No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Friday, February 28, 2014

Mardi, Paul and Oscar

We’re at it again, another holiday as is evident by the cookies vying for attention on the counter. Mardi Gras is a holiday I could wrap my Sazerac-fisted hand around.  Since we are not baking King Cakes, we are giving a nod to the holiday with Fleur de lis cookies splashed purple and green with sugar crystals. As we pride ourselves on being Equal Event cookie providers, the Fleur de lis are nudging up against gold dusted Oscars. It wouldn’t be a day in retail baking unless there was a bit of confusion between staff and patrons. Many of the baristas are unfamiliar with the Fleur de lis and keep pointing them upside down. Coupled with the fact that the Oscars do bear a striking resemblance to Mummies (“Are those Mummies?” “No, they’re Oscars.” “Oscar who?”) it’s probably best if I bow out of that conversation. Mardi Gras festivities and the Academy Awards ceremony are about to collide and I find the juxtaposition of these two events a personal aside. New Orleans triggers two pie memories; one rather glamorous, the other unpretentious, both incredibly delicious. My first visit to New Orleans was when I was working for a man who just happened to be an Academy Award winning actor. His 1956 Best Actor Oscar was for a role he had originated on Broadway and was many years later reviving in a National tour.  For me, an extended stay in the land of beignets and etouffée was a gift in itself. Sweeter than the opportunity to explore the culturally opulent city was the chance to live at the Pontchartrain Hotel in the Garden District.

The St. Charles streetcar provided my transportation between the Saenger Theatre on Canal Street and the hotel. Hotel guests stayed in suites named for celebrity patrons; The Mary Martin or The Richard Burton or The Helen Hayes Suite. There were also long- term resident accommodations for those who called The Pontchartrain home. The hotel boasted three distinct food and drink emporiums. What I remember about The Bayou Bar was an old Steinway piano manned by Tuts Washington tickling the ivories and the walls covered in extraordinary murals by artist Charles Reiinike.  The Caribbean Room was the beautifully formal dining room, as opulent as a debutante ball gown, famous for Trout Veronique. For many, the Pontchartrain’s Silver Whistle coffee shop was comfortably delicious and an alternative to the Caribbean Room.  Sharing the same kitchen, a meal in the coffee shop could be a simple breakfast of blueberry muffins and chicory coffee or a lunch of their famous Avocado Pontchartrain, over-filled with Lump Crabmeat salad. The chance to enjoy the hotel’s signature dessert in both casual and swanky settings held great appeal for me. Mile High Pie was composed of chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and peppermint ice creams standing tall in a pie shell, crowned with brûléed meringue and warm chocolate sauce. As a guest of Mr. Albert Aschaffenburg, the hotel’s proprietor, it seemed rude to not only order the dessert he suggested, but to finish it.

A pie of contrasts was found downtown at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. First, a little bit about my initial visit to K-Paul’s. My boss was a man of very specific likes and dislikes. Once I understood the reasoning behind his requests, it generally made perfect sense. Yet there were times when I was challenged by my “To Do” list. It often had ‘to do’ with seeking out or replacing or repairing or ordering a particular item.  Each stop on the tour was new to me and therein was the rub. I really didn’t know the ins and outs of the city until it was time to move on to the next city. It is important to understand that my boss adhered to his own personal dress code which meant he dressed exclusively in Twizzler black. When the trunks and suitcases were unpacked at the hotel or at the house he was renting, everything hanging in the closet looked identical. Trousers, shirts, sweaters, all black. Even the beautifully soft-as-buttah Italian leather loafers, black. The loafers had not reared their ugly heads with a problem until New Orleans. The shoes were resplendent with gold buckles when we left the previous city. Somewhere between Atlanta and the City-by-the-Bayou, one of the buckles went missing. Guess who had the job of tracking down a matching buckle? Before you suggest that it might have been easier to return to the original source for a replacement, it was never that easy. Most of the prized possessions had a bit of a back story- oftentimes items were gifts or one-of-a-kinds. The congenial doorman at the Pontchartrain Hotel listened sympathetically and gave me a list of both high-end shoe stores and jewelers who might be able to help guide me on my quest for the elusive buckle.

Armed with a piece of Pontchartrain stationery scribbled with a series of names and addresses, I carried the naked shoe with me feeling cautiously optimistic. It was while traversing the streets within walking distance of the theatre that I spotted the line of expectant diners snaking around Chartres Street. The fact that K-Paul’s accepted neither reservations nor credit cards seemed not to squelch the spirits of the hungry mob. Clutching my brown paper bag with the Italian loafer, I made a mental note to return to K-Paul’s later in the day when the crowd had thinned. Three hours later with a friend in tow, I was successful in snagging a table for lunch. As far as securing a new buckle, I was still fostering a despondent loafer. My friend was mildly perplexed by the brown paper bag sitting on my lap under a white linen napkin. “Don’t you want to put that down?” she asked innocently enough. “No one is going to steal it.” In the past year one of the many things I had learned was that anything was possible. “I’ll just hold on to it,” I replied knowing that while trying to outfit one loafer seemed daunting, the idea of explaining why I was replacing a pair of shoes and buckles was more than I could bear.

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant was small, tables close enough together to ogle the meals on your neighbor’s plates. Reflecting New American regional cooking, the Cajun and Creole dishes were a delicious assault to the senses. Shrimp and crawfish swam against a sea of cayenne and Tabasco, tempered with dirty rice and hushpuppies. Lunch was starting to infringe upon my Buckle Quest but we couldn’t leave without having dessert. Chef Prudhomme’s Sweet Potato Pecan pie was a dessert I was totally unfamiliar with and that’s why I ordered it. Teaming two pie fillings in a single crust was a new-fangled idea and I loved it. The filling was warm with spice and sweet with brown sugar but then the pecans swept in under a cloak of Chantilly cream and I was a goner.  It was simply Mardi Gras on a plate.

As for the loafer, despite an exhaustive search of the city I was unable to find a matching buckle. I did the next best thing which was to ship the shoes to the Assistant in Paris from whence they originally came. When I called to explain my predicament, the voice on the other end of the long distance line assured me in rapid fire Française that replacing the shoe accessory would be “Trés facile.” I guess what she really meant to say was, “Easy as pie.”

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Day Without Orange

Two things sparked this week’s pie selection; unpacking a box of miscellaneous cookbooks with an advertisement from a 1962 edition of Ladies Home Journal tucked inside and a chance encounter with a case of oranges. First, the ad…

As a baker, canned fruits are not something I generally house in my kitchen cupboard. There are however, two exceptions where canned fruit is infinitely easier than fresh. Crushed Pineapple-in-its-Own-Juice (not someone else’s, thank you) and Mandarin orange segments. The pineapple is key when making Morning Glory bread and Mandarin oranges are ideal for fruit tarts of the diminutive variety. (I do have a fondness for pineapple pie with a macadamia nut crust, but that’s fresh pineapple, and today it’s about the “tin can orchard in my kitchen.”) I used canned Mandarins religiously in the restaurant because of their vibrant color and perfect size. Perched atop miniature tarts, they play nicely with other fruit, particularly berries and kiwis. Everybody gets along and nobody balks at a quick brush of apricot jam to bring out the blue or red or green in their eyes. 

While we are on the subject of cans, there’s one other tin-ified item that I keep.  Not in a cupboard, but chillin’ in the freezer, and that’s Trader Joe’s orange juice concentrate. No, it’s not as orangey as Tang or Beech-Nut fruit stripe gum. It is an unheralded savior of orange desserts. Unlike orange flower water or orange oil which must be used with the utmost precision, orange juice concentrate can be used with greater abandon. The flower water and orange oil vaguely remind me of a fragrance that I dodge when accosted by a perfume spritzing sales clerk at Bloomingdales. Frozen orange juice can be reduced rather quickly on top of the stove or in a microwave.  The end result is highly concentrated simply making  orange taste more like, well, orange.

Admittedly, I do not adhere to the teachings of the Ladies of the Home Journal who admonished readers to turn to their cupboards for inspiration. Opting not to share their philosophy that “all outdoors is at my fingertips” I prefer fresh to tinned, still seeking choices within the produce aisles.

Tis’ the season of citrus and as fond as I am of lemons and limes, I am particularly drawn to fresh Mandarins. Simultaneously sweet and tart, Mandarins also look great resting in a bowl on the kitchen counter. Mandarins seem perfectly comfortable in their own easy-to-peel skin, and don’t pine to be flashy like The Real Housewives of Blood-Orange County, all caught up in their pink and red selves.

Now about my chance encounter with the oranges.  Years of therapy as opposed to years of running might have helped me cope with my Post Traumatic Restaurant Syndrome. Too late. A visual can trigger an episode, a flashback, a remembrance. The manager at our local Garden State market is always in the thick of things. Unpacking and arranging, decanting and displaying. The other day he was up to his madras shirt sleeves in Sunkist juice oranges. Suddenly, it was Sunday in Philadelphia at the Super Fresh supermarket. I was in a bit of a situation because a certain restaurant was shy one case of oranges. Orange juice was an integral part of the Sunday brunch “mise en place.” Which is a lovely way to say in French that somebody in the kitchen neglected to order the oranges. I went to the Super Fresh (we called it Stupid Fresh) in the hopes of snagging a case of the citrus, and have it back and squeezed before bottles of bubbly were being uncorked.

Sporting my Sunday morning kitchen best, smelling more than a little bit like French toast and bacon, I was frantically scanning the produce section hoping to find a manager. No one in sight, so I made a beeline to the Customer Service counter. In a quiet Sunday pre-noon voice, I asked the clerk if they could locate someone in produce to help me. No response. In dulcet tones I explained  that I was hoping to buy a case of oranges. In a heartbeat, the store’s mega-amplified paging system was engaged. “MANAGER TO PRODUCE. MANAGER TO PRODUCE.”  Through the swinging doors arrived the none-too-pleased produce meister. The paging system felt an obligation to capture our conversation.  “YOU WANT TO BUY A CASE OF ORANGES?! LADY, WE SELL SINGLE ORANGES AND BAGS OF ORANGES. NOT CASES OF ORANGES.” Pleading with him to bend the rules just this once, he glared and disappeared back through the swinging doors. I waited and watched. Shoppers were filling their baskets with sensible groceries; a quart of orange juice, a gallon of milk, a plastic bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s clutching a box of frozen Eggo waffles. My cart was empty until the manager reappeared, huffing and puffing and lugging a case of oranges which he handed off to me. I wrestled them into the cart where they half-straddled the child seat and the wagon, not quite fitting in either space. Maybe all four wheels of my shopping cart were in good stead, but it didn’t sound like it. I pushed/pulled the groaning wagon to the 10 Items or Less aisle. Grown-ups stared. Children pointed.  There was some horrible Muzak version of a Bee Gees song playing over the sound system. Unable to lift the case onto the conveyer belt, I tipped the case in the direction of the check-out clerk. He didn’t know what to charge me and I didn’t know what to tell him.  The Bee Gees were abruptly interrupted by the summoning of “PRODUCE TO CHECKOUT ONE.” I was now holding up the line, and boy, can shoppers turn hostile in an instant. Longing to vanish through the automatic Exit doors, I surmised that stealing a case of citrus in Philadelphia was most likely punishable by time served in an orange jumpsuit. Not my best color. The manager arrived, feverishly scanning his clipboard trying to come up with a price. He scribbled something on an adhesive sticker which he affixed to the box which was scanned by the checker. I paid, I exited, eyes straight ahead, shopping cart limping towards the parking lot. A day without orange juice is like a day without, oh never mind…      



Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Icing Valentines

I love every holiday equally, which as you can imagine, makes me as much a devotee of Cupid as I am of Phil (see last week's post). My friend Rosie listened patiently as I whined about this week's cookie chaos at work. In response, she posed an interesting question. "Why are they fixated on cookies? Why can't they give chocolates on Valentine's Day, like everyone else?" I wondered why as well. In a time not so long ago, my home address was in this very state, not too far from an infamous stretch of roadway that boasts many landmarks from my Wonder Bread years. Among them are a large fabric emporium, a retail store built to resemble a ship (really) and a chocolate manufacturer (now we're talking). My mother at the wheel, I traveled that highway three times a week, passing Helen Elliott Chocolates. Mondays and Thursdays for piano and Solfège,Wednesdays for ballet. Clearly my talents ultimately lay elsewhere; hence my current employ in the world of rolling pins and pastry bags. Which brings me back to Valentine's Day.

It was somewhat of a tradition in my youth and throughout college to receive a Valentine card and a heart shaped box of Helen Elliott chocolates. The signature on the card was always the same and it was the only card my father ever signed. My mother has beautiful handwriting and was the signator on birthday cards, but Valentines were penned in my Dad's run-on scrawl, "Your Secret Admirer." I adored every piece of candy that was nestled into accordion pleated papers; caramels and chocolate covered cherries, English toffee, nut clusters and something that was a cross between a truffle and fudge. That box of candy was the highlight of February, and always welcome. Except once.
Sophomore year of college, circa 1970-something. Situated on the Ithaca college campus, tucked within the student union was The Pub. I'm still struggling to understand how The Pub was housed on campus and served alcohol when now the only bars in the student union serve salad. Let's just say without going into too much detail, that on this particular February the 13th, I had joined a castmate at The Pub. I recall circles of fruit swimming in pitchers of red wine and not much else. Oh yes, my friend Pamela arrived at some point and walked me back to my dorm through mountains of snow where Betsy was curiously waiting. Thanks, Pamela. 

The very next day I was making my way to a voice lesson when I paused to check my mailbox. There was a slip indicating I had a package waiting. It could wait. Class was a group lesson and someone was singing a selection from "Oliver" which ordinarily I wouldn't have minded. That day it was torturous, every single note on the piano wreaking havoc on my throbbing head. After class, I swung by the Union to pick up my package. I tore back the corrugated box to reveal, just what someone in my current fragile state would not consider pining for; a heart shaped box of Helen Elliott chocolates. Even hundreds of miles away, my father had his finger on the pulse. 

Which makes me think that on Valentine's Day I should take a minute and call my Dad. Come to think of it, he was the guy who introduced me to the concept of pie for breakfast. I should also say "thank you." For the piano lessons and the ballet lessons, and for all of the heart shaped boxes of Valentine chocolates. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Birthday Cake or Birthday Pie?

It's a brand new week and I'm cautiously optimistic. There's only one holiday this week and it's on a personal level. It has nothing to do with sports or that insufferable creature from Puxatawny (who by the way, I know it sounds harsh, I Unfriended on FB.)  The week stretches out before me and I have a monumental decision to make. What to bake for my mother's birthday, pie or cake?

We have celebrated many family birthdays amidst cake layers festooned with swirls of buttercream.  We have also tucked birthday candles into crevices of pie crust, busting with blueberries, or ripe with summer peaches.  February poses a bit of a challenge regarding fresh fruit ripe for the baking.  That's why I'm stumped and that may be the tipping point in Pie vs. Cake.

Chez moi, our leanings tend towards pie almost unanimously. It has been brought to my attention however, that one of us has been known to choose birthday cake- not because she prefers cake to pie. She simply prefers hearing herself bemoan the fact that she's the Birthday Girl and she'll just go ahead and make her own cake anyway, because, well, who else is going to and... But enough about me. 

I posed my question to those gathered around the bakery work table and was surprised to find quite a few pie enthusiasts. Even the high school and college baristas voted in favor of Birthday Pie. Those who chose cake (Sweet Lady Carey) indicated that it's really not about the cake at all. It's about the frosting and the cake is a mere vessel for said frosting.

Among the Seattle-ites I found a slight divide. Strong pie leanings from my youngest nephew, particularly if lattice crust is featured. My handsome brother-in-law and oldest nephew are cake-ers. My brother-in-law is also I might add, a damn fine baker. My sister is what she calls "Dessert Positive" so she'll take either unless white peaches are in season. Then it's pie all the way.

My mother has always been the peacemaker seated at one head of the dining room table. She is possibly the least selfish person I know and if asked what she would like for her birthday dessert would tell me not to fuss. Which makes this all the more daunting. Of course I'm going to fuss; when I'm an octogenarian, my kids better be fussing over me.

When it comes to desserts, my mother inherited from her mother a fondness for custards and creams, chocolate and glaceed fruits. She also has a penchant for everything lemon so I could go in quite a few directions. The question is, which one?

There is also the whole Boston Cream Pie debate. I know nothing says Happy Birthday better than sponge layers sandwiched with pastry cream and dark chocolate dripping down the sides. Is that considered pie or cake or both?

I have another day to ponder this and perhaps a stroll through the produce aisles of Whole Paycheck will serve to inspire. The more I think about it though, it's not a question of Birthday Pie or Birthday Cake. When I consider the recipient the answer is simple; this Birthday Girl deserves one of each.