For the life of me, I cannot keep track of what the cool kids are and are not eating. Just recently, a sensitive soul stood at the bakery counter and confessed, “I have a sensitivity to Bakers Yeast.”
Somebody pour me a stiff glass of tonic.
The first time I was approached by an individual requesting a very specific ingredient substitution due to a food sensitivity was in Philadelphia, circa mid-1980s. It was in the early days of A Slice of Heaven, our strictly-from-scratch restaurant known for Windy City Overstuffed Vegetable Pie (a riff on Chicago’s stuffed pizza, and yes, made with yeast), French-press coffee served in individual Bodum brewers (a dishwasher’s nightmare) and our decadent desserts (Chocolate Death and the Night and Day Mousse Cake). Let’s suppose the man requesting the dessert was a man named David. And let’s suppose the man was a well-known actor, appearing in a popular weekly television series that took place at a hospital. Let’s also assume that the hospital was located Elsewhere.
The reason I bring this up is because there are so many allergies and sensitivities swirling around the bakery these days, it’s hard to know what to eat and what to avoid. Sometimes what I believe is going to be a conversation about a cake order becomes an interrogation. It seems that every time I answer the bakery phone, the laundry list of food sensitivities and allergies grows longer. I’ll be the first to admit, my patience grows shorter.
What I remember about Mr. Morse, I mean David, was his appreciation for the birthday cake we delivered to him year after year. A classic low-slung cheesecake, baked in a water bath until slightly wobbly in the center then covered in a sour cream topping and returned to the oven for a last hurrah. It was a pretty humble assemblage of ingredients with nothing fancy about it. Except for the crust. The crust on the cheesecake had to be made from Walkers pure butter shortbread, a single cellophane sleeve of biscuits packaged in a tartan box. The shortbread cookie crust was the most luxurious part of the entire birthday cake. I don’t even remember the reasoning behind the Walkers shortbread other than the biscuits were made up of four ingredients; wheat flour, butter, sugar and salt. David was explicit about that crust, but in the nicest of ways.
I hadn’t picked up a box of those very Scottish biscuits in decades, until the day before yesterday. It was a relief to see that they are still dressed in classic Scottish tartan. Upon closer inspection however, the Walkers now announce in bold print on the back of the box: NOT SUITABLE FOR NUT ALLERGY SUFFERERS. Contains: Milk, Wheat, Gluten. Who knew?
The reasoning behind the shortbread purchase was to create a pie without turning on the oven. I have been waiting to try a recipe for a Gin and Tonic pie sent to me from Blondilocks’ sweet friend, Cass. Reading through the recipe, it seemed there was no getting around the oven. With the mercury climbing ever skyward, I took Cass’s recipe and did a little tweaking. I substituted stove-top citrus curd for the oven baked filling. The Walkers biscuits made a top-notch crumb crust; buttery, sweet and just the slightest bit salty. Unable to choose between lemon and lime, I chose both, perfectly complimenting the mascarpone and gin-spiked mousse. The pie is finished off with fresh berries tossed in a syrup of gin and tonic. I was more than delighted to prepare the syrup, having been advised by both my sage father and my health care professional to increase my consumption of tonic water. Its medicinal properties are key to the well being of anyone who stands all day and then chooses running as their after work hobby. Don’t worry, Dad; I’m following the doctor’s orders and have the tonic consumption under control. By the way, it works even better with a splash of gin.
In hindsight, it’s a very good thing Mr. Morse played a doctor on television, just in case someone had stumbled into the ER without reading the bold print on the shortbread box. But then again, in the 80’s we didn’t talk about gluten. We talked about oat bran and Death by Chocolate, two obsessions blissfully treated by the simple passage of time.
There’s a moment on every flight when you wait with bated breath to meet your seatmates. Saturday evening, LA bound from Newark, I hoisted my carry-on overhead, sat down and scanned the aisle. To my amazement, my seatmates turned out to be perfectly agreeable. We exchanged pleasantries, sticks of gum and then hunkered down for the long flight. Without uttering a word, when our seatmate by the window wished to stretch her legs and visit the ladies lounge, we all unbuckled our seat belts and followed suit. Choreographed as seamlessly as a Jerome Robbins ballet, we traveled as one, disturbed no one. Across the aisle, the mix of personalities would prove to be more turbulent than the flight.
A short man in madras shorts came scooting down the aisle weighted down with both suitcase and duffel bag. Upon closer inspection, the duffel bag was a modified dog carrier. Tucked inside was a dachshund without a boarding pass. Madras was a needy individual, requiring ample space for his dog, his carry-on, his in-flight slippers. In the middle seat was a most unhappy woman; we hadn’t even left the ground and there was simmering conflict between the two seatmates concerning legroom. Just before take-off, the third of the threesome arrived, taking his window seat. I can only describe the man as larger than life. The seats are narrow, the dog carrier is not soft-sided and refuses to fit beneath the seat. Dachshund whimpers, eyeing me with that sad Dachshund expression. Believe me little doggy, with five plus hours to travel, I’m whimpering too.
In order to stretch their legs, the folks seated across from me must stand in the aisle. As they spill out of their seats, there is no longer an aisle because they are basically wedged against my personal space. They are shuffling themselves, and I am leaning as far to my right as is humanly possible. There is something vaguely and painfully Cirque du Soleil about this move. The most considerate of the bunch is the dachshund who it appears, is not on the plane’s manifest. There’s a heated exchange of words between Mr. Madras and the flight attendant. I bury my head in my book and pray for tail winds. It occurs to me we’re heading west and tailwinds won’t really come into play until my return flight. I can only hope that traveling from LA to NJ will feature different players. Be careful what you wish for.
On Wednesday, I am once again wading through the high tide of security. Having forgotten Blondilocks’ travel mantra, Jam is a Liquid, my carry-on bag is checked. Other than terrorism, turbulence and unforeseen Acts of God, my only concern is protecting a slice of raspberry rhubarb pie tucked into my small tote bag. In front of me, a man, a woman and a very new baby are navigating an enormous baby stroller tethered to a pair of fluffy dogs. I lose them at security only to be reunited with them at Gate 34, bound for Newark. The dad is cajoling the crying baby with an irritating sing-songy platitude. I am appalled and terrified; what if this traveling dog and baby show is seated in row 16?!
The good news is that I am seated several rows behind the dogs and baby. Quite honestly, I would have been happy to sit with the adorable dogs. The bad news is that the baby cries for a solid hour before being drowned out by the intermittent screeching of a child seated behind me. I wanted to cry, too. The young woman to my left finds sitting a challenge and wants to stand in the aisle, except when she doesn’t want to stand in the aisle. There’s an awful lot of up and downing until I finally call it quits. “Look,” I suggest to the woman with acute restless leg syndrome. “Maybe it would be better if you go and stand in the rear of the plane with the flight attendants.” I am desperately trying to protect my small tote bag, neatly tucked beneath the seat in front of me. Behind me, a leggy traveler feels the need to wedge her feet between my armrest. I didn’t think that was humanly possible unless you were in the throes of a Vinyasa class. Namaste.
With just an hour of the flight remaining, I retrieve the brown paper bag from Sqirl. The oversized slice of raspberry rhubarb pie is as delicious as it is restorative. With each forkful, I am closer to the gate.
The mercury has been hovering above the 90 degree mark for too many consecutive days. The kitchen is tropical at best but outside of the bakery, folks have been celebrating with a vengeance. Based on the number of cakes parading out the door, folks are happy if not downright congratulatory. The discussions concerning custom work fondant and ombre ruffles of buttercream have reached a dizzying peak. Maybe the crux of the problem is the array of options. When entertaining the idea of cake for a crowd, there are many choices. Take your pick from circles or squares, rectangles or tiers. Sandwich them together with custards or curds, jams or ganache, then send them on their way gussied up in swirls of buttercream. More times than not, the party cakes I see leaving the building can feed a small army. I have also noticed that pies have been snatched up with such a frenzy that you would almost think it’s that Wednesday before that Thursday in November.
In the world of party pies, anyone who is anyone knows that Slab Pie is what the cool kids are eating this summer. At least that’s the word from the woman seated at a café table in front of the bakery. She is sipping an iced coffee beverage and oversharing in excruciating detail. I am seated nearby eating an Icelandic-style yogurt made by someone named siggi who prefers lowercase to uppercase. I’m half-listening to the conversation but it’s impossible not to hear the entire play by play.
“And then they brought out dessert, and it was this thing called a Slab Pie. It was HUGE, sort of a giant Pop-Tart in this HUGE pan. And they must have cut, I don’t know, a ton of slices. And you didn’t really need a fork to eat it and it was such a good idea, this big SLAB of pie with all this crust, because you know, I’m a crust person…”
Each time the term Slab Pie is mentioned, it strikes a discordant nerve within my Dog-Days-of-August-in-New-Jersey self. Slab Pie is a delicious way to feed an onslaught of fork wielding or barehanded sweet seekers. My complaint is not with the pie. It’s with the notion that a double-crusted pie baked in a jelly-roll pan is a new idea. It is not.
Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook was published in 1965. Among the 700 recipes for sweet and savory pies, 8” and 9”pies are the norm, but every now and again, there are recipes instructing bakers to use cookie sheets or jelly-roll pans. In 1965, many of us were lucky enough to spend time in the kitchen. We grew up knowing that you placed spoonfuls of Toll House cookie dough on cookie sheets. Sponge cake was baked in a jelly-roll pan, turned out onto a clean kitchen towel dusted with powdered sugar and rolled up. It was finally filled with jelly, re-rolled and sliced for dessert.
The authors of Farm Journal’s pie compendium aren’t kidding when they describe their Frosted Big Apple Pie as a “jumbo apple pie for treating a crowd.” This slab pie calls for 5 pounds of apples and is baked in a 15½” x 10½” jelly-roll pan. Yielding 24 servings, the pie pastry recipe makes enough for 1 Frosted Big Apple Pie or 3 double crust 9” pies. There is also a suggestion to “have a pot of coffee ready to pour” with this slab of pie. The ladies of the Farm Journal Test Kitchens strike me as the sort of women that mean business; if they tell me to put the coffee on, they need not ask me twice.
I grew up eating all sorts of pies, dictated by the season. In late summer, Jessie would bypass a traditional pie plate for a jelly-roll pan. It was stored in a cabinet above the oven, wedged in between the cookie sheets and the cooling racks. Unlike her standard flaky pie crust, this was more of a cookie crust. Made tender by the addition of sour cream, the dough was patted into the bottom of the pan and up the sides. Ripe yellow peaches were first blanched, allowing the skins to slip off easily, then pitted and saved with their runaway juices in a Pyrex bowl. The kitchen was fragrant with the sweetness of those peaches, of summer. As an onlooker, the entire blanching, peeling, slicing process looked too hot for untrained hands. Jessie’s hands were impervious to the heat as she cut still-hot peaches into thick wedges. The peaches stretched out across one half of the cookie crust, while rows of blueberries tumbled across the other half, the two meeting in the middle. The open-faced pie was shiny with a simple glaze made from the reserved peach skins, pits and juices, boiled down until syrupy with just a hint of almond extract. It was unlike any other pie Jessie made which might have been partly responsible for its celebrity status. The pie was served with big scoops of vanilla ice cream that collided with the warm fruit leaving a puddle of peachy-blue beneath our cake forks. It may very well have been a slab of pie, but it wasn’t eaten out of hand; until the following morning. Moving stealthily through the kitchen, I would slice off a small piece and call it breakfast; my hope was to remove a slice without anyone noticing. I am certain Jessie had some sort of pie radar- she always noticed. “Have you been eatin’ that pie?” she would ask. Guilty.
I have been thinking a lot about that pie this week, maybe because when it gets ghastly hot in the kitchen, I always think about Jessie. I see her sitting at the kitchen table with a tall glass of iced tea, a well-worn cookbook open in front of her. I wonder what she would have thought about all the hoopla surrounding Slab Pie. She probably would have laughed, “The peach and blueberry pie? Your grandmother made that pie. That’s an old pie. People think that’s something new? That’s ridiculous.”
I become irritated when I overhear people gushing about the newest “It Girl” of baked goods, or reading articles about desserts and their cult status. Desserts that have been tucked into weathered cookbooks and recipe files for the longest time. Everybody loves to tinker with a classic recipe, just don’t tell me that you invented it. As for swapping out the peaches and blueberries in Jessie’s pie, it may be ridiculous, but it’s pretty tasty.
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we are in the midst of a peach crisis.
There’s been way too much squabbling recently about the color of the peach and the state of the peach or more accurately, the lack of peaches in many states. Farm stands and markets dotting New England, the Hudson Valley, southern New York and parts of New Jersey are feeling the effects of what is known among farmers as the “Valentine’s Day Massacre.” Frigid temps blew into town on the 13th and 14th of February wreaking havoc on fragile peach crops. In light of this news, one would think the retail pie crowd would appreciate whatever bounty comes their way. One would think.
On more than one occasion this week, lattice lovers have called the bakery to inquire about this weekend’s pie forecast. Others wandered in, sorting through each and every windowed pie box in the hopes of securing exactly what they wanted. I wish I knew what that was, but clearly it was not in the box nor on the rack nor in the oven. One individual had to know what else was available and I replied,“White Peach. Blueberry. Key Lime. White Peach with Cornmeal Crumble.” The oven timer signaled for attention as Ms. What Else Is Available watched me don the Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man oven mitts. She persisted, “What’s in the oven?” I repeated, “White Peach. Blueberry. Key Lime. White Peach with Cornmeal Crumble.” Is there an echo?
Speedy Icer answered the phone yesterday and listened patiently. Would there be peach pies for the weekend? Standing in front of flats of peaches awaiting their fate under the blade of my paring knife, I nodded. “White peach. We have white peaches.” After much discussion it was decided that the pie seeker would take a pass. “I don’t like white peaches,” was the comment. “I have some yellow peaches at home. I’ll bake one myself.” If you insist, Madam.
The month of August is quintessential peach consumption month. Believe me, I am crestfallen that my favorite yellow peach, the Red Haven is proving elusive. But that doesn’t mean I don’t show respect for the beauty and subtle flavor of the white peach.
White peaches are almost floral in flavor, less brazenly sweet than their yellow counterparts. Eaten out of hand, white peaches are still juicy but slightly more ladylike, a little less madcap. You might say white peaches are orchestral music played beneath a night sky while yellow peaches are jazz hands in front of a mylar curtain. Mother Nature has thrown a curve ball derailing an entire crop. This leaves hard working farmers in the lurch and peach lovers with empty wicker baskets. Maybe we can be a little flexible and appreciate what we have right here, right now, and stop bemoaning what isn’t available?
In a perfect pie world, fruit would peel itself and be blemish free. Fruit flies would bypass my ankles and pâte brisée would ease into pie plates all by itself. I wouldn’t have to hear that the double-crusted blueberry pie that had bubbled over was “aesthetically displeasing.”
It’s a good thing I’m not overly sensitive. In my line of work it’s beneficial to have a thick skin; more like a yellow peach, less like a white one.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm