The woman behind the counter at Williams Sonoma is smiling as broadly and sweetly as a jack o’ lantern with a mouthful of candy corn. Assaulted by the distinctive combination of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, my nose twitches. I feel a sneeze of September coming on. To my left, an expansive table is decked out in autumnal splendor; harvest blooms and botanical gourds sprawl across linens, soup tureens and mugs destined for hot cider. Salad plates, conveniently sold in sets of four, compete with over-sized dinner plates edged in meandering vines. Adjacent to the register, a serving dish fashioned out of restaurant quality French porcelain is garnering interest. Customers are flocking to the Apilco-brand platter dotted with samples. I stand back, allowing a group of four full access to the accordion pleated white paper cups. Several of the hungrier shoppers double-fist the miniscule samples of pumpkin quick bread. Having sported a green Williams Sonoma apron in a Philadelphia outpost for several years, as a former “Casual Employee,” I consider myself well versed in their autumn line-up. However, the closer I scrutinize the offerings, the more evident it becomes that yesterday’s pumpkin bread has received a makeover. She is positively gourdeous.
I am blindsided by a display of not one, but six versions of the famous Pumpkin Quick bread; traditional, spiced pecan pumpkin, pumpkin caramel, pumpkin chocolate chunk, and pumpkin chocolate swirl. There’s also a gluten free version of something called pumpkin cheesecake quick bread mix. Not only are the quick breads available solo, you can now purchase them paired with a jar of traditional pumpkin butter, pecan pumpkin butter, or caramel pumpkin butter. In order to schmear or slab your butter of choice on your pumpkin-y bread, you may add to your cart your very own set of ivory handled butter spreaders. I must have been living under a rock for the past twenty years.
“Pumpkin quick bread?” the salesperson proffers with enthusiasm. I hold up both hands in a panic, shaking my head in the negative. A manager sidles up to me gushing, “Don’t you just love fall? Have you tried our Spiced Pumpkin Seed Brittle Bites?” the retailer inquires, barely coming up for air. I cannot for the life of me understand what she’s talking about. A brittle pumpkin bite sounds like something that might require a tetanus shot. “And don’t miss our new autumn tabletop collection…” she calls after me as I backstroke towards the exit. Temporarily blinded by enamel cookware in blazing shades of orange, I whack my elbow on a heavy lidded cast iron coquette shaped like a Cinderella pumpkin.
Once again, I decline an offer of Spiced Pumpkin Seed Brittle Bites. Standing at the intersection of pumpkin mole and pumpkin pie spice macarons, I vacillate between dizziness and nausea. Realizing I have forgotten what brought me here in the first place, my seersucker Topsiders start edging towards the mall entrance, but not before the designated “Greeter” asks me if I’d like to sample the Pumpkin Gooey Bar Mix. I would not. The word ‘Medic!’ is about to tumble out of my mouth. Whatever it was that I thought I needed will have to wait until January when the quick breads return to routine citrus flavors, sans spice. What is our fascination, no, our obsession with pumpkin? Remember the time we were obsessed with oat bran, carob, and kiwis, or am I the only one?
On a much smaller scale, we have a fair share of pumpkin enablers at the bakery intent on jumpstarting the season. A certain pie baker refuses to unearth the number ten cans of pumpkin before absolutely necessary. I am as unwilling to retire my white capris to the rear of my closet as I am to open the pumpkin chocolate chip quick bread floodgates. “Let them wait until October 1st,” I snarl, much to the chagrin of the retail public and a few of the eager bakers waiting for loaf pan direction. “It’s not even Labor Day!” I continue, exasperated with both the end of summer and the onslaught of a holiday-riddled season. There seems to be something inherently wrong with launching pumpkin anything when there are still peaches in the building. Disgruntled and dismayed, I head for home where my spices live singular lives in the kitchen cabinet, and orange is limited to a generous curl of peel in an icy Aperol Spritz. I will embrace autumn when the time is right, roughly September 23rd, the official first day of fall. Until then, you can spot me wearing white shoes and white pants and possibly seersucker because under the rock where I live, it’s still summer.
National Waffle Day will be celebrated this Saturday, August 24th, yet another unofficial food holiday that continues to gain momentum via social media. In the days prior to insta-everything, we relied on word of mouth for generating pop culture momentum. Today, we turn to #nationalwaffleday for all the waffle news fit to consume. Before you begin scrolling Yelp reviews in your quest for the best syrup smothered waffles, let's take a moment to learn a little bit about early waffles and what the holiday actually commemorates.
Waffles have been traced all the way back to ancient Greece, where flat cakes called Obelios were roasted between two metal plates attached to a long wooden handle, Obelio batters were originally unleavened and unsweetened, more akin to a religious wafer. Over time, the humble batter was enhanced with cinnamon or ginger, honey, butter, and cream. Leavening agents created thicker waffles, and the waffle irons themselves were no longer imprinted with coat of arms, landscapes, or religious symbols, as they had been in the 14th century.
In the 15th century, Dutch waflers (single ‘f’) opted for rectangular waffle iron plates instead of round. Grid patterns were a result of both the forging process and artisan craftsmanship. We have the Dutch to thank for bringing waffles to America where we opted to pair them with maple syrup; at the time, it was a less expensive sweetener than sugar. What began as a humble between meal snack in Europe would later take center stage on breakfast tables throughout America.
As for the seemingly random August date affixed to National Waffle Day, there’s a reason behind it. History tells us that the American inventor, Cornelius Swartwout, received the very first U.S. patent for the waffle iron on August 24, 1869. Fashioning his waffle iron out of two large cast iron plates secured by a hinge, Swartwout’s rudimentary stove-top appliance was a precursor to General Electric’s freestanding waffle iron, introduced in 1918. This relatively small kitchen appliance would forever change Sunday mornings for sleepy-eyed Americans.
I was one of those tired Sunday morning waffle-seekers, fixated by the light on the Sunbeam electric waffle iron, waiting for the red light to indicate that the iron was hot enough to accept the Bisquick batter, and then again, impatient for it to turn green signaling 'done.' Armed with a fork to emancipate the four cross-hatched squares from the iron, it was traditional for a wall of steam to hit you smack in the face upon opening the appliance. It was well worth the wait and the facial because waffles, with their crispy/crunchy edges and deep pockets, were infinitely more fun than pancakes.
The Sunbeam was merely a pre-cursor to the waffle irons I was yet to meet. In my restaurant-owning days, we poured a rich, eggy batter into a cavernous commercial waffle iron, notorious for overworking the electrical service. Its preferred time to short out was at the peak of the brunch rush. The fragrance of butter, vanilla, and bacon was often overshadowed by the hint of something burning; residual batter that had dripped onto the heating element. Praying for brunch service to end and armed with a ginormous oven mitt, I timidly unplugged the damn iron. Years later, the restaurant job that required hotel pans of tiramisu also tethered me to a pizzelle iron with a fondness for electrical fireworks every time I plugged the tired cord in or out of the wall socket.
Recently, on a trip to picturesque Amsterdam, I waited in several long lines in order to secure a very different kind of waffle. The stroopwafel, (Dutch for syrup waffle) is a sandwich composed of two very thin vanilla waffle cookies filled with a dream of dark caramel.
The stroopwafel dates back to 1784, when a humble baker from the town of Gouda created a waffle made from leftover crumbs and spices. It was as unappealing as it sounds, causing the baker to doctor up the cookie by filling it with syrup.
A smaller version of the stroopwafel is now available worldwide, even offered as a snack cookie on certain airlines. There is no comparison between the commercially made cookies and a fresh one hot off the waffle iron, but in a pinch, I've been known to purchase a package at Trader Joes. To truly enjoy a stroopwafel, fragrant with butter and caramel, and just the slightest hint of cinnamon, you need the stroopwafel experience. It’s so interesting to think that the stroopwafel, a dowdy cookie that began as a popular pastry among the poor, has been elevated to pop sugar status.
Standing in line surrounded by people from different cultures, all sharing the same stroopwafel goal, is both humbling and eye opening. A sign on an adjacent building quietly speaks volumes, "Be Excellent To Each Other." Amidst the crowds and the distinctive fragrance of a commercial waffle iron, you realize we have much more in common than we have to keep us apart. #happynationalwaffleday
The last hurrah of summer fruit is taking its toll on me. I am bombarded from all sides with ripe peaches and right now nectarines. “Stop the madness, Stone Fruit!
“You know I love you, but you’re killing me!”
Friday was a particularly brutal day in the pie trenches. By 8:30 am it had already been a day. I was quietly fuming over the re-telling of an incident from Thursday, Julia Child’s birthday. There was some commotion over a beautifully decorated sugar cookie with a Julia quote painstakingly written in royal icing. A disgruntled individual felt the cookie was perpetuating a negative stereotype about women in the kitchen. Funny thing- our entire kitchen crew is female, not to mention forward thinking.
The curmudgeonly cookie disparager should know that yesterday I conducted a totally casual social media poll, based on a Julia-ism. Julia Child once said, (and I quote) “I think every woman should have a blowtorch.” It turns out that blowtorches are quite common in home kitchens, with 70% of those polled (many of them women) claiming to own one. I like to think that we have Julia to thank for the popularity of kitchen torches. Her television career spanned decades, with many episodes dedicated to the art of flambé. (Some episodes more successfully than others, but she always cautioned her viewers to be careful around an open flame.) I think about Julia (and my eyelashes) every time I torch a meringue.
I continue thinking about Julia all the way home. The way her Mousse au Chocolat handily snagged my High School French Club Presidency. The way she casually introduced me to cream puffs piped as swans, swimming on a pool of chocolate sauce. It was Julia as the French Chef, who gave me the courage to arm myself with a kitchen torch, a critical skill requirement for every restaurant job I ever had. Her greatest lesson was reminding all of us to stop apologizing for mistakes in the kitchen. Sage advice, indeed.
Lacking the foresight to pick up some heavy cream on the way home, I am unable to satisfy my hankering for chocolate mousse. There is a gaping hole in the evening’s dessert course, and it's making me cranky. Still preoccupied with the events of the day, I begin rummaging through the refrigerator in search of inspiration. Nothing leaps out at me save for a container of caramel sauce. Scanning the kitchen counter for fruit, a solitary fuzzy peach and a smooth skinned nectarine look lost in a cavernous fruit bowl. Turning my back on the paltry fruit offering, I'm forced to forage through the freezer. The sound of the ice machine echoes through the kitchen. From the depths, I unearth two plastic wrapped discs of what look like pie dough. I set one of them on the counter just a little too loudly. The fruit in the fruit bowl jumps.
Peach turns to Nectarine then to me. “Rough day? You seem a little, well, pre-
occupied, a little down in the mouth." Nectarine nods then adds, “Maybe talking about it will help.”
“What are you talking about?” I reply, whacking the ice-cold pie dough with my heaviest rolling pin.
Peach treads cautiously. “It’s August, isn’t it?” Brushing the leaf out of her eyes, Peach elaborates. “We’re talking about you. How you seem unable to live in the moment, refusing to embrace August and accept the season in front of you.” Peach is on a roll and can’t seem to stop herself. “There’s a reason you’re constantly pining for a different season, living in the past or the future, never in the now.”
I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. “Did you ever think that possibly it's the fault of the fruit? Maybe it's under ripe, or over ripe. Or there’s simply too much of it at one time! You don’t understand,” I explain. “August isn’t the problem. August foreshadows the problem. Once we’ve crossed mid-August, it’s too late. Yesterday was Julia’s 107th birthday, August 15th. It’s practically September. Costco is decked out in Halloween and the Farmers’ Market wants me to buy apples. Apples?! I don’t want apples!” I hiss through clenched teeth.
The stone fruit leans back in the bowl. “Could it be,” Nectarine suggests in her best Dr. Fraser Winslow Crane voice, “that the problem isn’t the apple? Perhaps,” Nectarine pauses before continuing. “Perhaps the problem is your inability to live one fruit at a time. Think about it, Nice Pie. Try it. One. Fruit. At. A. Time.”
Peach nods solemnly. “We know that you’ve put up a good front. But the truth is so much of this stems from that nasty break-up with Rhubarb. That was heart-breaking…”
Catching my reflection in the tempered glass of the oven door, I weigh their words carefully, if only momentarily. Grabbing the fruit bowl and whacking the circle of pie dough once again for emphasis, I preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Plucking my well-worn copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking from the shelf, I wonder- how much bourbon is considered too much bourbon in a caramel sauce?
It appears my wood handled Androck brand kitchen utensil is an antique. The curved and slotted batter-beater, preferred by grandmothers and great aunts, is a hot item on etsy and ebay, highly sought after by anyone who speaks fluent Martha. I remember it rattling around in the kitchen drawers of both my maternal and paternal grandmothers, as well as my great aunt Lily. The popularity of the 10½” kitchen tool was driven by its ability to multi-task. The Androck company was not shy in boasting the utensil’s talents, imprinting them directly on the curved, metal whisk. “BEATS EGGS, CREAM, BATTER, ETC.” it exclaims in all caps. I wish I had known its cult following before inadvertently knocking it off the counter. Turning to catch it I missed, grabbing nothing but air. On its way to the floor, the batter-beater paused just long enough to whack me on the ankle. The smooth wood handle escaped unscathed. My ankle is beginning to throb.
Frittering away my afternoon with a bunch of ripe peaches, I’ve peeled away their five o’clock shadow, pitted them and diced them into sensible cubes. Peach juices creep between the edge of the cutting board and the countertop, running dangerously close to an open drawer filled with kitchen tools. It’s been suggested that my collection of kitchenware borders on overkill. It’s not so much the new stuff that I can’t part with- it’s the wood handled, rotary operated, clunky, heavy, weather-worn pieces that I covet. Kitchen gadgetry speaks to me, filling my contemporary, high-tech workspace with a connection to the past.
Over my shoulder, a pot of oil heats to a perilous 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisking together a simple fritter batter, the recipe calls for Wondra flour, popularized by General Mills in the 1960s. Promising lump free batters and gravies, the blue canister of Wondra was a mainstay in our kitchen, sharing cabinetry with boxes of Soft-as-Silk and Swans Down cake flours.
Dropping spoonfuls of peach-studded batter into the heavy bottomed pan, I stand back. The fritters bob and float on a sea of sizzling oil, requiring nothing more than a bit of coaxing and turning. This is where the curved and slotted batter-beater steps in. Providing just enough guidance, the arched whisk separates and strains, lifting the golden brown fritters out of the scalding oil, maneuvering them safely to a baking sheet lined with absorbent paper towels. Gathering the edges of the paper towel, I drop the still-warm fritters into a Pyrex bowl filled with spicy sugar. Patience never being my strong suit, I bite into a hot fritter, burning my lip. Behind the crunch there’s a sweet peach encased in eggy batter. I take another bite. It tastes of summer and forever ago.
It’s Pedestrian Sunday in Toronto’s Kensington Market and my feet hurt. One of the most walk-able and multicultural neighborhoods in the city, it is also a mecca of diversity. The architectural landscape of the market reflects its history; rambling Victorian structures, antiquated synagogues, tired, modest, dwellings. In the early 1900s, Jewish immigrants moved to the area along Kensington Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood. Many converted the ground floor of their home to retail shops, sparking high density, urban housing. Offering items specifically geared to the needs of their community, extended families lived in the apartments above their businesses. Goods for sale often spilled out into the street as merchants competed with pushcart and street vendors.
Over time, the Jewish population migrated north, opening the door to Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, and African Canadian merchants. Today, the history of the former Jewish market resonates in every pickle barrel, wheel of cheese, butcher, baker, green grocer, and fishmonger. On most days, I could wander the Market for hours, but not today. Today, my feet remind me I am on a mission.
Dodging the classical violinists and the blue grass banjos, I zig-zag through a casual parade of tourists attired in a rainbow of summer pastels. On the corner, someone is trying to repair a broken flip-flop. The air is thick with fried churros and artisan coffee. I make a beeline for Global Cheese, a cheese shop with the tagline, “When It Comes to Cheese, We Speak Your Language.” In addition to cheese, Global also speaks fluent halvah, a honey of a romance language.
My travel companions are slightly skeptical of my halvah mission, but I am undeterred. I step towards the rear of the store, to a counter dedicated strictly to the sesame and honey confection. Attired in a pristine white chef’s jacket and armed with a serious knife is a man I can only describe as a Halvah Butcher. He stands proudly behind a glass window, overseeing wheels and wedges of vanilla, pistachio, and chocolate marble. He slices a whisper thin sample from each of the offerings, ceremoniously handing them across the counter. In the mingling of honey and sesame, chocolate and pistachio, I can taste cultural history. Halvah Butcher is patient, holding up his hand to indicate he is in no rush.
I am torn between the pistachio and the marble, but leaning towards the vanilla for practical purposes. This halvah is destined for a recipe and it’s probably better to keep things simple. “I’ll have a small slice of this,” I point to the vanilla, and “maybe a little more of this,” I point to the marble. Halvah Butcher waits, nodding, anticipating my next move. “And this, a good slice of this please, the pistachio.”
Halvah Butcher’s eyes sparkle as he reaches for his knife. With the finesse of a surgeon, he cajoles each wheel, slicing off just the right amount, weighing each piece on his digital scale, gift-wrapping each portion in crinkly parchment. I express my concern about the heat, wondering if the halvah will benefit from refrigeration.. “No, no,” Halvah Butcher assures me. “It is just sesame and honey. That is all. It will be fine.” With one final twinkle, Halvah Butcher winks. “Sesame and honey. That is all.” His words echo in my head. Heading out into the fray of the market, I clutch the yellow plastic bag emblazoned with the words Global Cheese, protectively.
On Tuesday morning, approaching Canadian security at the Billy Bishop Airport, I hoist my carry-on bag onto the conveyer belt and place my phone alongside a lime green sweater I borrowed from my Torontonian sister. Midway through the bag scanner, there is a beeping sound. I repeat Halvah Butcher’s words in my head, like a mantra. “Sesame and honey. Sesame and honey.” My bag is opened, and under the scrutiny of Toronto officials, I watch as they shift their eyes from computer screen to carry-on.
"Any food in here?” the security official asks politely. “Just a bagel,” I indicate, pointing to a brown paper bag. My cheeks are blushing pink, then crimson. “Two bagels, actually.” The official is neither impressed nor concerned by the bagels. “Anything else?” he asks, raising one eyebrow. Adjacent to the bagels is an insulated bag, wedged between my running gear and rain slicker. Inside the insulated bag, is a yellow bag from Global Cheese. I hold my breath and repeat my mantra, “Sesame and honey. Sesame and honey.” The woman scrutinizing the computer screen in front of her keeps pointing. My greatest halvah fears are about to be realized. The security official indicates the bagel bag once more and asks, “Anything else?” Before I can form the words, he waves me on. Ohhhh. Canada.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm