Sweet Erin works at the bakery on the days I do not. Tomorrow she will be one of the many families flooding the streets of the Village during the annual Halloween parade hoopla. Erin is enormously gifted in many ways; among them is her ability to fashion intricate costumes for herself and her three little boys. I envy Erin’s craftiness.
You might say I have always been a much better idea person than a crafty person. Sadly, my interactions with a sewing machine were limited to Junior High School Home Economics. Showing greater promise with the culinary portion of the curriculum, I failed miserably attempting to construct a jumper to be worn on “Jumper Day.” (Thanks, Rommy for preventing a serious wardrobe malfunction by replacing the zipper the night before its unveiling.) Constructing a costume with needle and thread was never my calling. Clearly, crafty can skip a generation.
Reminiscing about Halloween with Master Master and Blondilocks, it occurs to me that my repertoire of costumes came from the dark recesses of the attic on Woodland Terrace. It was a veritable costume shop of vintage clothing, passed down from two sets of grandparents. The hats alone were award worthy, not to mention a cedar chest filled with accessories ranging from elbow length gloves to opera glasses. If an integral part of the costume was frail or lacking, Rommy would dash off to Fabric Land for a few yards of remnants and then fabricate a one-of-a-kind costume. In most cases, this stitch witchery took place between the evening hours of October 30th and the early hours of October 31st. No pressure.
What goes around comes around. Admittedly lacking in seamstress skills, my talents blossomed in creative hot-glue gun artistry. Many a late night was spent hot gluing Halloween costumes. One year, it was the Tooth Fairy’s tiara, embellished with nickels and dimes plus a pair of dangling toothbrush earrings. Another Halloween called for large letters spelling out C-A-N-Y-O-U-H-E-A-R-M-E-N-O-W on a life-size cell phone, complete with a foam headdress of reception bars. One of my finest moments was recreating the board game Operation on a pair of leggings and matching sweatshirt when I was down to my last glue stick and Staples had closed for the night. Thankfully, for many years Master Master was content to wear his soccer uniform as a costume. When he felt he was too old to go trick or treating, he simply fished through his sister’s stash of candy until he found a bag of Twizzlers.
Watching the festivities through the bakery window is a touch bittersweet. This year’s Halloween parade will no doubt feature incredibly creative costuming. I have already caught a peek of two award-worthy costumes, outfitted by our very talented early-to-rise baker, Baylee. Nothing says Happy Halloween quite as brilliantly as Archibald ”Archie” McBiscuitbutt and Oliver “Ollie” Sir Snorts-a lot sporting their well-tailored jerseys.
May your Halloween be as sweet as a bag of Reece’s Pieces.
We are teetering on the brink of Halloween, up to our elbows in icings the color of candy corn. Rita observed today that the expiration date on certain cartons of dairy reads 12-24-15. Oh, that holiday. I can’t even think of gingerbread guys and dolls when there are miles of pie shells to roll between now and the Voldemort of bakery holidays, 11-26-15. We banter back and forth, analyzing a better way to orchestrate the production and pick-up of hundreds of holiday pies. Despite our best efforts, we are always swept up in a maelstrom of pie-dentification.
When an order is fetched by an individual other than the person who ordered it, you can almost guarantee drama will ensue. Case in point, last Friday. A petite woman with salt and pepper curls arrived at noon to pick up a pie. Barista at the front lines could not seem to locate the apple/raspberry/plum pie. Ms. Salt and Pepper claimed there was a pie with her name on it. (Having just baked it, the pie in question seemed all too familiar.) Abandoning my pyramid of apples, I hunted down the wayward order form. Yes, there was a pie, but the name she insisted upon was not the name we had affixed to that particular pie box. The name given to the Barista was different because she was picking up an order for someone else. In the end, the pie in question was for Twinkle; crisis averted.
Names are tricky and in the weeks leading up to a holiday, the best you can hope for is organized chaos. Every time I answer the phone at work and write down an order, I can’t quite hear what they are saying on the other end. Jotting down names and numbers, I repeat it all back, not once, but twice and even then the fear of writing down the wrong name haunts me. (Might I suggest this anxiety stems from years working for a man who required oversized index cards typed in Pica, not Elite, font with lists of pertinent names and numbers. An individual who insisted on tagging the letter “H” to the front of my name. Yes, although he could pen my name correctly, coupled with his distinctive accent, I was always addressed as “H-Ellen.” There was never an easy way to correct the King of Siam, so I didn’t.)
Yesterday, I uncharacteristically stepped away from the bench for a lunch break. Accompanying the Butter Meister to a launch celebrating the release of a new cookbook, we strolled down the block to our neighborhood independent bookseller. Our late arrival meant nametags had already been distributed, but our gracious host offered to secure two for us. Only one tag was serviceable. The second one was a mere border of its former self where once lived a ‘Hello My Name Is’ badge. I wore it anyway. Munching on triangles of pita and baba ganoush, I could feel people staring at my vacant nametag. Clearly they had no idea that in some circles my name is considered a classic.
That is what the Uber driver explained to me on Monday night as we sped towards Penn Station. “You know, “ Amir said dodging yellow cabs and breezing up 6th Avenue. “Your name, it is not a new name. It is old-fashioned. Classic. My grandmother, she has the same name as you.” I nodded, trying to avoid whiplash as my driver hit the brakes. “It is a good name, your name. Very old.” Gee, thanks, pal. “It is unusual that you have the same name because my grandmother, she is Egyptian.” How interesting I nodded, exiting the car at the corner of 33rd street amidst a sea of Rangers fans. I paused for just a moment, stepping onto the curb, thanking Amir for delivering me to NJ Transit in a timely fashion. He waved and smiled broadly, “You are most welcome, Helen.”
I wonder if it’s too late in the game to change my name to Twinkle.
On Saturday, I overheard the word Thanksgiving closely followed by the word pie followed in hot pursuit by the word order. The words triggered an involuntary response in my right arm. Beginning somewhere between shoulder and elbow, rapidly traveling southbound through the carpal tunnel, encompassing my wrist and finally exiting through my fingers, the pain was surprisingly real.
It is barely Pie-tober, with miles to travel before turkeys and tryptophan get tangled up in the good dishes. Although there is a newly purchased, unopened box of After Eight Mints resting on my dining room table, I will ignore said holiday until rolling pin and hands become one.
Despite my fierce denial, there is one slight pie wrinkle that must be addressed, and that is the state of the pumpkin. Pies in general, but specifically Thanksgiving pies are driven by food memories. The people seated at the head of the table may change and the faces reflected in the sterling silver are either a good bit older or brand new to the party. It is pretty safe to assume, however, that the culmination of the holiday meal will feature triangular slices draped in ice cream or whipped cream. In anticipation of the last Thursday in November, one must ponder the pumpkin.
Pumpkin pie is highly personal. Yes, there’s a familiar assemblage of sugars and dairy, spices and squash. The memories are what make your pumpkin pie different from mine. Are you partial to the richness of heavy cream, sour cream or Carnation evaporated milk? Is there molasses in the mix? Do you like a sprinkling of mace or black pepper? Is the recipe taken from the back of the Libby canned pumpkin or is it penned in your grandmother’s hand? Pumpkin pies can be similar but one girl’s nutmeg is another girl’s allspice. A bigger question looms; are you pro cloves or opposed?
What I vividly remember about Jessie’s pumpkin pie is a can of Libby’s pumpkin lounging on the Formica kitchen counter next to a canister of dark brown sugar and a parade of McCormick spice tins. Jessie measured out cinnamon and nutmeg, ginger and the slightest hint of cloves. I have a faded recipe card that I hastily scribbled one Thanksgiving, years before the launch of A Slice of Heaven. Jessie dictated the recipe including the directive, “add two good pinches of salt.” In hindsight, Jessie was decades ahead of the salt caramel bandwagon, adding a little more salt to balance the sweetness of the brown sugar and give the pie some spunk. The rest of the details were drowned out by the hum of the Sunbeam mixer and the Macy’s Day parade. I wish I had asked her why her pumpkin pies never cracked.
In anticipation of what I consider the actual Pie Day, this week I auditioned a trio of pumpkin pies before the audience of Team Butter. Personally, I prefer a bit of tipsy in my holiday dessert, but the boozy entry received the comment, "Thank you. Next?" In the end, we settled on a classic pumpkin pie; just enough spice, but not too much. Hopefully we chose the one that says, “Hey- thanks!”
When I’m standing at the bench, slicing pounds of butter (and not my thumb) into sensible cubes, I daydream about Thanksgiving. In my dream, there is a sign emblazoned across the front of the bakery. It declares, “NO PIE RESERVATIONS. We bake ‘em- you take ‘em, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.” The same way Linus believed in the Great Pumpkin, I so terribly want to believe. A girl can dream.
Ditching kitchen clogs for rain boots, I purchase my ticket to ride on the 12:47 hoping to catch a sliver of the Pie Potluck festivities. Pie Potluck LIVE is the brainchild of pie enthusiasts Jackie Gordon and Ken Leung. This year the Institute of Culinary Education is sponsoring and hosting the event at their beautiful digs on Liberty Street. It’s a bit of a trek for me, requiring a hasty retreat from work and a mad dash to the station. The train is Saturday matinee overcrowded forcing me to snake my way from the rear to the very first car. There are two seat options; one facing backwards amidst a family of animated tourists on cell phones or next to a young woman who has deliberately placed a ginormous orange tote bag on what will be my seat. Politely asking my soon-to-be-seatmate to remove the offending tote, she responds in a slightly homicidal tone, “Don’t touch the bag.” She then places the capacious carry-all on the floor with a thud, muttering obscenities under her breath. Turning her body 90 degrees, she stares out the window, her trench coated back to me. Clutching a rain drenched canvas bag on my lap, I crane my neck scanning to see if I might rejoin the party of tourists. Too late. There is nary a vacant seat in sight. Convinced it is just a matter of time before the woman sitting next to me commits a heinous crime, I begin to focus on the emergency exit window to my left.
Heading south towards Battery Park, my compatriots on the subway are downright friendly. A young man offers me a seat and following my early morning bakery stint, I happily accept. From Rector to Liberty Street is a short walk, right past the building Blondilocks once called home. Entrance to the Pie Potluck requires a brush with security, or in my case, three brushes. When it’s time to verify my identity, the serious gentleman behind the marble podium instructs me to ride an escalator towards the next level (literally) of security. Hurricane Wanna-be Joaquim has left my tresses wind-blown, my glasses rain spattered. Gaining admittance to the bank of elevators at the rear of the building requires additional clearance and explanation. “It’s just a pie- in here, in the box, in the bag,” I explain. The likeness on my Garden State Driver’s License gives the security guard pause. “Really- that’s me. Without the wind and the rain.”
The hi-tech elevator is beyond my comprehension; where’s the ‘Up’ button? There isn’t one. I stumble upon a keypad and take a swipe at it with my elbow because my hands are juggling the damn pie box. Miraculously the elevator doors open and I’m whisked away to the 3rd floor. The Institute of Culinary Arts is an impressive space filled with sparkling glass and stainless steel. At the far end, a wall of windows frames the Hudson River, moody and gray beneath rain clouds. Inside, the atmosphere is decidedly festive, as buoyant as New Year’s Eve. Pie revelers bob between expansive banquet tables, draped in white linen. One offers a vast selection of sweet pies, the other groans under the weight of savory. But wait! Be still my yoga pants- there’s a specific area cordoned off on one table boasting Gluten-free selections. So many pies, so little time.
Despite my tardiness, I am warmly welcomed to the festivities by host Jackie. My Concord Grape Tart with Peanut Butter Cookie crust squeezes in alongside a Chocolate Coconut Banoffee Pie. Pie revelers are brandishing serious Wüsthof knives as they slice and sample their way around the table. The selections are dizzying, the flavor combinations inspired. The Cupboard Harvest Pie is a non-traditional apple slab pie; bright with dried apricots and cherries, dotted with currants and emblazoned with pastry cut-outs shouting P-I-E. Scanning the card identifying the baker, I see it is host Jackie’s pie. Not only can Jackie orchestrate one hell of a party, she’s also a fine pie baker.
While nibbling, pie peeps are balancing stemmed glassware filled with specialty cocktails provided by Matt Bruck and Company. Concerned with navigating my way back to Penn Station, I take a pass on the libations, but not on the goody bag. Filled with treats from Wüsthof knives, Analon cookware, King Arthur Flour, Cabot Cheeses, Tovolo and Dub Pies, it feels like Hanukkah in October. I’m particularly smitten with King Arthur’s sample of Saigon cinnamon and Analon’s t-shirt. The t-shirt has the word Ramps scrawled across the top, with a likeness of the wild leeks below. At the bottom of the shirt it proclaims, “WHISK Takers.” Aren’t we all.
Snagging an empty two-seater on the return trip, I re-visit my goody bag. Wrapped in tissue paper is a copy of King Arthur Flour’ s brand spanking new magazine, Sift. Page by page I devour the text, pausing at each gorgeous photograph. Cinnamon sticks, fresh nutmeg and ruby-red apples practically leap from the glossy pages. For the moment, I have consumed more than enough fruit and crust to sustain me. Tomorrow however, I will be inspired by page 38 of Sift magazine to peel a few apples, grate a little fresh nutmeg, tuck it between two circles of pastry and call it pie.
If Lucy Van Pelt were to analyze my passion for Concord grapes, she would simplify matters with a mere 5 cent consultation. Clearly, I am unable to relinquish a belief firmly rooted in my childhood that purple is an integral part of the food pyramid. Lucy would point out specifics: Welch’s grape juice and jelly, purple Tootsie Pops, Pixy Stix and Sweet-Tarts. Cello-wrapped Charms Hard Candies and of course, the Purple Cow; a scoop of vanilla ice cream bobbing precariously atop a glass of grape soda. Dr. Van Pelt would agree that my purple sweet tooth was indeed a result of being raised in the 1960s and then she would wrap up the session with a zinger. “In addition to your inability to let go of your grape past, you refuse to acknowledge why you associate grapes with good times.” I pause to reflect. Lucy continues, “Season 5, Episode 23.” Of course. I Love Lucy; the famous grape stomping episode.
It would be a stretch to suggest that my recent visit to the Finger Lakes found me barefoot, stomping on grapes. I can report with accuracy however, that I enjoyed more than my fair share of Concords, Sheridan and Delaware “Champagne” grapes. My gracious hosts, Jane and Roger of Tabora Vineyards (formerly of Tabora Orchards, my old workplace) invited me to join them as they picked grapes. But first, lunch. Amidst a breathtaking landscape of green and grape beneath a canopy of early autumn leaves, Jane served her classic deep-dish quiche. We debated the virtues of blind-baking the butter rich crust. Roger heralded us in the direction of the vineyard, affording a birds-eye view of the rolling acreage. The fragrance in the air was distinctly, purple. At 2 o’clock we assembled to gather the grapes. A far cry from collecting a few quarts in a corrugated basket, this entailed riding alongside two wooden bins each with a capacity of 1500 pounds. A mechanized grape picker combed the fields of the 400+ acre vineyard. Wrangling the grapes gives you an entirely new appreciation for every cluster of grapes casually lounging in fruit bowls atop kitchen tables.
Observing the work of a farmer is both dazzling and humbling. I am reminded of this tonight as I pinch pounds of Concord grapes, separating skins from pulp, simmering the fruit and discarding the tiny pits. Reuniting pulp with skins, sugar, a splash of lemon and cornstarch creates a thick, jammy filling, the color of midnight. There is nothing shy about the flavor, it is an explosive taste, as vivid as October’s color palate.
Roger’s success as both farmer and engineer is as far-reaching as his vineyard. He taught me the art of bakery production and efficiency; skills I continue to use 20 years since asking him for a sifter to prepare a cookie recipe. He responded by preparing a ‘small’ batch of cookie dough in a 60 quart Hobart mixer.
At this stage of the game, Roger could certainly retire but that’s not on his agenda. He is very clear when explaining his idea of retirement; it is filling his days with what he enjoys. Watching him maneuver tons of grapes from field to forklift to flatbed, it is clear retirement suits him just fine.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm