Snow days were once announced via radio, an endless list of hard to understand numbers rattled off at lightning speed at the crack of dawn. The numbers were affiliated to a school tethered to a township. The dream was hearing your school's number followed by the word “closed.” Far less desirable were the words, “delayed opening” which generally meant the dreaded math test or gym class or mean girls lunch table you were hoping to avoid would be waiting for you upon arrival.
The first significant snowfall of the season fell this week, commencing Wednesday evening in fits and starts, continuing steadily into Thursday morning. The word on our street was that schools were closed and students were enjoying a snow day. A snow day in the midst of in-home/virtual classrooms sounded confusing to me, but 2020, much like Mother Nature, abides by her own rules. More than ten inches of powdery fluff hugged the sidewalks and roads, blanketing the neighborhood like an oversized white comforter. From inside the house looking out, everything sparkled, twinkly and beckoning, a pristine landscape, save for the incessant footprints of squirrels.
Freshly fallen snow is as pretty as a snow globe unless you need to be somewhere. A brief venture outdoors to pluck a snow-covered newspaper from the hidden walkway and ascertain the status of the snowplow is all I need before coffee. Snow however, had other plans, cozying up to the car, covering the windshield, immobilizing the wipers, freezing all four doors shut. Snow knows your ice scraper lives inside the car, the one with the frozen doors. Snow likes to tease by palling around with brilliant sun and sapphire skies, surrounding itself with chilly temps, biting winds, and a thin yet hazardous layer of ice. Snow likes to taunt you into believing a turtleneck, a sensible pair of jeans tucked into a pair of boots, and a parka will provide sufficient warmth. Outfitting myself for the horizontal wind chill nipping at my nose compared to the Weather Channel's “real feel” forecast is a thermal-flannel-woolen nightmare.
Digging into a driveway’s worth of weighty snow, I’m instantly reminded me that the repetitive nature of snow removal doesn’t align with an already cranky baker’s back. With each hoisting of the shovel, my father’s voice echoes in my ears, reminding me to bend my knees, lift with my legs, turn and not twist. My shoveling choreography is erratic, the shovel unwieldy, the cargo too heavy. With little room to deposit the snow, the next available space is perilously close to my favorite hydrangea; the plant winces in anticipation. “I’m a baker, not a snow plow,” I complain to a brazen squirrel watching me from the hood of the car. My progress is slow, the bending and lifting tedious, my back disgruntled. Leaning the shovel against the house, I peel off my cumbersome boots and abandon my snow clearing mission.
Far better suited to an indoor activity, I unearth two discs of pie dough from the refrigerator and turn the oven to a comfortable 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The tapered rolling pin fits comfortably in my hands. With the late afternoon sun pouring through the kitchen windows, I reach for a pair of nine inch pie plates and two ibuprofen.
On the Saturday evening before Thanksgiving, it became blatantly obvious that securing freezer space for gravy-making turkey parts and bulging bags of cranberries was going to be a struggle. There was little, if any, Feng shui energy taking place between the Tupperware, zip-locs, scraps of pie dough, and half-eaten containers of ice cream. Certain items needed to sequester, and while the garage freezer had a few vacancies, I was hesitant to move the ice cream. Rhubarb, once fresh, was the first to receive his eviction notice. Gathering up the frost bitten pink and green vegetable, I deposited the rhubarb in the depths of an already crowded satellite freezer. In the midst of rearranging frozen chicken stock and pounds of sweet butter, a Tupperware container came tumbling forward. Scrawled across the lid in black Sharpie marker were the words “Hyline Cherries- Summer ’19.” Grabbing the cherries, I left the rhubarb to get settled in his new digs, closing the freezer and the garage door.
Cobbling together odds and ends of dough, there was just enough of a circle to blanket the bottom of a 9” pie plate. While the reconfigured dough tried to relax, I emptied the cherries into a mesh strainer and dabbed away most of the ice crystals. While we ate dinner, the slap-dash, open-faced cherry pie baked, taunting with a fragrance more akin to late spring/early summer and less like November. We tucked our forks into it without waiting for it to cool and it was just sweet enough, decidedly tart, and very cherry. It made me think that I should call Loretta at Hyline Orchards and wish her a happy holiday and an early happy birthday.
Draping plastic wrap over the pie, I found a place for it in a less than obvious location. Some might say I hid the pie, which is true. On Sunday morning, November 22nd, I ate one slice of cherry pie for breakfast with my morning coffee and had another smidgen just before leaving for work. That last bit left a cherry stain on my white button down work shirt. Splashing some cold water on the indelible stain, I casually mentioned to anyone within earshot there was a little pie left, little being the operative word. This past Monday, I called Hyline Orchards to order some cherries and to chat with Loretta. As is often the case in life, when you think of calling someone, you should do it sooner than later. I will miss her every time I bake a cherry pie.
December 26, 1936 – November 22, 2020
Two words truly capture the essence of Pie-mageddon; one is “never” and the other is “enough.” The words can be used individually, for example, “I am never going to be able to cram another pie shell in this freezer” or “Enough already!” referring to the number of pre-orders haunting my dreams. The words can also be used back-to back when discussing the number of hours in a day, the numbers of racks in an oven and the number of hands available to peel bushels and bushels of apples. This year it seemed that there was never enough apple/pumpkin/pecan in the offing to satisfy the pie hungry throngs that forgot to order in advance.
The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving are fraught with drama. Add to an already stressful holiday a global pandemic, and you’ve set the stage for some lengthy days and bleary-eyed nights. Small annoyances become monumental; sneeze-inducing masks with ear bending elastics, in-operable linen service aprons, a pair of jeans that desperately requires a belt, but you've forgotten the belt. Normal, everyday occurrences take on a sinister life of their own.
The truth is there will never be enough oven time, freezer space, fridge space, nor pie to satisfy the hunger of those who don’t bake. This year felt more unsettled than years past, especially when Thanksgiving pre-orders closed. The distinctive hint of a small uprising lurked just beyond the bakery door. Reminiscent of the angry mob waving torches and pitchforks in Beauty and the Beast, my version featured an angry mob wielding pie forks. Despite copious amounts of caffeine, there were days in November that felt as topsy turvy as a good, old fashioned Thanksgivukkuh.
Clearly, 2020 is the uninvited houseguest who doesn’t know when to leave. It is the least welcome addition to the holiday table, snagging the last slice of pie when you aren’t looking. While we wait impatiently for this crazy year to gather up its belongings and see itself out, the best we can do is fortify ourselves with a little pie, a little Zoom and an abundance of kindness.
Pumpkin pie has been on my radar since early July, when HGTV Magazine contacted me wanting some insight on pumpkin pie mishaps. Clearly they had landed in the appropriate pumpkin patch. Pumpkin pies are the neediest in the Thanksgiving pie line-up. Maybe not when you're baking at home with an oven that speaks your language and classical music pouring out of the radio. Loading convection ovens from top to bottom with dozens (and dozens) of pumpkin pies requires cajoling them into almost doneness. Knowing when to pluck them from the oven while they still jiggle is tricky. What's needed is a gentle heat that will woo the spiced custard just enough, but not too much.
Commercial ovens are equipped with feisty heating elements and fans that circulate hot air. These ovens can be both breezy and hot headed. The last thing a custard pie wants is too much hot air blowing down its crimp. If you could wrap each pie in its own cashmere pashmina for the last ten minutes, you might have a shot at even baking. Instead, the oven doors tiptoe open to reveal pies at varying degrees of readiness. Cookbooks once suggested the "clean test" knife approach, but that only leaves a chasm sprawling across the pie's surface. The cautious manipulating of the not-quite-baked-pies is a delicate dance. The more you jostle them, the more apt they are to grimace.
Pumpkin pies do not appreciate a draft or a chill, much like my first piano teacher, Mrs. Poblack, who wore a cardigan sweater regardless of the season. While I plunked out the C major scale, Mrs. Poblack fanned herself non-stop with my copy of "A Dozen a Day." You might say her fanning was as relentless as a convection oven without a fan switch. Which is what makes Thanksgiving fraught with challenges worthy of magazine copy.
Anyone who has ever dabbled in the performing arts knows instinctively what the term Anxious Patience refers too. It is a state of anxiety where you are desperate to learn the facts but terrified at the outcome. Generally, it conjures images of a high school bulletin board announcing the cast list for the annual spring musical. As a lowly freshman, know-it-all-sophomore, or arrogant junior, it felt like the end of the world if the role you saw yourself playing went to somebody else, namely a senior.
In college, Anxious Patience required more of you because there was a semester's worth of shows to audition for amidst far greater competition. Cast lists were posted on the Call Board, a backstage bulletin board that could determine your fate by the simple inclusion or omission of your name. Hopes and dreams were dashed more often than highly coveted roles were snagged. The disbelief accompanying the news unfolded amidst your competitors. The Call Board provided one of the most demanding of all acting skills; how to be a gracious loser. Combing through a blur of names to find your own, or not, helped aspiring actors steel themselves against the competitive nature of the business. It also helped propel some of us directly across campus to the student union where peanut M&Ms and mint lentils were sold by the pound.
As I practice Anxious Patience/Pandemic Version, I am grateful for the pie support of @maggieschweppe (aka Blondilocks). I see nothing wrong with adding a little (more) sugar, salt, and butter to my diet as I wait for someone to please, point me toward tomorrow.
The minute we extinguish our Jack-O-Lanterns and turn the clocks back, we are in the thick of Thanksgiving preparations, specifically pie. It doesn’t matter whether you align yourself to a double-crust apple, rich pecans suspended in buttery brown sugar, or vibrant pumpkin spiked with warm spices; pie takes center stage on Thanksgiving. But first, let us consider the last moments of October.
This will be an a-typical Halloween weekend for most of us, unless your tradition includes hunkering down at home, armed with a binge-worthy selection of Netflix and an over-sized bag (or two) of your favorite candy treats. I am ashamed to say that I didn't purchase a single Halloween sweet this go around, preferring to drown my 2020 disgruntlement in daily consumption of peanut butter cups, neon-colored DOTS and bagfuls of Cheesy Puffs. Bemoaning the fact that I totally missed Ocktoberfest-ivities, I opted to turn my attention to beer and pretzels. Pumpkin-stout soft pretzels with candied cider apples and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream was a fine distraction from the fact that Halloween, like most events of 2020, have been put on hold. Maybe October 2021 will prompt a grin from a Jack-O-Lantern, but I can't swear to it. I can, however, vouch for the fact that on Sunday, there will be an extra hour of sleep and plenty of half-priced Halloween candy for the choosing. I am in no hurry to embrace November, but armed with a bag of Hershey miniatures and the last of the Reese's peanut butter cups, there's a glimmer of hope in the November distance.
The world has yet to right itself; last week Canadian Thanksgiving came and went and I never received my Porter Airlines boarding pass. It felt like being uninvited to both Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport and New Jersey's Liberty Airport. The socially distant dinner hosted by my sister and attended by my Canadian peeps was not an option. Border crossings during a pandemic can be funny that way/not funny. The more I thought I about it, the more pie I consumed. I didn't discriminate; leftover pie, frozen leftover pie, fresh pie, collectively they made me feel better. Slightly buoyed by carbohydrates and pumpkin custard, I felt incrementally better until I glanced at the statistics flooding my inbox. The fact is domestic November festivities are also in a state of flux. Will we gather, should we gather, do we gather? Indoors? Outdoors? I wish I knew.
The day before yesterday, after closing the commercial freezer door on a leaning tower of pie shells and wandering towards my car, the NY Times Food Section posed a timely 2020 question in my newsfeed; “How Big a Bird Will Be Going Into the Oven?" https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/dining/thanksgiving-turkey-coronavirus.html
When I saw the words, ‘Big’ and ‘Bird’ used in the same sentence, for a brief instant, I thought perhaps this was a warm, fuzzy story about Muppets. Instead, it was a thought-provoking article exploring the plight of the turkey industry amidst an anything-but-normal Thanksgiving.
On a personal level, this Thanksgiving will be almost as unusual as last year. Unlike last year's surreal holiday without family, this year, we will expand our place settings from two to five. While maintaining a reasonable distance, we will circle a table that once accommodated upwards of a dozen guests. It is both sad and strange and undoubtedly, the turkey will be smaller than in years past. There will be no need for my over-sized roasting pan, the one I keep sequestered in a box on a metro shelving unit in the basement. An ordinary pan will do and there will be no brining and whining that the turkey is too heavy to maneuver from counter-top to oven. It will be a Goldilocks turkey, not too small and not too large, but just right with a little extra for leftovers.
The pie equation however, is dire. Not on the home front, but out in the retail bakery world. One of the great unknowns of this holiday is how much pie will be enough without being too much, and (perish the thought) without being too little. I have to believe that after many months of kitchen quarantine-ing, folks may very well have learned how to roll a pie shell, how to bake a pie. Maybe they watched a few hundred YouTube videos or actually signed up for a Master Class on Pie 101. Perhaps those on lockdown had time enough to peruse every single cookbook on their bookshelves and studied pate brisee, blind baking, and crumb crusts. It’s quite possible that during a seven or eight month time frame, you could binge watch every episode of MARTHA ever filmed, honing in on her pie tutorials.
The truth is we won’t really know what to expect until we (much like Wondra flour and gravy) are in the thick of it. Until I get a pulse on the state of pie and its holiday forecast, I’ll keep the butter cutter busy and the dough sheeter plugged in. My personal pie decisions will be made last minute; with Master/Master and Sweet Soprano on the other side of the border, it’s doubtful we’ll need an oversized Wild Nut Pie. The pumpkin selection will remain faithful to James Beard, but it’s the wild card pie, the one culled from a freezer stash of warm weather fruit that is uncharted territory. To be honest, the turkey is less stressful than all the pie shells swirling around in my subconscious and my reality.
It’s comforting to know that any unresolved questions can be fielded by the steady folks at the Butterball Turkey hotline and those in the know at the King Arthur Baking company. The sad truth is that the only certainty circling Thanksgiving is the uncertainty. Since I’m unable to travel to Canada and Canada can’t travel to me, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
October slipped through the kitchen door, arriving unannounced and without invitation. The Italian prune plums have exhausted themselves playing back-to-back performances in in Marian Burros’ plum torte. Now it’s simply a matter of weeks before Pie-mageddon sucks the life out of every retail driven baker.
As clear as a cello windowed 10” x 10” x 2”½” pie box, I know that lurking behind every sugar cookie ghost is an empty pie shell begging for attention. Spooky Halloween sprinkles do nothing to distract from the fact that October is followed in rapid succession by a series of weeks lost in a blur of flour, butter, sugar, and burn cream.
Recently, a weighty, corrugated box arrived at my doorstep. Nestled beneath a mountain of neon yellow paper shred, I unearthed an impressive collection of cast iron bakeware, courtesy of LODGE. As promised in the accompanying literature, this very well may be the last bakeware I ever have to purchase.
Setting aside the stately loaf-pan for a lazy Sunday in January, I turned my attention to the generous baker’s skillet. Lining the pan with whole wheat pie pastry, a mix of local apples and the very last of the fresh blueberries, a wide lattice sprawled across the behemoth pie.
Cast iron and I originally bonded over a mutual love for fried chicken, but cast iron is equally comfortable sharing the oven with baked goods. More importantly, one of cast iron’s best baking features is affording a perfectly baked bottom crust. I have enough to worry about without Mary Berry weighing in on the integrity of my pie crust.
My new bakeware pan yielded enough pie to feed a rather large gathering, if in fact, we were gathering. Since circling a table with a large group is more 2019 than 2020 (and fearfully 2021 as well) I will continue cutting sliver after sliver, making my way through the maple-y fruit, dotting the crust with whipped cream or ice cream or yogurt. I’m anxious to take my brand new cast iron loaf pan out for a spin, but that feels like a commitment better suited to a season sans pumpkins, turkeys, or gingerbread. Short term planning seems more prudent at this juncture, standing at the crossroads of Holiday 2020, facing chaos in all directions.
For anyone who has ever dozed off during a lengthy Rosh Hashanah service, Zoom-ing through the high holidays might feel like living the dream. Though unprecedented, a drive-by blasting of the shofar is just one more curiously surreal pandemic adjustment we will one day look back on in bewilderment. The traditional fight to secure a parking space in a crowded temple parking lot doesn’t apply this year. Instead, we can channel that wasted energy on our weekly trip to Trader Joe’s.
Filing into the sanctuary attired in clothing less suited to yoga or exercise is a moot point in 5781. This year, you can spandex to your heart’s content, plying yourself with apples and honey from the comfort of your over-stuffed sofa. As congregations assemble together/apart, the idea of a sweet new year takes on added significance as we acknowledge a very fractured world. If ever we could use a little Shanah Tovah, 5781 is the year.
Here we go again, gearing up for the challah-days. Continuously bombarded with images of challahs mimicking red velvet cake, multi-colored unicorns and curiously enough, buffalo chicken, I understand; there’s an audience for everything. Personally, I prefer a classic challah, one that is content to simply twist and egg wash, embellished with a little poppy or sesame seed. Today’s challah is a totally different animal, preferring to twist and shout, “Look at me! I’m studded with dark chocolate and bling-y with pomegranate seeds. You can dress me up in tahini and whatever you do, don’t forget the halvah!”
I get it. Eggy bread is another blank canvas hungry for artistic expression. Contemporary challah artists are certainly worthy of applause. But when we’re talking about the High Holidays, it seems appropriate to save room for a classic challah, one with fewer whistles and perhaps fewer strands to weave. We all have our favorite recipes, the ones we all turn to; Joan’s or Marcy’s, Jennie’s or Marian’s, the Ladies of Hadassah; influencers all.
For Rosh Hashanah, the traditional oval-shaped challah is replaced by a spiral, formed from a singular rope of dough. As one who prefers to play with her food, I always opt for a braided loaf, turning it over to tuck in the ends, and turning it once more, nudging it into a circle. Some years it’s a little more lopsided than others, but in the end, round challah is a reminder of introspection, continuity, a fresh start with a date no one can quite remember. (This year it’s 5781.) The entire process requires a substantial part of a morning or afternoon, but the results are well worth the time. Challah teaches patience and attention to detail in the rising of the dough and the weaving of the braid. It also allows for a little reflection during the torturous waiting period between oven exodus, cooling, and slicing.
I’ll keep a watchful eye on the parade of challahs marching through social media this week, but the challah we will slice will not resemble a mythical animal, nor will it be tinted red nor will we serve it alongside celery sticks and blue cheese dressing. We’ll happily slather the thick, egg-rich bread with good butter and try to exercise restraint, saving some for the next morning. While cautiously optimistic, I can make no French toast guarantees.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm