1, with an honor system box below. I am thirsty and thinking about coffee.
Retracing my steps, there appears to be only one option for am caffeine at this hour. The neon red sign in the window of the Hilltown Café Diner states O-P-E-N. How convenient that the diner just so happens to share a building with the U.S. Post Office. Note to self: Next time bring a letter.
The diner draws me in, and surprisingly does not disappoint. The air is thick with the smell of frying eggs and bacon on cast-iron, maple flavored syrup and drip coffee from a Bunn-o-matic. Fashioned out of knotty pine and flanked by high backed chairs, the counter has a wavy bend to it, ideal for sitting up close without bumping your knees. I am completely out of my typical morning comfort zone, the clientele a polar opposite to my usual 8 am routine. Here, men are dressed in sensible dungarees, a few in flannel shirts, a few in practical short sleeve plaid, all engrossed in conversation and cups of joe.
There is no espresso machine, no line of impatient caffeine dependent commuters waiting for their soy lattes to grab and go. Nary a baby-toting Mom in yoga pants looking for a scone and a jolt.
I belly up to the side bar and help myself to a simple brown paper cup. There are two kinds of coffee for the offing; regular and decaffeinated. A quart container of half and half is resting in a cup of ice, cozying up to the sugar packets and stir sticks, making it easy to forget all about almond milk. The coffee is strong enough and hot enough to fuel my caffeine deprived soul. For now.
Once again I am on my way, temporarily buoyant with a caffeine buzz. Sneakers descend the hill, heel/toe, heel/toe. “West Side Story” is orchestral in my earbuds and I’m involuntarily ‘jazz handing’ as I round the bend.
The aroma is unmistakable as I cross the threshold of the house which is now abuzz with Young Scholars. Front and center on the farmhouse dining room table is a french press, poised and ready to pour.
I have just the very mug for it.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm