No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Auld Lang Pie

Life is not a Turner Classic Movie New Year's Eve, with champagne tulips clinking and orchestral music swelling.  It is a beautiful image to conjure, however, I'm less of a December 31st celebrant and more of a January girl.  I celebrate New Year's Eve vicariously through my college aged twenty-somethings who no longer live under my roof.  By the time barricades are in place and confetti is poised to rain over Times Square, I've grown weary of the holiday hoopla.  In the baking world, holidays commence around Halloween and run hell bent through Thanksgiving, crashing into Christmas, finally coming to a screeching halt on December 31st.  And now that it's no longer Dick Clark at the helm, there's even less incentive to stay awake until the ball drops from One Times Square.

The other day I was stumbling my way through my neighborhood Trader Joes trying to think of something to prepare for our holiday staff party.  Toting a baked good to a party of pastryphiles is a bit like bringing a box of chocolates to an Oompa Loompa.  So I settled on a savory recipe.  But on my way to the kale aisle (bakers are big on kale), I happened to notice some raspberries in their scarlet best, pining to be baked into something. So I scooped them up, envisioning them as a New Year's Eve-worthy dessert.  I must add that a week earlier, I had purchased some beautiful Meyer Lemons.  I made a mental note to team the lemons with the raspberries, but in the two days prior to New Year's Rockin' Eve, work got in the way. Sugar cookies exclaiming, TWOTHOUSANDFOURTEEN, brunch breads, tarts and a few dozen Auld Lang Pies.

Yesterday I returned home, opened the fridge and caught sight of the raspberries and the Meyer lemons.  "What's it gonna be?" they seemed to ask.  (When you start having conversations with citrus fruit and a half-pint of berries, you know you're overtired.) What, indeed. So I decided on a Meyer Lemon Raspberry Tart.  I took a short cut and tossed the lemon and the sugar in the food processor, instead of painstakingly slicing them paper-thin by hand.  The end result was just as tasty and I was confident that I would kick off 2014 with all ten digits in place.  An important attribute for one who works with their hands.  

Only time will tell if I am able to soldier on and ring out the old this evening.  If I manage to stay awake, a slice of this lemony tart will be perfect with a glass of bubbly.  And if not, it will be just as festive in the morning, ringing in the new.  And the sweetest news of January 1st?  The next baking holiday is in February.  That in itself is worthy of a champagne toast.  Happy New Year.    

Sunday, December 22, 2013

You Can't Catch Me! I'm the Gingerbread Boy

Truth be told, I arrived rather late to the Christmas Cookie/Eggnog party.  The closest our kitchen came to actual holiday cookie baking wasn't a holiday at all.  It knew no specific season, it was simply heralded by Jessie's aluminum Mirro cookie press. Technically, I suppose, you could consider this Christmas cookie-ing, or Spritz cookie-making.  In a somewhat child-like disconnect, it reminded me just a bit of my Play-do Fun Factory, and was infinitely more fun than Mr. Potato Head. The chocolate and vanilla doughs were quick and easy to mix. The challenge was selecting just the right cookie disc. I agonized over the myriad of choices and always gravitated towards the dog.  Maybe because he shared just the slightest resemblance to the dog in Monopoly.  In hindsight, I must admit that somewhere between going into the oven and twelve minutes later exiting the oven, the poor doggie looked nothing like the picture in the Mirro-Cookie press recipe pamphlet.  And although Spritz cookies were apparently quite comfortable gussied up for the Christmas holidays, there was nary a green or red sprinkle to be found in our kitchen.
My first foray into the professional Christmas cookie leagues began when I was hired to work at Williams-Sonoma.  I had restaurant experience which plummeted me to the front of the demonstration line.  Whenever a new product or technique was center stage, I had the misfortune of being selected to "demo" the product.  Unpacking cases of holiday cookie decorating kits, I was knee-deep in sugars, icings and sprinkles boasting the titles, "Christmas Red" and "Evergreen Green."  To say this was baptism by fire, sums it up rather accurately.  There I stood at the demo counter, brandishing my piping bags.  Digging deep into my Ithaca College acting skills, I promised the decorating novices that they, too, could boast their own cookie glitterati that very holiday season.  I piped red bow ties on terrified gingerbread boys.  I sprinkled crystal sanding sugars with great abandon, temporarily blinding a young woman leaning in a little too closely.  My regulation green Williams-Sonoma employee apron was a Jackson Pollack canvas of royal icings. I sent my audience on their way clutching their decorating kits with as much fervor as mother's had clutched TickleMeElmos a few years prior.  My manager deemed this a very successful afternoon.  I clocked out and ran for my life.
With every series of culinary jobs that followed, Christmas holidays found me armed with piping bags and literally hundreds of naked cookies waiting to be costumed. I was decorating angels on the wing flying perilously close to red-nosed reindeer.  Gingerbread families and the houses in which they lived fell victim to mistrals of confectioners sugar.  I now understood why Santa and Mrs. Claus had a penchant for eggnog.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

French Press and Pears

Working in a small space where kitchen and retail become one, allows you to overhear customer transactions. There's a little game I play and it goes like this; I no sooner hoist a tray of cardamom-spiked pear pies out of the oven and a customer will ask, "What kind of pie is that?" waggling a finger towards the baker's rack. When they hear, "Pear" they respond, "Oh." Pause. Here's where the game comes in. I then mouth the words, "Do you have any apple?" at about the same time the customer responds, "Do you have any apple?"  It's a short lived exercise, but I find it entertaining.

Sometimes I think that it takes a while for we East Coasters to embrace that which the Pacific Northwesterners have long held dear.  In the season of things autumnal-pre Christmas, I'm reminded of my foray into the restaurant world. Philadelphia, November 1984. This was before Starbucks-emblazoned cups were in the clutches of seemingly every pedestrian. Our little restaurant boasted a Faema espresso machine and we also served freshly brewed coffee in French press Bodum pots. Customers were cautious. An individual pot of coffee? Not a cup of coffee from an hours-old Bunn Pour-omatic?  There was a bit of a learning curve, but in time, we earned our coffee standing on cobble-stoned Germantown Avenue.  You would think that once we had conquered the coffee, we could introduce some of the pear desserts I had seen (and devoured) while visiting my sister in Seattle.  After all, wasn't it Homer who had dubbed the pear, a "gift from the Gods"?         

A ripe pear is indeed, a gift.  An under ripe pear, well, not so much. And maybe that's why sometimes pears get a bum rap. On the sports team of fruit, apple tends to be the cool, first pick, with pear, although just as deserving, chosen after all of the apples are high-fiving each other.

Lately, I've started a quiet pear revolution at work. I've been swapping out pears for apples and there appears to be a following. Particularly for a pear pie with sour cream custard and brown sugar crumble. And more recently for the unadorned, but equally delicious pear galette.  It boasts little more than ripe pears on an all-butter crust with a hit of lemon zest. If the almond spirit moves you, a sprinkling of the nut is apt. It's a minimalist pie, and rather easy to execute. 

The beautiful thing about a pear galette is that it slides effortlessly from last night's dessert to the next morning's breakfast. Yawn. A wedge of pear pastry and a pot of French press.  Who are the cool kids, now?