I like to think that my knowledge of the food world and its holidays is rather far reaching. Imagine my surprise to learn that September 28th was a brand spanking new food holiday and I missed it. This one sounded more legit than National Acorn Squash Day (which fell on the 7th) and the rapidly approaching Hot Mulled Cider Day (up and coming on the 30th.) Apparently, September 28th marked the unveiling of the very first National Bakery Day. Who knew such a thing even existed?! As far as I’m concerned, the holiday was cloaked in a veil of ganache. Neither notified nor encouraged to celebrate, I would like to know how the very first National Bakery Day slipped through my food service gloved fingers? More importantly, who was responsible for this oversight?
Never mind. After a little digging, I unearthed the simple, ugly truth. The Retail Bakers of America created the holiday, a holiday sounding suspiciously like a marketing vehicle. This leaves me no choice but to bear a grudge against Retail Bakers. If pressed, I’ll admit my grudge is not with the bakers, it’s with the retail.
It’s quite possible that one of the reasons I was unaware of the inaugural holiday was because there was no mention of it at work. My workplace is notorious for marking even the smallest of holidays with at the very least, a decorated sugar cookie, if not a cupcake topper. Not a single word was uttered in reference to Retail Bakers and their holiday. I took a sip of coffee from my slightly warped eco-friendly-ish Styrofoam cup. Lining up my ingredients for Honey Cakes (a cake that celebrates a holiday steeped in tradition, Yom Kippur) it was easy to overhear the rumblings about a potential custom cake order. The conversation swirled around me.
From what I could gather from my side of the bench, the cake in question was to feature fondant work capturing a birthday getaway. Since the destination was Niagara Falls, it seemed the customer wanted a replica of a barrel going over the falls. Maybe it’s me, but does anything say, “I Love You” more than your likeness sculpted out of gum paste, encased in a fondant barrel, plunging into a buttercream pool of Niagara’s Horseshoe Falls? I think not. (Note to family: my likeness fashioned out of gum paste need never embellish any cakes served at future birthday celebrations. Ditto for fondant.) As the conversation continued to spin out of control, it seemed like the opportune moment to unearth a new bottle of Jim Beam from my basement stash. Not for me, mind you, but as an integral honey cake ingredient. (Okay, maybe just the barest thimbleful for the baker, in her coffee, as a medicinal agent. Cold and flu season, you know.)
Why the Retail Bakers of America felt the need to inaugurate their holiday on September the 28th is anyone’s guess. I will venture to suggest that the upcoming Voldemort of pie holidays has something to do with it. We are a mere 50+ days away from what sends the spreadsheets of retail bakers into the black. The Retail Bakers of America want to make sure we’re on board, counting down the days as we catapult towards prime holiday season. Don’t worry- I’m standing by with pie plates and abacus poised.
In a perfect bakery world, there would be a pause, a chance to enjoy the beauty of autumn before being run over by a steamroller of holidays. Instead, we are being assaulted by pumpkins and pilgrims and stuffing mix before we’ve finished our Yom Kippur fast and grabbed forty winks in our Sukkah. I would like a few weeks to enjoy the glorious assortment of apples and slow-to-ripen pears that are stacked high along the back wall of the bakery.
But it’s too late. The 5am crew has already unearthed the No. 10 cans of Libby’s pumpkin, mixing it with cold cubes of sweet butter, gluten free flour, and dotting it with chocolate chips. I am digging my gluten-crusted sneakers into the checkered linoleum, putting a hold on pumpkin pies until October officially arrives. There’s plenty of time for blind-baked shells and gratings of nutmeg, lashings of cinnamon. Cranberries are leaping at the chance to mingle with the apples and the oatmeal crumble, but I’m not there yet. I’m clinging to September, tossing a mix of crimson apples with the last of the summer raspberries. Maybe I’ll save a slice in celebration of the 30th. It’s bad enough missing both National Acorn Day and National Bakery Day. I’ll be damned if I let Hot Mulled Cider Day slink out of town without me.
The Rosh Hashanah bake-off began earlier this week, prompting the stalwart assistance of most capable baker, Brenda. Apple cakes prefer quirky tube pans, while honey cakes like to stretch out in loaf pans. Both items demand an expert parchment pattern maker, an individual gifted with straight edge, scissors, and patience. Loaf pans work overtime in the bakery, cradling quick bread batters sans gluten. This jockeying for pans, coupled with oven space availability (or lack there of) could provide the perfect environment for short tempers. Fortunately, all of the ladies round the bench are good eggs. Except for maybe one and that one started the day whacking her shinbone on the corner of a wayward apple crate. Hobbling towards the front with an invoice from those damn apples, I allowed myself to be roped in to the following exchange.
“Tell me about the apple cake,” said the Lady in Plum. Oh dear. I wanted to let this one go, but I just couldn’t.
“For the holiday?” I replied.
“Yes. What’s in it?” asked Plum.
“Apples. Cinnamon.” Pause. “Cake.” I was being truthful.
At this point, Plum started gesturing with her hands. “Is it a tall cake? A low cake? Is it low like that plum…?” asked Plum pointing to an almond edged galette cooling on the rack.
Without missing a beat, I gestured right back, hands raised. “Yes, it’s quite high, the apple. Unlike the plum, (hands lowered) which is low.” It looked like we were playing a curious version of charades.
“And the apple cake…?” she trailed off, hands indicating confusion.
In these cases, it’s always a fine idea to insert the word ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ or ‘grandmother’ into the conversation, punctuated with a little finger pointing for emphasis. I used all three in one sentence, threw in a few pointed fingers just for the hell of it, then wrapped it up with the words ‘cider glaze’ before slithering back to the bench. In the distance, I heard Plum use the phrase ‘dairy free.’
Let’s get one thing straight about ‘dairy free.’ Long before that expression peppered our baked goods vernacular, cookbooks were filled with recipes for oil-based cakes. Oil-based cakes relied on oil instead of butter, making them (unless you added buttermilk or sour cream) dairy free. Grandmothers swore by them because they were moist and good keepers. Were they good lookers? Not necessarily, but as my grandmother liked to say, once you got to know them, you were bound to love them.
When cakes were attending a dinner in a kosher household, dairy and meat didn’t sit at the same table. So you would never send a butter-based dessert to a meal featuring meat. Additionally, the Jewish holidays tend to linger, lasting more than one day, promising a table full of relatives and perhaps a few unannounced guests. Our grandmothers were smart cookies, always anticipating, always preparing a little extra. It was unclear when, but quite certain that eventually someone would have a hankering for a little nosh after dinner. Grandmothers knew that a few slices of cake would be targeted for morning coffee or a mid-morning snack. The cakes chosen for the Jewish New Year were plentiful, baked in pans allowing for multiple slivers, thick slices, plates piled high with generosity. Apple cakes and honey cakes fell into this category, and were perfectly suited to a holiday based on the premise of sweet. So you can call it ‘dairy free’ all you want, but these are the same old oil based cakes Jewish grandmothers have been baking and serving for generations.
The holiday cake and pie seekers of our little village propel me to fixate on other things. Pouring eggy batter into deep tube pans, layering them with cinnamon sugared apples, I have been dreaming of a loaf of fresh challah, and I simply cannot let it go.
When Master/Master attended grad school in Boston, we would visit him in the comfortable neighborhood of Brookline. A fixture on the corner of Harvard Street is Kupel’s Bakery, known for chewy bagels, cakey black/whites, and triangular hamantaschen filled with tooth-clinging poppy seeds. They also know their way around a golden blond, multi-strand challah. This is one of the busiest weeks of the year for the hard-working kosher bakery,
We are a challah desert in Maplewood, hours away from the promised bakery land of Brookline. Whole Paycheck offers a commercial version of a vaguely familiar braided yeast bread, but it pales in comparison to the genuine article. The only solution to my challah hankering was to make my own.
On Wednesday morning, after ushering apple cakes into the oven, just before filling nagging pie shells with mounds of apples, I lined up a small arsenal of ingredients on a sheet pan. This challah was now officially ‘a thing,’ and I couldn’t help but punctuate my conviction by uttering the words, “There will be wine and there will be challah.” It was a suitable mantra, providing inner calm to the external holiday storm.
A little shy of twelve hours later, Master/Master, Blondilocks, Mr. Sweet as Pie and one very tired baker assembled around the dining room table, faces illuminated by candlelight. Yes, there was wine, and yes, there was challah and in keeping with family tradition, there was enough in case anyone had a hankering for a slice for breakfast.
As Rosh Hashanah looms over the honey-cake horizon, September is well under way. Labor Day paused then moved on, forcing my tired J. Crew white capris into early retirement in the attic. Whether or not they will stage a come back tour for next summer is questionable. The bathing suit that saw the light of one solitary beach day yawns, retreating to the dark corner of a dresser drawer. I have swapped pastel short sleeved t-shirts for their autumn counterparts; new season, same old butter and fruit stains.
The High Holidays signify a chance to reflect on what was and consider what could be. In our family, the fall is often an opportunity to reflect on the swift passage of time. It also means more often than not, someone’s lease is up and a visit to the U-Haul rental facility is nigh.
On my way to Queens last Sunday, I had more than enough time for reflection as I waited for the ‘E’ and the ‘R’ trains. In a vague attempt at neutrality, I will say that both Blondilocks and Master/Master have moved both nationally and internationally, more times than I can count. This is the way the world turns for twenty-somethings, and I can’t complain because I did the same thing. I have also arrived at a time in life when my tired bakery bones can no longer carry heavy furniture up and down multiple flights of stairs. I am a beast of burden for bed linens and fluffy pillows, small, lightweight items, the occasional curtain rod or fragile lamp. My expertise lies in creative room décor suggestions and pinpointing quality coffee emporiums. Leaving the heavy lifting to others, I no longer worry for myself. I am however, beginning to worry about Mama Min’s kitchen table.
The blue formica topped expandable kitchen table with tapered wooden legs is growing weary. If that table could talk, it would probably date itself back to the 1940s, possibly earlier. Purchased by my grandmother, it was a fixture in the kitchen on Bay 25th Street, set against geranium splashed wallpaper. Jessie sat there to peel apples and make selections from the Book-of-the-Month Club. It is where my grandmother attached a hand-crank nut grinder for chopping walnuts. When my grandmother moved to Florida in the late 1960s, Jessie moved with us to the Garden State. The table accompanied us, demoted to the basement where it was piled high with laundry, items requiring ironing, odds and ends needing attention from my mother’s sewing machine. I cleared off the table in 1980, packing it up for its first trip to Manhattan. Since then, the table has moved countless times. For decades, it has remained a steadfast and loyal piece of furniture, providing additional seating when needed, or extra counter space in tight kitchens. I love that table.
It traveled up three flights of stairs to my first New York City apartment, where I promptly hid the blue formica beneath a no-iron tablecloth. With legs wrapped around a wobbly ladder back chair, I pored over the newly published Silver Palate Cookbook. The first time I contemplated chicken Marbella and Sour-Cream Apple Pie was at that table. Whisking away the tablecloth, it was the largest uninterrupted surface in the kitchen/living room/dining alcove of my studio apartment and where I chose to roll out pie crust. When I pulled the table apart, little drifts of flour would fall through the cracks onto the hideous burnt umber carpeting below.
The table reappeared in my next NYC apartment, wedged against a window facing identical brick buildings and a fire escape. If you stood at the table and craned your neck, you could just barely make out Central Park. Soon after, the table relocated to Philadelphia for twenty something years before moving back to NJ and then back to NYC with Blondilocks. In between the last apartment and the current apartment, the table hid out in our garage. As of last Sunday, its new home is in Queens.
Unlike most people, the table never complains. It never says a word about being demoted from dining room to the basement’s laundry room. It doesn’t complain about being stored in the garage for a year before being hauled out again, because someone was baking too many pies and needed additional counter space. Nor does it raise a fuss when it is dragged back into the garage, just waiting to be stripped of its wooden legs before being secured in the rear of a U-Haul truck. It utters not a word when it is carried up too many flights of stairs to someone’s new apartment, where it is upended while its legs are reattached.
I have no idea what my grandmother paid for that table. It was more functional than decorative, a place to sit and peel apples, pore over cookbooks, write letters, plan menus for the week. Time has taken its toll on the old girl. Her formica finish has faded, her rounded corners are nicked and worn. Two additional boards still tuck beneath, once held securely, now a little less so. For me, the table is priceless.
What I love about that table is that it’s not from Ikea. It’s not slick retro or hip vintage or easily found on Etsy. It’s old and worn, but still sturdy because it was made at a time when things were well made out of real wood and real laminate, and were not intended to be disposable. It served me in so many ways as a workspace and gathering place and most importantly, as a reminder of the women who once sat at that table. Rosh Hashanah and a New Year is as good a time as any to remember. L’shanah tovah. Enjoy your new/old table, Blondilocks.
Lonnie, the affable delivery man from Zone 7 rolled into the bakery Wednesday morning. He was wheeling a vehicle that was a curious hybrid of flat bed and hand truck. The word APPLES was splashed across white corrugated boxes in bold red, boasting that the fruit inside was ‘Select.’ The lids of the boxes were sealed in the kind of industrial staples guaranteed to cause injury to innocent thumbs. One of the boxes was partially open, offering a peak at dozens of Pink Ladies dozing inside. It was too much autumn, too soon. I had to look away.
I’ve always viewed September as a slightly melancholy month. New seasons can be fraught with uncertainty. You pull out your favorite toasty sweater to discover a moth hole, front and center. Your breezy commute to work is now grid locked by back-to-schoolers and returning commuters sporting summer tans. Autumn means lattes and quick breads perfumed with too much pumpkin pie spice. I’ve always maintained it’s better to leave the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and clove where it belongs; in the pie filling.
September means half past dark o’clocks and cold feet on bare floors. It means once you pick up that first crate of apples and start peeling, there’s no turning back to the stone fruits of summer. Apples will take center stage, briefly sharing the spotlight with the famous orange gourds of Pumptober.
I will admit to having a fondness for apple pie, particularly when apples are in season. But Wednesday’s caravan of apples, followed in hot pursuit by a case of far- from-ripe pears feels like we’re rushing the season. I’ve even spotted Halloween candy at a local supermarket and pharmacy. The next thing you know, that pharmacy is going to remind me to get a flu shot. Oh, they already did.
The bakery is inundated with new barista staff, returning customers and a few new faces in the kitchen. There remains an individual on the telephone who continues to inquire about strawberry rhubarb pie. One of these days I will have to take the phone call, explaining that pie seasons change, but not today. Personally, I am refusing to acknowledge the shifting tide of seasonal change, hanging on to the last of summer in small ways.
Stone fruit, for example, provides one of the last glimpses of summer. Rolling across my kitchen counter is a small collection of white and yellow peaches, a handful of sweet cherries, an over-sized nectarine, a few deep purple plums. I am in search of a 9” springform pan. Digging through the cavernous bottom drawer that desperately needs the organizational prowess of Sweet Soprano, I unearth the pan. It is overused, the slightest bit warped, from too many years of turning out Oreo cheesecakes in a Philadelphia restaurant.
I fill the springform with a sweet crust that requires blind-baking. Slicing the stone fruit in halves, then in wedges, I choose to leave the fruit unpeeled. It’s enough to twist the cherries apart and remove their stubborn pits. My fingers are stained with crimson juice and the sticky sweetness of peaches. If I could bottle this fragrance, this farewell to summer, I would. I see myself splashing it with abandon in a last ditch effort to ward off that November pie holiday. My personal bottle of Kryptonite.
Yesterday at work, one of my favorite baristas (I know- like your own children, you are not supposed to have favorites, but I do) asked me how many apple pies I’ve made overall. Truthfully, I had never thought about it until that very moment. It reminded me of those questions you stumble upon during a standardized math test and choose to skip because you haven’t a clue.
I do know that I am looking at a forecast with way too many apple pies on the horizon. Pink Ladies and Fujis have already fallen victim to the blade of my peeler and paring knife, with back-up waiting in the walk-in. Someone should tell Lonnie and Zone 7 that autumn doesn’t officially commence until September 22nd.
My autumn will undoubtedly be fueled with apples from wholesale sources and from quieter farm markets. It isn’t fall in my apple book until Macouns are available, an apple named for Canadian W. T. Macoun. See, yet another reason to love Canada, B. Gray.
I will bide my time, allowing the pumpkin latte worshippers and the Saturday apple pie grabbers to gush over autumn. If only we could teach the doctrine, to every pie there is a season. The next season has yet to arrive.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm