The next time you burn your lip sipping your nutmeg and cinnamon spiced latte, take a moment and consider this; pumpkin spice has sadly become our seasonal global warming, surround-sounding our senses. If you are a professional baker during the month of November, the assault of cinnamon and nutmeg wrestling with allspice and clove is a very real work hazard. It is something we should pay attention to because pumpkin spice was originally created to spark holiday joy (and boost Starbucks' flavored coffee sales.) From where I now stand, it only sparks dread.
I would never be one to criticize or point a finger as you scroll through an instagram feed of accelerated pie shell rolling, or bubbling fruit pies. But I do see you smile in a dream-like state, thinking of the pies you’ll be making this month. Just remember; not everyone will have the time to lovingly craft a gluten-free/dairy free/open-faced/free-form/mostly-vegan pie in celebration of Friendsgiving. Some of us won’t have time to create a traditional-yet-overfilled pie for Thanksgiving, busting with heirloom apples gathered from a small, sustainable farm in upstate NY. I can attest for a few hard working bakers who will arrive at their Thanksgiving tables half asleep, praying their head doesn’t bob too closely to the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce staring back at them. The grim reality is that professional bakers don’t wear rickrack trimmed bib aprons from Anthropologie nor pristine oven mitts scrawled with “Good Things Come To Those Who Bake.” Professional bakers battle with a stack of linen-service aprons that make us itch, prying one free in the hopes of starting the day relatively clean. We end our day wearing a Jackson Pollock-esque abstraction of chocolate, pumpkin, cranberry, and butter. For some of us, the 23rd of November means war.
Pie-mageddon is a strategically planned mission requiring a cool temper and a cooler pair of hands. Between now and Thanksgiving, in bakeries humble and ginormous, pie bakers will be swimming against a tide of orange and apple-red, cases of eggs and pounds of butter. Inching our way, pie shell by pie shell towards the biggest triangular dessert holiday of the year requires an adjustment in attitude. Might I suggest a little coffee and cake, or more specifically, a little kaffee und kuchen?
During times of stress, we can take a lesson from Austria’s Kaffeekultur. Not only does a frothy coffee known as a mélange serve as a cup of calm, you will find nary a whisper of pumpkin spice in the room. The room is NYC’s Café Sabarsky, a haven of quiet and kuchen, tucked within the Neue Gallerie where Fifth Avenue meets East 86th Street. On a recent much-needed visit, thoughts of Pie-vember’s blitzkrieg faded away the minute I slid into a curlique-backed wooden chair. Pleasantly missing was a shout-out from a barista behind a wall of eco-friendly paper cups, summoning me to retrieve my beverage. Instead, a coffee framed in foam and a glass of still water arrived quietly, set down by a polite, soft-spoken waiter. Tucking a fork into a tri-decker mohn-torte of poppyseeds, cream, and scarlet berries provided an instant oasis of tranquility and denial. Thanksgiving? What Thanksgiving?
As we approach the turning back of clocks and move full speed ahead into the holiday season, I prefer to sequester myself away from the madness. That means deleting the lists of “must haves” and “must dos” from my inbox. Pumpkin Snickerdoodles may very well be a party in your post-Halloween fanged mouth, but not in mine. I’m not interested in waking up this Sunday, the single sleep-in-late holiday of the year, to a French toast casserole spiked with leftover candy corn.
We can all do our part to stop the pumpkin spice madness. It is possible to find an unspiced, unadulterated haven. You owe it to yourself to take a vacation from cinnamon and nutmeg and anything marbled with screaming orange. Save the spices for the baked goods, and even then, use a gentle hand. Here’s something else to consider; in some parts of the world, such as southern Austria’s breathtaking picture-postcard known as Styria, not everyone flocks to pumpkin spice like lemmings. Pumpkin seed oil is the hot-diggity, an oil the color of sage, distinctive and intensely nutty. Pumpkin seed oil is made from roasted, hulled, pumpkin seeds and it is not something one heats because that makes it bitter. It is well suited to vinaigrettes, or splashed over vegetables, and its nuttiness makes it a perfect accent to morning yogurt. But the breakfast connection stops there, which is why you won’t find anyone dispensing pumpkin seed oil into the bottom of a grande insulated coffee cup. You will find however, pumpkin seed oil drizzled atop vanilla ice cream, something I can attest to and applaud, thanks to the kindness of Sweet Soprano and Master/Master. History tells us pumpkin seed oil was initially used for medicinal purposes. Seems to me if ever a month necessitated an elixir boasting healing powers, this would be the month to keep a bottle handy.
At last count, only 225 aluminum pie plates have been outfitted with pate brisee and stacked shoulder to shoulder in the bakery’s freezer. We have barely dipped our toes into the raging pie waters. I have money on my Metro card and an extra NJ Transit ticket tucked inside my wallet. I know how to get to Café Sabarsky. In a pinch, a bottle of pumpkin seed oil stands at the ready in my fridge and a container of vanilla ice cream waits in the freezer. November? You don't scare me.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm