Nesselrode pie was a special occasion dessert, one I always considered a pie for grown-ups. Billowy chiffon nestled inside a flaky crust, a tipsy filling studded with chestnuts and jewel-like candied fruit. Generously spiked with dark rum and blanketed in freshly whipped cream, a blizzard of dark chocolate curls and maraschino cherries garnished each slice. In the 1940s and 50s, Nesselrode pie was a mainstay on the menus of many New York City seafood and steak house restaurants. It was also available to purchase whole from certain bakeries and by the slice at casual coffee shops and diners. Named after the 19th centruy Russian Count Karl Nesselrode, the dessert was originally served in a couple glass as a pudding, or directly from the freezer, as recommended in my Grandmother's Settlement Cookbook. A recipe for Nesselrode pie was also ear-marked in Jessie's Ladies Home Journal Dessert Cookbook. Calling for a jar of Rafetto candied fruit, light rum, and an orange envelope of Knox gelatin, the directions felt more science experiment than recipe. Maybe it was the gelatin, maybe it was the rum, but Nesselrode pie asked an awful lot of the baker; dissolving and simmering, thickening and folding. My contribution was shaving squares of Baker's sweet chocolate against the dangerously sharp box grater. As a child, the rum based dessert was a little too boozy for a palate keen on Ring Dings and Devil Dogs. It was only a matter of time before I learned to appreciate the beauty of macerated fruit, buttery chestnuts, and whipped cream.
The holiday cookies of my youth were non-denominational, merrily traditional. Some were piped from a cookie press, others coaxed into an 8” square pan, but most were dropped from a rounded teaspoon onto a non-rimmed cookie sheet. Fragrant with vanilla from a small red capped bottle and rich from sticks of Land O’Lakes butter, I baked cookies alongside Jessie and my grandmother, Minnie. Under Jessie’s tutelage, I learned the intricacies of the Mirro Cooky Press, mastering the art of the spritz. Mama Min was the one responsible for teaching me the twists and turns of cream cheese rugelach. Sugar cookie cut-outs were inspired by a drawer full of vintage cutters, some crafted out of tin with green wooden handles, others belonging to my grandmother Dorothy and handed down to my mother.
Regardless of the season, homemade sugar cookies were unadorned; no silver, no gold, not a lick of red edible piping gel, nary a dragée. We didn’t dabble in royal icing or painstakingly rolled fondant. The cookies were stored in a square red cookie tin, with the words Carr’s Biscuits imprinted on the underside. Layers of wax paper prevented the chocolate spritz cookies from co-mingling with the sour cream jumbles and the cinnamon-walnut rugelach. Jessie spent most afternoons replenishing the cavernous tin, only to have the contents exhausted by my brothers, my sister, and myself.
Over the years, my baking career shifted dramatically from casual cookie-ist to retail professional. Christmas cookies were an integral part of my workdays (and nights) at bakeries, farm kitchens, and restaurants. The cookies cooling on my commercial baker’s rack at home were primarily tucked into brown paper lunch bags but also meant for sharing; sometimes packed in corrugated boxes, glassine bags, and college bound tins, never via social media. Homemade cookies were also the requisite holiday gift of appreciation for the elementary school bus driver, Bob.
Without the benefit of Christmas food memories, I find myself turning (and returning) to cookies that prompt joy. My cookie mentors are many; those I have had the pleasure of working with side by side, and just as many smart cookies whose words and recipes I have devoured through their books and at one time, a steady stream of magazine articles.
This year, holiday cookie-ing has been enormously therapeutic for many of us. My sister has created a veritable Cookie Lab in her Toronto kitchen, sharing her triumphs and her cookie works-in-progress with the two people I’m missing most in this crazy, can’t-cross-the-border year. As I layer cookies between sheets of parchment paper in the same red cookie tin that Jessie once filled, I seal the lid with equal parts nostalgia and cautious optimism, In my all too quiet kitchen, I brush the cookie crumbs from the corner of my mouth and raise a glass of milk to 2021.
Snow days were once announced via radio, an endless list of hard to understand numbers rattled off at lightning speed at the crack of dawn. The numbers were affiliated to a school tethered to a township. The dream was hearing your school's number followed by the word “closed.” Far less desirable were the words, “delayed opening” which generally meant the dreaded math test or gym class or mean girls lunch table you were hoping to avoid would be waiting for you upon arrival.
The first significant snowfall of the season fell this week, commencing Wednesday evening in fits and starts, continuing steadily into Thursday morning. The word on our street was that schools were closed and students were enjoying a snow day. A snow day in the midst of in-home/virtual classrooms sounded confusing to me, but 2020, much like Mother Nature, abides by her own rules. More than ten inches of powdery fluff hugged the sidewalks and roads, blanketing the neighborhood like an oversized white comforter. From inside the house looking out, everything sparkled, twinkly and beckoning, a pristine landscape, save for the incessant footprints of squirrels.
Freshly fallen snow is as pretty as a snow globe unless you need to be somewhere. A brief venture outdoors to pluck a snow-covered newspaper from the hidden walkway and ascertain the status of the snowplow is all I need before coffee. Snow however, had other plans, cozying up to the car, covering the windshield, immobilizing the wipers, freezing all four doors shut. Snow knows your ice scraper lives inside the car, the one with the frozen doors. Snow likes to tease by palling around with brilliant sun and sapphire skies, surrounding itself with chilly temps, biting winds, and a thin yet hazardous layer of ice. Snow likes to taunt you into believing a turtleneck, a sensible pair of jeans tucked into a pair of boots, and a parka will provide sufficient warmth. Outfitting myself for the horizontal wind chill nipping at my nose compared to the Weather Channel's “real feel” forecast is a thermal-flannel-woolen nightmare.
Digging into a driveway’s worth of weighty snow, I’m instantly reminded me that the repetitive nature of snow removal doesn’t align with an already cranky baker’s back. With each hoisting of the shovel, my father’s voice echoes in my ears, reminding me to bend my knees, lift with my legs, turn and not twist. My shoveling choreography is erratic, the shovel unwieldy, the cargo too heavy. With little room to deposit the snow, the next available space is perilously close to my favorite hydrangea; the plant winces in anticipation. “I’m a baker, not a snow plow,” I complain to a brazen squirrel watching me from the hood of the car. My progress is slow, the bending and lifting tedious, my back disgruntled. Leaning the shovel against the house, I peel off my cumbersome boots and abandon my snow clearing mission.
Far better suited to an indoor activity, I unearth two discs of pie dough from the refrigerator and turn the oven to a comfortable 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The tapered rolling pin fits comfortably in my hands. With the late afternoon sun pouring through the kitchen windows, I reach for a pair of nine inch pie plates and two ibuprofen.
On the Saturday evening before Thanksgiving, it became blatantly obvious that securing freezer space for gravy-making turkey parts and bulging bags of cranberries was going to be a struggle. There was little, if any, Feng shui energy taking place between the Tupperware, zip-locs, scraps of pie dough, and half-eaten containers of ice cream. Certain items needed to sequester, and while the garage freezer had a few vacancies, I was hesitant to move the ice cream. Rhubarb, once fresh, was the first to receive his eviction notice. Gathering up the frost bitten pink and green vegetable, I deposited the rhubarb in the depths of an already crowded satellite freezer. In the midst of rearranging frozen chicken stock and pounds of sweet butter, a Tupperware container came tumbling forward. Scrawled across the lid in black Sharpie marker were the words “Hyline Cherries- Summer ’19.” Grabbing the cherries, I left the rhubarb to get settled in his new digs, closing the freezer and the garage door.
Cobbling together odds and ends of dough, there was just enough of a circle to blanket the bottom of a 9” pie plate. While the reconfigured dough tried to relax, I emptied the cherries into a mesh strainer and dabbed away most of the ice crystals. While we ate dinner, the slap-dash, open-faced cherry pie baked, taunting with a fragrance more akin to late spring/early summer and less like November. We tucked our forks into it without waiting for it to cool and it was just sweet enough, decidedly tart, and very cherry. It made me think that I should call Loretta at Hyline Orchards and wish her a happy holiday and an early happy birthday.
Draping plastic wrap over the pie, I found a place for it in a less than obvious location. Some might say I hid the pie, which is true. On Sunday morning, November 22nd, I ate one slice of cherry pie for breakfast with my morning coffee and had another smidgen just before leaving for work. That last bit left a cherry stain on my white button down work shirt. Splashing some cold water on the indelible stain, I casually mentioned to anyone within earshot there was a little pie left, little being the operative word. This past Monday, I called Hyline Orchards to order some cherries and to chat with Loretta. As is often the case in life, when you think of calling someone, you should do it sooner than later. I will miss her every time I bake a cherry pie.
December 26, 1936 – November 22, 2020
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm