In many ways, 2016 turned out to be as bitterly surprising as taking a bite from an unpoached quince. Yet there were moments as perfectly sweet as a forkful of yellow cake iced in swirls of pistachio buttercream. The challenge was finding the happy amidst what felt like a deluge of sad.
It seemed that the loss of beloved entertainers came careening out of the sky, headlines forcing us to lean in ever closer to our hand held devices, reading but not quite believing. The close of each year sadly concludes with a lengthy list of notable passings. This year’s list feels longer and profoundly more personal. As a child, celebrity passings felt several degrees removed because in most instances, there was a huge age difference. People profiled in the nightly news In Memoriam segment were almost always in a word, old. My parents nodded solemnly, occasionally adding a tag line of a specific movie or song or Broadway show that earmarked a career. I was interested but generally unaffected.
This year we lost actors and singers and musicians that impacted our lives, making the loss and the sadness somehow more pronounced. I was just barely coming to grips with Patty Duke’s death when I learned that her TV dad, William Schallert had died.
Janet Waldo died, extinguishing the voice of television’s best dressed animated teenager, Judy Jetson. I may never get over the loss of my Napoleon Solo, Robert Vaughn. Somewhere in a box in the attic is my membership card to the Man From Uncle fan club.
We lost the iconic Gene Wilder and the brilliant news commentator Gwen Ifill. Florence Henderson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Garagiola, Elie Wiesel and Edward Albee joined this illustriously tragic list. The double-punch whammy of losing Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds just this week is numbing. Until I remember the brilliant light of Alan Rickman being extinguished and I’m beyond sad all over again.
To touch on the losses in the musical world is staggering; Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Maurice White, George Martin, Leonard Cohen and George Michael. Children of celebrities also shared the list with the deaths of Natalie Cole and Frank Sinatra, Jr. Perhaps the only crumb of good that can be gleaned from this massive loss resonates in a quote from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.”
My father reminds me on a regular basis that life is a series of adjustments. As a man who has logged ninety laps around the sun, who am I to disagree? Which is why at the conclusion of a year fraught with many unhappy surprises, it’s not a bad idea to try and focus on the positive. Wonderful friends, stellar family, happy memories in the making, a little bit of joy amidst the chaos. Here’s to ushering in the new; raise the glasses, turn up the music and slice up some pie.
Oh by gosh, by golly. Not only is it post-solstice-pre-Christmas, it is also time to rummage through the drawers in the dining room, foraging for a box of Chanukah candles. If my search proves fruitless, I will venture to the local supermarket, pausing in the same aisle that offers candied red and green cherries alongside tubes of ready to pipe cookie icing.
The bakery teeters on excess; in cookies, in gluten freeness, in cupcakes and coffeecakes. One might think my rolling pin would have crossed over to the dark side of sugar cookie dough this month, but the reality is there are more than enough pies and tarts ordered for the holiday weekend. Additionally, tube pans call to me requiring pounds of spicy gingerbread cake batter. Thank goodness I was able to scratch the ugly Christmas sweater cookie itch earlier this month.
Following the ‘pie for all and all for pie’ that defines Thanksgiving, the weeks leading up to December 25th are filled with dozens, no hundreds, no actually thousands of cookies. Many are diminutive, modestly adorned with a dip or a dab of chocolate or a dusting of powdered sugar, then tucked into boxes. But the showstoppers, the raison d’etre for children to meltdown in front of the display case, for caffeinated grown-ups to gesticulate wildly, and for bakers round the bench to get slightly testy, hands cramping in carpal tunnel syndrome, is the decorated sugar cookie. There are small, medium and large cookies, some with just a hint of sparkly sugar, others painstakingly elaborate. By elaborate I’m not saying Sistine Chapel ceiling details, but not far removed. Which is why I am constantly in awe of the cookie artists wielding icing bags in the bakery.
Christmas cookies do not arrive without their share of drama. In the sheer volume of cookies pumped out of a modest kitchen, it is not uncommon for a snowman’s eye to smudge like mascara in the rain or Santa’s hat to prove non-colorfast, red royal icing bleeding into the white cuff.
Sugar cookies are an entity unto themselves requiring agonizing conversations about colors, outlines, Sprinkle King adornments. No longer gussied up for the season in simple candied cherries or a squiggle of royal icing, today’s cookies are destined for bright holiday lights and tabletop scene stealing. They are intricately iced, in colors as eclectic as a Pantone color chart. How did we get here? How did this happen?
The history of holiday cookies dates way, way back stretching around the globe to places that celebrated early winter solstice festivals. At some point during the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations began to overshadow the solstice. Fortunately for anyone wielding a wooden spoon and a mixing bowl, wintry spices and dried fruits were becoming more widely available. Unlike larger cakes and pies, cookies were slightly less expensive and less cumbersome to bake and exchange, encouraging sweet gift giving.
With the advent of tin cookie cutters, it was just a matter of time and travel before immigrants brought cookie recipes and cookie cutters to the United States. Both recipes and cutters were handed down from one generation to the next. Cookie tins and jars quaked in anticipation as butter and vanilla extract permeated kitchens. And then in a word, something changed sugar cookies forever.
The word? Pinterest. Developed in December 2009 and launched in March 2010, Pinterest dubs itself the ‘world’s catalog of ideas.’ Its aim is to inspire, prompting viewers to peruse thousands of photographs. Dazzling, yes. Dizzying? More so. Oh-so frustrating to log onto? Guilty.
Pinterest has taken the humble cookie and elevated it to pop culture status. One needn’t have a single original idea in their head; just click, peruse and ‘repin’ from other users. Is it an exchange of ideas? Certainly. Does it allow you to borrow freely, often without giving credit where credit is due? As sure as there are sprinkles in a box of Sprinkle King.
I am spreading my fair share of royal icing around this holiday, particularly to those on my designated Nice list. For anyone deemed Naughty, not to worry. Pinterest dedicates hundreds of ideas for cookies decorated with screaming red and green candied cherries. Happy Everything.
It is quite possibly as earth shattering as the year the Grinch stole Christmas from the Whos down in Whoville. On Tuesday, we learned that the chopping blades to our beloved Cuisinart food processors run the risk of cracking, adding just a little something extra to our holiday recipes. Ouch.
News of the blade recall spread faster than spilled egg whites across checkerboard linoleum. Not only is the Cuisinart food processor a stalwart member of many household kitchens, commercial kitchens also rely on this countertop workhorse. At home, a Cuisinart shares counter space with my beloved Dualit toaster. The blade appears unscathed, but my back-up ‘Cuis’ (doesn’t everyone have a back-up?) needs a replacement blade. At work, we have recently retired a Cuisinart for an industrial strength Robot Coupe and as of this writing, all seems right in our nut grinding/cranberry chopping world.
Before calling the overwhelmed Cuisinart hotline, I took a quick assessment of kitchen tools available to me that don’t require electricity and whirling dervish blade attachments. The holiday time crunch makes blade-mageddon particularly challenging. In little over a week, Latkepalooza swings into town on Christmas Eve, necessitating access to mountains of shredded potatoes and finely chopped onions. Of course, it is quite possible to use one’s hands and a box grater for this exercise. Although the box grater sits just slightly out of reach on a top shelf, I am happy to report that I am in possession of all of these items. Having learned the intricacies of operating a box grater from Jessie, who ran a kitchen long before food processors were considered a kitchen staple, I am cautiously optimistic. I also have a freshly opened box of Bandaids in the medicine cabinet.
Jessie also utilized a kelly-green handled Chop-O-Matic with lethally sharp blades encased in clear plastic. The Chop-O-Matic rhythmically chopped quantities of vegetables, particularly celery and onions with great ease. I imagine this vintage kitchen gadget will enjoy a Renaissance, no doubt being snatched up on Etsy by folks who weren’t even born when Ron Popeil introduced the hand-powered food processor in the mid-1950s. Our Chop-O-Matic is long gone, leaving behind a vivid audio food memory of staccato blades against stationary vegetables.
As an individual with more than enough kitchen gadgetry to launch a small rival to Williams Sonoma, perhaps I’m over thinking this. It does occur to me however, that the Cuisinart crisis encourages us to slow down. Sharpen the knives, use the box grater, take the potato ricer out for a whirl. Before kitchen tasks were propelled by electically charged chopping blades and shredding discs, grandmothers and Jessies, home cooks and restaurant cooks relied on ten digits which seldom, if ever, were recalled.
There was good news last Monday at Newark Liberty Airport. The TSA pre-approved me, deeming me worthy to enter a shortened security line. There was also bad news. The man waved through security ahead of me was transporting a vehicle that was one part flatbed, one part hand truck, the sum of its parts yielding dozens of cases of retail beverages.
This afforded me more than enough time to consider drink options other than filling my empty water bottle from a water fountain. Minute Maid and Coca-Cola were the most prominently displayed on the cart which was beginning to buckle under the weight of plastic bottles and flip top cans. I love air travel.
Each hermetically sealed case of beverages needed to be opened, one bottle plucked out at random and sent through the security screening apparatus. I was assured by the TSA employee that I needn’t remove my Chicago bound boots, just my weighty parka. An eternity later, the beverage cart ahead of me was waved through leaving me to ‘step up.’
My parka cleared security, as did my small carry on. Stepping through to collect my belongings, things took a turn. Bells were ringing, lights were flashing and I was asked to step to the side. The culprit appeared to be the buckle on my boots which just moments prior had been waved through. Hopping on one foot and unzipping with one hand, I looked down at the industrial carpet and wished I hadn’t worn clean socks. A kindly TSA officer ushered me into a Jetson-esque Lucite bubble where I was wanded and questioned. “No, no keys, no coins, no watch.” One more wanding and a glance at my wrists, the culprit appeared to be a slim bracelet. Gifted to me from Sibling Sister Formerly of Seattle, More Recently Relocated to Toronto, it’s unfortunate my pockets were not filled with coins. Had I needed to phone said sibling imploring her to spring me from TSA prison, I’m quite certain a pay phone would be the only option. The bracelet in question was examined, a brief conversation between secret agents took place and it was finally decided I was not a threat to society. Boots still unzipped, I stumbled towards the nearest bench to regroup. Far in the distance, rounding the corner, I could just make out the man pushing the beverage cart responsible for my security debacle.
Two and a half hours later, Chicago’s landscape loomed winter white shrouded in fog. There was just enough snow on the ground making boots and parka necessary. If Chicago could do winter without the wind, that would be right up there with winning the World Series. But they can’t seem to do one without the other which left me shivering and mentioning to any and all within earshot that coffee would be nice.
As I tried to understand what exactly is meant by the term ‘Chicagoland’ I was temporarily distracted by what appeared to be a drive-through coffee emporium in the midst of a shopping plaza. Salvation. `The small kiosk of caffeination reminded me of structures formerly dubbed Fotomat. I ordered a large coffee, partially for the caffeine, primarily to warm my frozen digits.
If there is one thing Chicagoland does very well, it’s pie. On the savory side, there’s stuffed pizza, Chicago-style deep dish pizza and for those dodging the carbs, thin-crust.
Chicago also does dessert quite well, boasting a number of old-school pie shops and quite a few up and comers. Baker’s Square, formerly known as Poppin’ Fresh Pies, has been dishing up slices since the late 1960s. On Wednesday enroute to a date with a pie in Evanston, Illinois, I barely paused at Baker’s Square, despite an enormous banner fronting the building announcing Free Pie Wednesday. That required enormous self-restraint.
Hoosier Mama Pie Company in Evanston is a newish kid on the block, offering close to a dozen sweet pies and almost as many savory choices daily. The shop also serves killer biscuit breakfast sandwiches and hand pies. The philosophy of the bakery/cafe is summed up in their motto, “Keep Your Fork, There’s Pie.” Hoosier Mama Pie Company could quite possibly renew my enthusiasm for Chicago, encouraging me to return. If the Cubs can win the World Series, maybe Chicago can tame their wind and their cold. Then the only thing stopping me would be a little thing called air travel.
The shift from November to December is swift. Gingerbread squeezes out pumpkin, stealing the spotlight in the form of scones, cookies and cakes. Peppermint filling is peeking out from chocolate sandwich cookies and sugar cookies are flying out of the oven at a furious rate. More notably, Vince Guaraldi is pouring out of the Sonos speakers. The kitchen crew has quietly expressed their hope that the holiday music will be less intrusive this season. I remind them I am a problem solver, not a miracle worker.
Our little Village is gussied up for the holidays in fresh greens and crimson bows. In the retail world of sugar, Christmas Eve and Hanukkah will be vying for attention on the very same Saturday. This only adds to the holiday cookie frenzy and a need to brush up on my dreidel inscription skills.
You would think that following last week’s pie anxiety, pate brisée would be so November. Although fewer in number, pies continue rolling along, feeling more wintry, less autumnal. For a change of pace, I have dusted off the 9” tart shells with removable bottoms. Like stray socks, there are more tart rings than bottoms, a predictable baker’s dilemma. Undaunted, I will quietly borrow a few 9” pan bottoms from the coffee cake pans hoping the early morning crew doesn’t notice. Sorry ladies, I have a train to catch.
It’s been several weeks since boarding NJ Transit. It is just as I remember it, although my car is filled with holiday revelers, most of them in the throes of a seasonal malaise. I bury myself deeper within my oversized houndstooth wool scarf, press myself closer to the finger smudged window. My hankering for something sweet is placated with a sad miniature Hershey bar wedged inside my coat pocket. There’s a second one that I decide to save for intermission.
Arriving at New York Penn Station, I follow the crowd past Tiecoon, Krispy Kreme and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. Choosing stairs over escalator, I work my way east and then north. Fifth Avenue and 50th street are predictably jam-packed with tree seekers. Rockefeller Center is ablaze in holiday lights, dizzy with selfie-sticks. The Norway spruce rises skyward, dwarfing skaters on the ice rink below.
At half past six o’clock, I am standing in the ladies lounge of the Longacre Theatre, nonchalantly removing wisps of royal icing that have attached to my curls. The woman to my right wears more cleavage than fabric. She re-applies her Chanel lipstick, adjusts the corners of her pouty mouth with a manicured hand then in a whoosh of too much perfume, she is gone. I am struggling with one stubborn fragment of icing that in the fluorescent lighting looks green. It’s not the lighting; it is green.
Foraging through my purse for a well-worn tube of Chapstick, I look up from the depths of my handbag and glance in the mirror to my left. A small woman with large hair is reaching for a paper towel. The woman is Erica Kane, I mean Susan Lucci. She looks fabulous, not a hair out of place. She looks at me, smiles, realizes she doesn’t know me and turns. It isn’t a hostile turn, simply a “that poor girl has green icing in her hair and I don’t want to be the one to tell her” turn. Erica/Susan leaves in a cloud of just enough fragrance. Gathering up my hooded winter parka, I work my way up the stairs, find my seat and oh so quietly, unwrap my sad little Hershey bar. Turning off my phone, I glance across the aisle and several rows down where Susan Lucci is taking her seat. I wonder if the person seated behind her can see around her hair-do. It occurs to me, who am I to judge? I’m sitting here with green royal icing in my hair.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm