When a case of perfectly unripe pears are delivered to the workplace, you bide your time, filling pie shells with ordinary apples and a few wayward sour cherries found snoozing in the freezer. Every morning you glance at the wooden crate that’s practically busting with Bartletts to see if they are any further along. Cradling one in your hand you lean in hoping to catch just the slightest hint of pear fragrance, but there is none. Dressed in chartreuse, with just an occasional blush of pink splashed against their speckled exteriors, they offer as much appeal to the palate as a bowl of wax fruit.
On Friday morning, I was becoming increasingly impatient with those damn pears. Like an avocado that knows you’re hell bent on making guacamole and refuses to surrender it’s pit, my crate of pears snoozed on, oblivious to my pie plight. I set my cold brew down to let the pears know I meant business. As I removed the pears that were hunkered down towards the bottom you could see they were less chartreuse and more yellow. Not only were they unmistakably fragrant, you could hear the pear mantra. Peel. Halve. Core. Quarter. Repeat. There is an unspoken sense of urgency between pears and baker to tuck those pears into pie shells in a timely manner. The end result should be pear pie, not pear sauce. Pears are often the most challenging of autumn’s bounty as you try to temper their sweetness with just enough (but not too much) sass, generally provided by lemon and ginger. It is a delicate yet delicious balance. Why is it that the pear pie continues to be so terribly misunderstood?
I tried every trick in the book, from crystallized ginger with lattice crust to almond-oatmeal crumble and still met opposition. Sure, there were a few pear purists in the retail bunch, but for the most part, every time we said the words, “pear pie” the response was “apple?” I heard myself say to a woman desperate for a Yom Kippur dessert, “There is pear-ginger pie today. ” Watching her frown, I quickly added, “Don’t be afraid of the pear.” She bought an apple cake instead.
My favorite customer interaction of the New Year 5776 took place this past Monday, and I quote:
Pie Query Customer- “Can I order a pie for this weekend?”
NMMNP- “Yes. Sure. (Unusual for one who generally begins their sentences with, “No.”)
P.Q.C.- “Will you have apple?”
NMMNP- “Yes. Apple. Yes. And Pear.”
NMMNP- “Yes. Both.”
P.Q.C. “The apples. Are the apples new? The ones at the supermarket are old.”
P.Q.C. ”The apples? Are the apples new?”
NMMNP-“The apples, Madam? New? Yes. The baker? Not so much…”
One year has passed since traversing the hills and dales surrounding Rensselaerville, co-pie-lette Dakota in the passenger seat. Traveling solo this time, it seems prudent to pack a bonafide road map plus directions penned in my own hand. An unopened bag of Cheesy Puffs, a half-eaten Peppermint Crunch chocolate bar and a lonely Golden Delicious apple hunker down next to an assortment of rain gear. Elaine Stritch is toasting the Ladies who Lunch on the CD player and I join in, our voices pouring out of the open windows. A 12 oz. purple lidded cup holds the remnants of my morning coffee. Many a windy mile stretches between caffeine options once you exit the NY State Thruway. Making my way through Greenville, I notice the solitary gas station that once stood within a stone’s throw of Tops Supermarket has been leveled. My copious notes tell me to veer left at the 4-way blinking light onto Route 405.
Weaving my way through the vaguely marked roadways that ribbon Medusa and Preston Hollow, I recognize a major landmark. A weathered sign nailed to a post and painted in all caps proclaims HAY! A fork in the road gives me pause and I can’t remember whether to venture up the hill or around the bend towards the right. There is no signage to guide me and it is at this moment when I am overcome with a feeling of both déjà vu and anxiety. I blame this on the standardized Iowa Tests of my youth, specifically the subject of Map Skills.
Armed with a freshly sharpened Number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga, we were admonished to neatly fill in our answer sheets. Agonizing over the “You Are Here” questions, I spent too much time overthinking my answers. Fearful of running out of time, my pencil strayed outside the lines of those tiny circles. Clearly, Map Skills testing is responsible for the trust issue I have as an adult with Google Maps and Map Quest.
I follow the blacktop up the hill, around the bend, desperately seeking road signs, desperately seeking cellular service. Google Maps offers the calming refrain of “Recalculating” followed by a series of directions indicating I will arrive at my destination in 7 hours and 20 minutes. Door to door the entire trip should take 2 hours and 50 minutes. Herein lies the trust issue. Consulting my AAA map of New York state, I am unable to determine whether I want East or West Berne, South Westerlo or Plain Ol’ Westerlo. The voice trapped inside Google Maps starts to stammer, repeating itself, once again recalculating before growing silent. There is a small red icon blinking in the middle of what once was a map and then with a final shudder, the screen goes black.
In the distance, a sign for County Route 1 beckons. I pass a tired farmhouse and notice two men in the driveway tinkering with a rusty tractor. Further down Route 1 my GPS kicks in, advising me to turn left in 500 feet. Not wanting to offend the Google Maps God, I heed the advice and continue on. The voice tells me that I have arrived at my destination! I look left and then right, and then left again. I get out of the car and as far as I can see, lies nothing but expansive fields dotted with odds and ends of farm equipment. Turning the car around and retracing my tracks leads me back to the home of the rusty tractor. I can hear the theme song from “Deliverance” as I tentatively pull into the gravel driveway.
After three failed attempts, and three versions of directions provided by the helpful farmers who call County Route 1 home, I did indeed, arrive at my destination. Map Skills may not be my strongest suit, but there’s no argument that last Saturday I definitely was a girl out standing in a field.
SUGAR, OH, HONEY HONEY
The driver of the Rosh Hashanah Struggle Bus this week? That would be me. First stop, Honey Cake. A heady spice cake spiked with coffee and sticky sweet, Honey Cake was given a bum rap for years, often with childhood memories to blame. Mention of the dessert conjures a dry, non-descript loaf cake that grandmothers served in neat slices on floral china plates. My early recollections of honey cake are plucked from Friday night Oneg Shabbat receptions. Maybe the dessert competition was too stiff. Traditionally dressed in accordion pleated bakery paper and sliced thin, spice cake sweetened with Golden Blossom Honey was a matronly dessert. On the very next platter, eclairs iced in shiny chocolate and two-bite cream puffs dusted with powdered sugar tempted. Scalloped butter cookies beneath confetti sprinkles practically shouted PARTY! Honey cake? No thanks.
After (dare-I-admit) decades of baking professionally, I have learned to embrace the harbinger of the Jewish New Year dessert table. Recipes for honey cake have not deviated too far from the original versions scribbled in our grandmother’s cursive or clipped from the food section of local newspapers. In several recent revisions, there have been a few stumbles and falls, mostly from using too much leavening. Despite sunken middles and raw batter surprises, Honey Cake has earned a rightful place on the Rosh Hashanah dessert podium.
The second stop on the bus is Apple Cake. A grandmotherly hug of a cake, Jewish Apple is an oil based dessert generously spiced with cinnamon. Does it require too much fiddling? Probably not if you are preparing just one. But let’s pretend you are baking twenty or more of said cake. By the time you grease and flour the tube pans, peel, core and slice the apples, squeeze the orange juice, crack the eggs and only then, begin to assemble your dry ingredients, the thrill is long gone.
Toss into the mix an unforeseen fire alarm that chooses to unleash its deafening wrath ten minutes before an oven timer is set to buzz. An oven timer signaling the completion of an oven filled with apple cakes. This is when the driver, much like a captain on a ship, has to decide. Abandon the bus? Or go down with the apple cakes?
I opted for a little bit of each. Unwilling to relinquish the cakes, I turned off the oven and left them to finish baking with residual heat. Exiting the non-burning building, I waited on the sidewalk as the fire alarm wailed relentlessly. A workman from a neighboring building alerted us that this was indeed a false alarm. I took his word for it. Moments later, silence. Retrieving the apple cakes from the oven, I was relieved to see they did indeed ‘clean test’ with a knife. In my own little way, perhaps I had saved a small slice of Rosh Hashana 5776.
You can understand why I will take a pass on both the Honey and the Apple Cakes this year. Instead, I’m leaning towards a pie of the apple and plum variety. And since I’m not driving, a serious splash of applejack and apple cider glaze. May your New Year be as sweet as pie.
SEASONS CHANGE AND SO DOES PIE
They’re baaack. Back to school, back to bottlenecking the train station, back to blocking the entrance to the bakery. The Be-Hip-Or-Be-Square outfits are fresh off the rack and out of the shopping bags. I, of course, did not refresh my autumn work wardrobe. Inching my way through the labyrinth of still-tan scone-starved individuals assembled on the sidewalk, I get a better look at my ensemble. On their own, the black and white checkered pants and purple t-shirt are harmless enough. It’s the mad-dash paisley bandana and orange ankle socks that brand me a Glamour Don’t. One of the morning regulars is sipping a macchiato and looks up to greet me. There is a small salt and pepper dog at his feet. The dog sees me and starts barking wildly. Mr. Macchiato admonishes his dog, but the pooch refuses to cease. One of the other caffeinated gentleman can’t help but notice the socks and asks,“Rough start?” You could say that.
This is a holiday weekend for the masses, but my two day weekend does not commence until 4 pm on Saturday. There are many miles of pie to travel between now and then. Vying for my attention are fifty pounds of peaches, huddled together in blond wooden crates. The yellow peaches are less sweet, the white peaches less ripe. This peach challenge is what Master/Master would refer to as a Personal Problem. It will be tackled after I fill a cup with ice and full strength cold brew.
Peeling and pitting, I am desperately trying to hold on to my vacation state of mind. The oven timer refuses to accommodate my quest for serenity, buzzing impatiently, demanding attention. Customers are needy too, ordering apples cakes and honey cakes to usher in the Jewish New Year. “What about gluten free?” a woman asks from behind her tinted Warby Parkers. “And dairy free?”
Must we start the day this way? Ms. Warby continues, “Are there nuts in the honey cake?” I so wish to respond, “Are there nuts ordering the honey cake?” I do not. Instead, bobbing and weaving to protect myself from a blazing hot sheet tray, I return to my peaches. They may be fuzzy, but they do not judge me.
It wouldn’t be a weekend without a few cake surprises. There’s an order for a red velvet that has yet to be confirmed. “Sooo this is not an order, correct?” I inquire. The response is, “It’s not confirmed. But if she orders it, she definitely wants red velvet.” More urgently and taking center stage is my favorite, a gender reveal cake. In the four years I’ve tucked my curls beneath a bandana and donned a white apron, I cannot recall an order quite like this. The cake is both gluten free and dairy free. It is nut free but carrot friendly. It is frosted on the outside in dairy-free frosting. The inside will reveal the gender (in this case, a pink dairy-free reveal.) To keep the guests guessing, the cake will be festooned with both pink and blue painstakingly hand-crafted fondant polka dots. The pièce de résistance lies not within the gender reveal, but in the inscription, “We’re Here For The Sex.”
Deciding to step away from the cake side of the bench, I return to my peeler and paring knife where everything is peachy. At least until Tuesday when the apples start rollin’ in.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm