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.
Lately, Rhubarb has been behaving like an inconsiderate boyfriend. Elusive, refusing to take my phone calls, promising to arrive with the Lancaster Farm Fresh delivery, only to be a no-show. I call him at Whole Foods but he doesn’t call back. Someone says they saw him at Stop and Shop, but his usual haunt in the produce aisle is empty. What began in early May as a 425 degree Fahrenheit romance, is beginning to cool down.
Last Tuesday, Rhubarb was hanging out at the Farmers’ Market, cozying up to coils of garlic scapes. Feeling despondent, I scooped up two quarts of gorgeous sour cherries and took the long way around the gingham-draped table. Standing directly in front of the basket of pie plant, I watched Rhubarb look away. “I can’t talk to you now,” he stage whispered. “I’m working.”
After days of checking my text messages and staring at my phone, Rhubarb finally sends a curt text saying he’ll meet me for a drink. The barstools are filled with newly graduated college kids. Most of the young women are wearing golden tans, over-sized sunglasses, and strappy sandals. My sneakers are dusty with flour, my hands dotted with blueberry. Rhubarb is late and when he leans in to give me a non-committal hug he says, “You smell like butter.”
“I’ll have a Negroni,” we say to the bartender simultaneously. Sipping our drinks out of wide-mouthed rocks glasses, I play with the ribbon of orange peel, trying to find something pithy to say. Rhubarb shifts on his bar stool, swirling the over-sized ice cube in his glass.
“You look tired,” Rhubarb says. “You work too much.” I shrug.
Staring into my glass of equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin, I blurt out, “Are you breaking up with me?”
Rhubarb sighs, signals the bartender to bring the check, then replies in a low voice, “Pie plates talk, you know.”
I did know. Rhubarb continues. “You’ve been spotted at the Farmers’ Market hugging quarts of sour cherries, squeezing peaches… “ His voice trails off and for once, he sounds the slightest bit jealous.
“That was once,” I try to explain. Stony silence. I stare into my drink. “Okay, maybe twice,” I admit.
His voice is a hybrid of outrage and hurt.. “For goodness’ sake, you know it’s too early for peaches…” He drains his glass and continues. “The truth is, you deserve someone better, someone sweeter.” Rhubarb leans in, adjusting his gaze to meet mine. My eyes are foggy with unshed tears.
“C’mon- you’ll be fine,” the pie plant insists. “You’ll forget all about me once the freestone peaches swing through town.” Rhubarb looks around uncomfortably before delivering the final blow. His words sting with the barb of a poisonous leaf. “It’s not you, Nice Pie. It’s me. The season’s over.”
Beyond the barstools, the late June sunlight is blinding. Rhubarb squeezes my hand, leaving behind a hint of pink. “But what about us?” I ask. Rhubarb kisses my cheek then climbs into the back seat of an Uber. The rear window rolled down, Rhubarb leans out, winks, and smiles. ”We’ll always have May.”
It was August 3rd of 2014 and my GPS was faltering. I considered turning the car around about a dozen times en route to Molly O’Neill’s house. “Bring what you think you’ll need,” Molly advised. “There’s absolutely nothing up here.” She wasn’t kidding. The tiny hamlet of Rensselaerville, NY boasted a lush forest preserve, a dramatic waterfall at the end of the road, and a night sky dressed in pinks. Precious coffee shops and artisan bakeries however, were an hour away. We were a diverse group of nine; East coasters, Pacific Northwesterners, and one from smack dab in the middle. We had signed on for a month long writing intensive only to find ourselves in the middle of nowhere.
Bookcases groaning under the weight of cookbooks occupied much of the wall space in Molly’s house. The kitchen shelves were stacked a little too high with one-of-a-kind pottery that transported the most mundane bowl of fruit into a still life. For the entire month of August, our breakfast consisted of bowls of Molly’s homemade granola. The blend was generous to a fault with toasty oats, nuts, and dried fruit. We ate it with spoonfuls of what my friend Dakota described as the love child born to whipped cream and yogurt.
Molly was a formidable presence, hair piled high atop her head, generally followed by a parade of dogs in varying degrees of decline. Quick to laugh, yet just as quick to scold, Molly could be your toughest critic and your most fervent cheerleader. The front door of her house welcomed a steady stream of farmers and photographers, chefs, wordsmiths, and neighbors. One weekend featured a cameo appearance from food writer Ben Mims. Following a tutorial on the proper way to write a recipe, we headed into Molly’s kitchen for a green bean casserole cook-off. “Isn’t this fun?” Molly beamed.
Sometimes dinners were held at ‘the Barn,’ a cavernous red structure set down in a farm field dotted with sunflowers. Chef Alicia Walters created the most extraordinary meals in that space; multiple courses boasting fresh and local. Molly had an extraordinary eye for talent and a gift for making introductions.
Our group of nine was dubbed the “Scholars,” scribbling morning pages in Moleskin journals, composing stories late into the night on laptops. We shared bedrooms and bathrooms, confidences and frustrations. Molly pushed us to pen our what ifs and what next. When we weren’t writing we were re-writing.
The summer never really ended because Molly had a way of insisting that something was going to be such fun, and there you were, driving back to Rensselaerville with Dakota to bake dozens of pies for her Longhouse Food Revival. You returned again and again because Molly had a way of drawing you back in.
In 2016, Molly decided to rent Julia Child’s house in the south of France and wouldn’t it be such fun and before you knew it, you were writing morning pages in Julia’s living room and baking apple tarts in Julia’s kitchen. Molly continued to expand my circle of friends and inspiration, but the one thing that was missing was Molly. When Molly admitted to having health issues, it resonated with the knell of a beloved soap opera character stricken with a chronic cough.
I returned to Molly’s home to talk about words and piecrust on several more occasions, sitting on her back porch listening to her tell animated stories against a soundtrack of crickets. Long before I met her, I squirreled away Molly’s columns plucked from the Sunday Magazine section of the New York Times. Re-reading her words I can hear her voice. I am profoundly grateful for the things she taught me and for the people she ushered into my life.
On occasion, some berries are best with just the slightest intervention. Tucking local strawberries into a pie often yields a puddle on the plate or a slice of berries suspended in an overly sweetened, starchy filling. We can do better.
The strawberries that are currently popping up in Farmers’ Markets want you to take them home. They are fragile souls, requiring the gentlest mist of cool water, the least amount of handling. Unlike the strawberries crammed into clamshells year round, these crimson jewels are intensely flavored berries with a stem, a handful of freckles, and nothing more. They make the very best ice cream, the brightest sorbet, the perfect biscuit shortcake. Oven roasted strawberries are often overlooked but should be part of your summer berry repertoire. A short stint in the oven set at a low temp intensifies their sweetness without overheating the kitchen or the baker. Served alongside circles of bite sized-pie crust sprinkled with basil sugar answers your pie calling. Feel free to add a scoop of ice cream or a fluff or whipped cream. Strawberries in June are possibly sweeter than the last day of school. The season is now.
Even if you declare yourself a cake person, you can still respect pie. Pie is the circle that thrives on being divvied up into triangles, a casual mingling of butter driven crust and seasonally inspired filling. Pie pulls us together around a dining room table or a Formica countertop, or makes room for us on a picnic blanket. Pie doesn’t raise an eyebrow if you don’t follow the norm. Pie gives you the green light to have a slice for breakfast or sneak a slice before going to bed. Pie is the hug that wants you to feel better about the day you are having or the day you just had.
Cake certainly has its place and deserves our respect, but the truth is cake takes itself a little too seriously. I was all about cake when it was swirled in frosting and dotted with birthday candles. That was before cake morphed into a diva, worrying about hair and make-up, wanting to know if a certain shade of buttercream clashed with her beaded border. Cake begs to be gussied up for a birthday or a wedding, ombréed or drippy, overdressed in fondant. Cake loves to steal the spotlight and can’t keep a secret. Cake is all-telling when it gender reveals, high-fivey at milestone celebrations, and the last one to go home when the band stops playing.
Not pie. Pie doesn’t need an occasion because by its very nature, pie creates an occasion. Sure, pie loves a good holiday, (I see you Thanksgiving) but pie is rooted in humble beginnings driven by necessity, a teller of stories, conjuring faces and far away places. Most importantly, pie encourages the act of sharing, of inclusion. This simply means looking up from your own little plate and welcoming someone else to join in the conversation. We could all take a lesson from pie.
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.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm