PEARFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
The ample supply of Gingergold and Honeycrisp apples stacked neatly in the walk-in refrigerator have been depleted, forcing me to cross the linoleum from kitchen to dining room where we have created a makeshift fruit ‘annex.’ Heavy wooden crates filled with apples are stacked a mere whisper away from customers intent on caffeine, conversation, and free wifi. Armed with a commercial mixing bowl that should require a license to operate, I edge in towards the produce on a slight diagonal. Cutting the corner a little too closely, the lip of the mixing bowl grazes a leather shoulder strap draped across the back of a chair. Gesturing towards the fruit with my elbow, I apologize to the women sipping lattes out of Fiestaware mugs. . “Excuse me, I’m just trying to get in there…”
“Oh,” Leather Shoulder Strap looks up, slightly surprised. “You’re trying to get to the fruit? To the apples? I thought they were for sale.”
“No,” I shake my head. “They’re not for sale. They’re for baking. Pies and scones, sometimes coffeecakes…” My voice trails off, muffled inside the cavernous stainless steel vessel.
Realizing that the fruit is no longer a retail commodity but a wholesale ingredient, Shoulder Strap is intrigued. “Apple pies? You’re making apple pies?”
I continue emptying one crate of apples, assuming my actions are self-explanatory. Shoulder Strap’s mug mate joins in on the conversation.
“I’m really more of a pear person,” she confesses. “I love pears.”
At the next table, a man typing furiously on his laptop is oblivious to the tight confines of fruit and baker. He continues penning his great American novel, refusing to inch his chair ever so slightly to the right. It’s a stand-off: Apple vs. apples. Shoulder Strap senses my plight and moves her vintage wooden chair ever so slightly to the left, allowing me to bob and weave.
“No, I’m not crazy about pears. I’m an apple girl, myself,” Shoulder Strap, insists, draining the last of her latte.
Cautiously maneuvering my unwieldy cargo away from the Kaffeeklatsch, I retreat back to the kitchen where a lethal fruit peeler awaits my return. Dodging the sharp blade of the Kuhn peeler, I consider the neediness of pears as opposed to the agreeability of apples.
Personally, the sweet tartness of a Macoun or the spiciness of a Winesap conjure autumn more than anything pumpkin spice. But the pear, the perfectly ripe Anjou or Bosc or Comice, the adorably instagram-able Seckel, taunts with a season as limited as a Halloween pop-up shop. Preferring to wear their sweetness not on their sleeves, but at their core, pears ripen and sweeten from the inside out. Other than the Bartlett, pears refuse to change color offering little clue as to what degree of ripeness you will find within. Pears require the patience of a saint, imploring you to sequester them in brown paper bags, insisting you visit them often, applying just enough but not too much gentle pressure to their stem ends, hoping to catch them right before they reach the rapid downward spiral from ripe to past their prime.
Pedestrian supermarket pears can be terribly difficult to read, individually swaddled in Bartlett-green tissue paper, offering no indication whatsoever as to what you will find when you take them home. The English have coined the phrase, “sleepy pear” stemming from the suggestion that one stay up all night to eat a pear in order to enjoy its fleeting moment of perfection. “Sleepy pears” refer to pears that are overripe, no doubt hidden under cases of apples, or left to ripen in a Trader Joes bag, forgotten beneath a butcher-block worktable.
Two cases of pears were delivered to the bakery last week, greeted by a sleep-deprived baker. My paring knife struggled against an unripe piece of fruit, finally yielding a pear neither sweet nor ripe, taunting with the promise of lattice tops and cardamom spice. Outwardly, it was the perfect shade of chartreuse, its stem cocked at just the right angle. Inwardly, the flavor was somewhat reminiscent of wax fruit. Not any old wax fruit; the kind once artfully arranged in an ornate bowl gracing a dining room table in the furniture department of Bloomingdale’s.
Under my watchful eye, the pears refused to ripen for days, until one morning I noticed the slightest fragrance hovering above the crates. Teetering on the brink of “sleepy,” the fruit required immediate attention. I rinsed, peeled, cored, and sliced with abandon. The pears were ambrosial but devilishly slippery, skidding off the cutting board, taking a nose-dive, landing on the petri dish of a floor. The ones that survived were tucked into pie shells, layered into the Cake-Formerly-Known-As-Apple, tossed with flour, butter, and buttermilk for scones. I couldn’t use them fast enough and in the end, some of them had indeed fallen into a deep-past-their-pear-prime slumber. The entire process was both nerve wracking and exhilarating without involving the slightest pinch of spices reserved for that orange gourd.
On the home front, a brown paper bag harboring four pounds of pears offered no indication of ripeness. They were just as I had left them days before, neither yielding to pressure at their stem ends, nor offering the slightest hint of perfume. Running out of patience and with a few hours on my hands, I decided it was time to rouse the pears, sweeten them with brown sugar and Amaretto, and splash them with citrus. The fruit sneezed under a few pinches of pink pepper and a generous hit of cardamom before filling an 8" springform pan. And while the pie baked for over an hour, I did what any baker does; filled my favorite over-sized mug with caffeine and pored over cookbooks, staving off sleep. From the dining room table, my grandmother’s Capodimonte fruit bowl filled with Bosc, Bartlett, and Anjou winked in approval.
HANGRY IN 5779
With the official start of autumn nipping at my kitchen clogs, the feasting and abbreviated famine associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has concluded. Regardless of how you approach a day of atonement, the truth is fasting goes ever so s-l-o-w-l-y. A grumbling stomach and mild headache can practically drown out an entire day’s worth of reflection. Pining for breakfast and daydreaming about a sumptuous lunch is enormously distracting. As the day unfolds, minute by ravenous minute, all you can think about is what you will eat the moment the sun sinks into the sky.
Prior to September 1983, the High Holidays boasted desserts reliably sticky with honey and overly stuffed with apples. When The New York Times published a recipe from Marian Burros in the fall of 1983, the focus shifted from apples and honey to plums. The plum torte featured in the food section was sleek, deeply magenta, a little bit sassy and just spicy enough. The recipe heralded practically every autumn between 1983 and 1995. It is still offered online for those of us who misplaced our original, well-worn clipping.
While revisiting the plum torte recipe this week, I was assaulted by a social curation website, the one that loves to share images and ideas in an organized fashion. According to the giant bulletin board website, had I but looked up from the loaf pans and tube pans crowding my workspace last week, I would have learned what’s cookin’ in the year 5779. Good Lord; it appears I’m woefully out of the High Holiday loop.
The well-worn Pyrex dishes that our grandmothers filled with Lokshen Kugel (Noodle Pudding,) have been nudged out of the way by Staub Ceramic Stoneware filled with hand-made noodles and dairy free cheese. Over-sized casseroles edged in crispy shreds of potatoes have moved on, taking their box graters with them. Spiralized zucchini is all the rage, tossed with gluten-free matzoh meal and egg whites, all served up in cast iron skillets. As for the Sun-Maid Raisin Girl in the classic red box, she’s been replaced by an eight ounce package of dried cherries from Trader Joe’s.
The more I scanned, the less I recognized. Momentarily blinded by a unicorn-inspired challah, it seemed harmless to click on ‘apples and honey.’ Staring back at me were screaming red apples fashioned out of Rice Krispie treats. Just before exiting the screen, I stumbled upon a video clip suggesting the sweetest way to break a Yom Kippur fast was with a pumpkin spice Babka. Turning away, I tried to envision my grandmother’s reaction to Pinterest. Reaching into the sleeve of her belted shirtwaist dress, securing a monogrammed handkerchief, she would have dabbed her eyes in disbelief.
Post-dinner last Tuesday and pre-sundown last Wednesday allowed me all the time in the world to think about making 5779 a better year. It always seems fitting to look back before looking ahead, ultimately offering a few heartfelt apologies.
Please forgive the wayward lemon seed and the smidgen of apple peel that found its way into your double crust pie; I try to be so careful. For the meringue that wept and the pie that puddled, my regrets. For the coconut macaroons that were a little too toasty, and the Hamantaschen that were beautifully triangular pre-oven yet ended up more oval post-oven, my hopes were high. For the pies that lingered too long at 375 degrees and those that needed a little more time at 375 degrees, I’m sorry, truly I am. As a humble gesture, please take a look at a non-traditional dessert offering that pairs beautifully with plums and is equally acceptable for breakfast, because the last thing you want to be is hangry.
Holiday revelers in early autumn are reliably forgetful. Their feet firmly planted in open toed sandals and their minds still at the beach, they are engrossed in back-to-school. When the calendar indicates that Rosh Hashanah is next on the docket, the bakery is inundated with folks desperately seeking apple. In one breath, it’s all about the pie; granny smiths and honey crisps spiked with cinnamon, piled high beneath a double crust. It’s also critical to lay one's hands upon a dowdy, circular cake, overstuffed with apple slices and drizzled with cider. A few days later, when there are apple pies aplenty, everyone is trying to hold on to summer, ignoring the apples and asking for yellow peaches poking through a lattice. The absence of peach pies is particularly troubling to a gentleman named Julius.
I recognize Julius as a regular weekend pie guy. In the summer months, he gravitates towards peach, bypassing the jumble berries and the blueberries, ignoring the key limes and anything plum-my. Fortunately, we’ve enjoyed a bountiful stone fruit season and crates of fresh peaches have been rolling through the bakery doors at least once a week, sometimes more. The odds seemed in our favor that peach season had been extended, until the sweet peaches were a little less sweet and the apple man cometh.
When the apple man arrives, I get that school-bus-rounding-the-corner feeling in the pit of my stomach. Parking an unassuming white truck just past the café tables and chairs fronting the bakery, the man from Lancaster Farms unloads a wooden pallet of fruit. An assortment of early apples, a few stragglers of late peaches, and a case of smooth skinned nectarines are hermetically sealed beneath yards of high density plastic wrap. I’m sad to see more apples than stone fruit, heralding the official end of summer.
All it takes is one honey loaf and an apple cake, and we are shot out of the holiday canon tumbling headfirst into the jaws of seasonal baked goods. No longer will we amuse ourselves selecting cookie cutters that align with fabricated food holidays. Pie shells will aggressively fight for freezer space and Christmas Red will nudge Pumpkin Orange for its rightful place amidst the Ameri-gel food colorings. If you breathe deeply, your nose will tickle with the fresh scent of candy corn followed by an assault of peppermint stick.
In a bakery, there’s nothing gradual about the unfolding of summer into autumn, nothing casual about the segue from Thanksgiving into Christmas. It happens in an instant, one holiday crashing into the next and before you know it, Ryan Seacrest is mouthing the words to “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
With one holiday behind us and the next one approaching in less than a week, it seems perfectly reasonable to feel a little bit anxious at the sight of the apple man. And from peach pie seeker Julius, his surprise and dismay is understandable, especially when the mercury continues to hover around 80 degrees.
I ask Julius to consider the nectarine. A combination of white peaches and nectarines might bake up a little sweeter, echoing the flavor of summer peaches he's hoping for. “Oh no,” Julius assures me. “No nectarines. Peach. Just peach.” Shaking his salt and pepper head Julius half-apologizes, “I thought peaches were still in season.” I explain that peaches are winding down and point to the apple pies stacked on the front table. Behind me, a woman is engrossed in her phone, agonizing whether to order an apple cake for Tuesday morning or Wednesday afternoon. “It’s the holiday!” she emphasizes into her cellphone. Don’t I know it.
“Tell me what time the pie will be ready, and I’ll come back,” Julius offers.
At four o’clock, Julius returns to pick up his pie. The cello window of the bakery box is cloudy with steam, the pie almost too hot to carry. “No nectarines,” I assure him. “Straight-up peach.”
“This peach pie reminds me of my grandmother,” Julius explains. Gathering up the box, he pauses. “Apples you can get anytime, but peaches…” he trails off, clearly revisiting a food memory. Some days, my job is pretty sweet.
On weekday mornings just before 8 o’clock, as I’m hunting down a parking spot near the bakery, our local classical music station plays an “Out the Door” dedication. Pre-caffeination, a Rossini overture or a Sousa march can be jarring. Today being the eleventh of September, announcer Jeff Spurgeon offers a few eloquent thoughts before pushing the play button on Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance. He suggests we think about the casualness of heading out the door, asking listeners to consider this simple act, something most of us do five mornings a week. He challenges us not to take leaving for granted, to appreciate the opportunity to embrace a new day. With Dvorak playing in the background, I park the car, thinking about the radio announcer’s proposal to pause and express gratitude for the day stretching out before me. Just outside the bakery, between sips of lattes and bites of gluten-free-ness, people are remembering where they were seventeen years ago.
Spurgeon’s words continue to resonate as I divvy up pounds of cold butter, tossing the cubes into the Hobart commercial mixer with all-purpose flour, a little sugar, a little salt. Pouring in just enough ice-cold water, I gather the pate brisée into discs, rolling them thin and easing them into aluminum pie plates. As I crimp the edges, I remember working in a Philadelphia restaurant kitchen in September of 2001.
For several days following the September 11th attacks, the restaurant was closed while everyone tried to regain their footing. When the owners decided to re-open, assuring each other and the staff that we needed to return to the new normal, it was a surreal experience.
What I vividly remember was the way we practically tiptoed around the kitchen, setting stockpots and whisks and slotted spoons into the three-compartment sink instead of casually tossing them. I remember the deafening silence of the kitchen radio, normally cranked up to POWER99, offering not a single note. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who had been deeply touched by tragedy. With the re-telling of the stories, the floodgates would open, and perfectly stoic line cooks would be crying puddles of Kosher salt tears, dabbing at the corner of their eyes with a frayed linen service apron. Standing on a commercial rubber floor mat, I continued to fill hotel pans with layers of espresso-soaked Savoiardi biscuits and mascarpone mousse. I lined springform pans with amaretti crumbs and ricotta cheesecake, poured panna cotta into ramekins. Customers ordered dessert hoping to fill the cavernous void of sadness. The dining room, normally buoyant with laughter was as still and flat as yesterday’s bottle of Prosecco. We were broken like end-of-the–night pizzelles and biscotti stacked in over-filled bus trays.
Seventeen years later, I am reminded by my classical music station not to take things for granted. In the kitchen above the din of the Hobart, Frank is singing New York, New York. Stacking the pie shells in the freezer, I reach for a bag of recently seasonal rhubarb. Ella’s velvety smooth rendition of I’ll Take Manhattan is next in the queue. Occasionally, when words fail, Sonos speaks.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm