The solemnity of Memorial Day tends to get overlooked in our enthusiasm for summer. This weekend it’s all about barbeques and sunscreen, oversized sunglasses and getting out of town. If you live in the Garden State and you’re lucky, chances are quite favorable that you will be spending Memorial Day weekend ‘down the shore.’ This translates to braving bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Garden State Parkway. Your dream is to secure a beach towel’s worth of sand in an overcrowded seaside town. Both bay and ocean will be in the offing, plus plenty of mini golf and frozen custard. Further south, Maryland-ers will be spending their weekend ‘down the ocean’ plying themselves with crab claws dredged in Old Bay seasoning.
My weekend will be spent at a bakers’ bench crouched over pie shells. I will take some time away from the bench, heading ‘down the bakery basement’ to gather flats of fresh berries from a low-ceilinged walk-in. Before ascending the wooden stairs, I’ll grab a few aluminum pie plates for good measure. Memorial Day weekend reminds us to unearth our white shoes from the depths of our closet but more importantly, it's the kickoff to summer pie season.
There is something enormously satisfying about witnessing the shift in season from spring to summer. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the bakery’s walk-in refrigerator. Wooden crates of Pink Lady apples continue to take up valuable real estate and Washington State pears still refuse to ripen. This weekend however, there’s a dramatic shift in color palate. We’ve reached the glorious time of year when it’s all about the berries and the ‘barb. Metro shelving is stacked dangerously high with scarlet fruit and clamshells of purple. Every time you enter the walk-in, it’s impossible to mistake the season. Sure, I’m still tripping over cases of oat milk, whacking my elbow on milk crates, but for the most part, the walk-in feels colorized, less black and white.
Summer pie-ing is risky business, the bounty of fruit totally dependent upon the weather. I am reminded that local strawberries and fragile raspberries are victims of both excessive heat and pelting rain. Behind every six cups of berries tumbling into a pie shell are the hands that transferred those berries from field to consumer. That’s pretty humbling. I hope I don’t screw it up.
In late spring and early summer, pie plate real estate is a highly sought-after commodity. When a relentless winter finally gets its walking papers, we look away from lopsided mesh bags of citrus and focus on the first stalks of rhubarb, aka pie plant. Berries follow pie plant in hot pursuit, and our initial reaction leads us to the dream pairing of strawberries and rhubarb. How did blueberries elbow their way into the rhubarb party?
College freshman dorm assignments are most often random, with roommates becoming fast friends or seen running to the Dean of Housing demanding a single. Based on their appearance, it’s hard to imagine blueberries and rhubarb borrowing clothing, sharing a mini fridge or opting for matching twin bed comforters. Blueberries and rhubarb tend to travel in different circles, the former more comfortable with fruit, the latter seeking out vegetables. Yet, the berry and the pie plant, the fruit and the vegetable are more than happy to share a pie plate.
My earliest introduction to the term ‘Bluebarb” was on page 279 of the Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook, a comprehensive tome originally published in 1959. Bluebarb was not listed amidst the pie recipes but instead was sequestered in the depths of Chapter 10, entitled, ‘Relish Sampler.’ The opening paragraph states, “Relishes do for meat and poultry, what strawberries do for shortcake, fudge frostings for cake.” Bluebarb followed obediently behind Spiced Apple Glacé, Blushing Peaches, and Refrigerator Spiced Prunes. The recipe for spiced prunes should have propelled this baker far and away from Chapter 10, but persevering proved fruitful. Quick-cook Jellies and Jams boast a number of offerings including a concise recipe for Bluebarb Jam. Composed of 3 cups finely cut rhubarb and 3 cups unsweetened, frozen blueberries, the recipe adds a mere 7 cups of sugar and 1 bottle of liquid fruit pectin to the mix. My teeth hurt just thinking about it. Today, Bluebarb has evolved into a popular pie filling with a happily balanced co-mingling of sweet and tart. Thankfully, the sugar component has been toned down considerably.
There are many variations on the Bluebarb theme, some recipes relying on sugar, others turning to honey. The top crust can be lattice-y or crumbly, and I’ve eaten this pie for both breakfast and dessert. I can’t say the same for Refrigerator Spiced Prunes, which are probably better off living in Senior Housing, where dinner is served promptly at 4:30, followed by a rousing game of Bingo.
On December 31st, King Arthur unveiled their Recipe of the Year. A yellow layer cake generously iced in swirls of chocolate frosting, the cake taunted from my phone screen. Every time I clicked on King Arthur’s site, there was that cake, begging me to bake it. I’ve always been more of a chocolate cake girl, but I do have a deep appreciation for a well-baked yellow cake. Yellow cake and I go all the way back to my pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey days.
Some yellow cake recipes swear by whole eggs and cake flour. Others insist on separating yolks from whites, taking care not to beat the whites into a frenzy. My preferred recipe beats way too many egg yolks into a thick, cholesterol-laden batter. Yet something about King Arthur and his band of merry bakers has been haunting my dreams, taunting me at work, interrupting my pie schemes. After five long months, I finally quit cake stalking and got serious.
Walking past the kitchen cabinet, I noticed the freshly opened box of Trader Joe’s graham crackers raising an eyebrow in my direction.
“Still rhapsodizing over that King Arthur Recipe-of-the-Year-Cake?” it sneered. “It’s only been five months, but who’s counting.”
“Watch it graham crackers, or I’ll make a pie crust outta you…” I replied.
The final push came from a subliminal message sent from the bottom of my yellow-lidded Tupperware flour canister. Exhausting the last fumes of King Arthur all-purpose flour, it seemed to say, buy more flour so you can finally bake that damn cake. Who am I to argue with an empty flour canister and a box of wise-acre graham crackers?
I thought about yellow cake enroute to the less than super market, and all the way home. Moving the oven rack from bottom to middle shelf, off-key choruses of Happy Birthday echoed in my head. Without a birthday on the calendar to celebrate, it seemed perfectly reasonable to bake a quintessential celebratory cake. Deciding to drop the King’s title, I returned to Arthur’s website for cake pan directives. The pans needed to please Arthur and his baking team are not springforms and are not 9” x 1½” pans, but are deep-sided 8” pans. The very pans I purchased in 1990-something because a recipe in a now-defunct baking magazine told me were critical to my baking success.
Ten years in the restaurant business acquaints you with more cake pans than you will need in a lifetime. Yet when you are desperately seeking just the right pair of cake pans, they prove elusive. Odds are good that I own a pair of 8” cake pans with a depth of at least two inches. Buried somewhere in the labyrinth of the garage is an unopened cardboard box with the two pans I need.
Wading through boxes, a very tall box scrawled in black Sharpie announces, ‘wedding cake pans and more.’ There were enough cake pans in that cavernous box to outfit every single season of the Great British Bake-Off. Wrapped in an antiquated edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, I found what I was looking for.
Cracking four large eggs into a mixing bowl, I relived my yellow cake childhood. Yellow cake provided the candle-blowing centerpiece at most birthday parties. Sometimes it was merely a vessel for a despondent Barbie, waist deep in cake crumbs, drowning in a sea of blue and white buttercream ruffles. Often it was baked in a 9” x 13” rectangular pan, covered with frosting that was generous on the top but a little skimpy by the time it turned the corners. Yellow cake cupcakes were toted to school on your birthday to share with the entire class. They traveled in a cardboard box void of cupcake dividers. If any of our classmates were allergic to anything, we didn’t know about it. Had you asked our mothers for an exhaustive list of cupcake ingredients, they probably would have said, “It’s a cupcake made with what cupcakes need to be a cupcake."
The King Arthur folks promised a recipe that would cater to our nostalgic cake hankerings. Slightly skeptical at the addition of oil and the use of all-purpose flour and not cake flour, I followed the recipe to the letter, even the addition of almond extract. I divided the golden batter between the two serious cake pans, set two oven timers, and hovered by the oven to keep a close eye on things.
The cake baked up as promised; moist and tender and reminiscent of all things celebratory. The frosting was dark chocolate-y, swirly in all the right places. It tasted the way I remembered a happy cake to taste and was so well deserving of its title. With a weekend of pie shells staring me down, I can finally cross the Recipe of the Year off my ‘To Bake’ list and move it over to the 'Bake Again and Again' list.
The pairing of strawberry with rhubarb appeals to those of us who are predisposed to tart over sweet. Both my mother and my grandmother spoke of rhubarb in reverential tones. In the spring, my mother would combine equal parts sweet fruit with tart vegetable, tossing the duo with a generous sprinkling of Domino sugar, grated orange rind, and the juice of one orange. The mixture simmered quietly in a deep-sided Farberware saucepan, just until the rhubarb became tender. My mother tasted it, closing her eyes for emphasis, dramatically puckering her lips, before transferring the compote to a wide mouthed blue mason jar. We devoured it by the spoonful for breakfast and occasionally spooned it over vanilla ice cream for dessert. The alchemy responsible for turning pinky green stalks and freckled berries into the flavor of spring was extraordinary. Unfortunately, strawberry rhubarb pie seldom made it into Jessie’s pie repertoire because she dismissed rhubarb as an overzealous weed. My father deemed rhubarb too tart, even when teamed with strawberries. Jessie kept the dessert peace by tucking strawberries between baking powder biscuits or sponge cake for my father, slathering everything with freshly whipped cream. She stewed rhubarb with strawberries for those of us who celebrated the arrival of rhubarb season and bemoaned its finale.
In the spring of 1980, I was living my very grown-up life in a very tiny apartment in New York City. Jessie had armed me with a hand–held electric mixer, a Hamilton Beach electric frying pan, and an assortment of bakeware. The kitchen was diminutive, boasting an under counter refrigerator and a Barbie-sized black and white stove. Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts followed me up the stairs of my 3-story walk-up, a book I had pored over for weeks in the local bookstore before finally making the extravagant purchase. Page 152 offered a detailed tutorial in the baking of Individual Deep-Dish Strawberry Rhubarb Pies. That recipe alone warranted the book’s lofty price tag. When the produce guy adjacent to the Port Authority set out bunches of rhubarb next to lopsided baskets of strawberries, I was all in.
Maida’s approach to the saucy fruit was to eliminate the bottom crust, which she assured me would be soggy. I listened to Maida, in the same way I listened to Jessie. Maida explicitly said I would need six ovenproof bowls, each with a 10-ounce capacity. My woefully warped kitchen cabinet held individual Pyrex custard cups and one 6” Pyrex glass pie plate. Pouring water from a Pyrex glass measuring cup in all of the dishes, I tried to figure out if collectively my bakeware would accommodate the recipe.
My ingredients gathered on the sole countertop available, an old bow-legged kitchen table that Jessie had relinquished after many years of service. The floor beneath the kitchen table was drenched from my comparative pan size analysis. The kitchen table was covered in little tufts of flour, remnants of piecrust fixings. I filled the pie plate and the glass baking cups with spoonfuls of orange-spiked berries and ‘barb, blanketing them with misshapen rounds of dough. Lining up the custard cups and the pie plate, it became evident that my oven was too small to accommodate a full sized baking sheet. Maida wanted me to place the pies on a jelly-roll pan. She was emphatic that the pan had sides. My jelly-roll pan had the requisite sides but would not fit in the oven. Placing the pie plate, flanked by two custard cups, on the top shelf, and the remaining custard cups on the bottom shelf, I closed the oven door and set the timer. I winced at the jelly-roll pan sitting on the kitchen table.
Maida assured me that after 30 minutes the tops of the pies would be nicely colored. She also told me the filling should bubble and might even bubble over. That sounded about right if you followed Maida’s instructions, but I knew thirty minutes in a custard cup was an eternity.
The unmistakable fragrance of rhubarb and strawberries wafting through the apartment lured me into a false sense of security. Maida Heatter, who had guided me flawlessly through the Queen Mother Cake and the Robert Redford Chocolate Cake wouldn’t let me down. When Maida promised on page 113 that her recipe for Lemon Cake was the Best Damn Lemon Cake, indeed it was. When Maida assured me that my strawberry rhubarb pies would not suffer soggy bottomed crusts, I listened. After 15 minutes, the glorious fragrance of spring had left the building, followed by the unpleasant smell of burning fruit.
It wasn’t Maida’s fault. She had held my hand through the entire recipe, guided me through each step with the patience and kindness of a doting grandmother. I looked at the book cover and there was Maida, hair perfectly coiffed, smiling that smile that told me everything was going to be wonderful. After scrubbing the runaway fruit and singed piecrust from the bottom of the oven and between the racks, eventually it was.
The last of the macaroons have finally left the building, leaving the screen door wide open for rhubarb. I’ve been staring down the pie plant train tracks for weeks now, and much like the 4:57 enroute to Penn Station, New York, the rhubarb train is nowhere in sight.
Stalks were rumored to be hiding out in the produce aisle of Whole Foods last weekend, but I found that to be blatantly untrue. Despite confirmation from Mike-in-Produce, the rumors proved unfounded.
Someone, someone, got their greedy little hands on the slender stalks of pink and green, and it wasn’t me. I’m the type of pie girl who respects the next baker following in hot pursuit. Acknowledging my tendency to swoop in and purchase highly coveted produce in excess, I always leave behind just enough (roughly 6 cups worth) for the next pie baker, because that’s the polite thing to do.
Shame on you, whoever you are, who got there before me and filled your handheld basket with the last bunch of my rhubarb. I’m fairly certain that the guilty party was a formerly-from-Brooklyn-currently-living-in-Maplewood, husband and wife team spotted last Saturday in Whole Foods. Boasting perfect yoga postures, standing smack dab in what would have been the rhubarb aisle, they were in heated debate directly in front of a pyramid display of over-priced organic mandarin oranges. “I want to serve the raw cheesecake,” the woman whined. “The one you said you knew how to make.” They were going on and on about layering uncooked strawberries with the ‘other’ fruit (my rhubarb) which they were going to sweeten with some sort of agave/sorghum concoction. “And then we’ll put a layer of the non dairy coconut cream cheese on top of the fruit. Do you think that will work? It should work, shouldn’t it? You said you knew how to make this.”
I envisioned them dramatically hand mixing the faux dessert into a frenzy before pouring it into a springform pan lined with gluten free unsweetened cookie crumbs. Unless cookie crumbs were unacceptable because they had once been baked and were no longer considered raw. I know they took the very last of the rhubarb, rhubarb that was destined for me, rhubarb that almost had a happy home in a baked dessert. For just a moment I considered reminding the raw couple that the leaves of the rhubarb plant are poisonous and must be removed before not baking. Surely they must know these things because they know about everything raw, especially leaves. Bitter? Not me.
There is a snowdrift of coconut swirling around my worktable. A ginormous commercial mixing bowl is filled to capacity with a medley of unsweetened shred, desiccated chip, and sweetened flake coconut. Although the ingredients sound more like packing materials than cookie fixings, they will ultimately bake up into appropriate Passover dessert fare. Keeping track of the macaroons sprinting from my one-ounce scoop onto parchment lined sheet pans is a challenge. I scribble numbers on wax paper with a coconut covered Sharpie marker. It’s not the Sharpie’s fault; everything I touch leaves behind a coconut fingerprint. My macaroon tracking system is imperfect to be sure, but the hope is the numbers will correspond to a detailed master list of holiday orders. As I scoop, I’m contemplating Variations on a Theme of Coconut.
A gentleman enroute to the restroom pauses by my table, glances at the bowl and asks, “Whatcha got there?”
“Macaroons,” I reply, without looking up.
“Oh,” he responds knowingly. “The pastel-y ones, the pretty ones, with the filling. What kind of filling?” he implores.
“Not macaron,” I reply. “Macarooooon.” My emphasis on “ooooon” is unmistakable but he doesn’t get it.
Nooo,” I continue. “Mac-a-rooooon. Coconut, not almond. Scooped, not filled. For Passover.”
“Enjoy your holiday,” he says and walks away.
In my fantasy world, I call after him. “HEY! Don’t come waltzing back here again until you learn the difference between macarons and macaroons! This is not difficult stuff, pal. Both cookies share European lineage, but the macaron is typically made with almond flour, egg whites, and sugar. In a macaroon, coconut plays the starring role, supported by sweetened condensed milk and egg whites. You could say macarons walk the fashion cookie runway, strutting about in pastels, accessorizing with buttercream, ganache, or jam. Macaroons are more casual Friday, less fashionista, a comfortable cookie that doesn’t wear make-up. The macaron is jewel-like, to be nibbled; the macaroon is a chewy cookie, chock full of history and tradition. Both cookies laugh in the face of leavening, relying simply on egg whites for lift. Made without flour, both the macaron and the macaroon are gluten-free. (Imagine their popularity, based on that fact alone.) If macarons could talk, they would boast a distinctive French accent. If macaroons were doing the talking, I suspect they would gesture with their hands while offering grandfatherly advice. No doubt, macaroons would tell you not to worry about the other kids, particularly the macarons.
In trying not to touch my face with a coconut-covered glove, I realize there’s something about this whole macaroon process that makes my nose itch. I’m fairly certain it’s from residual coconut fumes congregating around my face. Setting down the purple scoop, I use my left hand to remove the food service glove from my right hand and reach into my pocket, fumbling about for a Kleenex. There is none to be found, but now there’s a wad of coconut in my pocket. I don a fresh pair of gloves, give the macaroon mix a little stir, and return to my coconut reverie.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that macarons can be patronizing, a touch condescending towards macaroons. Macarons demand pristine packaging with elaborate wax paper liners and sweeping bows. Macaroons fit agreeably inside a no-frills bakery box or a humble brown paper bag. There’s a lot of pomp associated with macarons and honestly, aren’t they just sandwich cookies all dressed up, with no particular place to go? Macaroons have a destination, a Seder, and they better not show up late.
Macaroons border on, dare-I-say, dowdiness. They’re happy-go-lucky in their coconut selves, and for decades, enjoyed little embellishment other than the occasional drizzle of dark chocolate. Macaroons will jostle together in airtight containers, packaged without bells and whistles, arriving at the Passover dessert table in fine fiddle. You don’t tiptoe around macaroons the way you tiptoe around macarons.
According to my Sharpie marker and wax paper/scrap paper, I believe Friday’s and Saturday’s macaroon orders are complete. That’s critical at this stage of the double holiday weekend. After a thousand macaroons, I’m beginning to feel just the slightest bit flakey. Unfortunately, many of my peeps, (not the marshmallow variety) will come barging into the bakery today and tomorrow, desperately seeking macaroons. My purple handled scoop has many macaroon miles still to travel. I am counting down the hours between now and 4 pm on Saturday. If you're looking for me, just follow the trail of coconut.
Celebrity chef was a term not yet coined when Edna Lewis was born, April 13, 1916. The granddaughter of an emancipated slave, Miss Lewis grew up in Freetown, Virginia, learning to cook under the tutelage of her mother and grandmothers, honing her skills on recipes handed down and tinkered with by generations of relatives. I read her cookbooks like novels, paying strict attention to menu titles such as, “Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast.” I devoured her conversational recipes, the kind that might be shared across a kitchen table while trimming green beans or removing the stems from blueberries.
Miss Lewis chronicled her life in several books; The Edna Lewis Cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, In Pursuit of Flavor, and The Gift of Southern Cooking. She explained, “Freetown was a community of farming people, so named because the first residents had been freed from chattel slavery, and wanted to be known as a town of Free People.” The food of her childhood would shape her culinary career.
When Edna was a teenager, she moved to Washington, D.C., then in later years, found her way to New York City. In the late 1940s, she was the chef at Café Nicholson in Manhattan, garnering raves for her legendary chocolate soufflé. She returned to the south for decades, cooking and writing thoughtful, comprehensive cookbooks. What made her cookbooks so refreshing was her conversational narrative. There was a frankness coupled with a little bit of hand-holding throughout the pages. At a time when celebrity chef narcissism was the norm, it was unusual to equate humbleness with a chef.
Miss Lewis was lured back to New York in the late 1980s, at the age of 72, to become the chef at Brooklyn's landmark restaurant, Gage and Tollner. Edna Lewis’ style of cooking was soulful, but it differed from traditional soul food. Miss Lewis brought a more gentrified style of country cooking to the restaurant, a straight-forward approach that focused on seasonally fresh, local, organic ingredients. Her influence on the restaurant, and on Southern cuisine, impacted a new generation of chefs and home cooks.
While the popular culture was noticeably tiptoeing around butter, salt, and sugar, Edna Lewis embraced it. In her “Morning-After-Hog-Butchering Breakfast,” Miss Lewis recounts a menu of black raspberries and cream, eggs sunny-side up, oven-cooked fresh bacon, fried sweetbreads, country-fried apples, biscuits and corn bread, butter, preserves, jelly, and coffee. She also insisted that making your own baking powder made for better biscuits.
I am unashamed to admit I house too many bookshelves, buckling under the weight of cooking magazines. One of the features I loved from those now defunct subscriptions was the end of the magazine query, “If you could invite anyone from history to join you for dinner, who would it be?” I would start with breakfast, and invite Edna Lewis to pull up a chair around the kitchen table; hopefully, she'll bring the biscuits.
Despite a moniker that depicts me as a curmudgeonly baker, I like to think of myself as a caring pie person. I worry about the big things; cold butter, fresh fruit, the right mix of flour-to-sugar-to-salt in a pie crust. I agonize over the not so little things; spices, thickeners, crimps, and lattice. Staring at a freezer full of pie shells and a walk-in stacked precariously with fresh fruit is daunting. There's a reason we refer to Friday as Pie-day.
Pie baking at home is not the same as pie-ing en masse. Imagine two perfect containers of early spring fruit handpicked from the Farmers’ Market. Now multiply those two containers of fruit by ten, or maybe twenty, or maybe more. Unlike the safe refuge of a home kitchen, a retail baking environment requires sharp navigation skills. At every turn you face racks of adorable cookies and gluten free quick breads and layer cakes, begging to be iced. Someone else selects the Sonos station, and maybe it just doesn’t align with your current mood. And imagine, instead of the beautiful Emile Henri pie plate with the dimpled edge sitting on your immaculate kitchen counter, you’re staring down a deluge of aluminum pie plates, begging to be filled.
Don’t misunderstand. My workplace has a number of formidable qualities, namely the fine folks working there. It is important to understand however, that a pie baker’s life is dictated by the quality and availability of ingredients at their disposal. Fresh fruit is as mercurial as the weather; one day it pleasantly surprises and the next it downright disappoints. Additionally, pie requires a waiting game. Hot pies need plenty of time to pull themselves together before slicing. Icebox or refrigerator pies need time to cool down, to steady themselves before facing the knife. A pie baker's life is also dictated by the people wielding the knife once the pie leaves the bakery.
For quite a luxuriously prolonged stretch, I’ve been spared any retail customer unpleasantries. Until today, when it all came to a screeching halt. Henceforth, I declare April 5th to be named, “No Blueberry Pie For You” day.
The gist of the sad tale is that an already unhappy individual couldn’t choose between two kinds of blueberry pie. Following a lengthy back and forth with a most solicitous member of the bakery staff, a pie was decided upon. No sooner had the pie exited the oven, it was summoned to exit the building. The still-warm pie was placed in a windowed box and the recipient was given strict instructions to let the pie cool, because slicing a hot pie ends badly.
Clearly, the ‘pie cooling’ directive was tossed aside like an empty plastic clamshell heading towards the recycle bin. What ensued was a pie puddle, a heated discussion by phone, and more unhappiness than anyone needed at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon.
In a perfect pie world pies would bake until golden, bubbling around the edges and peeking through their lattice at just the right temperature to be warm, yet sliceable. Custard and cream pies would set up instantly, offering the cleanest slice with no refrigeration necessary. The reality is however, that pie, like many things worth waiting for, requires patience.
Days like today encourage me to reflect, fantasizing ever so slightly about other careers. Walking to my car in the bracing April rain, I see myself as the host of a new reality tv show called, Pie Seekers. Contestants attempting to slice a hot pie would be interrupted by a deafening oven timer. I would then utter the dreaded words, “No Pie For You,” and hand them an empty pie box as a parting gift.
Groaning under the weight of its contents, the door to my home freezer struggles to close. The top shelf of the freezer is overfilled with savory items, dinner suggestions dictated by the most dire of no-food-in-the-house circumstances. Situated in the corner of the freezer is an automatic ice maker that consistently works on again/off again. At this moment it chooses to add a few cubes to the rarely overfilled bin, for emphasis. A wayward cube bounces from top shelf to bottom, a cavernous vessel for frozen fruit and nuts. Bags of pine nuts and macadamias from abandoned pesto and biscotti adventures are frozen solid, refusing to budge. Forgotten in the corner are a few misshapen popsicles from summers long gone.
“We see how it is,” observes the bag of frozen cranberries, its ragged opening held together with a weary rubber band. “I’ve been showing signs of freezer burn since early January and not a single glance, not the slightest acknowledgement of my cranberry existence.”
Bag of Frozen Cherries pipes in, her tone both frosty and conspiratorial. “Other than tossing us in a rocks glass with some bourbon and bitters, we’re just playing the waiting game. Will she choose to include us in her cherry pie? Only when she grows tired of removing the pits from our fresh counterparts. She’ll rummage around in here, tossing bags helter skelter, until we’re casually thrown on the countertop, ripped open by force, falling victim to the blade of a dull paring knife.” Bag of Frozen Cherries shivers at the thought of it before continuing. “Just you wait; April is the game changer for all of us. Once she gets her hands on some fresh rhubarb, that’s all she’ll think about, morning, noon, and cocktail hour. Trust me. Just follow her instagram feed; all rhubarb, all the time. You think I’m making this stuff up? I know what I’m talking about, Cranberry. And it only gets worse; when rhubarb season begins to draw to a close, she’ll get crazy and start cramming zip-locs of that pie plant in here. There won’t be room to turn around. You’re toast, Cranberry. The only thing you can hope for is maybe one last hurrah in some kind of frozen fruit mash-up or possibly hitching a ride alongside a nice roast chicken. But the odds are you won’t be seeing the inside of a pie plate or the light of an oven any time soon.”
I’m the ‘she’ they’re referring to and everything they say is true. The first spindly stalks of rhubarb, outfitted in stripes of peppermint pink and minty green, with a bouffant of mildly toxic leaves, haunt my waking hours. Rhubarb is my spring light at the end of a long, cold, tunnel of winter. Every year it seems just the slightest bit further from my reach, the elusive harbinger of spring. Rhubarb is the green light at the intersection of melting snow and purple crocus. Rhubarb gives me the go-ahead to swap out turtlenecks for t-shirts, woolen socks for snarky, combed cotton anklets.
I’ve always linked rhubarb with Passover, a holiday that celebrates the “first-fruits of the barley,” meaning the first grain to ripen and be harvested. If ever there was a first fruit of spring, it’s rhubarb. The only wrinkle in the ‘first fruits’ theory is that rhubarb is technically a vegetable. Details.
As observant Jews begin to prepare for Passover by thoroughly removing chametz (anything with traces of flour and yeast) from their home, I will give the kitchen a half-hearted once over. Sure, the box of Kashi Go Lean Crunch should probably be relocated from the bottom shelf of the kitchen cabinet to the out-of-reach top shelf. The cabinet housing Bob, King Arthur, and the Quaker Oats guy should be loosely padlocked. In this particular kitchen however, it might be a good idea to look beyond the pantry and take a gander in the freezer. Not that there’s anything wildly inappropriate in there, save for the dented boxes of Trader Joe’s spring rolls and spanakopita. It might be time however, to emancipate those frostbitten bags of fruit that have been held in the icy clutches of the freezer for far too long. In doing so, I can free up some valuable freezer real estate and make room for the incoming zip-loc bags of pie plant. This might be just the weekend to roast a nice chicken.
We are a fickle holiday bunch, aren’t we? No sooner have we turned off Pi(e) Day’s convection oven, we jump smack dab into St. Patrick’s Day. In this case, the shamrock-riddled holiday falls on a Sunday, prompting a full weekend of eating of the green.
Sugar-riddled cookies smothered in various shades of verdant and orange lie in wait on the bakers’ racks. Scones run the gamut from humble to extreme. Irish Soda scones studded with little more than currants share rack space with a scone of epic sweetness proportions. Not only is the Confetti scone ablaze in technicolor sprinkles, it is glazed with chocolate then capped off with the tiniest of Sprinkle King shamrocks. Odds are high the scone with the most sugar will be washed down with an oat milk espresso drink, thus mitigating our concern for the planet and our personal health.
My tastes better align with the Quaker Oats guy, relatively old school and old-fashioned. I’ve not boarded the almond milk nor the oat milk train because I prefer the real deal in my coffee, whole milk, and milk in my oatmeal, not oatmeal in my milk.
Personally, St. Patrick’s Day is one of those holidays prompting a 'duck and cover' reaction. I will take refuge in the way back of the bakery at a small worktable, within earshot of a massive ice cuber. Every now and again, a kindly barista will wander back to fill a cavernous bucket with ice, breaking the silence of my Guinness bundt cake reverie. Key Lime pies are also on the St. Patrick’s Day docket, with a subtle hint of greenness and the sprightliness of a leprechaun, but far less critical to the weekend festivities.
The next holiday on my radar is the hit and run holiday of Purim. I’m gearing up for the triangular goodness only a hamantaschen can offer, just as soon as I clear out the Guinness chilling in the walk-in.
Studies show that 5.5 million pints of Guinness are downed around the world on a daily basis. On St. Patrick's Day that figure is doubled. I’m happy to do my part, if only by peeling back the flip tops on the heady stout. Five cans of Guinness are needed to yield 9 pudgy bundt cakes. According to the parchment paper list tacked to the commercial freezer, 30 cakes are indicated for the weekend. Pi will not factor into my bundt cake mathematics because that holiday is blissfully over. Treading cautiously into the Ides of March, I will keep my head low, avoiding the sweet surprises of this not-so-magically delicious weekend.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm