Life is full of surprises. Here are a few photos of my first twenty-four hours in Nancy’s fair city. Not only are the views spectacular, the eats are pretty sweet. Click on the photos for a snippet of info. More to follow...
Two years ago to the day, I participated in a week-long culinary adventure held at a small home in Provence. Shortly after setting down my too-big-to-carry-on carry on, our group of ten assembled in what was once Julia and Paul Child’s living room. Over glasses of wine and local olives, we introduced ourselves. Our commonality was a love of words and images, coupled with a hunger for local food. One of my housemates was Nancy, a well-established photographer, formerly from New York by way of Minnesota, currently residing in Oslo. Nancy and I shared an obsession for exquisite dishware and a love of brunøst, the velvety, brown cheese as common to Norwegians as American cheese to Americans. When our week-long culinary adventure ended, Nancy invited me to visit her the next time I happened to be in Oslo. The chances of traveling to Oslo seemed as realistic as Americans concluding their Thanksgiving meals with cake instead of pie.
Life is full of surprises. Here are a few photos of my first twenty-four hours in Nancy’s fair city. Not only are the views spectacular, the eats are pretty sweet. Click on the photos for a snippet of info. More to follow...
The ample supply of Gingergold and Honeycrisp apples stacked neatly in the walk-in refrigerator have been depleted, forcing me to cross the linoleum from kitchen to dining room where we have created a makeshift fruit ‘annex.’ Heavy wooden crates filled with apples are stacked a mere whisper away from customers intent on caffeine, conversation, and free wifi. Armed with a commercial mixing bowl that should require a license to operate, I edge in towards the produce on a slight diagonal. Cutting the corner a little too closely, the lip of the mixing bowl grazes a leather shoulder strap draped across the back of a chair. Gesturing towards the fruit with my elbow, I apologize to the women sipping lattes out of Fiestaware mugs. . “Excuse me, I’m just trying to get in there…”
“Oh,” Leather Shoulder Strap looks up, slightly surprised. “You’re trying to get to the fruit? To the apples? I thought they were for sale.”
“No,” I shake my head. “They’re not for sale. They’re for baking. Pies and scones, sometimes coffeecakes…” My voice trails off, muffled inside the cavernous stainless steel vessel.
Realizing that the fruit is no longer a retail commodity but a wholesale ingredient, Shoulder Strap is intrigued. “Apple pies? You’re making apple pies?”
I continue emptying one crate of apples, assuming my actions are self-explanatory. Shoulder Strap’s mug mate joins in on the conversation.
“I’m really more of a pear person,” she confesses. “I love pears.”
At the next table, a man typing furiously on his laptop is oblivious to the tight confines of fruit and baker. He continues penning his great American novel, refusing to inch his chair ever so slightly to the right. It’s a stand-off: Apple vs. apples. Shoulder Strap senses my plight and moves her vintage wooden chair ever so slightly to the left, allowing me to bob and weave.
“No, I’m not crazy about pears. I’m an apple girl, myself,” Shoulder Strap, insists, draining the last of her latte.
Cautiously maneuvering my unwieldy cargo away from the Kaffeeklatsch, I retreat back to the kitchen where a lethal fruit peeler awaits my return. Dodging the sharp blade of the Kuhn peeler, I consider the neediness of pears as opposed to the agreeability of apples.
Personally, the sweet tartness of a Macoun or the spiciness of a Winesap conjure autumn more than anything pumpkin spice. But the pear, the perfectly ripe Anjou or Bosc or Comice, the adorably instagram-able Seckel, taunts with a season as limited as a Halloween pop-up shop. Preferring to wear their sweetness not on their sleeves, but at their core, pears ripen and sweeten from the inside out. Other than the Bartlett, pears refuse to change color offering little clue as to what degree of ripeness you will find within. Pears require the patience of a saint, imploring you to sequester them in brown paper bags, insisting you visit them often, applying just enough but not too much gentle pressure to their stem ends, hoping to catch them right before they reach the rapid downward spiral from ripe to past their prime.
Pedestrian supermarket pears can be terribly difficult to read, individually swaddled in Bartlett-green tissue paper, offering no indication whatsoever as to what you will find when you take them home. The English have coined the phrase, “sleepy pear” stemming from the suggestion that one stay up all night to eat a pear in order to enjoy its fleeting moment of perfection. “Sleepy pears” refer to pears that are overripe, no doubt hidden under cases of apples, or left to ripen in a Trader Joes bag, forgotten beneath a butcher-block worktable.
Two cases of pears were delivered to the bakery last week, greeted by a sleep-deprived baker. My paring knife struggled against an unripe piece of fruit, finally yielding a pear neither sweet nor ripe, taunting with the promise of lattice tops and cardamom spice. Outwardly, it was the perfect shade of chartreuse, its stem cocked at just the right angle. Inwardly, the flavor was somewhat reminiscent of wax fruit. Not any old wax fruit; the kind once artfully arranged in an ornate bowl gracing a dining room table in the furniture department of Bloomingdale’s.
Under my watchful eye, the pears refused to ripen for days, until one morning I noticed the slightest fragrance hovering above the crates. Teetering on the brink of “sleepy,” the fruit required immediate attention. I rinsed, peeled, cored, and sliced with abandon. The pears were ambrosial but devilishly slippery, skidding off the cutting board, taking a nose-dive, landing on the petri dish of a floor. The ones that survived were tucked into pie shells, layered into the Cake-Formerly-Known-As-Apple, tossed with flour, butter, and buttermilk for scones. I couldn’t use them fast enough and in the end, some of them had indeed fallen into a deep-past-their-pear-prime slumber. The entire process was both nerve wracking and exhilarating without involving the slightest pinch of spices reserved for that orange gourd.
On the home front, a brown paper bag harboring four pounds of pears offered no indication of ripeness. They were just as I had left them days before, neither yielding to pressure at their stem ends, nor offering the slightest hint of perfume. Running out of patience and with a few hours on my hands, I decided it was time to rouse the pears, sweeten them with brown sugar and Amaretto, and splash them with citrus. The fruit sneezed under a few pinches of pink pepper and a generous hit of cardamom before filling an 8" springform pan. And while the pie baked for over an hour, I did what any baker does; filled my favorite over-sized mug with caffeine and pored over cookbooks, staving off sleep. From the dining room table, my grandmother’s Capodimonte fruit bowl filled with Bosc, Bartlett, and Anjou winked in approval.
With the official start of autumn nipping at my kitchen clogs, the feasting and abbreviated famine associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has concluded. Regardless of how you approach a day of atonement, the truth is fasting goes ever so s-l-o-w-l-y. A grumbling stomach and mild headache can practically drown out an entire day’s worth of reflection. Pining for breakfast and daydreaming about a sumptuous lunch is enormously distracting. As the day unfolds, minute by ravenous minute, all you can think about is what you will eat the moment the sun sinks into the sky.
Prior to September 1983, the High Holidays boasted desserts reliably sticky with honey and overly stuffed with apples. When The New York Times published a recipe from Marian Burros in the fall of 1983, the focus shifted from apples and honey to plums. The plum torte featured in the food section was sleek, deeply magenta, a little bit sassy and just spicy enough. The recipe heralded practically every autumn between 1983 and 1995. It is still offered online for those of us who misplaced our original, well-worn clipping.
While revisiting the plum torte recipe this week, I was assaulted by a social curation website, the one that loves to share images and ideas in an organized fashion. According to the giant bulletin board website, had I but looked up from the loaf pans and tube pans crowding my workspace last week, I would have learned what’s cookin’ in the year 5779. Good Lord; it appears I’m woefully out of the High Holiday loop.
The well-worn Pyrex dishes that our grandmothers filled with Lokshen Kugel (Noodle Pudding,) have been nudged out of the way by Staub Ceramic Stoneware filled with hand-made noodles and dairy free cheese. Over-sized casseroles edged in crispy shreds of potatoes have moved on, taking their box graters with them. Spiralized zucchini is all the rage, tossed with gluten-free matzoh meal and egg whites, all served up in cast iron skillets. As for the Sun-Maid Raisin Girl in the classic red box, she’s been replaced by an eight ounce package of dried cherries from Trader Joe’s.
The more I scanned, the less I recognized. Momentarily blinded by a unicorn-inspired challah, it seemed harmless to click on ‘apples and honey.’ Staring back at me were screaming red apples fashioned out of Rice Krispie treats. Just before exiting the screen, I stumbled upon a video clip suggesting the sweetest way to break a Yom Kippur fast was with a pumpkin spice Babka. Turning away, I tried to envision my grandmother’s reaction to Pinterest. Reaching into the sleeve of her belted shirtwaist dress, securing a monogrammed handkerchief, she would have dabbed her eyes in disbelief.
Post-dinner last Tuesday and pre-sundown last Wednesday allowed me all the time in the world to think about making 5779 a better year. It always seems fitting to look back before looking ahead, ultimately offering a few heartfelt apologies.
Please forgive the wayward lemon seed and the smidgen of apple peel that found its way into your double crust pie; I try to be so careful. For the meringue that wept and the pie that puddled, my regrets. For the coconut macaroons that were a little too toasty, and the Hamantaschen that were beautifully triangular pre-oven yet ended up more oval post-oven, my hopes were high. For the pies that lingered too long at 375 degrees and those that needed a little more time at 375 degrees, I’m sorry, truly I am. As a humble gesture, please take a look at a non-traditional dessert offering that pairs beautifully with plums and is equally acceptable for breakfast, because the last thing you want to be is hangry.
Holiday revelers in early autumn are reliably forgetful. Their feet firmly planted in open toed sandals and their minds still at the beach, they are engrossed in back-to-school. When the calendar indicates that Rosh Hashanah is next on the docket, the bakery is inundated with folks desperately seeking apple. In one breath, it’s all about the pie; granny smiths and honey crisps spiked with cinnamon, piled high beneath a double crust. It’s also critical to lay one's hands upon a dowdy, circular cake, overstuffed with apple slices and drizzled with cider. A few days later, when there are apple pies aplenty, everyone is trying to hold on to summer, ignoring the apples and asking for yellow peaches poking through a lattice. The absence of peach pies is particularly troubling to a gentleman named Julius.
I recognize Julius as a regular weekend pie guy. In the summer months, he gravitates towards peach, bypassing the jumble berries and the blueberries, ignoring the key limes and anything plum-my. Fortunately, we’ve enjoyed a bountiful stone fruit season and crates of fresh peaches have been rolling through the bakery doors at least once a week, sometimes more. The odds seemed in our favor that peach season had been extended, until the sweet peaches were a little less sweet and the apple man cometh.
When the apple man arrives, I get that school-bus-rounding-the-corner feeling in the pit of my stomach. Parking an unassuming white truck just past the café tables and chairs fronting the bakery, the man from Lancaster Farms unloads a wooden pallet of fruit. An assortment of early apples, a few stragglers of late peaches, and a case of smooth skinned nectarines are hermetically sealed beneath yards of high density plastic wrap. I’m sad to see more apples than stone fruit, heralding the official end of summer.
All it takes is one honey loaf and an apple cake, and we are shot out of the holiday canon tumbling headfirst into the jaws of seasonal baked goods. No longer will we amuse ourselves selecting cookie cutters that align with fabricated food holidays. Pie shells will aggressively fight for freezer space and Christmas Red will nudge Pumpkin Orange for its rightful place amidst the Ameri-gel food colorings. If you breathe deeply, your nose will tickle with the fresh scent of candy corn followed by an assault of peppermint stick.
In a bakery, there’s nothing gradual about the unfolding of summer into autumn, nothing casual about the segue from Thanksgiving into Christmas. It happens in an instant, one holiday crashing into the next and before you know it, Ryan Seacrest is mouthing the words to “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
With one holiday behind us and the next one approaching in less than a week, it seems perfectly reasonable to feel a little bit anxious at the sight of the apple man. And from peach pie seeker Julius, his surprise and dismay is understandable, especially when the mercury continues to hover around 80 degrees.
I ask Julius to consider the nectarine. A combination of white peaches and nectarines might bake up a little sweeter, echoing the flavor of summer peaches he's hoping for. “Oh no,” Julius assures me. “No nectarines. Peach. Just peach.” Shaking his salt and pepper head Julius half-apologizes, “I thought peaches were still in season.” I explain that peaches are winding down and point to the apple pies stacked on the front table. Behind me, a woman is engrossed in her phone, agonizing whether to order an apple cake for Tuesday morning or Wednesday afternoon. “It’s the holiday!” she emphasizes into her cellphone. Don’t I know it.
“Tell me what time the pie will be ready, and I’ll come back,” Julius offers.
At four o’clock, Julius returns to pick up his pie. The cello window of the bakery box is cloudy with steam, the pie almost too hot to carry. “No nectarines,” I assure him. “Straight-up peach.”
“This peach pie reminds me of my grandmother,” Julius explains. Gathering up the box, he pauses. “Apples you can get anytime, but peaches…” he trails off, clearly revisiting a food memory. Some days, my job is pretty sweet.
On weekday mornings just before 8 o’clock, as I’m hunting down a parking spot near the bakery, our local classical music station plays an “Out the Door” dedication. Pre-caffeination, a Rossini overture or a Sousa march can be jarring. Today being the eleventh of September, announcer Jeff Spurgeon offers a few eloquent thoughts before pushing the play button on Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance. He suggests we think about the casualness of heading out the door, asking listeners to consider this simple act, something most of us do five mornings a week. He challenges us not to take leaving for granted, to appreciate the opportunity to embrace a new day. With Dvorak playing in the background, I park the car, thinking about the radio announcer’s proposal to pause and express gratitude for the day stretching out before me. Just outside the bakery, between sips of lattes and bites of gluten-free-ness, people are remembering where they were seventeen years ago.
Spurgeon’s words continue to resonate as I divvy up pounds of cold butter, tossing the cubes into the Hobart commercial mixer with all-purpose flour, a little sugar, a little salt. Pouring in just enough ice-cold water, I gather the pate brisée into discs, rolling them thin and easing them into aluminum pie plates. As I crimp the edges, I remember working in a Philadelphia restaurant kitchen in September of 2001.
For several days following the September 11th attacks, the restaurant was closed while everyone tried to regain their footing. When the owners decided to re-open, assuring each other and the staff that we needed to return to the new normal, it was a surreal experience.
What I vividly remember was the way we practically tiptoed around the kitchen, setting stockpots and whisks and slotted spoons into the three-compartment sink instead of casually tossing them. I remember the deafening silence of the kitchen radio, normally cranked up to POWER99, offering not a single note. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who had been deeply touched by tragedy. With the re-telling of the stories, the floodgates would open, and perfectly stoic line cooks would be crying puddles of Kosher salt tears, dabbing at the corner of their eyes with a frayed linen service apron. Standing on a commercial rubber floor mat, I continued to fill hotel pans with layers of espresso-soaked Savoiardi biscuits and mascarpone mousse. I lined springform pans with amaretti crumbs and ricotta cheesecake, poured panna cotta into ramekins. Customers ordered dessert hoping to fill the cavernous void of sadness. The dining room, normally buoyant with laughter was as still and flat as yesterday’s bottle of Prosecco. We were broken like end-of-the–night pizzelles and biscotti stacked in over-filled bus trays.
Seventeen years later, I am reminded by my classical music station not to take things for granted. In the kitchen above the din of the Hobart, Frank is singing New York, New York. Stacking the pie shells in the freezer, I reach for a bag of recently seasonal rhubarb. Ella’s velvety smooth rendition of I’ll Take Manhattan is next in the queue. Occasionally, when words fail, Sonos speaks.
Earl McCarroll was my freshman scene study professor. An Actors’ Equity card-carrying member with a penchant for Shakespeare, a raised eyebrow that spoke volumes, and an irrepressible laugh, Earl had a knack for challenging us by assigning scenes that cast us against our ‘type.’
Following a particularly lackluster but realistic scene from The Miracle Worker in which my scene partner accidentally doused me with a large cup of water, Earl suggested I take a break from Anne Sullivan. “Go to the library and look through the plays of Neil Simon. See if you can get your hands on a copy of The Gingerbread Lady.” Mopping up the water from the main stage, I crossed the lobby, my suede clogs leaving small circles of moisture on the red carpet. Beyond the heavy doors of the performing arts building, sun and clouds upstaged each other above Lake Cayuga. Autumn arrived early in upstate New York, prompting September to feel more like late October. Earl’s recommended title had me conjuring over-sized molasses cookies, heavy with ginger, spiked with cloves, outfitted in royal icing. My hunger propelled me towards the student union where I picked up a small bag of peanut M&Ms for sustenance.
Climbing the stairs to the library's theatre section, I found Simon was well represented in the stacks. Single plays published by Samuel French were wedged alongside compendiums encompassing entire Broadway seasons. The worn covers of the paperback plays echoed with voices of scene study and wistful auditions.
The Gingerbread Lady made it abundantly clear within the first few pages of dialogue that it was a darkly serious drama, a far departure from Simon’s trademark comedies. I wasn’t the only one surprised by this Debby Downer of a script. Audiences and critics were lukewarm about the play, ultimately gaining notoriety for running five short months on Broadway. Maureen Stapleton’s performance as Evy, a has-been cabaret singer fighting the demons of alcohol, garnered her a 1971 Tony award and a prestigious Drama Desk award. My performance in Earl’s scene study class received enthusiastic reviews but not a single award, sending me back to my dorm room empty handed.
Years later, I would spot Neil Simon in New York City’s theatre district, sometimes cutting through Shubert Alley, sometimes having lunch at the now-defunct “Polish Tearoom” in the Edison Hotel. I remember walking past his table, the prolific playwright hunched over a cavernous bowl of soup, an assortment of pickles edged out of reach by a notebook. I recall seeing him standing at the rear of the orchestra, scribbling notes during an early performance of They’re Playing Our Song and again at a performance of Brighton Beach Memoirs. I always expected him to be slightly larger than life because that was how I imagined him.
Last evening, at 6:45 pm, Broadway dimmed its lights in memory of Neil Simon who passed away on August 26th at the age of 91. Simon’s passing is bittersweet for many of us who studied his words and his characters, marking the end of a chapter that spanned our college careers and decades of Broadway theatre going. There was something comfortably predictable about the patter of a Neil Simon play, the buoyancy of his dialogue, the way the words rolled off the stage covering the audience in a blanket of humor and heartbreak.
As we head into the last weekend of August, my inbox is bombarded with no-bake-dog-days-of-summer recipe suggestions. Among them are multitudes of pies boasting cracker crumb crusts. As a nod to a very old way to line a pie plate, and in memory of Neil Simon, it seems only fitting to offer a snippet of dialogue from his play, The Sunshine Boys:
“You like a cracker?
What kind of cracker?
Graham, chocolate, cocoanut, whatever you want.
Maybe just a plain cracker.
I don't have plain crackers. I got graham, chocolate and cocoanut.
Alright, a graham cracker.
They're in the kitchen, in the closet.
When life gives you donut peaches, you have two choices. The obvious approach is to make a beeline for the kitchen, rinse the squat stone fruit under cool water, follow with a gentle towel dry, and set them on the counter. They are then ripe for the picking, as is, in all of their sweet, dimple-faced simplicity. The other option is to cradle that cute little peach in your hand and listen to the voice inside your head that says, doughnut. I chose the latter approach.
Never were two food items coined with the same name so vastly different. Resembling something whipped up in a food laboratory, donut peaches are genuine peaches, originally hailing from China in the 19th century. Descendants of flat peach varieties, donut peaches are aptly named ‘peento’ meaning, pardon the redundancy, ‘flat peach.’ They are also known as Saturn peaches as a nod to their resemblance to the rings of Saturn. Donut peaches exude a honey-like sweetness with far less wipe-your-chin juicy exuberance. Doughnuts, or Donuts (as coined by Dunkin) are what we dream of as we pile our paltry slice of 6 grain and legume Ezekiel bread with slices of avocado.
Recently, a gift of donut peaches followed me home, staring me down from the kitchen counter until I moved them across the room to my butcher block worktable. Unlike the blush pink donut peaches on display at the Farmers’ Market, these chubby little peaches were the color of clover honey. The peaches sat patiently for several days while I debated; were they best eaten straight up, no fuss, no fuzz, a hand-held celebration of summer? Or beneath the dimpled exterior was there a donut yearning to be free of its pit, slathered in custard, slicked with a glaze and a riot of confetti sprinkles? Based on my childhood, the answer seemed obvious.
Doughnuts were an integral part of my youth, particularly on lazy Sunday mornings, set against a dining room table blanketed in sections of The New York Times. My father’s hankering for something other than French toast or waffles or Jessie’s homemade sugar buns would send him to the Cedarhurst Cake Shoppe or the Gaston Avenue bakery. Returning with a cake box secured with baker’s twine, my father ceremoniously untied the box, placing the baked goods on a large Stangl platter. Everything boasted gluten and sugar and plenty of butter; the only thing preventing cross-contamination between sweet and savory were a few crinkly sheets of wax paper. Crusty rolls dotted with flecks of poppy seeds, onion and caraway elbowed thirst-inducing salt sticks. Airy crullers glazed in both chocolate and vanilla nuzzled against humble cake doughnuts, sparkly with cinnamon sugar. Plump jelly doughnuts oozing raspberry covered everything in snowdrifts of powdered sugar. Anything filled with vanilla custard and dripping in chocolate was divvied up into quarters, leaving a trail of chocolate smudges and dots of cream on the tablecloth. The room was fragrant with Sunday morning; a tangle of newsprint and Eight O’Clock Coffee, caraway and onion, chocolate, and raspberry. A thin veil of powdered sugar hovered over the table. The empty bakery box sat off to the side, a solemn reminder that the weekend was drawing to a close and I hadn’t yet started my homework. My father poured himself a second cup of coffee from the Chemex and reached for the crossword puzzle.
The quart of donut peaches staring me down from its perch on my butcher block this week begged to be used. I had to oblige, but not before dunking them in a splash of Lillet and wrapping them in circles of pie pastry. They baked up resembling the genuine article, providing safe haven for a generous fill of custard and a wide stroke of powdered sugar glaze. Had my father sat down to a plate of donut peach doughnuts, he would have pointed out between sips of steaming coffee that the confetti sprinkles bordered on overkill. Then he would have set down the Book Review and reached for the Sunday crossword puzzle.
In 1963, Julia Child came bounding across the tiny black and white television screen in our kitchen. Dressed in a simple button down blouse and sensible skirt, The French Chef introduced American homemakers to meals that rarely crossed our dinner plates. From my perch on a rickety wooden step stool, I was riveted by Julia’s opening teaser leading up to her exclamation, “Today, on the French chef!” The catchy theme song that followed was as bubbly as a flute of champagne, or in my small hands, a glass of Canada Dry ginger ale.
I took the French chef very seriously, particularly when she donned reading glasses. Detailing the recipe’s ingredients, this pause in action afforded viewers the opportunity to jot things down. So expansive was Julia’s tutorial on crêpes that the subject spanned two episodes. Julia demonstrated how to make the thin pancakes in what she called a ‘no stick-em’ pan suggesting, “you should train yourselves to use the tips of your fingers in very hot materials, because it will save an awful lot of time.”
I learned that the underside of a crêpe was the nicest, and the other side was the ‘non-public side.’ Ladling spoonfuls of liqueur over a chafing dish of crêpes suzette, Julia proceeded to set them on fire. Seated at the kitchen table, casually glancing up at the television from her latest Book of the Month Club selection was Jessie, my baking mentor.
Julia continued, “You can flame it in the kitchen and then bring it to the dining room, but it’s a little bit tricky because you might burn your eyelashes.” I gasped, waiting for Jessie’s reaction, but she was nonplussed. To Jessie, a woman well versed in cream puffs and éclairs, custards and meringues, crêpes were no different than the light pancakes she used to make blintzes. She shifted her attention away from the television and back to her book. My eyes remained fixated on the screen, watching until the flames died down and the credits rolled.
In contrast to today’s over-produced Food Network and Cooking Channel, The French Chef was bare-bones television. An impeccably clean kitchen towel was never too far from Julia’s reach as she bobbed between a General Electric stovetop and double oven, a Sunbeam mixer, a Waring blender, and a small army of hand-held whisks. The show was recorded live allowing ample opportunity for mishaps. Julia was unflappable and unapologetic; mopping up spills from overflowing pots, struggling with matches, unsuccessfully flipping pancakes, misplacing bowls of ingredients crucial to the outcome of the recipe. Julia sprinkled her programs generously with humor, omitting ego and arrogance. Her signature bouffant hairstyle was as mercurial as simple meringue on a humid day; in some episodes her hair held a soft peak, in others, her tresses had been teased and over-sprayed until stiff, often brushing dangerously close to flaming pans and chafing dishes. Far more than cooking, the half hour program was high drama and I loved it. The desserts were always splashed with too much melted butter, heavily doused in European liqueurs, until finally culminating in flames and Julia’s signature send-off.
For years from my perch next to Jessie, I followed Julia around her many television kitchens as they upgraded from black and white to glossy color. Her wardrobe became less stodgy, more fashion forward, and it became evident that she was wearing strategically applied make-up. I devoured her cookbooks, studying the illustrations in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, mesmerized by the photographs in her subsequent books and newspaper features. As glaringly obvious as the overhead lighting in her earliest television programming was the fact that mastering the classics gave you license to improvise.
In honor of what would have been Julia’s 106th birthday on August 15th, I reached for her 1981 softbound edition of Julia Child and More Company. Page 50 provides the recipe for Gateau Mont-Saint-Michel with a quick crêpes refresher course on page 133. Julia suggested apples for her layered dessert, but in the dog days of August, it seemed more appropriate to layer the crêpes with burnt almond cream and white peaches. With Julia’s voice in my head, I poured the thin batter over my very hot pan, rotating it until it had formed a less-than-perfect circle. Waiting a few minutes I zoomed in, using the tips of my fingers to turn the blistered pancake. It saved me an awful lot of time. Repeating the process until the batter was exhausted, I rinsed my hands under cool water before wiping them on my impeccably clean kitchen towel.
Local farmers’ markets are as vital to our summer experience as an icy, cold brew with a compostable straw. In the event your invitation was lost in the mail, you still have today and tomorrow to celebrate National Farmers’ Market Week.
Shining a klieg light on local markets and their role in bringing farmers, consumers, and communities together, the celebration at our humble market was modest. I was hoping for a slice of cake and a party hat, but no such luck. Save for the whining child wrapped around her mother’s leg, there was nary a noisemaker in sight. The only baked goods in the offing were a row of cello wrapped fruit pies, their top crusts slumping in the ghastly heat. It appeared the best way to snag a goody bag was to fill your own canvas tote and approach the register, so I inched my way to the table weighted down with baskets of stone fruit.
One of the farm market employees, looking more lifeguard than farmer, was trying to prevent the nectarines from colliding with the peaches. The peaches, not yet ripe and unruly, had escaped unscathed. Sadly, the nectarines had taken the brunt of the melee, their crimson and yellow skins split, in need of those small, circular Band-aids no one ever uses. Lifeguard/Farmer shook his head, gathering up the second-class stone fruit, whisking it away into a basket beneath the table.
“What happens to those?” I asked Lifeguard/Farmer, who had moved on to refill the hipster donut peaches, one aisle over. For a moment, his dazzling white smile dimmed. “Are you selling those?” I asked, feeling a sense of loyalty to the less-than-perfect stone fruit that just moments before had been hanging around with the cool kids of summer.
“Maybe someone will want them,” he replied, shaking his sun-streaked tresses.
I was that someone.
Approaching the register, it appeared my Lifeguard/Farmer had sent a message to the man standing before the commercial scale. Equally suntanned with pearly white teeth and a P90X physique, he whispered, “Half price for the nectarines.” Nonchalantly digging through my wallet in search of exact change, I expressed my thanks. “They’ll have a good home,” I promised, gathering up my bounty.
My car was as hot as a pre-heated Lodge cast iron skillet. Placing the bag of fruit in the passenger seat, the combination of heat plus ripe nectarines perfumed the car with the unmistakable fragrance of stone fruit in summer. If only we could bottle this and reach for it in the bitter cold of January; sweet with just a hint of almond and rose, followed by the slightest background note of New Jersey humidity.
My sheet pan has offered to make me dinner. It’s also interested in preparing an elaborate brunch for me on Sunday and longs to be my bestie when it comes to between meal snacks. In the event I turn down dinner, brunch, and swear off snacks, my sheet pan suggests we meet for dessert.
In a high volume bakery, sheet pans perform a repertoire more exhaustive than a non-equity Shakespearean summer stock company. Sheet pans are hard working and resilient, and except for the occasional warped pan that you discover moments after you close the oven door behind it, extremely dependable. We should remember however, that before sheet pans bounced out of commercial kitchens into home kitchens, we affectionately referred to them as cookie sheets or jellyroll pans.
I knew sheet pan when he was just a baby, a mere cookie sheet. Rectangular and flat with a pouty lip on one side, the pan needed to be greased or outfitted in wax paper, because home bakers didn’t have access to parchment paper. A partially unwrapped stick of Land O’Lakes sweet butter skated across the pan’s well-worn surface, covering the aluminum in a patina of soft yellow. Generous spoonfuls of cookie dough studded with semi-sweet morsels were dropped in strategic formation, 4 across by 6 down. Twelve minutes later, steadied by a pot holder, the cookies exited the oven, slightly puffy with brown sugar edges. A few renegade chocolate morsels hovered perilously close to the edge of the pan and had to be coaxed back with an icing spatula or when cool enough, a pinky finger.
I also knew cookie sheet’s closest relation, the jellyroll pan, measuring 15½” x 10½” with 1” high sides. Jellyroll pans held airy, sponge cake batter that rose just to the top of the pan, only to endure a blizzard of powdered sugar before being wrapped around a clean kitchen towel. Once cooled and unrolled, the cake was filled with jelly or whipped cream, re-rolled and dusted with more powdered sugar or a shiny chocolate glaze.
Cookie sheets and jellyroll pans weren’t particularly glamorous, they were utilitarian, stacking agreeably in just a sliver of a kitchen cabinet, rarely crossing the line from sweet to savory. On occasion, the jellyroll pan would inch its way over from cake to pie, elbowing the traditional 9” pie plate out of the way.
In late summer, at the height of blueberry and peach season, Jessie would reach up into the slim cabinet above the oven and wiggle a jellyroll pan out from beneath a stack of cookie sheets. She filled the pan with a press-in dough that tasted more of cookie than of pie crust. Jessie then blanched sweet yellow peaches, slicing them into thick wedges and reducing their rosy juices into a syrup spiked with almond extract. Rows of blueberries and peaches tumbled across the cookie crust, which had been sprinkled with a little bit of sugar and just enough Minute tapioca to contain the runaway fruit juices. The pie was baked just until the blueberries and peaches had sighed, leaning back into the golden crust. This was the only pie Jessie baked in a rectangular pan and we ate it with enthusiasm, warm forkfuls of summer under puddles of vanilla ice cream.
Nostalgia runs deep in my bones which might explain my reticence in utilizing a sheet pan to make meals. No one uses the term ‘cookie sheet’ anymore, and sheet pan has become part of our everyday kitchen vernacular, a term as casual as canelés and sous-vide. Sheet pan is no longer simply a noun, it has morphed into a verb, emblazoned as a headline, entreating me from high-end cookware displays, shouting at me from bookshelves, insisting that tonight is the night to “Sheet Pan Your Dinner!” Maybe it does streamline dinner and brunch, maybe even snacks can benefit. So go ahead, live your very best sheet pan life. If you're looking for me however, I'll be in the kitchen holding on to my cookie sheet/jellyroll pan reverie with a pot holder, not an oven mitt. I’m sorry sheet pan; it’s not you, it’s me.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm