Summertime and the living is not easy. In August, I'm painfully aware that the cool kids have stocked their fridges with the ultimate end-of-summer provisions. Burrata and fennel, a rainbow of radishes, dimpled tomatoes dubbed heirlooms. I'm happy with the basics; two-tone corn, deeply red tomatoes, and an armful of the freshest basil kindly gifted by my neighbor with the verdant thumb. At home, both the mercury and the humidity are battling each other like a pair of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. Turning on the oven is necessary but somewhat of a luxury. It is in August when we remember the reasoning behind icebox cakes, no-bake pies and fruit cocktail suspended in gelatin. In August one must choose between oven and stove-top, outdoor grill or in today's climate, contactless pick-up.
I'm more likely to pick-up a dog-eared cookbook than scroll through an on-line menu. Joanne Chang's Pastry Love offers inspiration with a recipe for a savory scone. Realizing my fridge boasts only 50% of the recipe's title, I forge ahead, improvising as I go. Kernels from a lonely ear of corn are happy to join in the mix. Basil steps in as Chive's understudy. A ripe Jersey tomato waits patiently as the over-sized scone bakes, filling the kitchen with a fragrance I'll miss when August tumbles into September.
Tuesday’s pelting rain and Wizard-of-Oz winds wreaked havoc. We were luckier than most. The good news is the tree branch carnage strewn across our yard is inconvenient, but not dire.
More importantly, two trays of hand pies exited the oven before the power went down. The surprising news is our power outage snuck up on us when we least expected it, a full day after the storm blew through. Undeterred, I made my way down the stairs on Thursday morning, hands firmly grasping the railing. Standing in the kitchen doorway, silence. Not a single appliance purred. Cautiously dipping one toe into the darkness, I tiptoed towards the counter, hoping to avoid the dreaded stubbed digit. Footwear would have been prudent, but fatigue diminishes one’s logic. Fumbling for the Chemex, I blindly folded the filter paper with the skill of an origami master. The electric burr grinder dozed, dreaming of freshly roasted Arabica beans. The ground coffee chamber offered a mere whisper of caffeinated dust. Chewing on coffee beans seemed overly dramatic and bad for one’s teeth. Bemoaning my state of cuppa joe deprivation, a morning pie (baked just hours before)offered consolation. Bad news? No coffee. Better news? Pie. Even better news? You can link to the recipe here.
Stay safe and remember, Mother Nature always wins.
Someone please hand me a block of Philadelphia Brand cream cheese; apparently Thursday was National Cheesecake Day and I didn’t get the memo.
When the mercury hovers in the nineties, my thoughts turn to ice cream floats and precarious swirls of soft serve. Cheesecake isn’t on my radar in July and August, probably because we once shared too much time together.
Cheesecake and I were once summer pals, hanging out together in Philadelphia restaurant kitchens, cooling off in the walk-ins, mopping up butter spills with nubby linen-service bar towels. Springsteen and Hall & Oates poured out of the radio until the line cooks arrived and changed the station. In the 1980s, Oreo cheesecake was a popular cholesterol buster, combining an iconic cookie with a triple threat of cream cheese, sour cream, and heavy cream. Over-dressed in dark chocolate ganache and swirls of whipped cream, each slice should have been garnished with 20 mg of Lipitor.
In the summer of 2002, I gathered together my collection of warped springform pans and moved up the block to a brand new eatery boasting Northern Italian cuisine. When I wasn’t turning out trays of tiramisu, I was filling the oven with ricotta cheesecakes. Flecked with lemon zest and perfumed with vanilla, the cheesecake needed nothing more than a perfect espresso. Instead, it was airlifted onto a behemoth dessert plate, Jackson Pollock-ed with raspberry and blackberry sauces, dotted with deliberately asymmetrical summer berries and finished with a casual dusting of confectioners’ sugar. Plating the dessert was almost as exhausting as preparing it.
A thirty pound carton of Philadelphia cream cheese forever changes the way you approach cheesecake, Sunday morning bagels, and lavishly frosted carrot cakes. In many bakeries, cream cheese is delivered in a single carton that could be mistaken for a window unit air conditioner. Chiseling away at cream cheese the way a sculptor embraces clay, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to weigh the yin and yang of cream cheese. The slab vs. the schmear, on a bagel. The naked carrot cake vs. the one smothered in stark white frosting and neon carrots. The pre-sliced cheesecake samplers peering through the freezer doors at Costco. For some, it might be cause to give up cheesecake forever.
With a stash of freshly pitted sour cherries in my freezer, and a nearly empty container of ice cream, dessert inspiration arrives via a recipe from my Canadian neighbors. Ignoring the oven, dessert is within reach. Smashing digestive biscuits into crumbs proves exhilarating. Adding a splash of bourbon to a quick stove-top spin of sour cherries and vanilla instantly improves my mood. (Ditto for a thimble-ful of bourbon for the baker.) The ‘no bake’ cheesecake filling is a quick blend of cream cheese, mascarpone, and more cherries. Not a single springform pan is required; an ordinary cupcake pan will do. The end result is the very best pairing of sour cherries and cheesecake in a digestive biscuit crust. Say cheese-cake.
As we continue to mask up and hunker down, the very best time for produce has arrived. Feeling skittish about the farmers' market, I convince myself that our local Monday market is too small to be problematic. Blinded by glaring sun, foggy eyeglasses, and mask (slightly askew) I'm determined to keep my distance. Though tempted to choose my own ears of corn, I really don't want to touch previously handled silver queen. Using my elbow, I maneuver two ears from the table into my canvas bag. There's a pyramid of blushing peaches, but those will require plastic. The simple task of procuring a plastic bag from a post dangling overhead is an issue. People within 6 feet watch me, eyebrows raised as I struggle to emancipate a single polybag while trying to maintain a safe distance. The bag is without end, causing me to unroll a football field's worth of bags. Attempting to re-roll simply makes everything worse. Fellow shoppers are glaring and stage whispering amongst themselves about "social distancing." Ugh. Is it too much to ask for a solitary flimsy tote? One with an opening that will cradle a few freestone peaches?
Focusing strictly on the cashier ahead, I pretend not to notice the peaches rolling under my feet. Just before the check-out, an unwieldy crate filled with just-picked sunflowers is perched a little too closely to where the table meets the thoroughfare. Unsuccessfully juggling my produce, I cannot find the opening of my hold-all. Clipping the sunflowers a little too closely, I plunk down my produce in order to steady the bouquet. Aaargh- my hand grazed the flowers! The grumpy guy behind me has been glaring since I elbowed the corn. Approaching the cashier, waving a credit card, I've touched the table and the square reader for contactless payment. My head hurts. Trying to maintain a safe exiting distance, a serious worker is trying to coax the sunflowers back to a casually impressive display. This is much too stressful for a Monday. Setting the produce on the front seat of the car, I explain to the peaches, "It wasn't always like this."
When an alarm pierces the dark o’clock of Thursday morning, a baker immediately believes the worst. Digging into the abyss of an exhausted subconscious, this baker wonders if she forgot to turn off the oven.
Convinced I am responsible for a house engulfed in flames, I open one eye. The floorboards are creaking followed by the interruption of the incessant beeping. Mr. Sweet As Pie returns from the third floor and assures me the house is not on fire. He continues, “It’s the carbon monoxide detector.”
“Whaaaa???!!!” I mumble from the depths of my striped percale. Suddenly I’m wide awake. “That’s the one where you die in your sleep, right? Or is that the one in Death of A Salesman, second act, second to last scene, Willy Loman?”
Mr. Sweet As Pie is both sensible and calm under crisis. He’s the guy you want standing next to when you’re stuck in a maddening crowd, seeking a safe exit strategy. It occurs to me we might need to evacuate.
“Do we have to leave the house?” I’m starting to panic, not because I’d hate for my neighbors to catch a glimpse of my mismatched pajamas, but because I don’t want to leave my freshly baked pie behind; I've yet to tuck into it. If I have to spend the rest of the night sitting in the car, the blackberry silk pie is coming with me. The fact that it is a refrigerator pie complicates things. I’ll need a cooler and ice, and the cooler is possibly in the basement or stowed in the garage. I may be unconscious by the time it's located. It appears the pie will need to remain in the fridge. This is sobering news.
My husband is busy opening every window in the house. He assures me the fresh air will dissipate the toxic air. I’m not so certain and lying in the dark, I begin composing my will. This feeble exercise will preoccupy my anxious self. For dramatic effect, I take a few audible breaths and begin mentally divvying up my jewelry, the pie plates, the rolling pins, and my Pyrex mixing bowls. Mr. Sweet As Pie appears to be going back to bed.
“What are you doing? You shouldn’t go back to sleep! What if we don’t wake up?!”
He suggests that if truly concerned, I can wait in the car. Squinting to focus on the digital clock on the other side of the room, it reads 3:30 am.
“Shouldn’t we call somebody?” I implore. “Who do we call in a case like this? Is this something for the fire department or is it gas related? Quick- what’s the number for 9-1-1?”
“It could be any number of things. I’ll call in the morning.”
“Don’t you understand? We might not be here in the morning…” With every window open, I’m about to complain about the drop in temperature. Blindly reaching for the blanket and a quilt, the blurry clock has inched its way to 4:15. With less than an hour before my alarm goes off, sleep is elusive.
“What kinds of things? You said it could be any number of things…”
“Maybe the hot water heater, or the chimney or the gas fireplace…”
Waiting for my alarm, trying not to over think the invisible toxicity that may kill me before sunrise, it occurs to me that Mr. Sweet As Pie has a birthday coming up. I wonder if carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors come packaged in gift sets?
Following an extended stay in double-thick brown paper bags, the first of the June peaches are finally fragrant, but stubborn. Opting to remove the skins requires a brief spa treatment; a dunk in simmering water followed by an icy cool down. The stone fruit slips out of its pinky-yellow fuzzies and blushes.
It’s a little too early for my favorite freestones, the Red Havens, but a roadside stand tempted with wicker baskets of peaches and half a bushel later, I’m reaching for my paring knife. There is little fanfare in the 2020 kick-off to peach pie season. Traditionally my dad’s pie of choice for Father’s Day, this year the holiday quietly slipped away. Thick wedges tumble one after the other into a deep Pyrex bowl. Mostly ripe, the fruit leaves a stream of juice running down my fingers, heading south from palm to wrist to elbow. Even before the sugar hits the bowl, the peaches are swimming against a tide of rosy syrup. Hoping to maintain a crisp blind-baked crust, the fruit takes a ‘time out’ in a colander. Reducing the splash party of juices down to a thick syrup, the fragrance is unmistakable; summer vacation.
The first peach pies of June always aligned with homework free afternoons and Red Light-Green Light after dinner. Mostly, they conjure images of a crowded dining room table and curls of charcoal briquette smoke snaking through the window screens. Peach pie played a recurring role throughout the summer, but particularly on Father’s Day. Sliced into generous wedges, the still-hot fruit could not contain itself, colliding with scoops of vanilla ice cream and blistered pie crust.
I was able to eke out three peach pies from my farm stand haul. Two were lattice- topped. One was crowned with cornmeal-flecked biscuits, a tribute to my father who devoutly believed in peach pie but also revered old-fashioned biscuit shortcake. Assuring me that both pie and shortcake make equally agreeable breakfasts, my father's legacy lives on whenever leftover dessert allows. Any pie that wakes up early and stays up late is my kind of pie. Ditto for biscuits.
Bakers, pre-heat your ovens. On Monday, June 15th at 2 pm, Bakers Against Racism launches pre-sales. The brain child of pastry chefs Paola Velez, Willa Lou Pelini, and chef Rob Rubba, the virtual worldwide bake sale has prompted the participation of thousands of bakers spanning 15 countries and upwards of 170 U.S. cities. Proceeds from the bake sale will support charities promoting racial justice. I have chosen to support the following charities:
Until Freedom, a charity working towards criminal justice reform, gun violence prevention, immigrant rights, and cultural engagement.
Facing History and Ourselves, focusing on education by encouraging students to explore the complexities of history while making connections to contemporary issues.
A few timely thoughts…
Working professionally in the food industry since college and writing about it on a weekly platform since 2013 has been a labor of love. Anyone familiar with my history knows that I often talk about my baking mentor, Jessie. Writing about Jessie is always a delicate dance because it reeks of privilege. I can only tell you that it was a privilege being raised in a family where Jewish culture and Black culture overlapped in the kitchen, resulting in a passion for cooking and baking, and ultimately impacting my career path. Jessie taught me many things other than how to bake a pie. She instilled in me the fact that food brings people together.
I have worked in all kinds of kitchens, sometimes as the sole female alongside fast- talking, four-letter-word slinging line cooks. I have been the boss and I have also been the dishwasher.
Have I been lucky? You bet. Privileged? Undoubtedly. But have I done enough with my privilege? Hardly. With more leanings towards pound cake than chest pounding, my involvement in politics spanned a single term. Serving as President of the high school French club, it was rumored that my win was tethered to the mousse au chocolat I prepared for our club dinner.
My bookshelves have always been crammed full of books authored by a variety of kitchen champions. Now more than ever, the storytellers and wordsmiths on those shelves deserve attention. Edna Lewis, Michael Twitty, James Porterfield, and Molly O’Neill have much to say about food history, transporting us to sleepy corners of America, introducing us to highly touted African American chefs and also quiet home cooks.
The reality is I will never say enough or do enough or bake enough to dramatically impact a divided world. However, in creating something that longs to be shared, I attempt to bring people together, to encourage conversation. It’s a start.
With summer plans stymied by an unprecedented state of uncertainty, most of us are grounded for the foreseeable future. Retreating to the confines of a deeply cushioned, roll arm wing chair, I remember travel. Travel boasted traffic delays and flight cancellations. Luggage carousels were part of the travel experience; not-so-merry-go-rounds of almost everyone’s American Tourister and Samsonite that successfully made the flight. We tossed around the words ‘tarmac,’ and ‘now boarding’ and ‘gate change’ with cockeyed optimism because the world was indeed, our oyster. With seatbelts tightly fastened and tray tables secure, we bemoaned the non-stop crying baby chorus on the non-stop flight. Even when it was the worst of flights, in hindsight, it was the best of times.
Currently confined to quarters with no travel on the horizon, my itinerary is limited, my favorite destination, the kitchen. I have become a step-ladder traveler, dragging a ladder from the basement, up the stairs, planting it firmly in front of the kitchen pantry. Teetering on the top rung of a supposedly “Non-slip 3 Step” feels somewhat safer than stepping out of my clogs and scaling a kitchen chair. It feels infinitely safer than boarding a plane.
My folding ladder offers a panoramic view of dry goods, canned goods, glass bottles and beveled jars. From my lofty perch, it is easy to scan the inventory, reacquainting myself with purchases lost in the shuffle of quarantine provisioning. It also affords an up close and personal view of items smuggled back from far-flung holidays. Wedged beside too many jars of peanut butter and just as many almond butters is a tiny jar of pistachio cream. The pistachio cream instantly conjures a gravity defying double scoop of gelato, eaten within view of an imposing duomo. The velvety pistachio concentrate was purchased in Siena, a jaw-dropping Tuscan hill town. It was in Siena that our merry band of travelers packed a week’s worth of sight-seeing into a single day. Access to the medieval city was dependent upon a casually reliable local bus with an elusive timetable. Winding through the Tuscan countryside, I was hell bent on visiting a bakery highly touted by the locals. Bini, known for its exquisitely rustic pastries and tempting salted almonds was a bakery nerd’s dream. I circled back to the glass-fronted display cases of the pasticceria four times in that single day, once after losing my way, and three times, intentionally.
Distracted only by Gothic-style churches, handmade leather goods, and waffle cones over-filled with gelato, our walking tour of Siena led us away from the Piazza del Campo, down a labyrinth of streets. A sliver of a grocery store jutting out from a row of residential buildings deserved a pause. A very patient man nodded while I attempted to converse in embarrassingly non-fluent Italian. Attired in an impeccably clean white jacket and slim black trousers, the merchant led me to a small wooden cabinet filled with jars. The cabinet housed specialty ingredients for both pasticceria and gelato. The shopkeeper pointed to a jar of Cremadelizia Pistacchio, closing his eyes in reverence. He paused for a moment before deliberately pointing to the ‘use by’ date. I nodded.
Too much time has lapsed between my trip to Tuscany and my current harboring at home status. Kneeling on the middle rung of the ladder, I examine the glass jar with the gold lid and pistachio green label. Squinting, the numerals on the 150 gram jar are sadly indistinguishable. Doing some quick travel math, it appears the pistachio cream train is preparing to leave the station. I bump it to the head of the baking line. Directly adjacent to the nut butters is an ongoing jam/jelly/confiture travelogue. Each jar on the pantry shelf traveled home buried in a suitcase, overwrapped in t-shirts and stray socks. Some jams were purchased at sun drenched farmers’ markets, others were recommended by locals, and a few were enjoyed over coffees, teas, and sweets. Behind the jams, a small tin of violet sugar from Provence and a bottle of rose extract, procured from a tiny shop in Florence, stand neglected. A palm-sized plastic bag offers a fistful of cardamom pods from Carlos’ House of Spice in Toronto. Remembering when a quick visit to Canada was still possible, I fold the step-ladder with regret and lug it back downstairs.
The lid of the pistachio cream is stubborn. Grasping a kitchen towel, I twist once, twice, and once again before tapping the lid with the handle of a knife. The lid pops, unleashing a buttery, nutty, purely Italian fragrance. Dipping a pinky into the smooth surface of the pistachio cream, I close my eyes. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be in Siena.
A few Mays ago, I was tasked with baking sixty cherry pies for a pop-up event in Brooklyn celebrating the return of “Twin Peaks.” A new season of the cult classic was airing exclusively on Showtime, prompting renewed enthusiasm for ‘damn fine coffee’ teamed with ‘the best cherry pie.’ The number of cherries needed to fill sixty pie shells is probably more than most people encounter in years of summer vacations. And with Memorial Day the official kick off to summer, despite my love for rhubarb, I am keeping my eyes peeled for the first cherries of the season.
Timidly stepping inside my local supermarket, mask slightly askew, glasses foggy, I am met by a towering display of scarlet cherries, astronomically priced. The fine print affixed to the cherry signage indicates a savings with my Shopper’s Card. Yes, I am a shopper and yes, I have a card, but the idea of rummaging through my wallet to access the card will require removal of my protective gloves. It seems awfully cumbersome and will clearly encourage the ire of my fellow shoppers. I walk away, distancing myself from the cherries and the couple wheeling an over-filled basket just ahead of me. Maintaining 6 feet of proper social distancing, I follow the one-way signs until I locate the end cap display of shallots and garlic, plucking the latter from a wicker basket. The well-worn industrial flooring is decorated with footprints guiding me towards the check-out. With the proper disco accompaniment, the footprints could serve as a tutorial for learning the Hustle. Clutching my lonely head of garlic, sneakers planted firmly on my designated square of carpet, I wait impatiently in a holding pattern, unable to move forward until Check-Out Traffic Controllers deem it permissible. It reminds me of hovering above Newark Airport on Friday evenings around 5 pm, pre-March 2020, when people still traveled.
The longer I wait in the one-couple-ahead-of-me-line, the weaker my cherry resolve. Though the idea of a freshly baked cherry pie tempts, I can’t bring myself to sign on to the cherry pitting commitment. Transferring the garlicky cloves from right hand to left, I consider my options. “Maybe I’ll buy a handful of cherries, just for eating. No commitment.” Too far away from the magazine rack to catch up on the latest Kardashian news, and too damn close to the cherries, the cherries win. It is anyone’s guess how many cherries are lurking in the cello bag clutched in my fist, but it is unthinkable of traversing the produce section, going the wrong way down a one-way aisle in search of a produce scale. Even with a shopper’s card, it is doubtful there will be much of a savings. But this purchase feels almost necessary, a small luxury highlighting the upcoming holiday weekend that doesn’t feel like a holiday.
Distracted by the cover of Us Magazine, the price of the cherries goes unnoticed. “Shopper’s Card?” the cashier asks politely. Barely grazing the scanner with my credit card and gathering up the lonely head of garlic with one gloved hand and the extravagant cherries with the other, I shake my head. “Have a good weekend,” the cashier adds, more as a suggestion than an ultimatum. I nod half-heartedly. Trying to squeeze into a Memorial Day state of mind this year is akin to squeezing your feet into your favorite pair of socks; the ones that were washed in hot water then tumbled dry on high heat. As May ebbs into June, the kick off to summer via a 3-day weekend just doesn’t seem to fit.
My pop culture correspondent in Queens informs me that many of the bars and restaurants in her eclectic neighborhood are offering cocktail delivery service and restaurant cocktail kits. In between Zoom conference calls and episodes of a Netflix binge-a-thon, you can stir things up in your favorite bar glass. I’m intrigued by this idea, imagining a perfectly crafted libation garnished with a festive swath of citrus and a pesticide-free edible flower.
The reality of my ready-to-drink cocktail is this; in the midst of several conflicting culinary projects something clicks in my brain signaling, hey! I’m ready-to-drink a cocktail! Grabbing a kitchen towel and wiping the butter off my fingers, I procure a glass from a cabinet over-filled with stemware, pilsners, and tumblers. Without a definitive cocktail destination in mind, I wander towards the freezer. The on again/off again ice maker only knows extremes, catapulting frozen cubes at a ferocious pace or shutting down completely. This hardly automatic ice cuber is a fickle creature, never showing its hand until you commit to opening the freezer door. Silence means you’ve stumbled upon ice cube organizers in the midst of a work stoppage. A frantic kerplunk/crash/kerplunk means the ice bin is dangerously full and projectile cubes will soon blanket the floor. The ice cubes I covet are oversized, crafted in small batches in rubberized trays that don’t quite fit our freezer. Dropping one of those hefty cubes into a glass miraculously transports me from a floury kitchen to a dimly lit bar. It’s the kind of bar where the bar stools are slightly off kilter yet perfectly comfortable and the bartender fills the cocktail shaker with exactly what you need. The perfect combination of angtsy-yet-hopeful jazz plays softly in the background.
When I'm the one actually crafting the craft cocktail, it is a wage of wills between bartender, ice cubes, spirits, and citrus. I find myself battling with one of those oversized ice cubes, trying to wedge it into a glass that is better suited to average-sized ice. By the time the cocktail glass is adjusted to accommodate the ice, the oversized cube is looking less romantic, more run-of-the-mill. As the ice melts, so do my dreams of freshly squeezed juices and perfectly chilled simple syrup.
Peering into the refrigerator, I am momentarily sidetracked by an almost empty jar of expensive Italian maraschino cherries in heavy syrup. “Someone should replace these,” I mention to no one in particular, scooping one out with my impeccably clean fingers. Leaving a trail of maraschino syrup between the fridge and the kitchen counter, a container of rhubarb compote taunts, prompting inspiration. A lackluster assortment of citrus, most having been zested within an inch of their lives, are looking more Loehmanns than Saks. A sprightly naval orange has survived unscathed and teamed with the rhubarb, might prove promising.
The cocktail that is spinning around in my head is from one of those off-the-beaten-path bars in a town with a name I can’t pronounce. A small, dusty chalkboard hangs alongside the bar, announcing the daily specials. I vividly remember a chubby glass filled with vermouth and orange and something about rhubarb. The memory of the drink doesn’t provide a recipe, just a mindset. Pitching the ice cube in a rapid state of decline towards the sink, I replenish my glass with a new behemoth cube. Eyeballing what seems like the correct amount of rhubarb syrup followed by a fruit cocktail’s worth of orange, I’m encouraged. A double dash of rhubarb bitters from a paper-wrapped bottle generally reserved for baking seems appropriate. Reaching for a tall bottle of Lillet Blanc, my mood is far less dark and stormy. Unfettered by a closing time and feeling downright punchy, I nearly take a header on a renegade ice cube.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm