Purim began at sundown last evening, the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. One of the most festive holidays on the Jewish calendar, Purim celebrates the biblical story of the Jews’ deliverance from Haman, minister to the Persian king. Queen Esther of Persia, a resilient and brave woman, along with her cousin Mordecai, foiled an evil plot, saving the Jewish people from certain doom. I know these facts not because I was paying close attention in Hebrew school, but because hamantaschen and a costume parade coincided with the lesson plan.
The tri-cornered pastries known as hamantaschen are symbolic of the hat worn by Haman. Originally, the pastries were filled with “mohn” or poppy seeds, thick jam, or nuts. The Settlement Cookbook calls yeast-risen sweets Purim Cakes or Haman Pockets. Jennie Grossinger’s The Art of Jewish Cooking offers both yeast-risen and cookie dough recipes under the heading of Hamentaschen. In Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, a recipe for beigli or kindli is included; a yeast risen cookie served at Purim, flavored with wine and filled with rum spiked poppy-seeds, raisins, and figs.
Contemporary versions of the triangular cookie have veered off course from the Hamantaschen road our grandmothers traveled. Bakers have reimagined the simple cookie, zhushing them with unicorns, rainbows, s’mores, and blizzards of sprinkles. I’ll admit old hamantaschen habits die hard; make mine mohn or jammy, please. Currently, I’m pining for the strictly-from-scratch poppy seed version crafted by @beerswithbrahms in Toronto.
Recently, I’ve learned about a totally different Purim sweet; the shikkera babka, which translates to ‘drunken grandma.’ Before you accuse me of blasphemy, let’s take a stroll through the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.
Within the pages of the food-centric encyclopedia, renowned food historian, the late Rabbi Gil Marks, explores a tipsy babka known as the shikkera babka. An un-filled yeast bread drizzled with a whiskey or rum laced syrup, the pastry closely mirrors both the French savarin and the baba au rhum. Marks goes on to suggest that the shikkera babka might have resembled the Polish babka because of its turban shape.
Fascinated by this new piece of knowledge, I turned to Mrs. Simon Kander and the ladies of the Settlement cookbook, plus Jennie, Joan, and an entire bookshelf dedicated to Jewish baking. Not a single book turned up the babka mentioned in the encyclopedia, but there were more than enough solid babka recipes for inspiration.
My tipsy babka experiment yielded an orange zested yeast bread swirled with dates and hazelnuts, lavishly doused with Cointreau. More of a commitment than a jam stuffed triangular cookie, it was well worth the whole dough megillah of resting, rising, and weaving. For the next one, I’m envisioning a swirl of poppy-seed filling and some dark chocolate.
In celebration of the cooled babka, I paraded around the kitchen with a thick slice, leaving behind a trail of hazelnuts and sticky crumbs. Though my grandmother would have opted for whiskey syrup over Cointreau, I’m fairly certain she would have approved.
We live in a world where interactive, live-streaming baking classes are taught by professional chefs and intimately hosted on Zoom. This was not always the norm. In a world long ago and far away, baking classes were an in-person experience. Students and instructors met together in a shared kitchen space. Armed with clean, white linen service towels, a notebook, and a hunger for a new skill, students observed and participated, sharing in the tactile experience.
Before 2020 interrupted our lives, teaching hands-on classes was something I managed to squeeze in whenever the opportunity presented itself. I also gravitated towards taking classes under the tutelage of instructors I admired. New skill sets are just as important as a sharp kitchen knife, a small offset spatula, and a properly calibrated oven.
Quite a few years back, 2004 to be exact, my friend Nancy and I traveled from Philadelphia to Manhattan to attend a baking class taught by the formidable Carole Walter. Diminutive in size but with a prodigious knowledge of pastry, Carole led us through an afternoon of baking that teetered on exhaustive. More of a coach than a helicopter instructor, the James Beard award winning culinary professional shared baking secrets and dispelled myths. The one thing I remember most vividly was Carole’s demonstration of “how to measure.” Armed with measuring cups and spoons, we were instructed to “fluff” our flour before measuring, spooning in the dry ingredient before painstakingly leveling off the requisite amount. Additionally, in stressing the importance of technique, Carole told us, “If you are a ‘shaker,’ a person who is accustomed to shaking the measuring cup while spooning in flour, STOP.”
Good advice for anyone without a kitchen scale.
Carole meant business and after the measuring tutorial, we dove into our prep list. In short order, we baked an array of sweets; a rich coconut cake, a very crumb-y, (but in a good way), coffee cake, brown sugar cookies, and slender chocolate biscotti. When instructed to plump the raisins for the coffeecake, Nancy, a talented baker in her own right, but more of a landscape artist, paused and whispered,“They look fine to me.” Carole was already one step ahead, stirring chocolate chips and walnuts into biscotti dough. We were woefully behind. Because my classmate had taken the place of someone else whose name remained on the class roster, Carole spent the afternoon referring to Nancy as Margie.
With cakes barely cool enough to slice and a mountain of cookies and biscotti to divvy up, we over-filled white bakery boxes and gathered up our notes. Carole had recently written a book dedicated to cookies, and our tuition entitled us to an autographed copy. As we stepped up to the stainless steel worktable, Carole looked up at Nancy wearing a name tag that said Margie. “Please make it out to Nancy,” my friend asked, and the award winning pastry chef complied with the raised eyebrow of a woman wondering if this student knew her own name. Carole added, “Good luck!” with an exclamation mark for emphasis.
“See?” I said as we headed towards Penn Station, our arms filled with cookbooks and butter stained boxes. “Carole really liked you.” Margie/Nancy shook her head.
Carole’s book, Great Cookies, sits comfortably on my kitchen bookshelf alongside her compendiums, Great Cakes and Great Pies & Tarts. A treasure trove of detailed recipes, I turn to these books not only for what to bake, but how and why. This week, armed with too many open jars of peanut butter and way too many bags of lightly salted peanuts, I leafed through Great Cookies until settling on one of my favorite Carole Walter recipes. With my baker's scale set to zero, I weighed the flour but not before giving it the slightest little “fluff.” It made me think of Nancy.
In its early days, upside down cake was a cast iron skillet cake, cooked over an open-fire. Once supported by legs, the heavy skillets were dubbed ‘spiders’ which lead to the moniker, “spider cakes.” The advent of flat-bottomed cast iron skillets opened the oven door to new possibilities.
The ingenuity of James Dole, the “Pineapple King,” coupled with the invention of the pineapple ring cutter would make the once elusive tropical fruit readily available to home bakers. In 1925, Dole Pineapple sponsored a contest for pineapple centric recipes, amassing more than 2,500 variations on the upside-down cake theme.
By the 1930s, rings of pineapple and neon maraschino cherries were making indelible memories in kitchens across America. When boxed cake mixes arrived on supermarket shelves, pineapple upside down cake became an easy to prepare ‘busy day cake.’
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s version, adapted from “The Cake Bible,” is my favorite. Pineapple sprawls across the top and also around the sides, cradling a rich yellow batter. Some might frown upon my use of Wisconsin cherries over maraschino, but either will happily compliment the caramelized brown sugar. The only enhancement might be a dollop of whipped cream.
A recent grocery run for citrus reminded me how much I love January fruit, but how much I loathe packaging. Selecting a mesh bag of Cara Cara oranges with a hole on the bottom was a surprise, but not a deterrent. Sheepishly attempting to catch the bouncing oranges in my outstretched arms, citrus circled my sneakers, highlighting the fact for every shopper within six feet. Selecting a bag of oranges tightly secured in plastic, and a three pound clamshell of Stem & Leaf Mandarins, was in my opinion, a positively Olympic maneuver. Or it would have been, had I not sideswiped a neighboring clamshell, watching in horror as six pounds of stems, leaves, and mandarins plummeted into my shopping cart. Choosing the “I like my fruit that way” high road, I made a beeline for the socially distant check out. Awash in citrus, waiting patiently on a small yellow circle, the cashier beckoned but not without a look that said, “Oh, so that was you in produce…”
Particularly in January, when citrus is plentiful, peeling an orange unleashes more than fragrance; it invites nostalgia. Oranges conjure the jarring wake-up call of a Sunbeam juicer on a sleepy morning. The tartness of Pixy-stix wrapped in orange and white striped paper straws. A bottle of Fanta or Nehi soda, with its cavity-inducing effervescence and its indelible orange tint. The sweetness of orange from a stick of Fruit Stripe gum, or the burst of sugared ascorbic acid meeting cold water, morphing into something called Tang. Enjoying a Creamsicle on a blistering summer afternoon. Perhaps the most memorable but least palatable orange memory from my youth was something called Aspergum, a medicinal Chiclet, orange-flavored chewable aspirin, administered by my mother for that January sore throat. A different kind of medicinal orange, a thimbleful of Cointreau or Grand Marnier, reminds me of a piece of furniture; my father’s mahogany bar. An imposing piece with a weighty mirror on top and a double doored cabinet below, when opened, revealed a complex fragrance of sweet and smoky spirits.
Oranges, unlike lemons, don’t often make their way into pie shells. Freshly squeezed orange juice, while bright and sweet by the glassful, often yields a lackluster pie filling. One thing to consider is squeezing more orange juice than the recipe calls for and reducing it down to the proper amount, concentrating the flavor. Another trick is to add a splash of fresh lemon juice to the orange juice, which adds a hit of brightness.
On this cold January day, with a handful of empty tart shells cooling their heels in the freezer, I opted to fill them with orange chiffon. The orange flavor is heightened with the addition of reduced orange juice, Cointreau, and plenty of orange zest. Yes, there’s gelatin involved, but just enough to hold the filling together. And for some of us, adding gelatin to a pie filling is far less dramatic than a trip to the market for citrus.
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
Two words truly capture the essence of Pie-mageddon; one is “never” and the other is “enough.” The words can be used individually, for example, “I am never going to be able to cram another pie shell in this freezer” or “Enough already!” referring to the number of pre-orders haunting my dreams. The words can also be used back-to back when discussing the number of hours in a day, the numbers of racks in an oven and the number of hands available to peel bushels and bushels of apples. This year it seemed that there was never enough apple/pumpkin/pecan in the offing to satisfy the pie hungry throngs that forgot to order in advance.
The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving are fraught with drama. Add to an already stressful holiday a global pandemic, and you’ve set the stage for some lengthy days and bleary-eyed nights. Small annoyances become monumental; sneeze-inducing masks with ear bending elastics, in-operable linen service aprons, a pair of jeans that desperately requires a belt, but you've forgotten the belt. Normal, everyday occurrences take on a sinister life of their own.
The truth is there will never be enough oven time, freezer space, fridge space, nor pie to satisfy the hunger of those who don’t bake. This year felt more unsettled than years past, especially when Thanksgiving pre-orders closed. The distinctive hint of a small uprising lurked just beyond the bakery door. Reminiscent of the angry mob waving torches and pitchforks in Beauty and the Beast, my version featured an angry mob wielding pie forks. Despite copious amounts of caffeine, there were days in November that felt as topsy turvy as a good, old fashioned Thanksgivukkuh.
Clearly, 2020 is the uninvited houseguest who doesn’t know when to leave. It is the least welcome addition to the holiday table, snagging the last slice of pie when you aren’t looking. While we wait impatiently for this crazy year to gather up its belongings and see itself out, the best we can do is fortify ourselves with a little pie, a little Zoom and an abundance of kindness.
Pumpkin pie has been on my radar since early July, when HGTV Magazine contacted me wanting some insight on pumpkin pie mishaps. Clearly they had landed in the appropriate pumpkin patch. Pumpkin pies are the neediest in the Thanksgiving pie line-up. Maybe not when you're baking at home with an oven that speaks your language and classical music pouring out of the radio. Loading convection ovens from top to bottom with dozens (and dozens) of pumpkin pies requires cajoling them into almost doneness. Knowing when to pluck them from the oven while they still jiggle is tricky. What's needed is a gentle heat that will woo the spiced custard just enough, but not too much.
Commercial ovens are equipped with feisty heating elements and fans that circulate hot air. These ovens can be both breezy and hot headed. The last thing a custard pie wants is too much hot air blowing down its crimp. If you could wrap each pie in its own cashmere pashmina for the last ten minutes, you might have a shot at even baking. Instead, the oven doors tiptoe open to reveal pies at varying degrees of readiness. Cookbooks once suggested the "clean test" knife approach, but that only leaves a chasm sprawling across the pie's surface. The cautious manipulating of the not-quite-baked-pies is a delicate dance. The more you jostle them, the more apt they are to grimace.
Pumpkin pies do not appreciate a draft or a chill, much like my first piano teacher, Mrs. Poblack, who wore a cardigan sweater regardless of the season. While I plunked out the C major scale, Mrs. Poblack fanned herself non-stop with my copy of "A Dozen a Day." You might say her fanning was as relentless as a convection oven without a fan switch. Which is what makes Thanksgiving fraught with challenges worthy of magazine copy.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm