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