The multi-colored pie chart hung on the door of the commercial fridge, a not-so-gentle clarification of the long pie road that lay before us. A quick study of the bar graph only served to further confuse. It conjured every bonus question on every failed geometry test. “If the fine people of Maplewood Village want to eat 500 pies, and there are six varieties of pie and two out of the six sport double crusts, (the pies, not the people) how many rounds of pâte brisée are needed?” Trying to show my work in the margins, I ultimately tossed aside my pencil, rolling up my sleeves and rolling out more shells.
The countdown to Thanksgiving was fraught with sufficient dramatic tension. It all boiled down to an intricate choreography; scones and brownies lying in wait while blind-baking pie shells lollygagged in the oven. Cookies and coffeecakes demanded moderate heat but those damn pies required high heat to begin and low heat to wind down. This did not take into account a substantial amount of pie whispering to the custards. Pumpkin, pecan and buttermilk prefer low and slow, an option that became increasingly more difficult to offer as Sunday turned into Monday then slipped into the wee hours of Tuesday.
Our team amassed more than a fair share of injuries. Parchment paper cuts, oven burns and sheet pan collisions dwindled our ample supply of bandaids and burn cream. Just in case you couldn’t remember where on your hand you had nicked yourself with the microplane or sliced your fingertip with a paring knife, there was plenty of lemon juice to identify the laceration.
Despite the incessant ringing of the phone and throngs of hangry holiday revelers, it proved best to leave customer relations to the barista crew. I stumbled into the path of an irate patron by simply answering an innocent question.
Hangry Mom Clutching Baby: “Do you refrigerate the pecan pie overnight?”
NMMNP: “Yes. It contains eggs. Best to refrigerate it overnight. But serve it at room temperature tomorrow.”
Hangry Mom: “Eggs?”
NMMNP: “Yes, pecan pie is made with eggs.”
Hangry Mom: “EGGS??!!”
NMMNP: “Yes, (still) eggs.”
With a grand swoop, quilty-North Face-jacketed Hangry Mom grabbed the pecan pie. Clearly exasperated with my response, she hiked up the baby under one arm and the pie box under the other. Exiting the bakery in a huff with both baby and box at precarious 45 degree angles, I silently mouthed the words, “Happy Holiday to you, Madam.”
On a personal pie note, it wasn’t until Wednesday evening that I sought fixings for my pumpkin pie from our local supermarket. Foregoing a much needed nap, I gathered up Blondilocks from the train station and headed to the newly renovated Hop ‘n Shop. Not only were they out of heavy cream, the Libby’s inventory had been depleted. Scouring the aisles for the iconic can wrapped in pumpkin orange, we came up empty handed. Frustrated and tired of circling the baking aisle, we paused at canned vegetables. Nary a can to be found. In her inimitable New Yorker style, Blondilocks practically assaulted a Young Hop ‘n Shop employee demanding, “WHERE is the CANNED PUMPKIN?” Employee could offer no assistance other than suggesting we find our way to the Customer Query Kiosk. Glancing at the check-out line snaking the entire length of the store, we abandoned the pumpkin quest and hightailed it to Trader Joes.
In the magic that is retail, Trader Joes welcomed us with a display of miniature evergreen trees and a ceiling to floor display of peppermint Jo-Jos. (Not so fast, Hawaiian-shirted Joe; Hanukkah begins on the evening of December 6th.) Face-to-face with an empty refrigerator case, our heavy cream hopes were once again dashed. Opting for half and half, my pie odyssey continued as I was forced to purchase a can of Trader Joe’s Organic canned pumpkin. Anemic in pumpkin color and not nearly as solid as Libby’s, I suffered in silence all the way home. Or maybe not so silently.
NMMNP: “I can’t believe this. No heavy cream? Nothing but that organic pumpkin?”
Blondilocks: “It will be fine, Mom.”
NMMNP: “It won’t be fine. It will be Organic pumpkin pie which means it will taste like fresh pumpkin which means it will taste thin and pale orange, just like a vegetable and not like a pie and it just won’t be the same…”
Blondilocks: “Mom. It’s pumpkin. You have the mince pie and the wild nut…”
NMMNP: “And half and half instead of heavy cream. Aaargh- I can’t believe this. How can a store order insufficient heavy cream?!”
Blondilocks: “Mom. This is not our driveway.”
NMMNP: “So the pumpkin pie will have to suffer because… Wait. Is this our driveway?”
Blondilocks: “No, this is not our house.”
NMMNP: “Oh, well it’s because they haven’t collected the leaves. It’s hard to tell. It’s coming up.” Here we are. No. This is not the house. (Backing up.) Here. Here we are. No. Next one. Promise.”
Blondilocks: Pause. “You know, you could write a children’s book and title it, Is This My Driveway?”
On post-Thanksgiving Friday, the house still echoes with the aroma of turkey and too many pies. Despite the paltry pumpkin and the half and half, that pie was pretty darn tasty. In fact, my father claims it is the best one I’ve made to date. Go figure. Sitting down to a now empty dining room table, I’m sipping my morning coffee and nibbling a smidgen of pumpkin pie. After all, it is a vegetable. And now, for my daily allotment of fruit and tipsy, perhaps the teeniest sliver of mince. Followed by a wild nut chaser.
Someone is dozing at Sonos or clearly missed the holiday playlist memo. Why are we subjected to the Bunny Hop when we should be enjoying a rousing chorus of Turkey Lurkey Time?
From where I stand, there are 4 cases of apples in line for the pie guillotine, not including the additional cases rumored to arrive on Friday. This Sunday and Monday there will be an apple peeling party of sorts, composed of local ladies just itching to be part of the bakery action. We can scratch that itch, but best to bring your own bandaids. Apple peeling of this magnitude is not for the squeamish.
Many pies ago, working for Roger at a farm in Bucks County, there was an amazing Apple Peel-O-Matic. Roger had secured a terrifying hybrid of Rube Goldberg meets Star Wars. This was not a cute little hand cranked tool that you picked up from Bed Bath and Beyond and attached to your kitchen table. This was a machine where innocent apples met their fate, first systematically harpooned, then rotated, peeled, cored and sliced within a ¼” of their lives. It gave me nightmares and a newfound respect for my hand held peeler, wood handled corer and simple but sharp paring knife. These are the tools that will be put into play this weekend.
Coupled with the apple peeling festivities will be the highly anticipated ‘blind’ or par-baking of the pie shells. Pie fillings of the custard variety (pumpkin, pecan, buttermilk) appreciate safe haven in a shell that has been run through the oven to set and lightly brown the crust. Those of us with fingers both nimble and numb will coax parchment paper into pie shells, line them with beans and bake them just long enough but not too long. The trick is to remove the parchment while taking care not to spill the beans. (Hence the numb fingers.) Embracing the heat of the convection ovens, we will maneuver between worktables, oven racks and baker’s racks, a dizzying choreography reserved for the days leading up to November 26th.
The baker’s racks are already groaning under the weight of both gluten and gluten freeness. We work shoulder to shoulder, vying for sheet pans, rack space and refrigeration. There are new hands on deck, scooping and rolling, sugaring and cello-wrapping. In an ongoing attempt to be everything to everyone, we take extreme care when grappling with gluten and nuts in our small space. I listened to the dulcet tones of Rita as she instructed a new kitchen recruit in the proper handling of pecans; “THROW AWAY THAT PARCHMENT PAPER AND CHANGE YOUR GLOVES BECAUSE YOU’RE WORKING WITH NUTS!!!” I glanced around the bench and pondered, was Rita referring to nutmeats or present company?
It doesn't matter; in less than one week, I will be hunkered down in my flannel sock monkey pajamas enjoying a second slice of Drew’s Wild Nut Pie. I am so terribly close and yet oh-so Turkey Lurkey far.
FACING THE FIRE WITHIN
This week has been fraught with challenges. Granted, the early part of the week is a blur because I missed it. Lured once again into a false sense of security by the empty promises of a vaccine, I wanted to believe that this year might be different. One who works in small confines and travels public transportation should know better.
As sure as Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, my arch nemesis has sought me out. With the stealth of Vincent Price in The Invisible Man Returns, influenza snuck up from behind delivering a subtle sinus headache before grabbing me by the throat. By the time I realized the severity of the malaise, there was no derailing the Plague Express.
Three days into the joy ride that is the flu, I decided to take action. Phoning a local physician in the state of New Jersey (as opposed to my steadfast doc in Philly), I was informed that the doctor was out of the office all week. Might I see an associate? I croaked to the sympathetic nurse on the other end of my iPhone. Following a long pause, I learned that the other associate was fully booked but to make me feel better, did not accept my insurance anyway. A veritable win-win, I thought downing a few more ibuprofen. These were desperate times leaving me two options; drowning my febrile brow in bowls of chicken soup that I would have to make or seeking professional attention elsewhere. I chose the latter.
Signing in without actually touching a kiosk is no easy task. The CVS Minute Clinic indicated it would be more than a minute before I would be seen. 56 minutes, to be exact. Four chrome chairs outfitted in black leatherette beckoned. Opting for the one closest to the wall, I sat face to face with a revolving display of Spiritual literature. One book practically leapt at me, its cover illustration scalding flames. The title in all caps shouted, ANGER with the lowercase tagline, Facing the Fire Within. Might this be referring to my fever, or was it a pre-holiday subliminal message?
Maybe it was the fever or maybe it was the wheezing individual seated to my right. Abandoning my seat, I shuffled along the aisles pausing at toys and games. Perhaps occupying myself with a coloring book would pass the time. Upon closer inspection the only offerings featured Disney Princesses, none of whom I recognized. Barely hesitating at the candy aisle, I knew I was gravely ill; nary a chocolate tempted. Instead I plucked a bag of cough drops promising dual-action honey lemon cough suppressant in an oral anesthetic drop. It also called to me from the Swiss Alps, Riii-co-laaa.
A mere 40 minutes later, a physician’s assistant in a starched white coat summoned me to a closet of a room where he donned two pairs of medical gloves. I’ll admit at that moment the Law & Order SVU theme music danced in my head. I needn’t have worried; this fellow was in fact a professional. “You look sick,” he said politely. “You sound worse.”
Leaning against the prescription Pick-Up counter, I emptied the bottle of Purell while waiting. Carly Simon was wrapping up “You’re So Vain” on the pharmacy’s sound system. What followed was a song that probably shouldn’t have made the play list. Waiting for my prescription, clutching my cough lozenges, the song swelling in full crescendo through the speakers was “Live Like We’re Dying.” My acute melancholy was momentarily interrupted by the smiling clerk. “Yes,” I coughed into my elbow. “I’m waiting for my prescription. It’s under Gray.” She turned to rifle through the Gs returning with my child-proof locked bottle of salvation. “Helen?”
Holiday baking prep is similar to riding a bicycle. You may fall off the baking bench for a few days but when you return, it feels like you never left. With each pie shell, I am one step closer to Thanksgiving. I’ve been kicking around a few ideas for pies this week, but in all honesty, I haven’t the energy to head home this eve and bake one. A batch of scones sounds plausible, something that pairs nicely with steaming tea. Rolling another pie shell? Unthinkable. Until tomorrow.
(created with Bitmoji)
It is fairly safe to assume that in three weeks time, at dinner tables across our fair Village, the Thursday evening meal will conclude with triangular slices of dessert. Counting down the days, pie shell by pie shell, I am adrift in a blizzard of all-purpose flour. Painstakingly hand-cubing sweet butter and carefully measuring generous pinches of sugar and salt, I’m on a roll.
The bakery window is all gussied up for November with its gratitude window. A very specific felt tipped marker (not the Sharpee) is used to pen a sentiment expressing one’s gratitude. One of my bandana-clad compatriots asked me what I was going to write on the window. I paused. “I’m grateful when someone else answers the phone in the bakery.”
One of the things I’m truly grateful for in November is the quince. A member of the Rosaceae (rose) family, I can relate to a fruit that is just a little bit snarky, demanding a leisurely honey bath before baking. Eaten raw, the fruit is bitter and astringent, difficult to slice. But poached in honey, lemon and vanilla bean, quince teams beautifully with apples and pears.
Unlike the apple and in keeping with the pear, quince does not offer instant gratification. It does have a bit of a cult following, but not among the mainstream. At our local overpriced organic market, I overheard a woman identifying quinces as persimmons to her young daughter. I longed to correct her but noticing the rolled up yoga mat in her shopping cart, I moved on.
Edward Lear captured a romantic notion of the quince when he penned The Owl and the Pussycat.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
We will be dancing by the light of the moon in the month of November, working evening hours, attempting to right the runaway train that is Thanksgiving. Despite the chill in the morning and the early sunset in the evening, this baker’s well-being is dependent upon fresh air. The maple leaf carpet of crimson and gold beneath my running shoes reminds me it’s a good idea to stop and smell the quinces.
Where does one get their hands on a runcible spoon?
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm