Fresh apricots, though visually stunning, can sometimes be a little lackluster when eaten out of hand. Whether too tart or too mealy, or simply shy on flavor, patience is a stone fruit virtue. There’s a small window in summer, sometime between July and August, when both apricots and nectarines align at the farmers’ market. Drizzling the two with honey before roasting them in the oven creates a vibrant, jam-like fruit topping that holds its shape. You can serve it as is, but its destiny should be simple pound cake.
A while back, before my sister and her crew relocated from the Emerald City to Toronto, jaunts to Seattle were a yearly treat. Attired in my very best stretchy waistband pants, @bkgray66 and I combed the city in search of stellar baked goods. Though the selection was far too vast to cram into a few days, believe me, we tried.
In retrospect, other than Tom Douglas’ coconut cream pie, some of my favorite sweets were generous slices of pound cake paired with a quintessential Seattle coffee. Two standouts come to mind; one was from The Fat Hen Café in Ballard, and the other was from Macrina Bakery in downtown Seattle. Far from flashy, comfortably rustic, the cakes were flavored with plenty of citrus and pleasantly crunchy from a blend of flours.
My day job doesn’t diminish my appetite for sweets, but there are days when I have a hankering for a slice of something other than pie. I’ve baked many versions of those Seattle-inspired cakes, sometimes in a loaf pan, sometimes in a small springform. And when apricots and nectarines sing in unison, despite the heat, it’s well worth turning on the oven. Bake the pound cake on low and the stone fruit on high. After it cools, drape the fruit over a generous slice of cake, add a little whipped cream, and pretend you're on vacation.
The peach pincher next to me at the Farmers’ Market is oblivious to my raised eyebrow. The meticulously arranged pyramids of blush pink freestones can’t speak for themselves, so I speak for them. “You know,” I begin tentatively, the words falling out of my mouth headed towards the woman assaulting the peaches, “every time you squeeze a peach, it leaves a bruise.” I have chosen my target poorly; the woman is not merely sensitive but defensive. “I’m not squeezing them,” she replies, mildly outraged. “I just want the ripe ones.” Gravitating from corrugated carton to corrugated carton, pinching and sniffing and gruffly handling the fragile stone fruit, I swear I can see the peaches grimacing in anticipation. Scooping up a quart of freestones and balancing them on top of four ears of corn, I casually mention to the peach assailant, “If they’re not ripe right now, you can leave them on the counter for a day or two...” My suggestion is met with icy silence; I abandon my peach evangelist mission reminding myself that Farmers’ Market-ing can be a tough sport.
Despite the fact that my weather app is indicating unhealthy air quality, I return from my produce pilgrimage and immediately turn on the oven. The peaches are agreeably ripe and incredibly fragrant. Baking a peach pie doesn’t require any special skills, but it does require the baker to make choices. Peeling the peaches and par-baking the crust isn’t mandatory, but I think it’s well worth the effort. Pulverized Minute tapioca, or cornstarch, or tapioca starch are all fine thickeners, and just as I prefer to shy on the thickener rather than add too much, the same holds true for the sweetener. Waiting patiently for the peaches to ripen on their own timetable may not suit everyone, but the fragrance of peaches escaping through a criss-cross lattice is one of the true gifts of summer.
I’ve been known to refer to July 4th as #thanksgivingjunior and I’m not budging on this sentiment. An awful lot of fruit surrounded by pie crust exited the bakery in the last few doughs, I mean days. This 4th of July in particular, brings with it a sort of manic urgency for gathering. Pie-ing for the people can be stressful and despite my long-sleeved work shirt, I always manage one distinctive burn, right where the rolled up sleeve and the oven mitt leave a gap. It’s a good reminder, that holiday oven burn, not to take things for granted. For instance, sharing some time and some pie with your favorite people.
Wishing you a pie-filled 4th, surrounded by your dearest. I’ll be nibbling away at the cheesecake in the photos. Sure, it doesn’t look like pie, but it’s basically a custardy filling wrapped in crust with a generous amount of stone fruit. The particulars for this cheesecake are scrawled on an index card tuced into my grandmother’s well-worn recipe file. The official title is, “Rosetta’s Cheesecake- Good for a Party.” It is good for a party, even if it’s simply a party of two. Happy 4th.
For anyone smitten with sour cherries, chasing them from farm stands to farmers’ markets, the chase comes with the understanding that fresh sour cherries require a commitment. The crimson stone fruit with a cult following and an all-too-brief season sparkles like gemstones in the sun. Secured in your market tote and transferred to your kitchen counter, their exquisite flavor comes with a price; sour cherries certainly don’t pit themselves.
I’ve heard about (but never participated in) what is known as a cherry pitting party. My understanding is that enthusiastic bakers take a seat around a perfectly restored farmhouse table, sip tall glasses of icy Rosé, share pie stories, while effortlessly removing stems and pits. (I imagine an awful lot of white linen and red/white gingham featured in those gatherings.) My cherry pitting reality is a little more jarring, with a soundtrack taken directly from Law and Order SVU, and a countertop as pristine as a crime scene. The more I try to contain the indelible cherries, the more they ricochet from cherry pitter to just shy of the Pyrex mixing bowl. Sitting never occurs to me because I believe standing and pitting demonstrates a “let’s get this done” attitude. This could potentially accelerate the task, ushering the cherries into the pie shell with greater speed and efficiency. As a rule, I like the traditional look and the craftiness of a woven lattice-topped cherry pie. Recently however, I’ve been tossing generous handfuls of brown sugar/cornmeal/almond crumb over the cherries. One of the tastiest recipes comes from @petraparedez and if you’re not too exhausted after pitting all those cherries, making a big batch of crumb makes sense; the excess stores easily in a Ziploc in the freezer. And when cherry season is over, and it will be sooner than later, you can contact my pals @hyline orchardfarmmarket in Door County, Wisconsin and they’ll ship them to you, nicely pitted and rarin’ to go.
Despite Rhubarb’s nonchalance, his reaction to the over-filled mesh strainer of blueberries is ripe with disdain. “Isn’t it a touch early in the season for blueberry pie?
“Not really,” I reply without looking up from Ottolenghi’s brilliant dessert collection, Sweet. “Ooooo, maybe this…” I hold up the glossy photo of a blueberry and rhubarb galette. Rhubarb yawns.
Rhubarb and I have arrived at that mid-season juncture where he knows I’m a little restless, focusing on the next best taste of summer. Far less threatened by a windfall of local strawberries, the tart vegetable has learned to respect his cohort in pie, considering the two of them simpatico. When blueberries, raspberries, and particularly peaches, inch their way toward the spotlight, Rhubarb tends to get his leaves in a snit.
Trying to explain to the candy striped vegetable that he shares something in common with the indigo berry falls on deaf ears. “The two of you belong together!” I exclaim. “You’re both jam-packed with antioxidants. And,” I continue, waving the strainer of blueberries under cold water, “this galette requires very little fuss.” Rhubarb sneers. “Fuss? You mean all those ridiculous pastry cut-outs stashed in the freezer? What are they supposed to represent, exactly? Don’t you have better things to do with your post-pandemic days than cut little flowers out of pate brisee?” He does have a point. I continue. “You should be excited to spend time with someone other than Strawberry. Listen, I’m a huge fan of the two of you together, but after a while, the pairing becomes a bit, you know, pedestrian. Haven’t you noticed that blueberries complement your ruddy complexion?”
Rhubarb replies quietly, “Strawberry is the Harriet to my Ozzie. Why must you ruin a good thing?”
I decide to start the galette party without the pie plant. Ottolenghi’s recipe calls for crushed Amaretti cookies, but I’m forced to substitute Savoiardi biscuits and almonds. Rhubarb is familiar with the recipe, belaboring the obvious. “You’re not even following the recipe! It specifically says Amaretti cookies! Savoiardi are for tiramisu. Are you making tiramisu? And shouldn’t you pre-heat the oven before you get all fixated with your non-Amaretti cookies and your little pastry cut-outs? Did you even whisk together your egg wash?”
Placing the biscuits and almonds in the bowl of the food processor fitted with the blade attachment, I bite my tongue. Adjusting the oven racks and cranking up the oven to 400 degrees, I watch Rhubarb inching closer toward the open cookbook. “Do you see the title of the recipe? It clearly says Rhubarb and Blueberry Galette. Chef Ottolenghi has definitely given me top billing.” Looking up from the butcher block table where I'm shaping a circle of pastry into a 12” round, I ask the sassy vegetable, “Does this mean you’re willing to participate?” Rhubarb shrugs. “There’s more of me in a zip-loc bag in the freezer. Just one thing…” the pie plant adds. “When you get to the part where you pleat the pastry and you attach those ridiculous pastry flowers, I’d prefer you place them closer to the blueberries. I’m allergic to flowers not found in nature.” Whisking together an egg with a little water and a pinch of salt, I nod. “Understood.”
Here’s the skinny on today’s celebration. We are drawn to circles of fried dough like sprinkles to chocolate glaze. Doughnuts arrived in New Amsterdam (before it was Manhattan) and were dubbed ‘olykoeks’ or “oily cakes” by the Dutch. In the mid-19th century, Elizabeth Gregory, mother of a ship captain, cobbled together a deep-fried dough spiked with nutmeg, cinnamon, and lemon. Liz placed hazelnuts (or walnuts) in the center of the dough where it tended to remain uncooked, and called them doughnuts/donuts. Captain Gregory was given credit for placing the hole in the doughnut. Various theories abound debating and debunking the ‘hole’ truth and nothing but.
During World War I, homesick American doughboys (soldiers) were served doughnuts fried up by “Donut Lassies,” female Salvation Army volunteers. During World War II, “Donut Dollies” referred to American Red Cross volunteers working overseas in clubmobiles, single decker buses outfitted with a phonograph plus coffee and doughnut making equipment. These could be considered an early version of the food truck.
The first doughnut machine arrived in New York City in 1920 and is credited to Russian baker, Adolph Levitt. This technology transformed the oily cake into something light and puffy. By 1934, doughnuts were dubbed “the food hit of the Century of Progress.” Also of note, doughnuts sold in the Depression era often included words of inspiration; “As you go through life make this your goal: Watch the doughnut, not the hole.” Words to live by as you celebrate Doughnut Day. Remember to keep the oil in the fryer plenty hot and raise your coffee mug to the Doughnut Lassies and Dollies of days gone by, and all the doughnut makers standing over deep-fat fryers today. #timetomakethedoughnuts
Rhubarb and I have reached a bit of an impasse, and it’s not even Memorial Day.
Giddy with the not-so-novel idea of an upside down cake featuring stalks of pie plant, I hold up a photo. Rhubarb sighs. “What’s the problem? This is a stunning bake!” Totally nonplussed, Rhubarb shrugs his poisonous leaves and dismisses my upside down cake dream. The harbinger of spring then poses the obvious question, “Can’t you simply leave upside down cake to Pineapple? Why must you drag me into the mix?”
Setting down a parchment-lined springform pan, I cajole. “C’mon… you know you’re perfectly suited to this role. You’ll love this cake- it’s spiked with ginger and healthy from yogurt, and of course…” I point in his direction. “What’s not to love?” Rhubarb pauses before replying. “What’s not to love is being subjected to a poaching syrup of hot caramel. What’s not to love is being wedged into the confines of a pan held together with a massive latch and then being smothered in cake batter. Call me petty, but withstanding fifty minutes of moderate heat under glaring lights before someone flips you on your head isn’t a pie plant’s dream. We’re a common garden vegetable, for crying out loud, not Cirque du Soleil!”
Rhubarb continues. “Once again, you’re only thinking of yourself. Your breakfast slice, your post running snack, your dessert. Have you ever considered my feelings?” I hadn’t. Rhubarb lashes out, “You try standing on your head in a 9” springform pan with nowhere to turn.”
Rhubarb is right, after all. It’s not easy coaxing lightly poached stalks of a spring vegetable into a tightly confined space. Refusing to line up with precision, the vegetable wiggles and rolls over, refusing to surrender to the blade of a small paring knife, overlapping in the wrong places and leaving unsightly gaps where the pan bottom meets the side. My fingers are scorched from the caramel syrup and unlike the photograph, the brilliant pink stalks are less brilliant post-bake. Still, the cake bakes up perfectly tart from the rhubarb and spicy from the candied ginger and just sweet enough from the caramel. I have a slice for breakfast and another later in the afternoon. And despite the hullaballoo from the star ingredient, I’d call this Ottolenghi recipe a wild success.
Jam-filled shortbread knows many variations. Perhaps the most popular is Hungarian shortbread, a match made in cholesterol heaven, with plenty of butter cozying up to sugar, flour, and sunny egg yolks. Julia Child is credited with the recipe and so is Gale Gand and Dorie Greenspan. Czech cookbooks dub the cookie omlos teasutemeny, roughly translated into ‘short pastry biscuit.’ South African cookbooks share a similar shortbread recipe and plenty of Jewish grandmothers baked a version, adding ground walnuts to the mix because they couldn’t leave well enough alone. My friend Jane DeAngelo who lived to be 100, made an Italian version she called Biscotti con Marmellata. Some recipes called for hard boiled egg yolks, but Jane used yolks directly out of the shell, flavoring the dough with just a hint of vanilla or almond extract. Once the dough was mixed and then frozen, Jane subjected the dough to a box grater, letting the shards fall into a rimmed cookie sheet. The next layer was jam, sometimes apricot, sometimes raspberry, followed by another layer of grated dough. Hot out of the oven, the bar cookies received a liberal dousing of confectioners’ sugar. I vividly remember Jane’s knack for cutting the bars into perfectly identical, slender, rectangular fingers without benefit of a ruler. Gliding a thin bladed knife through the hot tray, the fluffy crumbs of shortbread would shatter, sending tiny wisps of powdered sugar into the air.
I encountered two roadblocks on my way to Hungarian shortbread nirvana this week. The first was the dreaded ‘pan conversion.’ Despite more than enough resources available for guidance, I fumbled through my kitchen cabinet, stacking an assortment of square and rectangular pans on the counter. An entire pound of butter seemed awfully excessive for a mid-week bake, and half of a recipe seemed overly generous for two people. I didn’t want to use a springform pan, and I didn’t want to line anything with slings of parchment paper. Sorting through a stack of tart pans felt promising, unearthing a long forgotten fluted rectangular pan measuring eight inches by eleven. The shortbread dough filled the pan generously but without excess, negating any reason to steal a glance at that damn pan conversion chart.
My Hungarian shortbread experience was far from flawless, however. In the final moments, just after retrieving the hot pan from the oven, I set it down on a level, heat-proof surface. Carefully filling a fine mesh strainer with an avalanche of powdered sugar, I promptly bumped the strainer on the edge of the counter, watching in slow motion horror as the indelibly white sugar blanketed my very navy blue shirt, sweats, and sneakers.
Lately, I’ve been doughnut-ing vicariously, via phone calls from Toronto with @beerswithbrahms. Though still on lock-down, Toronto continues to boast some fine doughnut options and last Sunday, I waited to hear what @harryandheelsdonuts was offering. From afar, I contemplated their stellar line-up: buttermilk cruller sticks, cream-filled chocolate glazed and cream-filled original glazed, apple fritters, toasted coconut, maple, Hawaiian, cinnamon sugar, and sprinkle. The color photos posted on the web capture the pillowy, deep-fat fried indulgences in torturous detail. I wanted one of each.
It’s an inherited trait, my love for doughnuts. My father was keen on all varieties; yeast risen, cake-y, cream-filled and dunked in shiny chocolate, plump with jelly or buried under a blizzard of powdered sugar. My dad loved a good cider doughnut crunchy with cinnamon sugar, and a twisted cruller with pockets of vanilla glaze. Luckily, I also share my dad’s penchant for running which ultimately translates in doughnut-speak to ‘calories in, calories out.’
My gene pool is not the sole culprit of my doughnut problem. For years, my Saturday workday began with a circle of fried dough. Just beyond the screen door at Tabora Farms in Bucks County, PA proprietor and gluten-enabler Roger Eatherton religiously commandeered the doughnut machine. On Saturday mornings, Roger methodically dispensed cider doughnut batter out of a depositer into a hot pool of vegetable oil. The air swirling around Roger’s baseball cap was thick with a veil of grease and a cloud of cinnamon sugar. Despite my protestations of “coffee first,” it was impossible to refuse the fresh doughnut Roger clutched in a pair of commercial kitchen tongs. To this day, cinnamon and sugar instantly conjure a baker’s rack overfilled with dangerously hot doughnuts.
While Krispy Kreme and Tim Hortons are capable of delivering perfectly agreeable doughnuts, they tend to be a little too sweet for my liking. Admittedly, I’m pretty particular in my quest for a fine doughnut; blame it on my work environment.
Always on the hunt for bakers who turn out doughnuts that surprise, I seek fillings that complement a lofty dough, resonating with fresh, not artificial, flavor. One doughnut that haunts my dreams is the raspberry filled Voodoo Doll from Portland, Oregon’s Voodoo Doughnut. (I can also happily vouch for their bacon-maple bar and their Bavarian cream-filled-chocolate-glazed Portland Cream.) Closer to home, Camden, Maine boasts Ruckus Donuts, with yeasted offerings well worth the eight hour drive, particularly their peach-raspberry pie doughnut.
With little chance of traveling to Toronto or the Pacific Northwest or the coast of Maine this week, I was forced to take doughnut matters into my own hands. A classic brioche-like dough provided the perfect vessel for two springtime fillings; Ottolenghi’s saffron pastry cream (with an added hint of orange zest) and a rhubarb-strawberry compote. Keen on doughnut holes because their diminutive size makes them wonderfully easy to eat, I opted for a classic doughnut, using a cutter from my grandmother Minnie’s collection. The doughnuts pouff up with great abandon once they hit the hot oil, providing ample room for the fillings. Neither Roger nor my father would have approved of a doughnut rolled in cardamom sugar, but I wish they were still around to debate this over a few cups of coffee and a doughnut just out of the fryer.
Following weeks of dashed hopes, Mike-in-Produce and Mr. Sweet as Pie came through; Rhubarb and I have finally been reunited. Earlier this week, upwards of 10 pounds of the elusive pie plant sprawled across my kitchen counter, making itself comfortable while I rearranged my refrigerator in order to accommodate the spring vegetable. Where to begin? What to bake besides pie?
Leafing through old manila recipe files, I came across a number of restaurant menus from my former life in Philadelphia. Rhubarb and I reminisced about those crazy late spring/early summer days, toiling in the relentless heat with the convection ovens blazing. Unable to curtail the momentum of food memory, I found myself tumbling down the rabbit hole of the early 1980s. Rhubarb reminded me of my obsession with the Chipwich ice cream sandwich, and I reminded him of his splashy feature in The Silver Palate Good Times Cook Book, as a rhubarb crisp, in 1985. Rinsing the slender stalks under cool water before drying them on a clean gingham dish towel, I had a dizzying flashback. “Remember how the 1980s were inundated with chocolate and white chocolate? It touched everything sweet; over-sized muffins, airy mousses, cocoa dusted truffles, ridiculous cheesecakes and sublime ganache. Remember the chocolate lava cake? And how it was a topic of molten debate, with Jacques Torres and Jean-Georges Vongerichten each claiming to have invented the dish?” Rhubarb nodded as I continued.
“Even simple bar cookies, classic brownies and butterscotch blondies were given ‘80s make-overs. They were studded with every kind of chip, exotic nuts like macadamias, and chunks that fell under the blade of the mighty Chef’s knife. Brownies couldn’t escape a swirl of cream cheese or an infusion of espresso. We drowned them in dark chocolate ganache, or insipid white chocolate curls. Remember?”
Rhubarb shuddered. “Makes your teeth hurt just thinking about it, doesn’t it?”
I had to agree. White chocolate was never my go-to; its one saccharine note paling in comparison to chocolate’s multi-faceted blend of bitter and sweet. I always blamed white chocolate for my aversion to blondies, avoiding their brazen sweetness. That was until I came across Lisa Ludwinski’s recipe for Rhubarb Blondies. Plucking the recipe from the back of a notebook, I checked to see if my bakeware collection included an 8” square pan. Of course it did.
“You’re featured in this brown sugar/white chocolate bar cookie,” I casually mentioned to Rhubarb, combing through the recipe.
“You don’t say?” the pie plant ruminated.
“Shall we give it a go, despite the white chocolate?”
“Just don’t over-bake it,” Rhubarb warned . “And maybe cut back a little on the brown sugar, or bump up the salt. Whatever you do, I don’t want people getting the impression that I’m sweet. I have a reputation, you know.”
“Understood,” I assured the spring vegetable. “I’m not using any old white chocolate. I’m using caramelized white chocolate and hazelnuts.”
Rhubarb shrugged, unimpressed. “Aren’t you fancy? Just promise me one thing. If these rhubarb blondies don’t work out, promise me you won’t turn them into truffles?”
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm