My former boss and mentor, Roger Eatherton, passed away a week ago, adding one more layer of sadness to an already surreal world. To say Roger was a wizard of efficiency was an understatement. Born and raised in South Dakota, Roger learned the art of pie baking from three generations of mid-western women; his great grandmother, his grandmother and his mother. Roger was much more than a formidable baker; he was a productivity expert, a brilliant mechanical engineer and a visionary.
Roger’s purchase of a Bucks County farm forever changed my career. Following a ten-year stint owning and operating a restaurant, I was ready for a change. Ignoring the fifty minute commute in good weather, (longer when it snowed), I found myself working in a kitchen framed by windows overlooking apple orchards, fields of wildflowers and meandering rows of pick-your-own berries.
The original bakery was compact, outfitted with Roger’s bench, a double door refrigerator, a wall of deck ovens, and two commercial mixers. An imposing dough sheeter ran the entire length of one wall. Freezers were located on the other side of the building, beyond the weathered cider press.
As the business continued to flourish, Roger and his wife, Jane, saw the clear need to expand the bakery. The new space was meticulously designed with the vision of an engineer, equipped with time saving technology Rube Goldberg would have applauded.
Amidst the convection ovens, dough rounders, and rotating bread oven, stood one of Roger’s favorite pieces of equipment. The humble doughnut fryer and batter depositor was an engineer’s dream. Cider-spiked batter fell into a pool of hot oil, sizzling and bobbing towards the surface. Armed with a giant pair of tongs, Roger plucked the doughnuts from the fryer, dropping them into a cavernous tub of cinnamon sugar. On Saturday mornings, the tangle of hot oil and cinnamon wafted through the screen door of the bakery, assaulting my senses before I’d barely stepped out of my car. “Have a doughnut,” Roger would say as I crossed the kitchen with my first cup of coffee. In all of the years I worked for Roger, that Saturday morning doughnut, dangerously hot out of the fryer with a thick coating of cinnamon sugar, was impossible to resist.
Roger and I approached baking from two vastly different perspectives, agreeing to disagree on many things. Roger was a devout believer of cakes slathered in frosting, I felt cakes should be adorned with buttercream. I vouched for cake pans in graduated sizes while Roger swore by baking cake layers in sheet pans. My idea of pie crust called for unsalted butter while Roger was an unwavering supporter of shortening. Roger relied on the consistency of Individually Quick Frozen fruit while I avoided frozen fruit like the plague. Roger also had a strong aversion to any diminutive baked goods he felt required “too much fiddle.” Roger spoke fluent Metric system, while I spoke Imperial. When I said ounce, Roger said twenty-eight- point-three grams. Potato, potahto.
When it came to mise en place, I liked to assemble all of my ingredients side by side on my workbench. Roger’s version consisted of emptying ginormous bags of flour, sugar, and leavening directly into industrial sized mixing bowls. One of my first days at the bakery, I gathered together a number of ingredients, among them cake flour. Determined to produce a silky batter, I scanned the utensils looking for a sifter. “Roger,” I asked, “do you have a sifter?” Roger paused before responding, answering my question with an incredulous look. Exploding with laughter, he doubled over in hysteria, punctuating his laugh with a few knee slaps, before finally dabbing his eyes with the edge of his apron. Over the years, he loved to retell the story in excruciating detail, “And then Ellen said, ‘Roger, do you have a sifter?’ A SIFTER!!!” Working for Roger taught me more about production and less about minutiae.
It’s impossible to forget Roger’s infectious laugh, the well-worn baseball cap perched on top of his head, or the way he rolled pie shells at a dizzying speed. There always seemed to be a fine mist of all-purpose flour circling him as he worked. Because of Roger, I purchased my first kitchen scale all those years ago and allowed frozen fruit to occasionally edge its way into a pie plate.
Embracing challenge over retirement, Roger and Jane began a new chapter in upstate New York several years ago. Another farmhouse beckoned, this time attached to 250 acres of rolling vineyards framed by the Finger Lakes. I visited with them last summer, touring the vineyard and the new bakery, designed by Roger. The bakery housed all of the equipment I remembered, including the doughnut fryer. Driving south along the Seneca wine trail with Roger’s signature laugh echoing in my ears, I felt my nose twitch; cinnamon.
There’s a tiny window in the morning, somewhere between asleep and awake when I almost forget; the world we recently took for granted has landed on its head. We’ve been flipped upside down like a buttermilk pancake free-falling towards a sizzling griddle. Consumed by social distancing and self-quarantine, some days feel downright dire. Padding across the kitchen in slippered feet, there is no sense of urgency, no scramble for car keys, no train to catch. The house is too quiet and the neighborhood eerily silent. Overdressed in a thinsulate turtleneck, hooded sweatshirt, and corduroys, but hellbent on coffee, I forget to remove the lid from the burr grinder. Coffee beans skittle across the counter, pausing briefly before hitting the floor. Sunshine is tentatively peeking through the window, illuminating the coffee beans circling my slippers. What day is this, I wonder? I answer my own question; a good day to bake.
What I’m hearing these days are stories from pie pals across the country. We are baking out of boredom, out of desperation, out of fear. Baked goods and carbohydrates are what we crave when we struggle to feel better. For many of us, baking is the perfect tactile activity. Looking for a temporary escape from media saturation? Pre-heat your oven. Need a little control in your life? Set the butter on the counter, grab the brown sugar and reach for an unopened bag of semi-sweet chocolate.
Recently, I’ve noticed a damn‘demic surge of bakers seeking solace in sourdough. I am inundated with images of chubby jars filled with pouffy mixtures of flour and water. While I’m more than happy to accept a warm slice of sourdough bread slathered in butter, I draw the line at feeding and caring for an activated bread starter.
Sourdough bread starters remind me of houseplants. There is such promise in the beginning, the joy of nurturing, the gratification of success, until things go south. I recall each houseplant debacle with utmost clarity, beginning with a leggy spider plant my mother carried on her lap on my inaugural car trip to college. As the first semester of freshman year rolled into the second, it was obvious that the spider plant was on a downward trajectory. Sophomore year, a healthy jade plant weathered the four hour car ride wedged between the complete works of William Shakespeare, a small desk lamp, and a pair of tap shoes. The Shakespeare compendium, the desk lamp, and the tap shoes survived. Thankfully, study abroad Junior year negated any chance of transporting greenery overseas. Senior year I lived off-campus and one of my housemates boasted a true green thumb. I took a part-time job at the local bakery, entrusting the plants to someone else. The houseplants thrived and the Pleasant Street housemates (plus much of the theatre department) enjoyed day-old black and white cookies and cream horns.
My very first New York City apartment had an “S” hook screwed into the ceiling, suitable for hanging a macramé planter. My mother provided a healthy wandering Jew plant that fit easily between the intricate knots and twine. Uncertain if by nature the plant prompted guilt, I tended to the plant with great care in the hopes it would flourish. The wandering Jew shared sunlight with an Amana Cool Zone window unit air conditioner. Neither the plant nor the air conditioner survived past August and yes, I felt guilty. The guilt plagued me through unhappy encounters with African violets, Christmas cacti, Paperwhites, and orchids. Even the impatiens of my adult life ultimately grew impatient with me, losing their joie de vivre.
I’m probably overthinking this, but sourdough starter feels very plant-like to me, and perhaps that is why I avoid it. Comfortable yeast doughs appeal to me; pizzas and focaccia, tightly swirled cinnamon buns and babka, top-knotted brioche. But my true love, the dough that serves as a blank canvas for every season, is crafted in an over-sized Pyrex bowl filled with pieces of cold butter, pinches of sugar and salt, and handfuls of flour, In order for pie dough to be tender, not tough, it needs to be spoon-fed just enough ice water to hold itself together, but not too much. I suppose pie dough is akin to sourdough starter in that they need a little nurturing and some time to relax in the fridge.
Situations dictated by unusual circumstances nudge bakers to be creative, to consider hidden treasures tucked away in pantries and freezers. Throughout history, pie bakers have been forced to use what was readily available, more so when times were difficult. My freezer boasts snippets of pie dough made from various flours, each parcel carefully wrapped in plastic. Although the leftover dough is too small to fill a 9” pie plate, it is too large to toss. A deluge of leisure during a difficult time has encouraged me to be crafty, something I'm not. Pie dough shies away from re-rolls, but with some gentle coaxing, odds and ends handily fill a make-shift pie tin. Frozen rhubarb and a few handfuls of fresh strawberries bake up into something that tastes less like the Ides of March and almost like spring. If the world is still upside down once I exhaust the freezer supplies, maybe I'll take up macramé.
Neither my pantry nor my fridge mirror any of the images currently flooding my inbox. Today is a fine day to unearth and regroup, tidy and pitch. My initial foray into the double door Jenn-Air refrigerator meets with immediate tragedy. An overfilled container of San Marzano tomatoes jettisons from the top shelf to the floor, spreading its contents with great abandon. Careening to a halt at the edge of the stairs, spilled tomatoes are not dire. It could have been far worse, it could have been egg whites. Tiptoeing to avoid the river of tomato puree as I secure a mop, my mood teeters between simmer and parboil. In light of the world around us, the idea of taking a deep dive into produce, dairy, and dry goods feels petty.
Grabbing more space than they deserve, incidentals roam freely amongst sensible groceries. Cookie dough studded with dark chocolate should move to the freezer. but the freezer is full. Combing through the yogurt, skim, and whole milk, I see nothing that boasts an imminent expiration date. There's little if any spoilage, and cobbling together a recipe based on odds and ends is do-able. It's also something our grandmothers did religiously, before groceries and meals were delivered via Amazon and Fresh Direct.
Neediest items will jump to the head of the line. I venture into the warped drawer identified as the “crisper.” It houses the remnants of a butternut squash and an unopened bag of rainbow carrots. As colorful and leggy as a Rockette kick line at Easter, I’m tempted to bake something with the carrots. Carrot cake? Morning Glory Bread? The butternut squash, sequestered since Sunday, should take priority. I close the drawer to the crisper and give the contents one last once-over. Dairy shelf real estate is too valuable for whole milk to stand upright, so I tighten the cap and turn it on its side. Tempting fate, I stack a narrow carton of eggs atop the milk.
The pantry is next, shelves over-filled with spices, dry goods, and canned goods. A lonesome can of organic pumpkin vies for attention. I see you, Pumpkin, and you, paper and cello bags of assorted grains. A package of jewel-toned candied fruit lounges against an unopened tube of chestnut paste. Smuggled home in a suitcase from a previous holiday, their shelf life is waning.
Wandering down a shelf, canned milk stretches out from end to end. Each one has value, but are they all necessary? These are baking milks, not coffee milks; sweetened condensed, evaporated, coconut, and powdered. I cannot part with a single one but reorganize things just a touch. An unopened can of dulce de leche seems better suited alongside a can of Eagle Brand condensed milk. Coconut cream is a little too self-important with a flashy label and flip-top lid. I transfer the cream behind the coconut milk and close the cabinet doors. A weighty bag of dark brown sugar insists on propping the door open. A cello bag overly secured with rubber bands free-falls from the top shelf. One corner of the bag has the slightest hole, large enough to cause chaos. A significant trail of semolina flour covers the tomato stained floor.
My chaotic pantry longs for order, jealous of what taunts from the great wide web. The pantries posted on social media are tidy to a fault. Organized alphabetically, they boast a color story direct from Pantone’s newest hits. Every pantry in fantasyland sports pristine canisters in various sizes, standing at attention. My pantry doesn't fall into place with precision; neither does my fridge. If self-quarantine doesn't encourage kitchen organization, I don't know what does. But it is a process, not a one day endeavor. More critically, I do know that the butternut squash in the fridge and the neglected can of pumpkin in the pantry deserve each other. They will also provide a little wiggle room in both my refrigerator and my pantry in the midst of a pandemic. Additionally, the marriage of the two squashes will fill a blind baked pie shell that is feeling neglected.
The latest article to land in my newsfeed instructs me to update my "storage system" which I interpret to mean, organize the Tupperware. More lids don't fit than do, and my favorite containers are triangular, (better suited to pie slices) or square, from decades ago. A wave of Corona blues hits me like a tidal wave and I slam the drawer shut. The Tupperware project can wait for another day of self-quarantine.
My knees crack as I kneel down to fetch the brown sugar from the bottom shelf. There's a 2 lb. bag of Fleishmann's yeast next to the dark brown Domino, separated by a slim paperback book. Glancing at the title, I'm shocked to see The Fleishmann Treasury of Yeast Baking. I'm organized and I don't even know it.
Reaching for a manual can opener, I explain to the ingredients set before me, "It's spring, Pumpkin. Both you and butternut are so much more November than March. But in this ever-changing world, who am I to judge?" I cross the kitchen to the sink, grab the liquid soap, turn on the tap, and sing two choruses of Happy Birthday. What a world.
March 14th, also known as Pi(e) Day, is an opportunity to commemorate the mathematical constant and acknowledge Albert Einstein’s birthday. Math geeks will sharpen their No. 2 pencils, enjoy number games, and perhaps nibble on squares of sheet cake celebrating Einstein. For lovers of lattice and triangular slices, Pi(e) Day is an excuse to bake and consume pie. Generally, Pi(e) Day is as welcome as the first crocus peeking up through the last remnants of winter. This year, however, Pi(e) Day is yet another casualty of the Coronavirus.
In the commercial world of butter, sugar, and flour, Pi(e) Day provides a bump in sales following a wintry January and February. Those dedicated to the craft of pie baking look forward to a holiday that encourages creativity and celebrates spring. No longer tethered to flavors dictated by cool temps, (I’m looking at you, Thanksgiving), Pi(e) Day tends to spark joy. Unfortunately, everything changed in March of 2020, and not in a good way.
With colleges extending spring breaks, workers hunkering down at home in the comfort of their pajamas, and the closing of schools, the life we normally enjoy has screeched to a halt. We are guilty of binge-buying toilet paper and dried pasta, emptying the shelves at Trader Joe’s, and have replaced handshakes and hugs with elbow bumps. Supplies of hand sanitizer have been exhausted, face masks and latex gloves have been greedily snapped up from health care professionals. Fun times? Hardly.
According to my pie peeps across the country, pre-ordered pie sales are facing cancellation. Office workers who traditionally celebrate March 14th en masse are now working off site. Those who traditionally dedicate the second week of March to filling pie shells at a (no pun intended) feverish rate, are forced to scale back. Small businesses are struggling in the throes of the pandemic. Unlike pie dough that knows the importance of relaxing, (it helps inhibit the formation of gluten) we can’t help ourselves. Swept up in the frenzy, we are all-Corona, all day, seven-days-a-week. It's frightening and exhausting.
In an attempt to maintain proper social distancing, we are abandoning athletic and cultural extracurricular activities. Air travel and dinner reservations are to be avoided like the plague. Never before have we washed our hands with such fervor and repetition. A virus that is going viral is not a good thing. To quote Ella Fitzgerald, “Spring will be a little late this year.” Pie won’t solve this crisis, but a slice or two couldn’t hurt. Just make sure to wash your hands first.
Before we started enhancing hamantaschen with funfetti and tahini, the triangular cookie was tethered to simple fillings. Poppyseeds, sweet prune Lekvar, and bright apricot jams were traditional. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers followed Eastern European recipes, rolling out yeast doughs enriched with eggs and butter, leavened with yeast. Traditionally, kuchen dough was the go-to pastry, a buttery canvas that was adaptable to all kinds of coffee cakes yet agreeable stepping in as a triangular cookie. In the 19th century, the advent of baking powder changed everything, including the sweets served at Purim. Yeast-risen doughs took a back seat while bakers embraced the short cuts afforded by cookie doughs leavened with baking powder. The dried fruits, poppyseeds and jams revered by our flour-dusted grandmothers suddenly had to make room for some forward-thinking fillings. Nutella and s’mores were far more hip than dowdy prunes, raspberry jam cooler than apricot.
Anyone who begrudgingly spent weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings in Hebrew school remembers the commercial hamantaschen doled out during Purim. The cookies were both dry and cakey, a thick, unremarkable dough with rick-rack edges enveloping a jammy filling. The cookie part of the hamantashen was lackluster, the justification for the triangular sweet was the filling. Dressed in costumes that were assembled the night before, all of the girls chose Esther, crowned and bejeweled and majestic in fancy dresses and in some cases, floor length nightgowns. (I don’t recall a single Vashti-Queen-of-Persia among us.) All of the boys wore bathrobes over their chinos or dungarees, signifying royalty. There were a few penciled-in mustaches amongst the Mordechais and Hamans and we celebrated loudly, shouting “boo” when Haman’s name was mentioned and cheering for Esther and Mordechai in the reading of the Megillah. We assembled small gifts packages of food known as “shalach monos” which were distributed through the community via the dedicated moms of the Sisterhood.
Hamantaschen provided an opportunity to empty our kitchen cabinets of flour, in anticipation of Passover which fell four short weeks after Purim. Hamantaschen were tedious to prepare and the only one who followed the traditional Eastern European baking style which called for yeast dough, was my grandmother Minnie. Most of the time, my mother purchased an assortment of hamantaschen from the bakery. They were tasty in an old-fashioned-baked-good kind of way. They were not however, nearly as exciting as a cheese-filled Danish or a cream horn.
Contemporary hamantaschen options border on dizzying, with filling and dough choices as gaudy and over-the-top as the costumes we once donned for Purim. Any pastries signifying the triumph of good over evil are worth the time required to make them. Embarking on the hamantaschen journey requires a little planning and a generous amount of patience. Taking the time to chill the pastries before baking will pay off in the end, keeping the cookies intact, avoiding the dreaded misshapen triangles. A holiday that encourages merriment and celebrates the bravery of a woman named Esther seems like a fine way to usher in spring; costumes optional.
Sneeze, crumple, aimless toss, miss. There is an ever-growing parade of crumpled tissues surrounding the oval trash can next to my bed. From overhead, the tissues on the floor easily number enough to cover a high school homecoming float. Too tired for Netflix, too feverish to read, the harsh reality of a mid-winter cold is it's as unwelcome as a sub-par tissue against a crimson nose. Medical offices tend to stock under-sized, scratchy tissues from flimsy boxes. On a recent Friday morning, I’m ¾ of the way through a box of thin-ply tissues way before a pair of cordovan leather loafers pause at the doorway. The doctor reads my chart, glances at me and immediately dons a mask. The nurse practitioner has noticed my steady tissue dispensing and reaches into a glass-doored supply cabinet for a fresh box. She suggests I keep the one I have adding, “you look like you really need it.” I want to thank her but the words unleash a ferocious tickle followed by what I refer to as the Marlboro Man cough. I drain the flimsy tissue box of the last one.
Both the doctor and my local pharmacy, (the one known for its register-receipt- coupon-generosity) commend me for having gotten a flu shot earlier in the season.
Still, whatever malaise has taken up residency in my ear is the gift that keeps on giving. Both doctor and patient are more than anxious to derail the culprit who has stayed far too long and is reluctant to leave without a little intervention. I wait on a slim chair behind the screen reserved for flu shot participants. At the moment, no one is participating and the pharmacist seems pleased to have me tucked away, out of plain sight. When my prescriptions are ready, the enthusiastic cashier reminds me of all of the savings I’ve accumulated and hands me enough register tape to wallpaper my kitchen.
Before making the Sherpa-less trek up the stairs and back to bed, I cobble together a cold beverage, a hot beverage and a bowl of mandarins. Had I taken the time to peruse my pharmacy coupons, I could have taken advantage of the very generous two dollars off store-brand Vitamin C tablets. My preferred kind of Vitamin C allows you to peel back the skin, unleashing each sweet/tart segment. Before climbing into bed, I gather up the tissue parade float from the floor, tossing it into the trash. I will not venture down the stairs again until my hankering for chicken soup overrides my desire to sleep.
Loretta Robertoy remains my go-to whenever cherry pie demands my attention. Answering the phone at Hyline Orchards since 1958, the matriarch of the orchard and farm market calls Fish Creek, Wisconsin home. I’ve been chatting with her since 1984 when we first opened A Slice of Heaven in Philadelphia. Loretta is a great-grandmother these days, but continues to run the business alongside her husband, Marvin. Hyline cherries played a prominent role in A Slice of Heaven’s menu, featured not only in pie but enhancing steaming bowls of steel cut oatmeal for breakfast. Cherries arrived frozen in plastic tubs, methodically wrapped in the Advocate, the local newspaper, then slipped into large plastic bags and knotted securely. The knots reflected Midwestern capability- sturdy, no-nonsense and requiring a dickens of a time to undo. I suspect that Loretta implemented the non-negotiable tying of the knots. Loretta has consistently provided cherry support when I needed it most.
When cherry pie was on the menu for Molly O’Neill’s expansive LongHouse Food Revival in Rensselaerville, NY, I called Loretta. It was Loretta who saved me from a commitment I had made for a ridiculous number of cherry pies for Showtime’s Tribute To Twin Peaks, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a few years back. And for the past 8 years, when Cupid schedules a February fly-by through Maplewood, NJ, Loretta’s phone rings in Fish Creek.
Connecting with Loretta by phone is not always easy. Loretta divides her time between the house and the store, and has no interest in computer generated customer relations. Loretta retains most information in her head, which she then transfers to an order pad of fine lined paper. Non-smudge resistant carbon paper provides the duplicate copy which is kept somewhere on Loretta’s desk. The challenge in ordering from Loretta is that her long-term memory insists that I still own a restaurant in Philadelphia.
“You’re in Pennsylvania, aren’t ya?” she always says when we finally get down to the business of my shipping address.
“No, not anymore,” I remind her. “I’m in New Jersey.”
“Right,” Loretta replies. “Let me have your address again at the restaurant.”
“It’s a bakery,” I remind her. “The restaurant was in Philadelphia a long time ago. I’m in New Jersey now.”
“We’ll ship these out in a few days. You should have them next week, unless the weather is bad. It might take a little longer.”
It always takes a little longer because Loretta is a busy woman. Sometimes the shipping department at Hyline Orchards needs a gentle reminder, a second phone call. Always surprised that the cherries haven’t yet shipped, Loretta lets me know that she’s currently in the house but will walk over to the store and get things rolling. This second phone call gives us an opportunity to revisit my current address, and reminisce about the time the cherries were sent to Philadelphia.
On our most recent phone call, Loretta told me that the Winter Carnival was scheduled for the weekend, and despite the mild weather forecast, if there was an abundance of snow, the cherries might not ship for a few days. I told her I understood, gave her my address once again, and promised I’d call when the cherries arrived.
Three days later, a weighty corrugated box arrived, postmarked Fish Creek, Wisconsin. Still frosty on the inside, the label advised, Door County Frozen Cherrys.
Keep Frozen – and then in fine print, “Use in your favorite cherry pie recipe or as a topping or eat as they are.” Pretty good cherry advice, no doubt dictated by Loretta. After unwrapping the box and securing two tubs in the walk-in and two tubs in the overcrowded freezer, I stepped outside and called Loretta to let her know the cherries had arrived. The phone rang and rang until I was just about to hang up. Finally Loretta answered, slightly breathless. “I was in the house,” she replied. “Did you get the cherries?”
Of course, I did.
Valentine’s Day is a holiday that sparks division. Nowhere is this great divide more keenly evident than on a sugar cookie platter. With less than a week remaining, the countdown to February 14th feels less sentimental this year, a touch snarkier than in years past. Are we falling out of love with Cupid’s heart-driven holiday?
Much like New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day wants us to plan appropriately. Plans dependent upon long-stemmed roses and dinner for two at over-booked restaurants, generally yield over-priced mediocrity. I am not shy in voicing my opinion that second to Mother’s Day, Valentine’s is the holiday when dinner is best eaten at home, perhaps attired in the Pajama-grams you received in December.
February 14th and I have spent far too many retail days and nights together for me to embrace the holiday with enthusiasm. I will readily accept ownership of tossing the words “I Tolerate You” over my shoulder a few years back, when searching for a suitable flourless chocolate cake inscription. It should also be noted that I did not flinch when the conversation heart cookies took a turn from saccharine to sarcastic, when pastels were replaced by somber gray. This year, however, we’ve reached a tipping point.
Sugar cookies proclaiming their love are being elbowed off the yellow Fiestaware platter by conversation hearts sneering “not ever” and “you wish.” Cynicism penned in royal icing mirrors the way we’re feeling; far less sweet, infinitely more agitated about the world in general. Does this mean we should give Cupid the boot? Not necessarily.
Perhaps a healthier approach to February 14th is simply embracing it for what it is; an excuse to eat chocolate. And there’s plenty of stellar chocolate from which to choose. Unless you are tethered to the heart-shaped boxes filled with mediocre chocolates available at your neighborhood pharmacy/megastore, there are far better alternatives. You can start with the oversized Pound Plus block of bittersweet chocolate from Trader Joes. While you’re there, grab a small container of buttermilk, some butter, a little heavy cream, and a carton of eggs.
Chocolate Chess Pie can sweeten the Hallmark holiday that many of us love to hate. Why Chess Pie? Because it doesn’t require a huge time commitment and the end result is scrumptious. Based on humble ingredients, Chess Pie originally hailed from England before traveling across the pond and taking up residency in New England and throughout the south. Prone to many variations, Chess Pie is a custard pie, known for being a little heavy-handed with the sugar. Similar to many humble pies, its ease in preparation stemmed from the fact that the pie relied on four season ingredients that were available in most kitchen pantries. Over time, the early recipe morphed into variations incorporating the ingredients we liked best.
My long-time relationship with Chocolate Chess Pie played out at Philadelphia's Cafette restaurant. I lost count of the number of pies I baked there, but Chocolate Chess was a perennial favorite. Walnuts were key to the pie’s experience, but can certainly be omitted. Some versions include both nuts and raisins, but since we’re on this side of the pond, our enthusiasm for raisins in baked goods is lackluster. Either way, select a good-quality bittersweet chocolate and spike it with espresso and vanilla. Traditional Chess pie recipes instruct you to whisk some cornmeal into the filling, but as a pie rule breaker, I prefer to toss the cornmeal into the piecrust instead.
As someone with a chocolate-covered cherry Valentine’s history, (thanks, Dad) boozy cherries make a fine addition to this pie. Ditto for a sensible dollop of unsweetened whipped cream and a tall glass of bubbles.
There are two major events vying for our attention this weekend. One involves a football and highly caloric eats, the other has us fixated on a groundhog with the power to determine the longevity of winter. I am only mildly interested in the latter.
The football portion of the weekend will go unnoticed in my little world; my disinterest in the game stems from more than enough rough-and-tumble touch football as a youngster. It was all fun and games until someone got hurt and with two older bothers, it always ended the same way. I will acknowledge however, the Super Bowl was a fine excuse for my mother to fill her shopping cart with fixings for Pigs-in-Blankets, a few bottles of popular and neon soft drinks, and a large red and yellow bag of Fritos corn chips. Even then it wasn’t about the game, it was about what was happening in the kitchen.
As for Punxsutawney Phil, he and I go way back to the days when jovial weatherman Willard Scott bounded across the television screen, interrupting my soggy breakfast cereal reverie. Willard captured the groundhog excitement, providing a play-by-play from Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania. The brouhaha generally reached its exciting conclusion just as I was racing down the driveway, attempting to catch the school bus. The unknowing was torturous; would Phil see his shadow and if so, was that a good thing? Was Phil a sunny-side-of-the-street groundhog and did the sun even shine in Gobbler’s Knob? I never could remember and quite honestly, regardless of what Phil saw or didn’t see, winter trudged along undeterred. (It seems counter-intuitive for a shadow sighting to trigger six more weeks of winter, but those are the facts.)
This weekend, Punxsutawney Phil will be represented in a sugar cookie likeness at the bakery, right alongside Super Bowl-appropriate sweets. I am less inclined to dabble in groundhog/football brown icings, more likely to focus my attention on seeding and slicing Meyer lemons. Regardless of whether the groundhog sees his shadow and retreats to a comfy den with his weighted blanket, or embraces a spring-like forecast, we remain in the thick of citrus season. This provides plenty of incentive for my sport of choice; a solitary pursuit requiring select kitchen equipment, no particular uniform, and boasting zero commercials. The half-time show is low-tech; simply rotating the baking sheet 180 degrees in the oven. The post-game show begins when I deem the baked good cool enough to slice and enjoy. Go, Pie, Go.
For anyone participating in Dry January or Clean Eating, we really don’t need any distractions. Being reminded to eat more pie by Pi(e) Day’s distant relation, National Pie Day, seems unfair. Elbowing it’s way onto the calendar, pie’s lesser-known celebration has chosen to land on the seemingly random date of January 23rd.
Originally credited to American engineer Charlie Papazian, Charlie proclaimed his birthday, January 23rd, as National Pie Day. The American Pie Council took up sponsorship of the holiday in 1986 on the date that coincided with the 75th anniversary of Crisco shortening. Aimed to increase sales of the famous blue-labeled shortening, the marketing ploy worked. Today, National Pie Day is recognized as yet another excuse to bake and eat pie. Hard-core Pi(e) Day loyalists remain tethered to March 14th, unwavering in their dedication to the mathematical/double crust celebration. Whether you choose the January or the March date, (and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating both) here’s a true tale from my workplace of the restorative power of pie.
I am convinced that pie is more powerful than any bar cookie or frosting slathered cupcake or gluten-free quick bread. Pie has a sixth sense- a way of knowing when it’s most needed. Pie prides itself on being the center of attention in November and again in late May and early July, but it seems to me, pie is most restorative on ordinary days.
About a year ago, a giant cloak of sadness, of profound loss, engulfed the bakery. While we were in the thick of it, pie helped cushion the blow. Not just in the eating, but in the baking. The repetitive nature of rolling and crimping, of juicing lemons and whisking eggs, peeling apples and weaving lattice, provided a welcome distraction. The term Misery Pie seemed an apt description; a dessert whose sole purpose was to alleviate the excruciating pain. As promised, the pain eased but never really went away. Grief seemed like a word reserved for people (other than hipsters) dressed in black, in a state of constant mourning, and it felt a little bit self-indulgent, so I renamed it Melancholy. Melancholy liked to breeze in and out, hiding around corners, jumping out and dragging me down when I least expected it, but allowing me to get on with my day.
Strongly believing that most days can benefit from a triangular slice of pie, a faux food calendar telling me to celebrate National Pie Day feels hollow. Eyeing a stack of empty pie shells in the freezer and choosing how to fill them is enough of a reminder. Shivering in the walk-in and considering my options, cold storage apples feel better suited to fall. Folding up the hem of my apron to create a pocket, two lemons nestle easily into the linen-service-quality polyester. Cradling a flat of eggs and two quarts of buttermilk in my arms, I open the door of the walk-in with my elbow. No sooner do I start cracking eggs into a bowl and zesting the lemons, a customer walks through the bakery door, scanning the front table in hopes of a buttermilk pie. When asked if there was a chance I’d be baking the tangy custard pie any time soon, I hold up the orange capped Five Acre Farms Local buttermilk in reply.
Without prompting, the customer confides that she is having a bad day and a buttermilk pie might turn things around. Clearly, this wasn’t any old pie request; I sensed this was in fact, a Misery Pie. “My father passed away in December. It was his favorite,” she whispers. That not-so-old hole in my heart ached in sympathy. I nodded.
Pie seems to know when it’s needed. The same way a piecrust cradles a filling, protecting it from the heat of the oven, pie can also cushion us from some of life’s harshest realities. The English writer and dramatist John Lyly, is credited for a series of books written around 1579, titled, Euphues. Lyly wrote, “In misery it is great comfort to have a companion.” It seems plausible that on certain days, faux or factual holiday, or plain old Thursday, pie makes a fine companion, indeed.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm