In little more than an hour of flight time, Porter Airlines has deposited me in downtown Toronto. Traveling by streetcar, we wind our way through the city, arriving at the new digs of Sibling Sister and family. In the light-filled kitchen, I can’t help but notice a basket of Red Haven peaches resting on the counter. Mentally forecasting their destiny in a circle or two of pâte brisée, I turn my attention to an abundant platter of cheeses and crusty bread. My brother-in-law, AJ, knows his way around the local Portuguese markets. He is also a stellar mixologist. Soon we are singing too many choruses of Cracklin’ Rosie followed by a painful medley of 1960s bubble gum pop. Regaining a semblance of normalcy with a quick switch to Journey, we segue into REM followed by an enthusiastic rendition of Roundabout by YES. It has been eight months since my last visit to Toronto.
I am desperate to return to the St. Lawrence Market. On a weekday in late August, the market hums as summer rolls into fall. Unlike the somber root vegetables of January, the stalls of the market are abundant with gorgeous berries and stone fruit. The produce is a study in gravitational wonder; fresh figs, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries, each basket painstakingly arranged in artful pyramids. Within arm’s reach of Sweet Ontario maple syrup, tiny wild blueberries vie for attention beside their highbush counterparts. Clusters of deep purple concord grapes tumble out of corrugated baskets, their fragrance conjuring visions of sandwich bread, peanut butter, and a jelly by Welch’s.
Unwilling to acknowledge September’s entrance, I breeze past baskets of early Pippins, McIntosh, and Crispins. In a blaze of red and yellow glory, the last hurrah of summer peaches wave farewell. Dragging my feet at Billy Bishop Airport, Porter Airlines beckons with a complimentary latte in the lounge and a glass of wine on the plane.
The end of summer always seems to arrive without warning. How can it possibly be apple season when we just enjoyed our first taste of peaches? Once Labor Day rolls around, it is a rapid downward spiral from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas, ultimately crashing into the New Year. The retail bakery clock waits for no one. I am seriously considering the idea of following the Canadian calendar. Celebrating Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October sounds terribly civilized. It just so happens that Mondays are my day off. Kismet.
COMFORT IN A CUSTARD PIE
Custard pie doesn’t ask very much of you. With a mere flick of the whisk, eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla are coaxed into the most humble of fillings. It is exactly what you want to eat when you don’t know what you want to eat. Skip the fluted glass Pyrex dishes and the water bath. Opt for the lightly baked pie shell and don’t be stingy with the nutmeg. This will require rifling through the kitchen cabinet, dropping jars of pink peppercorns and poultry seasoning smuggled back from Provence on your exposed ankles. You will circle the lazy susan of spices again and again before unearthing the ancient grater with a few remnants of nutmeg. Tiny flecks floating down to the surface of the custard will provide the barest of, but just enough embellishment.
According to several weathered cookbooks on my buckling bookshelf, lovers of custard pie might consider a ‘slip custard’ approach. This method seems somewhat bold to me, requiring a steady hand and considerable pluck. A pre baked pie shell waits expectantly for a filling baked in a pie plate of the same size. When the custard has sufficiently cooled, it is ‘slipped’ into the beckoning crust. This technique does not call to me as I am feeling neither bold nor plucky.
No matter how long you’ve been watching and waiting for the grief train to come rolling down the tracks, when it finally arrives, you find yourself wondering if you’ve boarded the wrong train. Maybe you misread the schedule and your train, the peace train, is really down one flight of stairs, up another, on the opposite platform. The grief train is local, making every stop, refusing you a transfer at the next station. It is the one train I wish I had missed.
A few summers back, I was unable to attend a gathering at my brother’s home in honor of my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. My father put together a collection of some of his favorite shirts, still in pristine condition. The buttons on the button-down collars were perfectly intact, the 100% cotton fabrics still bright. All of the children, grandchildren and even the great grandchildren donned one of the shirts, gathering together for a photo on an overstuffed sofa. I was otherwise occupied in upstate New York, writing about and thinking about food. When I returned on Labor Day, I made sure to snag one of my father’s shirts. In the last few years, several of those long sleeved plaid shirts have found their way into my closet. I like to wear them to work; the sleeves are long enough to roll back, out of the way of fruit and flour, but offering protection between the gap in the oven mitt and a bare arm. They also feel like a hug.
Every time I don one of my father’s shirts, I think about that photograph. As a family we have been luckier than most, dodging grief for decades. My brother-in-law recently suggested that losing someone dear to you is a little bit like an earthquake. What I have come to learn is that the earthquake takes up residence in your heart. I’m new to the grief game but I believe I can get through this. My father prepared me well.
HERE COMES THE PIED
My wedding cake was baked by my college roommate, Betsy. It was the most glorious combination of vanilla genoise cradling dark chocolate mousse. Instead of buttercream, each tier was wrapped in a wide ribbon of chocolate, the top covered in chocolate ruffles. Betsy and our friend, Pamela, packed each tier in individual white bakery boxes and drove the cake from Connecticut to New Jersey. They assembled the cake when they arrived, tucking sprays of baby’s breath and autumn flowers between the tiers. In today’s vernacular, you would say the cake was assembled “on site.” I didn’t think of it as a “site”- I thought of it as my parent’s dining room table.
I still dream about that cake, remembering how we packed up the top tier in a makeshift box, squeezing it into our cramped freezer on East 97th Street. More vividly, I recall repeatedly opening the door to the freezer, slicing off slivers of chocolate ruffle cake until it was gone. First Anniversary cake never had a chance.
In the 1980s, I baked a wedding cake for my college friends, Mary and Jim. The cake was rich with sour cream and studded with miniature chocolate chips. The bottom tier measured 14” in diameter, requiring me to constantly adjust the oven temperature downwards so the center of the cake would bake evenly and the edges wouldn’t over bake. The size of the middle tier escapes me, but the top tier was the requisite 6” because I knew Mary and Jim would freeze the top tier to eat on their anniversary. I do remember making several batches of Italian meringue buttercream, waiting impatiently for the sugar syrup to reach 238 degrees on a candy thermometer. My wrist wobbled under the weight of the heavy-bottomed saucepan as I tried to avoid splashing sugar syrup on the mixer’s whisk attachment. The softly beaten egg whites combined with cubes of cool, not cold, butter morphed into velvety buttercream, fragrant with vanilla. Lavishly yet imperfectly iced, I placed fresh flowers hither and thither amongst the tiers, aiming for a look both casual yet elegant. The buttercream alone warranted a cardiac care team standing by.
This was long before Etsy and Craftsy, Jet Fete and the Knot. The term ‘destination wedding’ had yet to be part of the vernacular and wedding invitations arrived by snail mail. Miraculously, without benefit of Google maps guests found their way. I attended a handful of weddings as a guest, dozens as a wedding cake ‘vendor.’ Wedding cakes were tiered, iced in buttercream, more often than not piped in basketweave, and festooned with botannicals. A decade later, fresh flowers began to make way for flowers grown on small farms, painstakingly painted with organic egg whites and dipped in sugar. It was also the beginning of the end of buttercream. I hung up my piping bag with the basketweave tip and learned how to roll fondant. The 1990s also ushered in a quiet movement with the farm to table folks; pie was beginning to make its entrance at wedding receptions.
The antithesis to the formal wedding, casual weddings were on the rise. Receptions were celebrated lakeside and oceanside, in barns, open fields, and vineyards. Pie was far less stuffy than wedding cake and from my vantage point, so much easier to deliver.
My very first encounter with a Pie Bride was in the mid 1990s. The bride ordered one dozen pies in various flavors to be delivered to a barn somewhere in New Hope, Pa. Missing was the requisite skirted cake table decorated with generic florist greens. Instead, a picnic table draped in red and white gingham held bell jars filled with sunflowers. I set the pies on pedestal cake platters of various heights and looked around; nothing matched and it was perfect.
To be fair, pies and weddings go as far back as four-and-twenty-blackbirds-baked- in-a-pie, pie. In the 16th century, ‘Surprise Pyes’ and 'Bride Pie' were a common hybrid of dessert and entertainment. Large pastry shells, depressingly dubbed coffins, were baked with a large cavity, capable of holding small live birds. When the lid of the pastry was removed, the birds flew out, to the surprise (or horror) of the guests.
Bride Pie is mentioned in Robert May’s, The Accomplish’t Cook. Written in 1660, Bride Pie was an assemblage of several pies, boasting assorted fillings. Mr. May suggests “oysters, prawns, cockles, and artichocks.” He also proposes (in olde English vernacular) the use of “live birds, or a snake, which will seem strange to the beholder, which cut up the Pie at the table. This is onely for a Wedding to pass away time.” Clearly it was years before Mr. May and his guests would pass away the time dancing to YMCA and the Macarena. It is no surprise to learn a common ingredient found in each of Mr. May’s recipes is butter; the only ingredient I am willing to borrow from his compendium.
This weekend will find me surrounded by my favorite people, celebrating the marriage of Julia and Blake. We will be enjoying slices of wedding pie and local ice cream in our old stomping grounds of Philadelphia. I hope I don't find a surprise in the pies.
ICE CREAM IN AUGUST
There is an unopened container of vanilla ice cream in the freezer, just waiting for someone to pry the lid free and take the first scoop. The recent loss of Broadway legend Barbara Cook provides a perfect excuse to feed my sorrow. What better way to celebrate the woman who sang about the virtues of vanilla ice cream in the musical, “She Loves Me” than to break the seal on the container. I cross the kitchen floor in search of a sensible spoon.
Let’s be honest, August provides a perfect excuse for ice cream consumption and I’ve been doing my part. Although partial to the traditional black and white twist dipped or dunked in dark chocolate, I have been exploring new ice cream options based on familial recommendations. Both Blondilocks and Newly Canadian Nephew Sam have pointed me in the direction of ‘’Yellow Cake Batter” at a popular NYC ice cream spot. The ice cream tasted exactly as promised; a clever combination of smooth frozen custard infused with the flavor of classic birthday cake. Generously dipped in chocolate, with one spoonful I was transported to birthday parties of the 1960s. The only thing missing was a garland of crepe paper, a rousing game of Pin-the-Tail-On-the-Donkey, and the smell of freshly extinguished birthday candles. Food memory in an ice cream cup is a mighty powerful thing.
The blackboard hanging on the wall of NYC’s Big Gay Ice Cream spans the entire counter. The flavor combinations are suitably penned in rainbow chalk, offering cone upgrades, cone linings, and enough flavors to make a unicorn prance. Staring/not staring, I observed a perfectly unassuming Size Zero individual tuck into a sundae called, the “Blueberry Gobbler.” Vanilla ice cream, fresh blueberries, and piecrust pieces cozying up to blueberry balsamic swirls, it was a blinding combination of purple, cream, and burple. I made a mental note for my next visit. Size Zero’s plastic spoon was flying through the sundae with great abandon. Further down the line, someone was ordering a gluten free cone lined with peanut butter, filled with chocolate, topped with olive oil and sea salt. Silly me; I thought a cup of “Yellow Cake Batter” was daring.
Possibly inspired by Big Gay Ice Cream’s blueberry sundae or simply because I have to do something with two quart containers of blueberries purchased last week, blueberry pie is on my menu. Leafing through a recent issue of a glossy pie and tart magazine while on line at Whole Paycheck, I’m fixated with a photo of a cinnamon swirl crust. I’m on it, just like olive oil and sea salt on a gluten free-peanut butter lined-chocolate ice cream cone. When the pie is out of the oven and has cooled its heels, you can bet your unicorn I'll be serving it with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream.
The peach man cometh, steering a flatbed of stone fruit seeking shelter. Six cases in all, three white and three yellow, the peaches are neither fragrant nor ready for pie-ing. Unable to offer the peaches a place in the sun, I gesture to a few vacant square feet of checkered linoleum. Overhead, a relentless fruit fly swoops in for a quick look; disinterested, the fly returns to my work area, hell bent on tormenting me.
With a short-term memory like a fine-mesh strainer, I am unable to retain the fact that six cases of fruit are sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor. After several near misses, I decide to relocate the fruit to the rear of the bakery. There’s barely enough space against the wall, directly adjacent to the industrial ice machine. The floor-to-ceiling, commercial cuber and I are about to come to blows. The crash of ice followed by a reboot from the compressor is deafening. Even the fruit fly is putting his wings in his ears.
It’s too early in the day for any sort of mood altering beverage, unless of course, you happen to be residing in a small European city high atop the hills of Austria. Living vicariously through the travels of Master/Master and Sweet Soprano is a fine distraction, especially when photos of European sweets are included within their correspondence.
Most recently, Master/Master snapped a few up-close-and-personal shots from his Kremcake excursion to Zagreb. (See this week’s Pies About Town for a full recount.) Surrounded by peaches, I see no Kremcake in my future. This doesn’t stop me however, from dreaming of an exquisite European peach dessert from a previous visit to Vienna.
La tarte aux pêches Bourdaloue sounds quite glamorous, and it is. A tart shell filled with almond cream, topped with curvaceous peach halves, it can also be made with pears or apricots. My memory of this tart featured peaches, a jewel-like dessert staring back at me from the glass case of Vienna’s Demel’s food emporium.
Is there a better antidote to a day featuring the boom-boom-boom of Motown with ice cuber playing back-up? Doubtful. With the mercury hovering near 90 degrees, poaching peaches in Lillet Blanc and blind baking a tart shell requires the briefest stove top/oven encounter. Peaches and Lillet may not be a holiday in Europe but in desperate times, to peach his own.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm