No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Friday, January 31, 2014

Four and Twenty Groundhogs

It's Friday and I'm listening to the banter at the front counter.  It's been the same all week, ever since a certain fellow made his debut on the sugar cookie platter.  Customers ask to purchase one of the cute squirrel cookies, sparkly with brown sanding sugar.  The counter folk casually reply, "Well, actually they're Groundhogs."They are met with a vacant look from the customer. The staff continues, explaining that this very Sunday is Groundhog's Day. Each time I hear this exchange, I start to fall deeper and deeper into a Bill Murray/Andi McDowell trance.  

I am trying desperately to get some pies into the oven before the morning slips away from me.  I've pre-baked the shells (see last week's rant) thinking I'll make banana cream for a change.  I didn't anticipate my morning being interrupted by a cookie.  

According to my cookie calendar, Thanksgivukkah had come and blissfully gone. Turkeys, Menorahs and Pilgrims, oh my! Apparently there is a convergence of holidays this weekend, as well. I don't remember any mention of this, but maybe I wasn't paying attention. Today kicks off Chinese New Year and the Year of the Horse. Sunday is Groundhog's Day right on the heels (rather cleats) of Super Bowl Sunday. And I've already begun mixing a palette of Conversation Heart color for that other holiday. (The one that rears it's ugly head on the 14th of February.)  My pie shells will have to sit tight until I tend to the cookie crisis. We're running low on footballs and we're overrun with Groundhogs. I realize we are not Rocket Scientists, but this is indeed a problem. I casually suggest sticking a football on the Groundhogs and we do. Now I'm the one doing the piping of the royal icing "laces" on the teeny fondant footballs. Which gives me pause to consider a Universal Holiday Cookie.

I'm prompted by my brother's philosophy regarding greeting cards. He claims that he has purchased one card that he presents to my sweet sister-in-law that covers all occasions. The sentiment of the card is something along the lines of "I love you." He presents this card on her birthday, Valentine's Day, their anniversary. The card knows no limits and clearly it has done the trick; they have been happily married since the late 1970s.

I'm thinking that we could create a cookie at work that is equally suitable. I'm envisioning something simple- for instance, the Easter Bunny wearing a Santa Claus hat embroidered with the word "Mom" and decorated with a shamrock tassel. In one hand, Santa holds the hand of a Gingerbread Man who holds a dreidel emblazoned with a turkey and a pumpkin. In the other hand, Santa clutches both (he has big hands, okay?) an Apple-for-the-Teacher and a 4th of July flag. That should cover it nicely. Sporting events just don't make the cut. Nor do woodland creatures. Why? Because I said so.

I complete my Groundhog/Super Bowl tasks and return to the empty pie shells. Folks are still talking cookies at the counter. I know that the Groundhog of Pennsyltucky or Puxatawny has his rightful place on the calendar, but when did he squirrel his way into the bakery? I'll tell you when- when Super Bowl Sunday collided with Will He or Won't He See His Shadow Day.

Enough- I'm back to the pies, separating whites from yolks with great abandon until one of the Baristas turns to me and asks, "What are the pie shells going to be filled with?"

Without pausing I look up and reply simply, "Groundhog."             

Thursday, January 30, 2014

On the Savory Side of the Street

 It seems wrong to complain about the Polar Vortex when my daily workplace boasts two blazing convection ovens.  If you were to catch a glimpse of me with my shoulders creeping up to my ears you would understand that even a bakery can be cold and drafty.  I’ve been decorating Valentine’s cookies (please, no comment) in my red LL Bean fleece which is now royal-icing-crusty along the zipper.

I’ve had a busy few days gallivanting not only the Garden State but the outer boroughs of Manhattan as well.  There’s a common denominator amongst these jaunts; freezing cold weather and blistering hot, thin crust pizza. The kind that burns the roof of your mouth if you’re not careful. I wasn’t.  

I know I tend to gravitate towards sweet pies as opposed to savory, but honestly, in this weather put something spicy/salty on a crust and I’m in. I kicked off my pie safari on Friday night, clutching a garlic permeated box from Arturo’s artisan pizza across the street from the bakery. It’s a tiny space and more often than not, there’s a mighty long wait for a table. Sometimes for lunch we fortify ourselves with slices of their farm-to-table pies. On Friday night, after a torturous wait for NJ Transit to get its act together, I picked up one of those pizzas and carried it home. 

Saturday I reconnected with an old friend from the UK who happened to be in town. On a snowy evening, Conte’s Pizza in Princeton was hopping. The kind of old time neighborhood place that pours Perroni by the pitcher and serves no-nonsense  pies. Was it noisy?  Indeed, it was. And chilly? Yes, right down to my work shoes which were liberally coated in all purpose flour. It was a deliciously retro kind of evening, from the laminated tabletops to the melamine plates. It was also a far cry from Monday night’s foray to Brooklyn.

I was invited to attend a small gathering celebrating the 2nd Birthday of a restaurant.  A very hip restaurant, I might add.  Despite the frigid temps, I dashed from work to home and then back to the train station. Sometimes it’s fun to catch a glimpse of what’s going on outside your own snow globe.

For those of you who watch “Girls”, you might recognize the locale. Where the bar is surrounded by the hip and the beautiful, and the thin crust pizza can barely hold on to its toppings.Travel does come with a cost. Not simply the $14.50 round trip NJ Transit fare or the double swipe of the Metro Card.  It requires donning non-work clothes, Big Girl Shoes (in this case, boots) and washing the butter-sugar-flour film from your face. I was prepared. Or so I thought…

Bobbi Brown promised her Party All Night mascara wouldn’t smudge and Kleenex claimed the tissues I was clutching wouldn’t make my nose red. The cable-knit sweater tights swore they would sit snugly at my waist and keep me warm as toast. But as I traversed the slippery streets of Manhattan, everything was running; mascara, nose, and yours truly.  Navigating the black ice hidden beneath the slush, I stepped knee deep into banks of once pristine, now gone city-gray snow. Racing down the subway steps, I felt my tights inching their way south just as the G train slipped away out of sight.  My Kleenex pocket pack was buried deep inside my coat and retrieving another would necessitate removing one of my gloves and I certainly was not doing that. 

After a stint on the C train, the G train and a brisk walk, I arrive at the small gathering. What’s small is the space, what’s large is the crowd. I wedge myself into a space within elbow’s reach of the line cooks. Perfect vista of the intricate kitchen choreography.  A blur of long handled pizza paddles lap at the flames of the brick oven.The pizzas are as promised, delicious- wild mushrooms, Farm egg and curls of fresh sage, another teaming fresh pineapple and salty speck. At the other end of the line is a wood-fired grill where what appears to be a branding iron (can you say Ponderosa?) is hugging the grates. With great precision, one of the line cooks systematically brands something on a silver tray and then hands it to a willowy server. The server dips the tray in front of me and urges me to enjoy a tease of dessert. It’s a new-fangled S’More, a whisper of a graham cracker crust barely crumbling under the weight of its dark chocolate filling. A puddle of marshmallow teeters beneath a crown of more graham cracker. It’s delicious and boy, is it hot.  Nothing melts a homemade marshmallow quicker than a branding iron. Just ask the roof of my mouth.     

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Art of the Blind Bake

Two things happened at work last week prompting this post. One,  (cue Jaws music) there's been talk about that upcoming February holiday. The one centered around Conversation hearts and way too much pink and red. And two, the following scene took place just the other day.

Someone came into the bakery and wanted to buy a blind-baked pie shell. No lie. With the parchment paper and beans still nestled inside. Really? Really.  The exchange went like this:
Woman- What kind of pie is that?
Me- It's not a pie. It's a blind-baked shell.
Woman- Okay.
Me- Okay.
Woman- That'll be fine.
Me- Um, you can't buy it...
Woman- Why?
Me- Why? (Why am I having this conversation?) And so it went. She insisted. I explained. It was lined with parchment paper and beans. Not for the eating. Nor for the buying.  She had never heard of such a thing. Clearly. She wanted it but couldn't have it. Which judging by her just-back-from-Boca tan and perfectly manicured nails, she was unaccustomed to hearing. 

This exchange got me thinking about the whole blind-baking process. I have to say I've often thought that the term blind-bake is, well, a touch awkward. I know what it means, but who coined the phrase? So I looked it up- here's what I unearthed.  According to most culinary handbooks, (specifically Bernard Clayton Jr.'s Complete Book of Pastry: Sweet and Savory), blind baking is simply pre-baking a crust by lining it with parchment paper and beans. The general consensus is this helps to prevent two things from happening; unduly shrinkage and puffing up. (Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Gold Ultra Restorative Capsules might make the same claim, but have no place whatsoever in a pie). What I hadn't realized was rumor has it "baking blind" also refers to the underling doing the blind baking; left in the 'dark’ as to what the filling will be. Perhaps. But since I’m always the one responsible for the blind bake as well as removing the SCORCHING HOT paper and beans from the shells, I think that’s unlikely. Readying a filling with recently burned fingertips, is standard practice.  I see (no pun intended) no distinction between the blind-baker and the baker. They are the same person. Me. You need a blind-baked crust when making a pie with a filling that doesn't get baked (cream pies, chiffon pies) or when you don't want a soggy-bottomed fruit pie. That's pretty straight-forward. 

There's an inimitable smell to blind baking, not particularly fragrant in a good way. Once the beans that are doing the weighing down have baked, they take on a roasty quality. And since hard-core bakers re-use the beans, that fragrance only becomes more intensified.  Kind of reminiscent of wild hickory nuts roasting over an open fire. On a Manhattan street corner. Opposite Penn Station. In December.  You get the idea.  When I worked in commercial establishments, we kept an enormous burlap sack of blind bake beans.  It's one of those nasal wake up calls that you never forget. It can permeate a house in a matter of moments. Just ask my kids.

So I was taken aback that someone would actually look at a pie shell lined with parchment and toasted-til-crisp beans and want to make it their own. But what do I know. The retail buying public can be strange creatures.

On the home front, I’d like to make something for dessert. Not that there’s anything wrong with Trader Joes graham crackers and marshmallows taking a quick spin in the oven. I'm still reeling from the conversation I had with the Boca woman, thus opting out of anything requiring a pre-bake. I have a pitcher of homemade caramel sauce (thank you, Barbara for the Macrina bakery book) and a few apples clamoring for attention. Kismet. I decide on some hand pies.

Another thing- after too many years in the baking business, I know it's highly unlikely that come February I'll be baking any heart shaped anythings at home.  So I'll do it now- as they say in an old movie musical from 1956, "Now. When else? Now is always best time."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

And the Walkin' Man Walks

"In the twenty plus years that I've lived here," my friend Ann Marie gesticulated, arms wildly dramatic, "You are the one and only person I know to arrive in LA without renting a car."  Really?  I found that hard to believe.  I had done my homework, checked out the Metro, the stations, the TAP card information.  I consulted my light rail expert in Seattle who assured me that Pasadena boasted a light rail line and that LA was growing subway passengers daily.  I was determined to use Public Transportation because, well, that's what New Yorkers do. We're movers and we have places to go.  Running for buses, careening down stairs onto subways is in our blood. Unashamedly hailing taxis right out from under the noses of Times Square tourists posing for pictures with anemic Elmos and disfigured Buzz Lightyears comes naturally.  Waiting around is not our strong suit, and quite frankly, you can see it in our faces. It's particularly obvious during frigid temperatures, Polarvortex winds and snow lashing at our upturned collars.

Might I also add quietly, we jaywalk.  On the straight lines, on the diagonal, a-little-too-close-to-buses and yellow cabs.  It's what we know.  It's sort of an inbred New York gene, and once a New Yorker, it's hard to disengage.  Even under the stern warning of my brilliant sibling, a bonafide Pedestrian Master Planner.

I tried, I really did.  I waited on the street corners of Los Feliz and Pasadena for the light to change green.  It was a bit like waiting for Thanksgivukkah to roll around.  No one else seemed to mind, no one appeared to be in a hurry.  I could have crossed back and forth and back again in the time it took for the "Walkin' Man" sign to illuminate. Yet I was determined not to become a ticketed statistic.  So I waited, paused, glanced at the Pacific blue skies and reminded myself how lucky to be lingering at a crosswalk in a warm clime. Emblazoned in my memory was the recent New York Times article accounting in excruciating detail the perils (and price) of jay-walking in LA.  Enough to keep my Tretorn-clad toes firmly planted on the curb.  But it was driving me CRAZY. 

So while I waited, I looked around.  At graceful Spanish-influenced architecture, at benches crafted out of recycled skate boards, at towering Bird of Paradise and lush greenery and citrus fruit ripe for the pickin' on front lawns.

I was also on the prowl for a California piece of pie.  And who led me in the right direction? A woman waiting at a crosswalk in size zero yoga pants. Pie-n-Burger is a Pasadena institution since 1963.  By my abacus, that's fifty plus years.  I didn't even pause at the burgers, moving directly to the laminated pie menu.  So what if it was 10 o' clock in the morning?  I hesitated between Butterscotch Meringue, Rhubarb and Ollalieberry.  (Who knew there was such a berry? A cross between a loganberry and a youngberry; in the blackberry family).  The waitress refilled my green-rimmed/diner-white coffee cup and said, "Get the cherry." So I did. Still warm, it did not disappoint.  Classic crust (like me, a little flaky) bursting with cherries, both sweet and tart.  You gotta love a town that offers upwards of twenty pies on a single menu.

It was worth the wait at the crosswalk.