Following an extended stay in double-thick brown paper bags, the first of the June peaches are finally fragrant, but stubborn. Opting to remove the skins requires a brief spa treatment; a dunk in simmering water followed by an icy cool down. The stone fruit slips out of its pinky-yellow fuzzies and blushes.
It’s a little too early for my favorite freestones, the Red Havens, but a roadside stand tempted with wicker baskets of peaches and half a bushel later, I’m reaching for my paring knife. There is little fanfare in the 2020 kick-off to peach pie season. Traditionally my dad’s pie of choice for Father’s Day, this year the holiday quietly slipped away. Thick wedges tumble one after the other into a deep Pyrex bowl. Mostly ripe, the fruit leaves a stream of juice running down my fingers, heading south from palm to wrist to elbow. Even before the sugar hits the bowl, the peaches are swimming against a tide of rosy syrup. Hoping to maintain a crisp blind-baked crust, the fruit takes a ‘time out’ in a colander. Reducing the splash party of juices down to a thick syrup, the fragrance is unmistakable; summer vacation.
The first peach pies of June always aligned with homework free afternoons and Red Light-Green Light after dinner. Mostly, they conjure images of a crowded dining room table and curls of charcoal briquette smoke snaking through the window screens. Peach pie played a recurring role throughout the summer, but particularly on Father’s Day. Sliced into generous wedges, the still-hot fruit could not contain itself, colliding with scoops of vanilla ice cream and blistered pie crust.
I was able to eke out three peach pies from my farm stand haul. Two were lattice- topped. One was crowned with cornmeal-flecked biscuits, a tribute to my father who devoutly believed in peach pie but also revered old-fashioned biscuit shortcake. Assuring me that both pie and shortcake make equally agreeable breakfasts, my father's legacy lives on whenever leftover dessert allows. Any pie that wakes up early and stays up late is my kind of pie. Ditto for biscuits.
Bakers, pre-heat your ovens. On Monday, June 15th at 2 pm, Bakers Against Racism launches pre-sales. The brain child of pastry chefs Paola Velez, Willa Lou Pelini, and chef Rob Rubba, the virtual worldwide bake sale has prompted the participation of thousands of bakers spanning 15 countries and upwards of 170 U.S. cities. Proceeds from the bake sale will support charities promoting racial justice. I have chosen to support the following charities:
Until Freedom, a charity working towards criminal justice reform, gun violence prevention, immigrant rights, and cultural engagement.
Facing History and Ourselves, focusing on education by encouraging students to explore the complexities of history while making connections to contemporary issues.
A few timely thoughts…
Working professionally in the food industry since college and writing about it on a weekly platform since 2013 has been a labor of love. Anyone familiar with my history knows that I often talk about my baking mentor, Jessie. Writing about Jessie is always a delicate dance because it reeks of privilege. I can only tell you that it was a privilege being raised in a family where Jewish culture and Black culture overlapped in the kitchen, resulting in a passion for cooking and baking, and ultimately impacting my career path. Jessie taught me many things other than how to bake a pie. She instilled in me the fact that food brings people together.
I have worked in all kinds of kitchens, sometimes as the sole female alongside fast- talking, four-letter-word slinging line cooks. I have been the boss and I have also been the dishwasher.
Have I been lucky? You bet. Privileged? Undoubtedly. But have I done enough with my privilege? Hardly. With more leanings towards pound cake than chest pounding, my involvement in politics spanned a single term. Serving as President of the high school French club, it was rumored that my win was tethered to the mousse au chocolat I prepared for our club dinner.
My bookshelves have always been crammed full of books authored by a variety of kitchen champions. Now more than ever, the storytellers and wordsmiths on those shelves deserve attention. Edna Lewis, Michael Twitty, James Porterfield, and Molly O’Neill have much to say about food history, transporting us to sleepy corners of America, introducing us to highly touted African American chefs and also quiet home cooks.
The reality is I will never say enough or do enough or bake enough to dramatically impact a divided world. However, in creating something that longs to be shared, I attempt to bring people together, to encourage conversation. It’s a start.
With summer plans stymied by an unprecedented state of uncertainty, most of us are grounded for the foreseeable future. Retreating to the confines of a deeply cushioned, roll arm wing chair, I remember travel. Travel boasted traffic delays and flight cancellations. Luggage carousels were part of the travel experience; not-so-merry-go-rounds of almost everyone’s American Tourister and Samsonite that successfully made the flight. We tossed around the words ‘tarmac,’ and ‘now boarding’ and ‘gate change’ with cockeyed optimism because the world was indeed, our oyster. With seatbelts tightly fastened and tray tables secure, we bemoaned the non-stop crying baby chorus on the non-stop flight. Even when it was the worst of flights, in hindsight, it was the best of times.
Currently confined to quarters with no travel on the horizon, my itinerary is limited, my favorite destination, the kitchen. I have become a step-ladder traveler, dragging a ladder from the basement, up the stairs, planting it firmly in front of the kitchen pantry. Teetering on the top rung of a supposedly “Non-slip 3 Step” feels somewhat safer than stepping out of my clogs and scaling a kitchen chair. It feels infinitely safer than boarding a plane.
My folding ladder offers a panoramic view of dry goods, canned goods, glass bottles and beveled jars. From my lofty perch, it is easy to scan the inventory, reacquainting myself with purchases lost in the shuffle of quarantine provisioning. It also affords an up close and personal view of items smuggled back from far-flung holidays. Wedged beside too many jars of peanut butter and just as many almond butters is a tiny jar of pistachio cream. The pistachio cream instantly conjures a gravity defying double scoop of gelato, eaten within view of an imposing duomo. The velvety pistachio concentrate was purchased in Siena, a jaw-dropping Tuscan hill town. It was in Siena that our merry band of travelers packed a week’s worth of sight-seeing into a single day. Access to the medieval city was dependent upon a casually reliable local bus with an elusive timetable. Winding through the Tuscan countryside, I was hell bent on visiting a bakery highly touted by the locals. Bini, known for its exquisitely rustic pastries and tempting salted almonds was a bakery nerd’s dream. I circled back to the glass-fronted display cases of the pasticceria four times in that single day, once after losing my way, and three times, intentionally.
Distracted only by Gothic-style churches, handmade leather goods, and waffle cones over-filled with gelato, our walking tour of Siena led us away from the Piazza del Campo, down a labyrinth of streets. A sliver of a grocery store jutting out from a row of residential buildings deserved a pause. A very patient man nodded while I attempted to converse in embarrassingly non-fluent Italian. Attired in an impeccably clean white jacket and slim black trousers, the merchant led me to a small wooden cabinet filled with jars. The cabinet housed specialty ingredients for both pasticceria and gelato. The shopkeeper pointed to a jar of Cremadelizia Pistacchio, closing his eyes in reverence. He paused for a moment before deliberately pointing to the ‘use by’ date. I nodded.
Too much time has lapsed between my trip to Tuscany and my current harboring at home status. Kneeling on the middle rung of the ladder, I examine the glass jar with the gold lid and pistachio green label. Squinting, the numerals on the 150 gram jar are sadly indistinguishable. Doing some quick travel math, it appears the pistachio cream train is preparing to leave the station. I bump it to the head of the baking line. Directly adjacent to the nut butters is an ongoing jam/jelly/confiture travelogue. Each jar on the pantry shelf traveled home buried in a suitcase, overwrapped in t-shirts and stray socks. Some jams were purchased at sun drenched farmers’ markets, others were recommended by locals, and a few were enjoyed over coffees, teas, and sweets. Behind the jams, a small tin of violet sugar from Provence and a bottle of rose extract, procured from a tiny shop in Florence, stand neglected. A palm-sized plastic bag offers a fistful of cardamom pods from Carlos’ House of Spice in Toronto. Remembering when a quick visit to Canada was still possible, I fold the step-ladder with regret and lug it back downstairs.
The lid of the pistachio cream is stubborn. Grasping a kitchen towel, I twist once, twice, and once again before tapping the lid with the handle of a knife. The lid pops, unleashing a buttery, nutty, purely Italian fragrance. Dipping a pinky into the smooth surface of the pistachio cream, I close my eyes. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be in Siena.
A few Mays ago, I was tasked with baking sixty cherry pies for a pop-up event in Brooklyn celebrating the return of “Twin Peaks.” A new season of the cult classic was airing exclusively on Showtime, prompting renewed enthusiasm for ‘damn fine coffee’ teamed with ‘the best cherry pie.’ The number of cherries needed to fill sixty pie shells is probably more than most people encounter in years of summer vacations. And with Memorial Day the official kick off to summer, despite my love for rhubarb, I am keeping my eyes peeled for the first cherries of the season.
Timidly stepping inside my local supermarket, mask slightly askew, glasses foggy, I am met by a towering display of scarlet cherries, astronomically priced. The fine print affixed to the cherry signage indicates a savings with my Shopper’s Card. Yes, I am a shopper and yes, I have a card, but the idea of rummaging through my wallet to access the card will require removal of my protective gloves. It seems awfully cumbersome and will clearly encourage the ire of my fellow shoppers. I walk away, distancing myself from the cherries and the couple wheeling an over-filled basket just ahead of me. Maintaining 6 feet of proper social distancing, I follow the one-way signs until I locate the end cap display of shallots and garlic, plucking the latter from a wicker basket. The well-worn industrial flooring is decorated with footprints guiding me towards the check-out. With the proper disco accompaniment, the footprints could serve as a tutorial for learning the Hustle. Clutching my lonely head of garlic, sneakers planted firmly on my designated square of carpet, I wait impatiently in a holding pattern, unable to move forward until Check-Out Traffic Controllers deem it permissible. It reminds me of hovering above Newark Airport on Friday evenings around 5 pm, pre-March 2020, when people still traveled.
The longer I wait in the one-couple-ahead-of-me-line, the weaker my cherry resolve. Though the idea of a freshly baked cherry pie tempts, I can’t bring myself to sign on to the cherry pitting commitment. Transferring the garlicky cloves from right hand to left, I consider my options. “Maybe I’ll buy a handful of cherries, just for eating. No commitment.” Too far away from the magazine rack to catch up on the latest Kardashian news, and too damn close to the cherries, the cherries win. It is anyone’s guess how many cherries are lurking in the cello bag clutched in my fist, but it is unthinkable of traversing the produce section, going the wrong way down a one-way aisle in search of a produce scale. Even with a shopper’s card, it is doubtful there will be much of a savings. But this purchase feels almost necessary, a small luxury highlighting the upcoming holiday weekend that doesn’t feel like a holiday.
Distracted by the cover of Us Magazine, the price of the cherries goes unnoticed. “Shopper’s Card?” the cashier asks politely. Barely grazing the scanner with my credit card and gathering up the lonely head of garlic with one gloved hand and the extravagant cherries with the other, I shake my head. “Have a good weekend,” the cashier adds, more as a suggestion than an ultimatum. I nod half-heartedly. Trying to squeeze into a Memorial Day state of mind this year is akin to squeezing your feet into your favorite pair of socks; the ones that were washed in hot water then tumbled dry on high heat. As May ebbs into June, the kick off to summer via a 3-day weekend just doesn’t seem to fit.
My pop culture correspondent in Queens informs me that many of the bars and restaurants in her eclectic neighborhood are offering cocktail delivery service and restaurant cocktail kits. In between Zoom conference calls and episodes of a Netflix binge-a-thon, you can stir things up in your favorite bar glass. I’m intrigued by this idea, imagining a perfectly crafted libation garnished with a festive swath of citrus and a pesticide-free edible flower.
The reality of my ready-to-drink cocktail is this; in the midst of several conflicting culinary projects something clicks in my brain signaling, hey! I’m ready-to-drink a cocktail! Grabbing a kitchen towel and wiping the butter off my fingers, I procure a glass from a cabinet over-filled with stemware, pilsners, and tumblers. Without a definitive cocktail destination in mind, I wander towards the freezer. The on again/off again ice maker only knows extremes, catapulting frozen cubes at a ferocious pace or shutting down completely. This hardly automatic ice cuber is a fickle creature, never showing its hand until you commit to opening the freezer door. Silence means you’ve stumbled upon ice cube organizers in the midst of a work stoppage. A frantic kerplunk/crash/kerplunk means the ice bin is dangerously full and projectile cubes will soon blanket the floor. The ice cubes I covet are oversized, crafted in small batches in rubberized trays that don’t quite fit our freezer. Dropping one of those hefty cubes into a glass miraculously transports me from a floury kitchen to a dimly lit bar. It’s the kind of bar where the bar stools are slightly off kilter yet perfectly comfortable and the bartender fills the cocktail shaker with exactly what you need. The perfect combination of angtsy-yet-hopeful jazz plays softly in the background.
When I'm the one actually crafting the craft cocktail, it is a wage of wills between bartender, ice cubes, spirits, and citrus. I find myself battling with one of those oversized ice cubes, trying to wedge it into a glass that is better suited to average-sized ice. By the time the cocktail glass is adjusted to accommodate the ice, the oversized cube is looking less romantic, more run-of-the-mill. As the ice melts, so do my dreams of freshly squeezed juices and perfectly chilled simple syrup.
Peering into the refrigerator, I am momentarily sidetracked by an almost empty jar of expensive Italian maraschino cherries in heavy syrup. “Someone should replace these,” I mention to no one in particular, scooping one out with my impeccably clean fingers. Leaving a trail of maraschino syrup between the fridge and the kitchen counter, a container of rhubarb compote taunts, prompting inspiration. A lackluster assortment of citrus, most having been zested within an inch of their lives, are looking more Loehmanns than Saks. A sprightly naval orange has survived unscathed and teamed with the rhubarb, might prove promising.
The cocktail that is spinning around in my head is from one of those off-the-beaten-path bars in a town with a name I can’t pronounce. A small, dusty chalkboard hangs alongside the bar, announcing the daily specials. I vividly remember a chubby glass filled with vermouth and orange and something about rhubarb. The memory of the drink doesn’t provide a recipe, just a mindset. Pitching the ice cube in a rapid state of decline towards the sink, I replenish my glass with a new behemoth cube. Eyeballing what seems like the correct amount of rhubarb syrup followed by a fruit cocktail’s worth of orange, I’m encouraged. A double dash of rhubarb bitters from a paper-wrapped bottle generally reserved for baking seems appropriate. Reaching for a tall bottle of Lillet Blanc, my mood is far less dark and stormy. Unfettered by a closing time and feeling downright punchy, I nearly take a header on a renegade ice cube.
Maybe I should have washed my mask in cold water; it’s a little snug, fitting more like a Barbie sweater and less like protective gear. I’ve been gifted a number of fashion forward Corona wear, but every time I slip the elastic straps over my ears, my face tightens. The words that come out of my mouth sound stilted, much like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, before Dorothy fetches his oil can. Masks tend to fog up your glasses and tickle your nose, making it both hazardous and sneeze inducing to navigate the outside world. It’s nearly impossible to see where the sidewalk ends and the front step begins and I feel myself stumbling, instinctively putting my hands out to save myself from I don’t know what. The combination of absurdity and desperation and ill-fitting disposable gloves makes me laugh and cry. I long to pick up the phone and call my mother who would have helped me find some humor in all of this insanity. Had Rommy been here to witness Covid-19, she would have filled her quarantine days Norma Rae-ing through remnants of Laura Ashley floral and jacquard, sewing up a storm of colorfast masks.
The masks would have been meticulously executed, probably reversible, a curious but agreeable fashion accessory. I envision the masks edged in cheerful rickrack promoting cautious optimism. For a select few, Rommy would have fitted her imposing sewing machine with a special needle attachment, monogramming the lower right hand corner of the mask with our initials. There would have been a sensible pocket (with room for a filter) and a little quilt bunting to cushion the form fitting nose wire. In some cases, bits of coordinating fabric would have been pieced together in order to craft a matching headscarf, or an oven mitt. Rommy would have known instinctively what I needed in the midst of this crisis and would have supplied the appropriate gear. A variety of headscarves would have distracted from my desperately needed haircut. The perky oven mitt would have been helpful in protecting one hand from a scalding pie drip.
A glutton for punishment, I fuel my pandemic anxiety with a daily dose of Governor Cuomo’s riveting and unsettling news. Drawing me close to the screen daring me to watch, I’m haunted with too much information, visually sucked in by blue charts punctuated in yellow. Coupled with my housemate’s recitation of medical statistics and Times Square updates, I find myself constantly eyeing the kitchen clock, wondering if it’s approaching five pm; if not here, somewhere.
The funny/not so funny thing about quarantine is despite having all the time in the world, I continue to procrasti-bake. A half-hearted attempt at basement organization unearths an assortment of kitchenware. A pullman loaf pan from a restaurant kitchen sparks an afternoon of whole wheat bread baking. A 7” springform that cradled Oreo cheesecakes in the 1980s, prompts an exhaustive search of crumb cake recipes. Ignoring the mountain of papers snaking across my desk, I open the refrigerator and reach for a stick of butter.
Beyond the kitchen, the dining room window frames a solitary pink dogwood, a harbinger of Mother’s Day. The wall clock ticks off the minutes a little too loudly, punctuating the surreal passage of time. Feeling nothing like a holiday weekend and more like an incessant episode of the Twilight Zone, the clock hands indicate 5 o’clock. With the temperature unseasonably warm, a tall glass emblazoned with the brand Peroni, seems appropriate. “A shot and a beer,” Rommy liked to say when sipping an occasional beer, clearly conjuring boilermakers and sky blue afternoons spent cheering the Brooklyn Dodgers. Setting down my glass with a distinctive smudge of butter across the front, I can hear my mother’s laugh.
What begins as a classic love story ends with a broken heart. Baker meets Vegetable. Baker falls head over pie plate with Vegetable. Vegetable refuses to commit and leaves town at the end of the season. Baker mends her broken heart by cramming bulging Ziploc bags of rhubarb into every vacant freezer nook.
Last year around this time, Rhubarb and I had a falling out. There was plenty of blame to share in our volatile relationship. When he callously called me needy, I swung back with the word unreliable. Rhubarb complained that my expectations for a vegetable were unreasonable. I reminded him that every time he was a no show, I was left explaining his absence to a freezer stacked high with eager pie shells.
Uttering the word ‘spring’ felt hollow until the first case of pie plant had crossed the bakery’s slightly unhinged screen door. Rhubarb didn’t understand.
A baker of habit, now that Mar’pril has segued into May, I cannot face these uncertain times without a hint of certainty. Unable to identify the day of the week, I can still identify the season. This is the season for rain-splashed sidewalks, sneeze inducing blooms, and crimson rhubarb.
A stalker of stalks, I’ve burned through two cases of the pinky-green vegetable in the last two weeks. Methodically chopping, keeping an eager eye out for any toxic leaves, the repetitive practice feels therapeutic. My cutting board crime scene refuses to surrender to a fresh sponge and extreme suds-ing. Standing in the midst of a season unlike any we have known, the simple act of pairing rhubarb with freckled strawberries and tucking them into a pie plate feels the tiniest bit hopeful.
Rhubarb will always be my James Dean of a vegetable; my iconic spring pie essential, swinging through the kitchen on his own terms, sassy and demanding, trying my patience with his mercurial availability. I will continue to hunt him down, fully aware that our time together is fleeting.
Boldly using a kitchen towel to navigate a tired sheet pan, a strawberry rhubarb pie overwhelms the room with its intoxicating sweet tang. The pie is dangerously hot, extroverted juices bubbling through a haphazard lattice. Brazenly poking a pinky finger into the syrup, the heat deters but doesn’t stop me. Burning my lip, the taste is unmistakable; cautious optimism.
The calendar indicates I have arrived at Week 5 of Baking In Place. My circumstances are infinitely better than many, and to say I am grateful is an understatement. Good health clearly transcends everything but I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the one thing that makes me giddy on a daily basis. The fact that I am not responsible for the home schooling of Master Master and Blondilocks is comparable to winning the golden ticket of parenting. Thanks kids, for being fine, well educated grown-ups.
Sequestered from the rest of the world provides more than enough time and inclination for combing through the daily newspaper. I divide it into sections; Dire are the pages emblazoned with graphs, numerical charts, and bold headlines that fuel my anxiety. Delusional are the articles related to home projects that are crafty/organizational/Zen. Lacking the enthusiasm to sort through a laundry basket of mismatched socks, it’s doubtful I’ll find joy in alphabetizing my pantry. Crossword is more of an event, not a section, but highly coveted and worthy of its own category. The Arts section leaves me despondent yet hopeful and it’s what I read before bringing it all home with Miscellaneous Sorrow which I only turn to if we’re not running low on Kleenex. A daily reminder of my good fortune is humbling.
We’re flush on one item in particular, the one that insists on staring me down every time I open the refrigerator. A 2 lb. bag of Red Star Rapid Rise yeast bought pre-pandemic wants to come out and play. Based on the outcry captured in every food section of every newspaper across the country, bread bakers are bemoaning their inability to access supplies, and rightly so. Flour stalking and panic buying of yeast has left market shelves empty and on-line sources exhausted. Traipsing across the kitchen in a pair of mismatched socks (I have another pair just like them) I consider my bread baking options. Admittedly, that 2 lb. bag of yeast gives me pause. I’m feeling a little bit guilty about my bonanza of Rapid Rise and the assortment of flour rarin’ to go in my un-alphabetized pantry.
In the days before bread was an art form, I relied on the calm instruction found in James Beard’s Beard on Bread and Bernard Clayton Jr.’s The Complete Book of Breads. Bread baking was relaxing and I don’t recall giving any of my breads a first name. Today everything is dramatically different. Breads have become not only kneady, but needy.
Like children, it’s impossible to choose one type of bread over another. Loving them equally is dangerous in the throes of a pandemic. Making a deal with oneself to wear pants with a zipper and a button is a little like making a deal with the devil. I don’t want my waistband to expand like a bowl of freshly risen bread dough covered in cling film. I’m determined to exit this pandemic looking reasonably like me and less like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Woman.
Now that every day is Sunday, (or is it Friday?) weekend bakes are tempting. I have babka-ed and brioched, sticky-bunned and crumb caked, but today these options feel excessive. Might this be a result of too many cast-iron skillet cheesy pan pizzas? Perhaps, but how many is considered too many? I would be both surprised and horrified if I tallied them all.
Turning to an old reliable recipe for challah, it is the eggy, yeast bread that happily crosses the line between sweet and savory, breakfast and lunch, dinner and dessert. Challah bread is comforting, like a grandmother’s lipstick-ed kiss on your cheek. Reminding myself to check for pouffy as opposed to over-proofy, challah dough affords me all the crafty I need. Weaving an imperfect circular loaf bakes up into a multi-purpose bread. We greedily consume it by the slice until I stumble across Claire Ptak’s recipe for Strawberry Brioche Bread Pudding and put the brakes on. A handful of strawberries and rhubarb fill out the ensemble. At this performance however, the role of Brioche will be played by Challah. Waiting for the thirsty bread to drink in the orange scented custard, I pre-heat the oven and wonder where I left today’s crossword puzzle.
The first week of the farm share box was met with great anticipation. I was new to staying at home and unpacking a corrugated surprise package of local produce was downright riveting. When the second share arrived, I folded back the flaps with a little less enthusiasm. The box revealed a bounty of curly leaf lettuce, an assertive bunch of scallions, and enough parsley to last nearly a lifetime. There were plenty of spunky radishes and fistfuls of Popeye-approved spinach. Toward the bottom, some roly-poly onions collided head-on with a sizable purple cabbage and one stray carrot. Feeling curmudgeonly grateful, I was disappointed. Conspicuous in its absence, I had hoped to find a handful of early rhubarb, just itching to find the nearest pie plate.
As April unfurls, I’m hearing a universal sentiment voiced amongst my pie pals. Now that the novelty of sheltering in place has become curiously ordinary, we’ve hit a stay-at-home wall. We struggle to play nice with housemates who are perfectly agreeable folks under other circumstances. We are challenged by what is (and isn’t) in the refrigerator. Unidentified freezer burn Ziploc bags provide a common source of irritation. Personally, I’m growing weary of getting clunked on the head from free-falling cans of tuna fish. Those near-miss concussions are probably there to knock some sense into me, reminding me things could be far worse.
My parents and grandparents had a fondness for reminding me all too often, “When you have your health, you have everything.” I don’t recall paying much attention to their mantra, preferring to coast through childhood and adolescence in a bubble of smarty-pants ignorance. Plagues were a thing of the past, depicted in biblical films starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. Spanish influenza took its toll on characters stuck in serial costume dramas, aired on our local PBS channel. Face masks and gloves were reserved for John Wayne movies and the Wild, Wild, West; not for leaving the house.
Attempting to choreograph a farm share’s worth of produce into the confines of a refrigerator takes time and patience. I have plenty of the former and not enough of the latter. It also brings me up close and personal with the ‘use by’ dates flaunted across perishables. This provides a not-so-subtle reminder that I am standing smack dab in the week that was supposed to be different. My calendar earmarks this week as one slated for travel and featuring far more cake than pie. It was a week dedicated to special birthdays and happily-ever-afters. My baking mise en place called for enough butter, sugar, flour, and eggs to yield a multi-tiered, multi-flavored confection. One cake was all about chocolate and one cake was for lovers of almond. And still another cake was slated for drifts of coconut, room for candles and the accompaniment of off-key singers. Although I dedicated a great deal of attention to the mathematics of large scale baking, I forgot to factor something into the equation. I forgot to consult with Life.
Life is the thing that sometimes gives you lemons that can easily, albeit begrudgingly, be squeezed into lemonade. Clearly, Life wasn’t listening when I casually asked for a few dozen lemons, just enough to yield a generous recipe of lemon curd. Life had other plans, gathering far too much citrus for a tall glass, or a wide-mouthed pitcher of lemonade. Instead, Life provided a tidal wave of lemons, more than enough to derail all plans.
With nothing but white space and a few Zoom cocktail hours on my calendar, I have plenty of time to circle the kitchen. The occasional crunch underfoot requires a casual sweep or a little vacuuming, or both. This feeble attempt at tidying is less about housekeeping and all about distraction. The stand mixer and paddle attachment offer a constant source of diversion, but today I’m fixated on the ruckus in the fridge. The warped crisper drawer is over-filled, refusing to close. My patience with one particular vegetable is wearing thin. “Someone oughta make a slaw outta you!” I scold the bulbous head of cabbage. The cabbage is nonplussed. Not feeling the slaw love at the moment, the multi-layered vegetable seems better suited to a vibrant soup. Tightening my grip on the cabbage, I do more damage to the off-kilter drawer. Setting the cabbage on the counter and eyeing him critically, I put the soup on hold. Crafty feels more appropriate right now as I strive to regain my footing. Having the rug pulled out from under your yet-to-be-worn-sensibly-heeled dance shoes alters your perspective. It certainly gives you a new and cautious appreciation for lemons.
Passover has a way of announcing itself, with the same showiness that forsythia and magnolia bring to the April landscape. Most years, supermarkets are decked out in extensive Seder provisions. Unwieldy cases of matzoh, too big for a shopping cart and impossible to tuck under your arm commandeer end cap displays. Canisters of macaroons in curious flavors jostle each other for shelf space. Slim blue boxes of matzoh ball soup mix squeeze in alongside jars of gefilte fish. This year, I climbed a step ladder to get a clear look at what was hiding on the top shelf of my pantry. Behind the oversized box of kosher salt, I uncovered a wealth of Passover fixings. Some of them were recent purchases, others less so. A fresh box of Streit’s matzoh meal and an unopened box of matzoh from 2019 seemed perfectly harmless. Two partial bags of coconut, one from Baker’s, the other from Bob’s Red Mill, would have to satisfy any macaroon hankerings. Accustomed to baking 1,000 macaroons in a commercial kitchen, I liked the idea of baking a mere dozen. This pantry windfall proved fortuitous because in our current climate, the supermarket is to be avoided like the plague.
My father’s delivery of the Passover story was succinct, a result of the endless, boring Seders he endured as a child. It was also an abbreviated version of the detailed Haggadah because he believed hot food should be served hot. “Why are we gathered here this evening?” he asked, glancing around the table at the expectant and hungry faces. “We are here to remember, to retell a story that was told by my father, and my father’s father, and so forth… for generations. It is the retelling of a story that celebrates freedom from oppression.”
At the conclusion of the four questions, my father set down the Haggadah and reemphasized that Passover was, in a nutshell, all about family and the passing on of traditions from one generation to the next. He also made it very clear that although the Haggadah allowed reclining, he did not allow elbows on the table.
Passover 2020 tells a slightly different story, one that will be told to future generations, about a time when faced with truly dire circumstances, we were forced to hunker down at home. The irony of this Passover is that for the first time in eons, I had nothing but time to prepare a Seder. What made this night different from all other Passover nights was that the table required only two place settings and room for a laptop computer.
Second only to Thanksgiving, Passover was the holiday that always required adding all of the extensions to the dining room table, plus a table that inched its way into the living room. The menu was traditionally staid, virtually unchanged year after year, and greeted with joyful expectation. It was an elaborate meal of many courses, all prepared with great care by three women; my grandmother, my mother, and Jessie.
The sounds of Passover in the making were predictable and comforting. What I remember most distinctly was the repetitive spinning of the Sunbeam mixer, beating what looked like dozens of eggs and extra-fine sugar into a gossamer sponge cake. We weren’t allowed to jump or slam a door because there was a sponge cake in the oven. When the sponge cake had risen dramatically over the top of the tube pan and was cooling on a rack, the oven was cranked up to high to accommodate an over-sized, matzoh-stuffed bird. The door of the oven creaked incessantly when it was opened and closed, the oven racks groaning under the weight of the roasting pan. On top of the stove, a cavernous pot of chicken soup simmered, sparking debate over matzoh balls, dense (my father’s preference) or light (my mother’s preference). There was never enough room in the refrigerator for the tub of chicken soup, necessitating a constant reconfiguration of dairy and produce. The fragrance of Passover was distinctive, teetering on aggressive. Sautéed onions and celery wafted through the kitchen door, snaking down hallways, climbing stairs. Homemade gefilte fish was an enormous undertaking, requiring mountains of finely grated onions and freshly grated horseradish. Depending upon where you stood in the kitchen, your eyes streamed or your nostrils flared, or your throat tickled, or all three. It was glorious, all of it; the chatter, the cooking, the elbow-to-elbow togetherness.
Beyond the kitchen you could hear the clatter of the ‘good’ dishes and the jangle of sterling silver muffled against a freshly pressed tablecloth. The pristine damask never stood a chance against the menu. Classic charoset piled high in my grandmother’s cut-glass bowl couldn’t contain itself. Toppling off squares of matzoh, it left an indelible trail of cinnamon-spiced apples, walnuts, and Welch’s concord grape juice at each place setting. As the meal continued, there was the inevitable glass of wine or grape juice mishap, made worse by trying to abate the flood with a monogrammed napkin.
Passover occasionally fell on my dad’s birthday, necessitating a menu change. The sponge cake was replaced by a Kiss Torte, a behemoth meringue baked in an ancient springform pan. The Kiss Torte required hours of oven time, first at a low heat, (what my grandmother referred to as a ‘slow’ oven) then with the oven turned off to set the meringue. Split and filled with whipped cream, strawberries, and bananas, it was the most dramatic and eagerly anticipated part of the meal.
One of the great joys of the flourless holiday took place days after the Seder leftovers were exhausted. Filling the West-Bend electric fryer with Crisco and hoisting a heavy cast iron skillet from beneath the oven, Jessie orchestrated our favorite meal. Creating an assembly line of dishes in graduated sizes, Jessie filled one with matzoh cake flour and spices, one with beaten eggs, and one with seasoned matzoh meal. Systematically dredging pieces of chicken in eggs and matzoh, most of the chicken fit comfortably in the electric fryer. The overflow monopolized the cast iron skillet, rhythmically percolating in oil. Jessie was very particular about not crowding the chicken, giving it plenty of time to cook thoroughly, which felt like an eternity. Transferring the first few pieces to a Farberware pan lined with paper towels drew us into the kitchen like a magnet. Hoping the smallest pieces would go unnoticed, we tried to sneak off with a wing or a second joint, but Jessie saw everything. Advising us to set the table and stop ‘fussin’ with the chicken, we retreated.
Passover 2020 will forever be remembered as the year technology allowed us to gather together, yet separately. In keeping with tradition, I set the table with dishes and silver worthy of a holiday, and spilled the requisite amount of charoset on the tablecloth. Squinting to see the faces assembled across the computer screen, it almost sounded like Passover, save for the absent clatter of knives and forks and soup spoons. No one was eager to tear up the living room hunting for the Afikomen and for the first time in ages, not a single wine glass was accidentally broken. As surreal as it was on many levels, there was one aspect of the holiday that my parents would have loved; none of the Seder-goers had to drive home in the dark, because everyone was already home.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm