Act 4 Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale- Enter Clown
“I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see; what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice, - what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on…
I must have saffron to color the warden pies; mace, dates? – none, that’s out of my note; nutmegs, seven, a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pounds of prunes, and as many of raisins I’ the sun.”
My version of pear pie opts for cornmeal and rye in the pastry, cardamom in the filling, and golden raisins, straying from the Warden Pie depicted in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Warden pears were originally grown in Bedfordshire, gathered from the land surrounding Warden Abbey. Shakespeare had a penchant for pears, often peppering his scripts with bawdy and risqué pear references, not always suitable for prime time consumption.
I can relate to recipes instructing you to ‘bake your Wardens first in a pie’ (meaning pre-bake) to accommodate rock-hard, unripe fruit. Having only dabbled in Shakespeare in college, I do consider myself more of an authority on unripe pears. Without following the Clown’s recipe to the letter, cue my Pear Pie with Cornmeal/Rye Pastry. You won’t need Spark notes to understand it. The crust bows to rye and cornmeal flour and the filling is weighty with pears and has a good bite from candied ginger. I prefer it for breakfast with a drizzle of maple syrup, but vanilla ice cream makes a fine understudy.
Setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner was always a big to-do, almost ceremonial. My father liked to orchestrate, enlisting several sets of hands to expand the antique table to a size that could accommodate a minimum of a dozen, generally more. Consulting first with my mother for a headcount that was always changing, the man who always sat at the head of the table would venture into the cavernous hall closet for additional boards to extend the table. The boards weighed a ton, made of the same dark stained wood as the heirloom table, with each board numbered to ensure a seamless extension. Our dining room chairs with the needlepoint seats had curvy backs and wide legs, too unwieldy for Thanksgiving. My father dove into the rear of the hall closet to unearth uncomfortable folding chairs with black leatherette seats supported by wooden legs. When unfolded, the chairs were guaranteed to pinch your fingers as you set them in place. My mother accumulated the chairs in the 1960s and 70s when S&H green stamps were popular. The stamps were distributed at supermarkets, gas stations, and department stores, collected by all the moms, and pasted into booklets. When you had amassed enough, the green stamps were redeemable for products featured in the S&H catalogue. Based on the number of folding chairs tucked away in the closet, my mother must have been collecting and redeeming stamps with a passion.
Once the table had the requisite number of boards in place, my father retrieved the table pads and lined them up; sandwiching the narrow ones in the middle, securing them between the wide ones with the rounded edges. Having anchored the table and chairs in place, my father wandered into the kitchen to ‘supervise.’ This meant bantering back and forth with Jessie who was the mastermind of Thanksgiving dinner preparation. Jessie padded across the kitchen floor, checking on the turkey in one oven, rotating pies and root vegetables in the other, adding a shake of Wondra flour to the pearl onions simmering in cream. My father liked to stir things on top of the stove, add a little extra salt to the matzoh stuffing, check on the status of the pigs-in-blankets we would nibble with cocktails before dinner.
My mother was busy in the dining room, poised before the doors of the breakfront, going through an imposing stack of perfectly ironed linen tablecloths and a dizzying stack of napkins. From my vantage point on the other side of the room, all of the table linens looked pretty much the same; assorted shades of white, ivory, palest yellow, or sage green embellished with intricate monograms and a sprinkling of French dots. Etched within the threads of the initials were the generations of people who had once circled the table. My mother knew the history of each cloth, recounting stories of birthday dinners, anniversary celebrations, countless Thanksgivings, all tethered to starched linens. Up to her neck in tablecloths and napkins of varying sizes, her commentary was muffled beneath the damasks and jacquards.
Expanded to capacity, the dining room table stretched into the living room. Often we needed my grandmother’s card table for additional seating, its green Naugahyde surface draped with the perfect cloth, echoing countless games of canasta and solitaire. Occasionally, there would be a need for a kid-sized Samsonite folding table, to accommodate the very youngest, but for the most part we sat elbow to elbow, youngsters and grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins. We lingered long after turkey and pies, exhausting the centerpiece of vibrant grapes and dried fruit, emptying the candy dishes filled with salted cashews and thin chocolate mints.
It was my favorite holiday, the one that echoed through the dining room the following morning as we dismantled the table and folding chairs, restoring the dining room to its original, everyday formation. The cranberry stained tablecloth and the napkins smudged with pumpkin and chocolate tumbled into the washing machine, facing a deluge of hot water and laundry detergent. My mother retrieved the clean linens promptly out of the dryer, whisking them away to her full-sized ironing board to restore their creases with her serious iron, before folding them and returning them to the breakfront.
Thanksgiving arrived a little early this year, with our group of eleven fitting comfortably around a long table without boards, without monogrammed linens. As my sister and I earnestly ironed a contemporary tablecloth with stubborn wrinkles, it occurred to me that there was no need for a kids table. All of the kids have grown up.
Attention Shoppers; both apple and honey cakes are no longer available in the holiday aisle. Personally, I’m not sad about it nor will I be dipping my toe into the gluten-free pumpkin-chocolate-chip quick bread waters. For the next 47 days, my focus will be on 9” aluminum pie plates and 11 oz. circles of pie dough. Not that I’m counting the days, or the pie shells, or the dwindling number of vacant shelves in the freezer adjacent to my workspace. It’s early in the pre-Thanksgiving game, affording plenty of time for critical thinking, strategizing and cautious yet fleeting optimism. In a few short weeks, just about the time toothy Jack o’ Lanterns lose their grin, my optimism will be replaced with complete and utter dread.
Right now, I’m looking away from American Thanksgiving and looking forward to this very Monday’s Canadian Thanksgiving. Combing through my well-worn expandable file of recipes, I’m fixated on everything pumpkin, cranberry, and apple. These are the recipes plucked from every Thanksgiving I’ve ever encountered as a professional baker. Each one is scribbled with notes, the excruciating details that analyze oven temperatures, baking times, parchment linings and foil tenting. Filed under “P” is a recipe for an embarrassingly large quantity of pecan bars, circa 1998. Baked in a full sheet pan outfitted with a pan extender, one recipe yielded enough nuttiness to feed a casual gathering of 96 guests. Scrawled in orange Sharpie marker across the top of the recipe are the words, “NEVER BAKE ON TOP RACK OF CONVECTION OVEN. EVER.” Navigating a sheet pan weighted down with pounds of nutmeats suspended in hot, sugar syrup is best attempted at eye level. These are the kitchen life lessons acquired over too many years and far too many oven burns.
I pause for a moment at a recipe for Poached Pears with Spicy Gingerbread, a cake baked in pans with deeply fluted sides and removable bottoms. Emblazoned across the top of the recipe is the not-so-gentle reminder to, “LINE PANS WITH PARCHMENT CIRCLES EXTENDING BEYOND THE PAN BOTTOM.” The memory of gingerbread batter seeping between pan bottom and sheet tray instantly conjures the fragrance of scorched molasses. The recipe for poached pears conjures a totally different fragrance memory. Set afloat in a saucepan of white wine, bobbing alongside cinnamon sticks, curls of orange peel, and speckled vanilla beans, the pears were both spicy and perfume-y. Scribbled in the margin of the recipe is the reminder, “DON’T FORGET- PARCHMENT CIRCLE COVERING PEARS IS HOT.” I must have forgotten more than once.
In my ridiculously over-expanded, expandable file are a few recipes I’m considering for the weekend. On Saturday, the first round of strategic dessert planning will commence. We will gather in my sister’s Toronto kitchen, with good/bad pop music from the 80s blaring in the background. We will discuss and reminisce about recipes; restaurant recipes, Jessie recipes, recipes plucked from magazines and cookbooks, vacillating between what I want to make and what my sister suggests. We will talk about dessert in excruciating detail circling back around and around again. My sister is a brilliant strategist and planner, capable of making wise decisions. I am the problem, unable to truly decide the dessert story until I stand face to face with the produce at the St. Lawrence Market. My initial plans will undoubtedly change once again until my sister, the wise one, will stop the madness by saying, “Why do you ask for input when in the end, you will just make what you want to make?” Which is the very reason why an expandable, recipe file filled with inspiration is as critical to the holiday as a reliable pair of stretchy pants with an expandable waistband.
Timidly embracing the New Year 5780, I remind myself that resolutions are an ongoing process. Well over a year ago, my sister encouraged me to be ‘rigorous and ruthless.’ She suggested I comb through my closets and cabinets, consolidate my kitchenwares, organize the attic, burrow through the basement. My attempts have been woefully inadequate. As a not so gentle reminder, a Danskin leotard in dark purple and a pair of Capezio ballet slippers stare down from high atop a shelf in the attic closet. I remember that leotard, one of many holdovers from far too many required dance classes. Reaching up to investigate, the leotard takes a nosedive off the shelf, landing at my feet. The nylon/cotton/quiana blend still has some stretch to it. With my sister’s voice resonating in my ears, I pause for just a moment before tossing the leotard in a trash bag. There’s plenty of room in the bag for a faded green Williams Sonoma apron and a pair of tired kitchen clogs. Baby steps.
Just this week, October slipped in through the kitchen door, forcing me to accept the cold, harsh truth of autumn. This was a challenge as the mercury hovered around 80 degrees on Wednesday, taking a dip into the 50s the next day. All of this dramatically impacts my little corner of the pie world. October may well be here, but she’s barely unzipped her L.L. Bean fleece and made herself comfortable. I hate to tell her, but somebody needs to remind October that she can’t add pumpkin spice to her latte in this kitchen.
I’m already tired of apples. Having exhausted the crates of Galas and Honeycrisp in last week’s holiday frenzy, I’m left with a few dozen plums begging for attention. They hint at fall but still resonate with summer, deeply violet on the outside, amber on the inside. Sliced in half, the plums twist and turn, exposing their stubborn pits. With screamingly tart skins and sweet flesh, the stone fruit requires sugar intervention. I sprinkle them a little too generously and toss in some almonds for good measure. Their purple skin is reminiscent of the leotard I recently tossed. Was I too hasty?
Sliced thin and fanned across a less-than-perfect circle of dough, the plums resemble a Busby Berkeley/Rockette geometrical dance formation. And five, and six, and seven-eight, the border of dough hugs the fruit, holding it in place. Brushing the pastry with egg wash, I jazz-hand some almonds across the edge of the galette and slide it into the freezer. Crossing the kitchen to turn up the convection oven to 375, I notice a line-up of loaf pans filled with pumpkin and chocolate chips. In the far corner of the kitchen, I hear October laughing. I look away.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm