Bring me your stoneware, your earthenware, your porcelain yearning to be free of ho-hum casseroles. Unearth the 3-quart baking dish and the weighty cast iron skillet stored beneath your oven. Wednesday’s NY Times food section is urging us to ditch our humble 9” pie plates and bake a bigger pie.
Julia Moskin taunts us with two tempting photographs igniting apple pie inspiration. The photos capture a pie so generous with the crust and so chock full of apples, I wanted to bake one right away. But that would have been redundant, because I was already in the thick of cinnamon sugared apples and pate brisée. The sum of the twelve pies I was sliding into the oven were not nearly as dramatic as the pie pictured in the paper. I wanted to bake a gloriously big apple pie, a pie capable of feeding a small army with plenty of triangular wedges remaining. Julia Moskin’s pie was large enough to afford smidgens before bedtime and forkfuls with a mug of morning coffee. I wanted to bake that pie. And then I remembered; in my line of work we don’t need a bigger pie plate. We need a bigger boat.
Catching the pie shark that is Thanksgiving is its own thriller, devoid of Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. Cast out into a sea of apples, we’ll be caught in an undertow of sweeteners and spices and thickeners. Arms clad in quasi-heat resistant oven mitts, the scalding apple pie overflow will know just where the oven mitt ends and the bare skin begins. There is little romance in that. Which is why the food section is a welcome respite, a glimpse beyond the bakery window.
I rhapsodized over the pie that was pictured in the Times. I wanted to eat a slice of that pie. For anyone with a hankering for fruit and crust, Wednesday’s food section provided an expansive and instructive read, an article romancing you into pie baking. It is the kind of approachable tutorial that holds your flour-dusted hands as you embark on your apple pie journey. Let’s suppose, however, that you are tasked with baking more than one pie. Maybe you’re facing stacks of needy 9” aluminum pie plates and cases of roly-poly apples desperately seeking double crust. Maybe the pie plates number in the triple digits. I understand; not everyone has a day job centered around butter-flour-sugar and fruit.
Which is why I hate to admit it, but I have a love/loathe relationship with the Wednesday food section. I look at it and look away, wanting to know, but not wanting to know. The focus on food is agreeably readable, a quick study without requiring too much of a time commitment. My problem is that it's terribly removed from my real life; it's a fantasy food world. Yes, there are those who wait for Wednesday, who leisurely pore over the 8 pages with a cup of freshly brewed coffee poured from a French press. Inspired by what you read, it is just a matter of time before you fly out the door, enroute to your local farm market armed with your eco-friendly tote bag. The result of Ms. Moskin’s beautifully written and comprehensive article will send readers flocking to the apple aisle of their weekend markets, combing the crates for fruit boasting crispness and sweetness with just the right pluck of tartness.
The quest to replicate the pie featured in the paper doesn’t end with the apples. If you read the entire article, you’ll know. The pie enhancer formerly-known-as-lemon will languish in the produce aisle, while unfiltered apple cider will fly off the shelves of Whole Foods and Trader Joes. Why? Because the article in the food section of the Times says so. I heard it repeated yesterday, on the 4:47 NJ Transit train.
“Did you read the article about apple pie in the paper? I’m going to make a big apple pie.”
“Have you ever made an apple pie?”
“Yes, once. And did you read the part about the apple cider vinegar? I have a bottle of apple cider vinegar.” Pause. “Does apple cider vinegar spoil? I’ve had it forever.”
“I don’t know about the vinegar, but I have a huge casserole dish. Do you think I can bake my pie in that?”
“I don’t see why not.” Pause. “Have you ever made a gluten free pie crust?”
Clearly, I had boarded the Big Apple Pie Train, not the 4:47.
I am refusing to acknowledge the truth that in less than four short weeks from now, folks will be tucking their forks into piecrust and fruit. While we toil in the bakery peeling and slicing, filling and crimping, bakers in home kitchens will be lugging enormous pie plates and heavy casserole dishes to their kitchen counters. They will over-fill them with a farm market mix of apples, and God help us, too big a splash of apple cider vinegar. These generous, bountiful pies, inspired by the romance of the weekly food section, will be hoisted out of the oven with pristine oven mitts, fresh off the rack from Williams-Sonoma.
I haven’t mapped out a personal pie plan for the holiday yet, but I definitely see an apple pie in my immediate future. When a friend from Chicago lugs a bag of gorgeous apples direct from their very own apple trees all the way to New York City, apple pie is on the menu. Thank you, Maury Collins.
It’s possible that this pie will find its way to an unorthodox pie vessel or it may just land in the first pie plate that comes crashing out of my over-filled kitchen cabinet. I’m all for a splash of apple cider vinegar in the pie crust, but for the apples, only lemon. Yes, I know; I dream of being as hip as the food section tells me I should be, but the reality is I’m as old-fashioned as a 9” pie plate and a casserole in a casserole dish.
Long ago and far away in 1980s Manhattan, I owned a spice rack. Spice rack ownership required the painstaking task of transferring spices from McCormick’s neat rectangular tins into small round jars. Each jar was identical in size, sporting a label clearly announcing their identity. They were my spice sentinels, anxiously waiting for their call to action in baked goods and savories. The labels were barely affixed to the jars when I started making new and exotic purchases, worthy additions to any kitchen. The grim reality was that I had used all of the jars provided by the spice rack company and more troubling, there were no additional vacancies on the rack. One of the spices that refused to conform to the dimensions of the rack was cardamom.
In the 1980s, cardamom had yet to become the new cinnamon, and though intrigued by this well-loved Scandinavian addition, it wasn’t something I used everyday. I had purchased it in order to make a Swedish-inspired recipe touted by Maida Heatter. Maida encouraged me to expand my spice horizons but sadly, the spice rack makers had not provided room for my burgeoning collection. Inspired by the comfortable tone of Maida’s cookbooks and my growing frustration with the tumbling bottle of cardamom, I opted to ditch my restrictive spice rack, moving everything to a slightly warped Tupperware lazy susan. Despite their newfound freedom, the spices continued to fight for space. Once again, cardamom was the renegade.
Always slightly out of step with her neighboring bay leaves and cinnamon, cardamom was clumsy on the shelf, toppling over whenever I gave the lazy susan the slightest spin. I wondered about cardamom, wishing it could be more like cinnamon. Cinnamon was my Flash-Dance spice, as warm and comfortable as a pair of leggings, spinning, practically leaping from cabinet to countertop, landing in cookies, coffeecakes, and the occasional batch of Cincinnati chili. I was constantly replenishing cinnamon but it seemed that every time I moved, the same jar of cardamom tagged along, blatantly out of place beside her sister spices.
Several years later, an exhaustive bakery crawl of Seattle proved what Maida knew all along; cardamom was stepping out of line on the spice rack because she was worthy of recognition. The warm, fragrant addition of cardamom was certainly more sophisticated than cinnamon, equally at home in sweet and savory dishes. Pacific Northwesterners used cardamom with an even hand, never overpowering, always enhancing. I wanted to be like, eat like, and bake like the Seattle-ites. I ate pear tarts spiked with cardamom and rich sour cream coffee cakes swirled with cardamom. Ginger spice cookies had a generous hit of cardamom, which tasted even better with a hot mug of cardamom coffee. Clearly I needed a little more Scandinavia in my life. I purchased fresh cardamom pods at Pike Place Market and smuggled them home in my suitcase.
It is easy to understand why Scandinavian immigrants were lured to the Pacific Northwest. Rich farmland, rivers and bays teeming with fresh fish, and a temperate climate were incentive enough. Thankfully, they packed plenty of cardamom in their steamer trunks. Today, the Scandinavian impact on Seattle’s cuisine is notable and like most food-related trends, has a way of working its way eastward. Wedged between Maida’s cookbooks, I have a fair collection of books highlighting Pacific Northwest restaurants and bakeries. The Scandinavian influence is reflected in the recipes proving that one coast’s cinnamon is another coast’s cardamom.
I’m more patient with cardamom these days, making room on a spice shelf for both ground cardamom and cardamom pods. Yes, I’m still adding cinnamon to baked goods, but not exclusively, and perhaps now with a gentler hand. Cinnamon has hung up her legwarmers and is now just a regular girl on the spice shelf. Cardamom always knew she was special, but now she’s the ‘It’ spice girl. Used judiciously, I like to think of her as the perfect little black dress of spices, always in good taste.
It’s doubtful a spice rack will ever find a home in my kitchen again; my kitchen cabinets are filled with multiple spice containers that cannot possibly be tamed within the confines of a rack. I like grinding certain spices in a retired coffee grinder and I admit to keeping a small stash of both green and black cardamom handy for certain recipes. I’ll keep watching from a safe distance to see what the uber foodsters dub the next ‘It’ spice. Cayenne already had it’s day in the spotlight, ditto turmeric. My money is on a spice that had its own designated jar on my now vintage spice rack; mace, nutmeg’s cooler older sister. The hipster foodie sites will proclaim the wonders and restorative virtues of the spice made from the dried outer covering of nutmeg. And while they’re at it, they’ll link me to an etsy site where I can buy my old spice rack and a few repurposed McCormick spice tins for an ungodly price. That only fuels a small portion of my frustration. My biggest fear is that the next cool spice will ultimately end up in a coffee drink. Poultry Seasoning latte, anyone?
Oh, Canada, you know how to taunt a girl; Thanksgiving in October. With a mere 42 days remaining before the American Voldemort of holidays crosses the bakery’s threshold, I wonder; why can’t we be more like the Canadians?
For those of you who didn't pay attention in Mrs. Mangione’s 8th grade Social Studies class, history tells us that in 1578, English explorer Martin Frobisher hosted the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America. (Using the word ‘first’ is a little like using the word ‘best,’ but for our purposes, we’ll stick with Mrs. Mangione’s story.) Following a dicey journey through the Northwest Passage, Frobisher and his fellow explorers had plenty of reasons to be thankful. As they gathered to celebrate their good fortune in simply being alive, it is doubtful that anyone noticed the lack of Martha-inspired kraft paper/raffia tablescape accents. It is also worth noting that Frobisher and his guests were probably not peppering their dinner conversation with mention of Black Friday sales.
Traditionally, American Thanksgiving conjures images of bountiful harvests, tall black hats with gold buckles, turkey legs, and long lines snaking round Best Buy just before midnight. Not so a little further north. Granted, the early years of Canadian Thanksgiving were a little Plymouth-rocky. Folks took their time getting acquainted with the holiday, celebrating it casually, sporadically in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was more of a day of reflection, appreciating the blessings bestowed upon individuals and their country. T-Day wasn’t celebrated in Canada nationally until 1879. For a while, Canada attempted a two-for-one approach to the festivities, combining it with Armistice Day. (You remember Armistice Day, right? November 11th, commemorating the signing of the armistice ending World War I in 1918.) Even more curious, Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated nationally, but can be legislated at the provincial and territorial levels. In Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, Turkey Day is optional. Those who work the holiday are compensated with both overtime and a bounty of leftovers courtesy of their stay-at-home co-workers. Which begs the question, what’s on the Canadian Thanksgiving menu?
Canadians have their eye on our November holiday when they gather around their Thanksgiving dinner tables. Yes, there’s probably a stuffed turkey and sweet potatoes and yes, dessert will probably feature a pumpkin pie. In some households new to Canadian Thanksgiving by way of Seattle, I understand turkey was not on the table and the ‘other’ white meat was, tip to tail. (All the more reason for certain individuals to consider a jaunt to the Garden State some time in November, B. Gray, but no pressure.)
For those so inclined, casual football viewing is available on Canadian television after that last smidgen of pumpkin pie has been consumed. However, no one is jumping up from the table in mass exodus, credit cards in hand, shopping mall programmed on the GPS. Black Friday shopping is far less popular in Canada. With the day after Thanksgiving falling on a Tuesday, Black Tuesday shopping just doesn’t have the same ring to it as its American counterpart. Canada’s biggest shopping day mirrors the UK, falling on the day after Christmas, commonly known as Boxing Day. Providing the perfect opportunity to return all of those less-than-desired holiday gifts back to the store in late December, this frees up the 3-day Thanksgiving weekend. With nary a word from Al Roker nor a single helium-inflated balloon hovering overhead, Canadians are known to get out of the house on Thanksgiving Day to enjoy October’s mild weather. This does wonders for shortening the lounging-on-the-couch-food-coma-recovery time, which probably offers some substantial health benefits. We could take a lesson.
From where I stand filling a freezer with stacks of pie shells, the most fascinating aspect of Canadian Thanksgiving is the casualness of it all. There’s plenty of gathering and celebrating, but it is not uncommon for people to stay local-ish. The craziness of travel by air/car/train/bus that we associate with Thanksgiving is toned down several notches. Which is why I’m a firm advocate for scattering Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas throughout the year. No good can possibly come from lumping all of these holidays together in one exhausting pie-consuming cookie-decorating frenzy. If we start right now, we can adjust our calendars. This would mean that I’m terribly sorry, (Canadian accent on the word ‘sorry’) but Thanksgiving was last Monday.
Once again, it’s Canada for the win, eh?
On Wednesday, for no particular reason other than it was officially October, I rolled out the very first pumpkin pies of the season. Pumpkin is the pie that keeps me up at night. It is a needy pie, requiring enough oven time but not too much. Over baking and over mixing are among the culprits causing the cracks to form, first around the edges, then smack dab down the middle. Just the right amount of oven time allows the spicy cream filling to set properly, avoiding the dreaded Frankenstein line. Wednesday’s efforts enjoyed a 50% success rate. I was unhappy in an early-October kind of way.
By Thursday, pumpkin was no longer on my radar, focusing instead on wooden crates over-spilling with apples. Stacked beneath the Rome, Empire and Crispin Crisp were a few cases of muted yellow-skinned pears. In most instances, it’s just a matter of time before the fruit being sealed between two circles of pâte brisée is going to displease someone. Case in point: Team Mother/Daughter Birthday.
What began as a seemingly harmless pie order began to unravel at approximately 2 pm on Thursday. Until then, other than a cake inscription needing to be penned in Hebrew lettering, there was nothing remarkable about the day. Thursday is the day wedged between mid-week and weekend. It is the day that transitions from calm to chaos with no turning back. It is the tipping point when surprise cake orders rear their ugly buttercream heads and rogue pie orders tend to surface. The air is painfully thick with butter, powdered sugar, and vanilla punctuated by the sound of the paddle attachment beating the buttercream into submission.
I had just finished measuring out ingredients for a random pie order when Manager Margaret approached the bench. Looking up from my egg-wash spattered work surface, I caught a glimpse of Margaret’s expression. She was holding the phone, listening, nodding, tilting her head, closing her eyes, nodding once more before rolling her eyes and mouthing something unintelligible.
It was unclear to me whether Margaret was speaking to a birthday celebrant or the mother of a celebrant or the daughter who had placed the order for the mother or both. Equally unclear was whether the birthday celebrant was partially pro pear or totally pear contraire.
Suffice to say that the original order for this particular pie was a medley of autumn fruit; sweet pears, tart plums, and a splash of end-of-season blueberries. I had been consulted about said pie and following a brief stroll through the walk-in, confirmed the fruit selection. In an attempt to cross the order off my list, I had everything assembled; spices, sweeteners, and thickener. The medley of fruit rested
comfortably in a bowl, comingling before being turned into a pie shell. For a brief moment, there was order in the chaotic pie world. Until there wasn’t.
I heard Margaret responding to a question with a vague answer. “I can ask the kitchen how many pears…”
“How many what?” I jumped in, looking up from my sea of tranquility.
Margaret held the phone away, protecting the caller from my reaction. Whispering more than speaking, Margaret took a breath. “She wants to know the percentage of pears to blueberries to plums… I’ll tell her we’ll call her back… We’ll call you back…”
“WHAT???!!!” I responded, unable to contain an involuntary seething reaction. “The percentage of pears to blueberries to plums?!” I hissed. In my head, a voice was screaming, “Gimme the phone, GIMME THE PHONE, let me talk to her!” My hands paused mid-pear, foodservice gloves just the slightest bit cinnamon sugared. I took a moment to collect myself and said, “I’m happy to talk to her if you get her on the line.” Acting 101.
Margaret dialed the number, handed the phone to me before mentioning something about taking her lunch break. I stepped away from the bench. It was difficult to determine who was celebrating what and who had ordered the pie and who was conflicted with pears touching blueberries touching plums.
I listened because it was hard to interject a word, and I listened because it sounded like I was about to ruin someone’s birthday. I tried to explain that it was no longer blueberry season and I was cordial and suggested as an alternative either a pear pie or an apple pie. Team Mother/Daughter Birthday were busy talking over each other until they were talking to me.
“We have an apple pie. We just bought an apple pie. We don’t need an apple pie.”
“That’s great! “ I said. “Then you’re all set. Let me go ahead and cancel the other pie.”
Silence. “Yes,” they agreed. “We’ll eat the apple.”
“Happy, Happy, Birthday to you.” I returned the phone to the charger while simultaneously tearing up the ticket. “I think I’ll make some buttermilk pies,” I said to everyone and no one in particular.
As I zested a few lemons into a cavernous bowl of buttermilk, sugar, and eggs, I was thinking back to just one day prior and my unhappiness over the pumpkin pies. Then Sharon came back to let me know that someone came in just after the pies were out of the oven and was surprised and delighted to see pumpkin cooling on the rack. Apparently the pie was boxed up and delivered to an elderly gentleman who was in failing health and simply wanted a pumpkin pie. Not because it was a birthday or a holiday, but just because. Just because he was given the gift of a day and the chance to indulge in a slice or two of pumpkin pie. Thinking about that made me incredibly happy. You might even say, 100% happy.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm