I love a recipe with a little wiggle room, one that invites you to use blueberries or apples, peaches or plums, or a combination of any. Such is the directive in the original version of the famous Plum Torte recipe. First published in the New York Times in 1983, Marian Burros’s recipe for Plum Torte became one of the most popular recipes to grace the pages of the Times. The truth is, the recipe was lounging in a paperback cookbook on a shelf above my mother’s kitchen desk for years before I read it in the paper.
Marian Fox Burros and Lois Levine co-authored The Elegant But Easy Cookbook in 1960. A compendium of recipes geared towards entertaining, the premise of the book was that a host could be a guest at their own party. Burros and Levine clasped readers firmly by the oven mitt as they made their way through hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, main courses, breads, vegetables, starches, salads, and sweets. The painstaking notes in each chapter coaxed party throwers to prepare menu items in advance. No longer tethered to the kitchen, hostesses with the most-ess casually defrosted, reheated, and waited for the doorbell to ring. The recipe for the Plum Torte appears on page 154 in the chapter dedicated to sweets. It is quite similar to any number of ‘blitz’ type tortes, kuchen, or cakes prepared by generations of women; women who were generally in a hurry to get a meal on the table.
My copy of the Burros/Levine treatise on entertaining is wedged between books by Jennie Grossinger and Joan Nathan, on a shelf dedicated to Jewish Holiday cuisine. I like to think of that portion of the bookcase as the ‘Hadassah Ladies;’ women well versed in tzimmes and rugelach, mandelbrot and kneidlach. The paperback book once belonged to my mother who handed it to me when we were in a hurry, packing up a box of kitchen essentials for the move to my first New York City apartment. When I asked my mother if she wanted to keep the well-worn book she replied , “I have two more copies; one belonged to Mama Minnie and one was Aunt Lily’s.” The book retailed for two dollars and ninety-five cents but felt as valuable as a priceless family heirloom. Over the years, I extracted a number of recipes from the book, gravitating towards quick hors d’oeuvres and many of the simple icebox pies.
Today, my copy of the paperback book is weary, cracked along the spine, the front and back covers a touch brittle around the edges. The book opens to page 154 with minimal intervention. The recipe for the original Plum Torte is actually titled Fruit Torte and is identified with #3. (This has nothing to do with social media; instead it indicates that the cake can be prepared up to 3 days prior to serving.) According to an article written by Marian, she credits Lois with bringing the recipe to their original book, Elegant but Easy, in 1960. The edition that sits on my bookshelf was updated in 1967, and stands at the ready should I decide to host a mid-week luncheon or a casual midnight buffet. To date, I’ve hosted neither but I have often turned to page 154 when plums roll through town.
There is something comforting and grandmotherly about the Plum Torte. When I assemble the ingredients, the kitchen suddenly feels crowded with grandmothers in heavy stockings and aunts with monogrammed handkerchiefs peeking out of pockets. They are not shy in offering their opinions on how they make their Plum Torte and why their version is a little bit better. The cake portion of the dessert is dare I say, somewhat dowdy. What gives it spunk are the plums; deeply hued, they dress up the torte like one of those beloved grandmothers or aunts wearing a little too much lipstick.
With apologies to Marion and Lois, I prefer to bake their cake not in a springform, but in a cast iron skillet measuring 8” in diameter. The batter fills the pan generously, resulting in a thicker slice. Call me a nonconformist, but fanning slices of sweet/tart plums over the batter creates a vibrant circle of fruit that bakes up as a beautiful mosaic of fall color. Truly a harbinger of autumn, the Burros/Levine recipe is one of those desserts with a long history and a dedicated following. For so many of us who grew up enjoying this cake, it wouldn’t be September without it.
When I think about blueberry pie in summer, I think about my father loading us into the forest green station wagon at the ungodly hour of 6 am, with the sole purpose of getting on the road before rush hour traffic. No matter how you sliced it, Maine was eight hours away and for the passenger wedged between a Coleman cooler and the ‘way back’ seat, it was interminable. We seemed to manage without water bottles or juice boxes, relying instead on cold water dispensed into Dixie cups from an unwieldy thermos. Our navigation system consisted of a series of AAA paper maps, folded neatly and secured in the glove compartment. My father was well acquainted with every thruway and turnpike, beltway and parkway, only asking my mother to pull out the map when an unforeseen traffic incident snarled his plans. He rolled the window down periodically to feed the tollbooths with coins easily accessible from the unused ashtray. The radio stations vacillated between up to the minute traffic reports and easy listening. Occasionally, my mother would lean over and change the dial to a contemporary station. We stopped infrequently along the way; once for a picnic lunch, once to fill the thirsty car with gas, and mid-afternoon for gravity defying scoops of ice cream perched high atop sugar cones. For more years than I can count, the sole purpose of our trip was Visiting Day/Parents Weekend at the summer camp my brothers attended.
My sleep-away camp experience was less successful; an eight-week stint in the Maine woods left me more homesick than emancipated, with no hankering to return. In between lake swims, non-competitive sports, and skit night, we hiked along trails cushioned with pine needles, edged in sun-dappled ferns. One of our counselors was a botanist, keen on identifying plant-life while steering us clear of poisonous shrubs and ivy. Guiding us towards meandering clusters of wild Maine blueberries, we ate them by the handfuls, dotting our fingers and our white middy blouses in violet. We were foragers way ahead of our time. The berries were both vibrantly sweet and tart, much like the candy options available from the camp’s daily canteen. Sprawled across my bunk popping Sweet-Tarts into my mouth, I wrote letters to my parents imploring them to let me come home. In return, my mother’s letters were breezy and newsy, reminding me how much I would miss camp when it ended. My father simply wrote in his signature scrawl; “I miss you but remember, life is a series of adjustments.” He was right.
To this day, a Maine license plate still causes a double-edged tinge of homesickness and carsickness. After years of little adjustments however, a trip to ‘Vacationland’ is a much welcome respite. It also boasts quart containers of wild blueberries begging to be consumed.
A really fine slice of blueberry pie made with wild Maine berries conjures summer camp in the very first forkful. It is a totally different pie experience than the plump cultivated, (“highbush”) berries suspended in sugar and Minute tapioca that most of us grew up with. When faced with an empty pie shell and 6 cups of blues, I am always reminded that blueberry pie in particular is tricky business, a balancing act of sweetness and thickener, capable of standing up to a fork, yet saucy enough to spill across a dessert plate. The collision of warm berries against a pool of melting vanilla ice cream, all tangled up between a flaky pie crust epitomizes summer, but it’s challenging to execute successfully. Just back from a road trip to ‘Vacationland,’ I’ve opted for the least bit of intervention between wild Maine blueberries and my pie plate. Combining them with a shy amount of sweetener and just enough thickener to contain the juices, the berries are topped with rich biscuit dough and baked until bubbly. Had my father been joining me, he would have insisted on dousing the cobbled biscuits and fruit with pouring cream. Like father, like daughter.
The woman behind the counter at Williams Sonoma is smiling as broadly and sweetly as a jack o’ lantern with a mouthful of candy corn. Assaulted by the distinctive combination of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, my nose twitches. I feel a sneeze of September coming on. To my left, an expansive table is decked out in autumnal splendor; harvest blooms and botanical gourds sprawl across linens, soup tureens and mugs destined for hot cider. Salad plates, conveniently sold in sets of four, compete with over-sized dinner plates edged in meandering vines. Adjacent to the register, a serving dish fashioned out of restaurant quality French porcelain is garnering interest. Customers are flocking to the Apilco-brand platter dotted with samples. I stand back, allowing a group of four full access to the accordion pleated white paper cups. Several of the hungrier shoppers double-fist the miniscule samples of pumpkin quick bread. Having sported a green Williams Sonoma apron in a Philadelphia outpost for several years, as a former “Casual Employee,” I consider myself well versed in their autumn line-up. However, the closer I scrutinize the offerings, the more evident it becomes that yesterday’s pumpkin bread has received a makeover. She is positively gourdeous.
I am blindsided by a display of not one, but six versions of the famous Pumpkin Quick bread; traditional, spiced pecan pumpkin, pumpkin caramel, pumpkin chocolate chunk, and pumpkin chocolate swirl. There’s also a gluten free version of something called pumpkin cheesecake quick bread mix. Not only are the quick breads available solo, you can now purchase them paired with a jar of traditional pumpkin butter, pecan pumpkin butter, or caramel pumpkin butter. In order to schmear or slab your butter of choice on your pumpkin-y bread, you may add to your cart your very own set of ivory handled butter spreaders. I must have been living under a rock for the past twenty years.
“Pumpkin quick bread?” the salesperson proffers with enthusiasm. I hold up both hands in a panic, shaking my head in the negative. A manager sidles up to me gushing, “Don’t you just love fall? Have you tried our Spiced Pumpkin Seed Brittle Bites?” the retailer inquires, barely coming up for air. I cannot for the life of me understand what she’s talking about. A brittle pumpkin bite sounds like something that might require a tetanus shot. “And don’t miss our new autumn tabletop collection…” she calls after me as I backstroke towards the exit. Temporarily blinded by enamel cookware in blazing shades of orange, I whack my elbow on a heavy lidded cast iron coquette shaped like a Cinderella pumpkin.
Once again, I decline an offer of Spiced Pumpkin Seed Brittle Bites. Standing at the intersection of pumpkin mole and pumpkin pie spice macarons, I vacillate between dizziness and nausea. Realizing I have forgotten what brought me here in the first place, my seersucker Topsiders start edging towards the mall entrance, but not before the designated “Greeter” asks me if I’d like to sample the Pumpkin Gooey Bar Mix. I would not. The word ‘Medic!’ is about to tumble out of my mouth. Whatever it was that I thought I needed will have to wait until January when the quick breads return to routine citrus flavors, sans spice. What is our fascination, no, our obsession with pumpkin? Remember the time we were obsessed with oat bran, carob, and kiwis, or am I the only one?
On a much smaller scale, we have a fair share of pumpkin enablers at the bakery intent on jumpstarting the season. A certain pie baker refuses to unearth the number ten cans of pumpkin before absolutely necessary. I am as unwilling to retire my white capris to the rear of my closet as I am to open the pumpkin chocolate chip quick bread floodgates. “Let them wait until October 1st,” I snarl, much to the chagrin of the retail public and a few of the eager bakers waiting for loaf pan direction. “It’s not even Labor Day!” I continue, exasperated with both the end of summer and the onslaught of a holiday-riddled season. There seems to be something inherently wrong with launching pumpkin anything when there are still peaches in the building. Disgruntled and dismayed, I head for home where my spices live singular lives in the kitchen cabinet, and orange is limited to a generous curl of peel in an icy Aperol Spritz. I will embrace autumn when the time is right, roughly September 23rd, the official first day of fall. Until then, you can spot me wearing white shoes and white pants and possibly seersucker because under the rock where I live, it’s still summer.
National Waffle Day will be celebrated this Saturday, August 24th, yet another unofficial food holiday that continues to gain momentum via social media. In the days prior to insta-everything, we relied on word of mouth for generating pop culture momentum. Today, we turn to #nationalwaffleday for all the waffle news fit to consume. Before you begin scrolling Yelp reviews in your quest for the best syrup smothered waffles, let's take a moment to learn a little bit about early waffles and what the holiday actually commemorates.
Waffles have been traced all the way back to ancient Greece, where flat cakes called Obelios were roasted between two metal plates attached to a long wooden handle, Obelio batters were originally unleavened and unsweetened, more akin to a religious wafer. Over time, the humble batter was enhanced with cinnamon or ginger, honey, butter, and cream. Leavening agents created thicker waffles, and the waffle irons themselves were no longer imprinted with coat of arms, landscapes, or religious symbols, as they had been in the 14th century.
In the 15th century, Dutch waflers (single ‘f’) opted for rectangular waffle iron plates instead of round. Grid patterns were a result of both the forging process and artisan craftsmanship. We have the Dutch to thank for bringing waffles to America where we opted to pair them with maple syrup; at the time, it was a less expensive sweetener than sugar. What began as a humble between meal snack in Europe would later take center stage on breakfast tables throughout America.
As for the seemingly random August date affixed to National Waffle Day, there’s a reason behind it. History tells us that the American inventor, Cornelius Swartwout, received the very first U.S. patent for the waffle iron on August 24, 1869. Fashioning his waffle iron out of two large cast iron plates secured by a hinge, Swartwout’s rudimentary stove-top appliance was a precursor to General Electric’s freestanding waffle iron, introduced in 1918. This relatively small kitchen appliance would forever change Sunday mornings for sleepy-eyed Americans.
I was one of those tired Sunday morning waffle-seekers, fixated by the light on the Sunbeam electric waffle iron, waiting for the red light to indicate that the iron was hot enough to accept the Bisquick batter, and then again, impatient for it to turn green signaling 'done.' Armed with a fork to emancipate the four cross-hatched squares from the iron, it was traditional for a wall of steam to hit you smack in the face upon opening the appliance. It was well worth the wait and the facial because waffles, with their crispy/crunchy edges and deep pockets, were infinitely more fun than pancakes.
The Sunbeam was merely a pre-cursor to the waffle irons I was yet to meet. In my restaurant-owning days, we poured a rich, eggy batter into a cavernous commercial waffle iron, notorious for overworking the electrical service. Its preferred time to short out was at the peak of the brunch rush. The fragrance of butter, vanilla, and bacon was often overshadowed by the hint of something burning; residual batter that had dripped onto the heating element. Praying for brunch service to end and armed with a ginormous oven mitt, I timidly unplugged the damn iron. Years later, the restaurant job that required hotel pans of tiramisu also tethered me to a pizzelle iron with a fondness for electrical fireworks every time I plugged the tired cord in or out of the wall socket.
Recently, on a trip to picturesque Amsterdam, I waited in several long lines in order to secure a very different kind of waffle. The stroopwafel, (Dutch for syrup waffle) is a sandwich composed of two very thin vanilla waffle cookies filled with a dream of dark caramel.
The stroopwafel dates back to 1784, when a humble baker from the town of Gouda created a waffle made from leftover crumbs and spices. It was as unappealing as it sounds, causing the baker to doctor up the cookie by filling it with syrup.
A smaller version of the stroopwafel is now available worldwide, even offered as a snack cookie on certain airlines. There is no comparison between the commercially made cookies and a fresh one hot off the waffle iron, but in a pinch, I've been known to purchase a package at Trader Joes. To truly enjoy a stroopwafel, fragrant with butter and caramel, and just the slightest hint of cinnamon, you need the stroopwafel experience. It’s so interesting to think that the stroopwafel, a dowdy cookie that began as a popular pastry among the poor, has been elevated to pop sugar status.
Standing in line surrounded by people from different cultures, all sharing the same stroopwafel goal, is both humbling and eye opening. A sign on an adjacent building quietly speaks volumes, "Be Excellent To Each Other." Amidst the crowds and the distinctive fragrance of a commercial waffle iron, you realize we have much more in common than we have to keep us apart. #happynationalwaffleday
The last hurrah of summer fruit is taking its toll on me. I am bombarded from all sides with ripe peaches and right now nectarines. “Stop the madness, Stone Fruit!
“You know I love you, but you’re killing me!”
Friday was a particularly brutal day in the pie trenches. By 8:30 am it had already been a day. I was quietly fuming over the re-telling of an incident from Thursday, Julia Child’s birthday. There was some commotion over a beautifully decorated sugar cookie with a Julia quote painstakingly written in royal icing. A disgruntled individual felt the cookie was perpetuating a negative stereotype about women in the kitchen. Funny thing- our entire kitchen crew is female, not to mention forward thinking.
The curmudgeonly cookie disparager should know that yesterday I conducted a totally casual social media poll, based on a Julia-ism. Julia Child once said, (and I quote) “I think every woman should have a blowtorch.” It turns out that blowtorches are quite common in home kitchens, with 70% of those polled (many of them women) claiming to own one. I like to think that we have Julia to thank for the popularity of kitchen torches. Her television career spanned decades, with many episodes dedicated to the art of flambé. (Some episodes more successfully than others, but she always cautioned her viewers to be careful around an open flame.) I think about Julia (and my eyelashes) every time I torch a meringue.
I continue thinking about Julia all the way home. The way her Mousse au Chocolat handily snagged my High School French Club Presidency. The way she casually introduced me to cream puffs piped as swans, swimming on a pool of chocolate sauce. It was Julia as the French Chef, who gave me the courage to arm myself with a kitchen torch, a critical skill requirement for every restaurant job I ever had. Her greatest lesson was reminding all of us to stop apologizing for mistakes in the kitchen. Sage advice, indeed.
Lacking the foresight to pick up some heavy cream on the way home, I am unable to satisfy my hankering for chocolate mousse. There is a gaping hole in the evening’s dessert course, and it's making me cranky. Still preoccupied with the events of the day, I begin rummaging through the refrigerator in search of inspiration. Nothing leaps out at me save for a container of caramel sauce. Scanning the kitchen counter for fruit, a solitary fuzzy peach and a smooth skinned nectarine look lost in a cavernous fruit bowl. Turning my back on the paltry fruit offering, I'm forced to forage through the freezer. The sound of the ice machine echoes through the kitchen. From the depths, I unearth two plastic wrapped discs of what look like pie dough. I set one of them on the counter just a little too loudly. The fruit in the fruit bowl jumps.
Peach turns to Nectarine then to me. “Rough day? You seem a little, well, pre-
occupied, a little down in the mouth." Nectarine nods then adds, “Maybe talking about it will help.”
“What are you talking about?” I reply, whacking the ice-cold pie dough with my heaviest rolling pin.
Peach treads cautiously. “It’s August, isn’t it?” Brushing the leaf out of her eyes, Peach elaborates. “We’re talking about you. How you seem unable to live in the moment, refusing to embrace August and accept the season in front of you.” Peach is on a roll and can’t seem to stop herself. “There’s a reason you’re constantly pining for a different season, living in the past or the future, never in the now.”
I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. “Did you ever think that possibly it's the fault of the fruit? Maybe it's under ripe, or over ripe. Or there’s simply too much of it at one time! You don’t understand,” I explain. “August isn’t the problem. August foreshadows the problem. Once we’ve crossed mid-August, it’s too late. Yesterday was Julia’s 107th birthday, August 15th. It’s practically September. Costco is decked out in Halloween and the Farmers’ Market wants me to buy apples. Apples?! I don’t want apples!” I hiss through clenched teeth.
The stone fruit leans back in the bowl. “Could it be,” Nectarine suggests in her best Dr. Fraser Winslow Crane voice, “that the problem isn’t the apple? Perhaps,” Nectarine pauses before continuing. “Perhaps the problem is your inability to live one fruit at a time. Think about it, Nice Pie. Try it. One. Fruit. At. A. Time.”
Peach nods solemnly. “We know that you’ve put up a good front. But the truth is so much of this stems from that nasty break-up with Rhubarb. That was heart-breaking…”
Catching my reflection in the tempered glass of the oven door, I weigh their words carefully, if only momentarily. Grabbing the fruit bowl and whacking the circle of pie dough once again for emphasis, I preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Plucking my well-worn copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking from the shelf, I wonder- how much bourbon is considered too much bourbon in a caramel sauce?
It appears my wood handled Androck brand kitchen utensil is an antique. The curved and slotted batter-beater, preferred by grandmothers and great aunts, is a hot item on etsy and ebay, highly sought after by anyone who speaks fluent Martha. I remember it rattling around in the kitchen drawers of both my maternal and paternal grandmothers, as well as my great aunt Lily. The popularity of the 10½” kitchen tool was driven by its ability to multi-task. The Androck company was not shy in boasting the utensil’s talents, imprinting them directly on the curved, metal whisk. “BEATS EGGS, CREAM, BATTER, ETC.” it exclaims in all caps. I wish I had known its cult following before inadvertently knocking it off the counter. Turning to catch it I missed, grabbing nothing but air. On its way to the floor, the batter-beater paused just long enough to whack me on the ankle. The smooth wood handle escaped unscathed. My ankle is beginning to throb.
Frittering away my afternoon with a bunch of ripe peaches, I’ve peeled away their five o’clock shadow, pitted them and diced them into sensible cubes. Peach juices creep between the edge of the cutting board and the countertop, running dangerously close to an open drawer filled with kitchen tools. It’s been suggested that my collection of kitchenware borders on overkill. It’s not so much the new stuff that I can’t part with- it’s the wood handled, rotary operated, clunky, heavy, weather-worn pieces that I covet. Kitchen gadgetry speaks to me, filling my contemporary, high-tech workspace with a connection to the past.
Over my shoulder, a pot of oil heats to a perilous 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisking together a simple fritter batter, the recipe calls for Wondra flour, popularized by General Mills in the 1960s. Promising lump free batters and gravies, the blue canister of Wondra was a mainstay in our kitchen, sharing cabinetry with boxes of Soft-as-Silk and Swans Down cake flours.
Dropping spoonfuls of peach-studded batter into the heavy bottomed pan, I stand back. The fritters bob and float on a sea of sizzling oil, requiring nothing more than a bit of coaxing and turning. This is where the curved and slotted batter-beater steps in. Providing just enough guidance, the arched whisk separates and strains, lifting the golden brown fritters out of the scalding oil, maneuvering them safely to a baking sheet lined with absorbent paper towels. Gathering the edges of the paper towel, I drop the still-warm fritters into a Pyrex bowl filled with spicy sugar. Patience never being my strong suit, I bite into a hot fritter, burning my lip. Behind the crunch there’s a sweet peach encased in eggy batter. I take another bite. It tastes of summer and forever ago.
It’s Pedestrian Sunday in Toronto’s Kensington Market and my feet hurt. One of the most walk-able and multicultural neighborhoods in the city, it is also a mecca of diversity. The architectural landscape of the market reflects its history; rambling Victorian structures, antiquated synagogues, tired, modest, dwellings. In the early 1900s, Jewish immigrants moved to the area along Kensington Avenue and the surrounding neighborhood. Many converted the ground floor of their home to retail shops, sparking high density, urban housing. Offering items specifically geared to the needs of their community, extended families lived in the apartments above their businesses. Goods for sale often spilled out into the street as merchants competed with pushcart and street vendors.
Over time, the Jewish population migrated north, opening the door to Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, and African Canadian merchants. Today, the history of the former Jewish market resonates in every pickle barrel, wheel of cheese, butcher, baker, green grocer, and fishmonger. On most days, I could wander the Market for hours, but not today. Today, my feet remind me I am on a mission.
Dodging the classical violinists and the blue grass banjos, I zig-zag through a casual parade of tourists attired in a rainbow of summer pastels. On the corner, someone is trying to repair a broken flip-flop. The air is thick with fried churros and artisan coffee. I make a beeline for Global Cheese, a cheese shop with the tagline, “When It Comes to Cheese, We Speak Your Language.” In addition to cheese, Global also speaks fluent halvah, a honey of a romance language.
My travel companions are slightly skeptical of my halvah mission, but I am undeterred. I step towards the rear of the store, to a counter dedicated strictly to the sesame and honey confection. Attired in a pristine white chef’s jacket and armed with a serious knife is a man I can only describe as a Halvah Butcher. He stands proudly behind a glass window, overseeing wheels and wedges of vanilla, pistachio, and chocolate marble. He slices a whisper thin sample from each of the offerings, ceremoniously handing them across the counter. In the mingling of honey and sesame, chocolate and pistachio, I can taste cultural history. Halvah Butcher is patient, holding up his hand to indicate he is in no rush.
I am torn between the pistachio and the marble, but leaning towards the vanilla for practical purposes. This halvah is destined for a recipe and it’s probably better to keep things simple. “I’ll have a small slice of this,” I point to the vanilla, and “maybe a little more of this,” I point to the marble. Halvah Butcher waits, nodding, anticipating my next move. “And this, a good slice of this please, the pistachio.”
Halvah Butcher’s eyes sparkle as he reaches for his knife. With the finesse of a surgeon, he cajoles each wheel, slicing off just the right amount, weighing each piece on his digital scale, gift-wrapping each portion in crinkly parchment. I express my concern about the heat, wondering if the halvah will benefit from refrigeration.. “No, no,” Halvah Butcher assures me. “It is just sesame and honey. That is all. It will be fine.” With one final twinkle, Halvah Butcher winks. “Sesame and honey. That is all.” His words echo in my head. Heading out into the fray of the market, I clutch the yellow plastic bag emblazoned with the words Global Cheese, protectively.
On Tuesday morning, approaching Canadian security at the Billy Bishop Airport, I hoist my carry-on bag onto the conveyer belt and place my phone alongside a lime green sweater I borrowed from my Torontonian sister. Midway through the bag scanner, there is a beeping sound. I repeat Halvah Butcher’s words in my head, like a mantra. “Sesame and honey. Sesame and honey.” My bag is opened, and under the scrutiny of Toronto officials, I watch as they shift their eyes from computer screen to carry-on.
"Any food in here?” the security official asks politely. “Just a bagel,” I indicate, pointing to a brown paper bag. My cheeks are blushing pink, then crimson. “Two bagels, actually.” The official is neither impressed nor concerned by the bagels. “Anything else?” he asks, raising one eyebrow. Adjacent to the bagels is an insulated bag, wedged between my running gear and rain slicker. Inside the insulated bag, is a yellow bag from Global Cheese. I hold my breath and repeat my mantra, “Sesame and honey. Sesame and honey.” The woman scrutinizing the computer screen in front of her keeps pointing. My greatest halvah fears are about to be realized. The security official indicates the bagel bag once more and asks, “Anything else?” Before I can form the words, he waves me on. Ohhhh. Canada.
“You have a little something on your cheek.,” an affable customer mentions to me as our paths cross outside the bakery. “You might want to, you know,” she indicates wiping her face with her hand. “Just in case you’re going somewhere…” she calls after me. “It’s not bad- it looks like, maybe butter, or cornmeal…?”
I toss a “thank you” over my shoulder and wave.
The side view mirror of my car confirms it is indeed cornmeal with a hint of butter and a smudge of brown sugar. Rummaging through my bag for my car keys, I stumble upon a small ziploc bag of cherries formerly known as fresh. Earmarked for a snack, only to be replaced by a handful of day old potato chips, the poor cherries deserved better. As I explain to the cherries, I am a creature of convenience, nibbling on cake scraps and bottom of the bowl pieces of fruit, occasionally stale potato chips. Bakers can’t be choosers.
Cavalierly tossing my water bottle and car keys on the dining room table, I can’t help but wince at the not-so-subtle olive oil stain on my recently repaired dining room chair. A Google search encourages me to apply a small paste fashioned out of baking soda and water to the stain. Cautiously optimistic, I do as Google instructs. What Google doesn’t tell me is that the bag of cornmeal in front of the baking soda has a slight hole in it. My sneakers crunch all the way to the dining room and back again. I need a vacation.
Inspired by the trail of cornmeal and the ignored cherries, in less than an hour, a tray of oven roasted fruit and a cornmeal olive oil cake have whisked me off to the tiny village of Radda in Chianti. No passport required, no long line at TSA, just some fruit, a good jug of olive oil, and a 9” cake pan.
Radda in Chianti is known for superlative wines and olive oils. It is a medieval village with haphazard architecture, local shopkeepers torn from a page out of Central Casting, and local restaurants sharing space with grocery stores. One constant during my stay in Radda was an olive oil and cornmeal cake spiked with salt and served with fresh fruit. It was both gritty and moist, a little bit savory, just sweet enough. I consumed triangles of it with morning espresso, and kidnapped slivers of it to combat mid-afternoon hunger. When you travel, some of the best souvenirs are the food memories that you tuck away and revisit. Recreating a travel experience through a recipe is indeed a mini vacation. As tempted as I am to stay, I’m due back in the dining room to check on the progress of the baking soda paste. I fear the olive oil is winning.
Patricia Murphy’s Candlelight Restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida was a short drive from my grandmother’s high-rise apartment building in Hollywood. On Saturday evenings, Mama Min and “the girls” loved going out to dinner, making a reservation slightly later than the traditional early bird, but not so late as to interfere with the Lawrence Welk Show.
I was privileged to accompany my grandmother and her canasta-playing pals on many Saturday nights. Sophie Lane was my grandmother’s best friend and the designated driver because she had the largest car. My seat was the least desirable, wedged between two women with silver-blue hairdos teased to epic heights, their nails polished in shades of peach or tangerine with lipstick to match. The air was perfumed with the conflicting scents of Jean Nate, Joy, and Arpege. I smelled of Noxzema. My hair was held in place with a headache inducing hairband or a Goody barrette. As the car breezed along palm-tree lined roads towards the Intercoastal Waterway, the conversation predictably turned from the weather to popovers.
Patricia Murphy’s was known for their infinite offering of freshly baked popovers, served steaming hot from a gingham-lined basket. The simple combination of milk, eggs, salt, and butter followed by an uninterrupted stay in a hot oven, yielded towering domes with wispy centers. Curls of sweet butter melted into every crevice of the ethereal dinner roll before dripping down my fingers and dotting the linen napkin sprawled across my lap. Strawberry jam accompanied the popovers, sticky sweet and as crimson as my sunburn.
The dinner menu boasted everything you could dream of baking, broiling, breading, or frying. Compound butter was a popular accessory to steaks, chops, and fish, a generous disc of cholesterol dotted with herbs, melting slowly, dramatically, across and over and down, pooling alongside the edge of the plate. I was keen on their jumbo butterfly shrimp, sometimes served as scampi, sometimes fried and dressed with tartar sauce and lemon. During the dinner portion of the meal, I always kept an extra popover on my bread and butter plate in the hopes of smuggling it home in a doggie bag.
Dessert seemed anti-climactic following those popovers, but I always managed to struggle through a parfait of vanilla ice cream swirled with emerald crème de menthe. Sophie Lane was a fan of the fresh peach pie crowned with peach ice cream, while Mama Min leaned towards the baked ice cream meringue pie. The ladies concluded their meal with Sanka, or Postum while I played with a Lipton teabag and a spoonful of honey. Drunk on popovers, shrimp, and ice cream, I was half asleep before the ladies divvied up the bill and gathered up their crocheted wraps. Leaning against my seat mates, I could spot a blur of the orange sun as it disappeared into the Florida sky. With easy listening pouring out of the radio, and my dinner companions humming along, I hoped one of those popovers had found its way into my doggie bag.
On Tuesday morning at 8 o’clock, Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market is just waking up. A slightly warped table is stacked high and wide with early July peaches. The fruit hints at ripeness, all fuzzy and pinky-yellow, but they know and I know they are not yet ready for prime time pie-ing.. These are stubborn peaches, clearly ripening on their own schedule, refusing to yield beneath my cautious thumb and index finger. “Quit pinching!” the stone fruit scolds. I move along. Looking back I let the peaches know, “I wasn’t pinching! I was just checking to see if you were ready, and clearly you’re not. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
I have high hopes for a quart of peaches waiting for me at home. Left alone to ripen in my absence, lately I've been fixated on grilled peaches sandwiched between baking powder biscuits. Fueled in part by a partial container of heavy cream “going begging” (to quote my grandmother, Minnie) I turn to James Beard’s recipe in The Fireside Cook Book. The recipe yields 7 biscuits, just enough, not too many. My knuckles shudder as I unearth the box grater from the kitchen cabinet. Flakes of frozen butter tossed with flour, baking powder, a little salt, and cold milk is all that is required. (Beard also has a wonderful biscuit recipe that relies on heavy cream, but the heavy cream is already spoken for.) I had envisioned grilled peaches boasting perfectly aligned grill marks, but the torrential downpour has squashed my grill dreams. There is no room for weather optimism; my phone incessantly beeps, reminding me of a flood watch in my vicinity. I crank up the oven to 450 degrees and make room on my stovetop for a cast iron skillet. The peaches flinch ever so slightly beneath my fingers. Unlike their peach relations in Philly, these peaches mean shortcake business.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm