No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, March 27, 2014

For the Love of Joe

The phone is ringing.

I have barely taken my place around the Bench, (baker’s speak for worktable) let alone procured my first iced coffee of the day. It seems unfair that I should rewind my way around the bakers rack, limbo under the open convection oven doors, squeeze past the line of impatient coffee-seeking commuters and answer the phone. It will only end badly. This I know for a fact.

Picking up the rotary phone receiver I am reminded that no good deed goes unpunished. The questions start pouring through in rapid staccato succession. I so want to alert the person on the other end of the line that before they start their barrage, it might be best if I consume a little caffeine. People say it makes me a nicer person in the morning. No luck- the line at the counter is snaking its way to the door and I couldn’t get to the espresso machine now, let alone secure a cup. I’m trapped, just like a currant in an Irish Soda scone. The woman on the other end of the phone wants to know if she can order a Meyer Lemon Pie for the afternoon. The answer is not what she wants to hear. Rather patiently I suggest she order one for late in the day tomorrow. When she starts to protest, I explain that it takes a day for the lemons to macerate, letting the word ‘macerate’ roll off my tongue because I like the way it sounds. She has no idea what that means and orders one. I scribble her number on an order form hoping to ring off.  She is already on to the next thing. It is when the words birthday cake reach my ears that my eyes start to glaze over.  Her needs are not simple- it is not a question of chocolate or vanilla, red velvet or lemon. “I need to order a dairy free-soy free-egg free-nut free-gluten free cake. You can do that, right?” I sigh. Not exactly. Please understand that I am most sympathetic regarding food sensitivities. There is however, a difference between need and want. As the woman rambles on, there appears not to be a need for the abovementioned cake. It’s more of a want issue. She wants to be the one to assure her guests (four year olds) that any remote possibility of a food sensitivity has been addressed. I explain that we don’t really do that sort of thing… Now she’s starting to get just the least bit unpleasant.

I’m back–peddling now; of course we can accommodate some of those needs. Just not all together… not in one cake. She continues, explaining, wheedling, whining. I say nothing.  She finally comes up for air. “Oh. Okay. So I’ll take the Meyer Lemon Pie- Twelve o’clock tomorrow”and with a click, she’s gone. My friendly Barista has overheard some of my conversation and understands. She nods, and I watch as she fills a cup with ice and pulls a double shot of espresso. A splash of cold milk swirls through the coffee and she hands it to me. Salvation. “What kind of cake did she want?” I take a sip of my morning brew allowing it to calm my cake frazzled nerves and reply, “A Free For All.” Free of all the ingredients that make it tasty. I continue on to my place at the bench, stepping over three cases of eggs that have just been delivered and ponder the day stretched before me.

First on my list- Meyer Lemon pie prep. As I am carefully and thinly slicing the lemons I hear the phone ring again. This time I concentrate my efforts on the task at hand allowing someone else to converse with the public. Only this time it’s not the pubic, it’s Mr. Oven Repair Man who is on his way with a much needed part that will restore one of the ovens. The Good News is we will once again have two working convection ovens. The Bad News is the repair cannot be made while the one operational oven is hot.

Tomorrow is Pie Day, I mean Friday, and there needs to be an offering for the crust driven clientele. Clearly my oven hours have been drastically cut requiring me to switch gears. While the Meyer lemons hunker down for the day in their sugar nest, I pause to consider my options. My iced cuppa joe provides all the inspiration I need; Espresso cream pie. A great dessert that has the added bonus of being prepared over a double boiler. The only oven time required is for a quick bake of the crust, if you feel a crust is needed.

A few years back, I worked as a pastry chef at a high falutin’ restaurant in Philadelphia. The executive chef was keen on sampler plates of diminutive desserts. One New Year’s Eve she ordered a case of baby pineapples to be halved, hollowed out and served with a trio of gelatos. There was also a sampler plate featuring crazy-with-fruit-and-nuts biscotti, baby panna cotta, a three bite ricotta/lemon cheesecake and an espresso cup filled with a dangerously rich chocolate/espresso pudding. The gluten, dairy, egg, soy, and nut components must have been staggering. As I prepared these desserts, I never even considered the food sensitivity issues. I was just trying to drown out the Power 99 radio station (preferred by the line cooks) with my Hobart mixer. Let me add that one of the perks (no pun intended) of that job was the very elaborate espresso machine at my disposal. The only downside of that machine was that it provided the base for my least favorite dessert on the menu. Tiramisu was the bane of my dessert existence simply because it was the most popular. I prepared hotel pan after hotel pan with layers of espresso soaked ladyfingers and mascarpone mousse. It was an incredible dessert and way too popular, but when it comes to dessert, people are like lemmings.

I have a date early tomorrow morning with some sugared lemon slices and a few pie shells. There is also the chance that I may meet Ms. Free For All. If you have a hankering for a dessert with a good kick of caffeine, check out this week’s recipe. You are more than welcome to pour the coffee custard into a pre-baked pie shell, but I think it is perfectly delicious served sans crust in an espresso cup. The coffee whipped cream is my favorite part and if there’s any left over, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to add it to your morning coffee. Sometimes you need to brace yourself for the day ahead, especially if you intend on dealing with the public on the other end of the phone.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pie-oneer Woman

I have never claimed to be automotive savvy. My interests lean towards the kitchen, not the garage. So imagine my surprise to find myself barreling down Interstate 95 (one of the most loathsome roads in America) to discover my weekend road trip going horribly awry. Allow me to backtrack...

Saturday morning and I'm in the thick of pie madness. Might I name drop here without mentioning actual names. One of the frequent pie-ers at the bakery is a Grammy award winning musician/composer for an Oscar winning film. Think Woody Allen. Think Midnight in a European City with an Eiffel Tower. I bake apple pies for this fellow, on a regular basis. Saturday at high noon, I was rushing out of the door armed with my very own Little Apple Pie when I stopped to exchange pleasantries with the aforementioned composer. He looked at the pie I was clutching and I said, "I know. I'm bringing my own pie on a road trip. Crazy, right?" He replied, in his most Français of accents, "Why not?" which really sounds like, "Whey nut?"
Crazy was just the beginning.

Suffice it to say that the road trip was to take us just outside the D.C. area. The occasion? A surprise party for the Bestest of friends. This translates to a time deadline. Let me add that the travelers included The Most Tolerant Spouse Ever in the driver’s seat and in the back seat, My Daughter the Classically Trained Actor and her trusty companion, Handsome Classically Trained Actor.

We set off with just enough time to deposit the Master Thespians at a Metro stop so they could attend Richard III in downtown D.C. and we could arrive at our surprise party in a timely fashion. The Little Apple Pie was to be a gift for the fellow hosting the Thespians. As we sped down Interstate 95, all seemed to be in order, until things began to spin out of control...

The incessant horn honking behind us seemed downright rude. Until the horn honker pulled up alongside us, lowered his window and yelled, "Your rear tire is flat!!!" Interstate 95 avails one of so many options... near death, or certain death. My man at the wheel brilliantly maneuvered our ailing vehicle out of harms way, off the highway to a woodsy patch of road. I'm thinking, "Damn. This is terribly inconvenient. We're going to ruin the surprise in Surprise Party." The Thespians are all-about-them wondering if they are going to miss their 8 o'clock curtain, but they are young and ever optimistic.

The Most Tolerant Spouse Ever may work on the Great White Way, but he hails from the Midwest. While I'm thinking, "What's the number for 9-1-1?!!" he's preparing to change the tire. He also thinks this might be an opportune teaching moment for the Master Thespians.

Please do not mock me, but I, of course, have never actually changed a tire from start to finish. It is because the idea of driving on a tire that I have changed concerns me. I also fear that I will injure my back. Many of my contemporaries can make the same claim; just ask them.

Wanting to participate in my own little way, I secure the car manual from the glove compartment. I toss around the word “donut” indicating I know the slang for spare, and point out where it’s located in the well between the front and rear seats. I even crawl along the side of the car, observing where the jack should align with the undercarriage of the car. And then, my most brilliant moment. As my calm and collected Chicagoan removes the faulty tire from its woeful rim, I exclaim, "WAIT! You don't want to set the lug nuts by the side of the road! They may get lost in the foliage. I'm a Pie-o-Neer Woman, I'll take care of this!" My contribution? I empty the Kleenex box and offer it as a secure vessel for housing the critical hardware. Twenty minutes later, we are reassembled in the car and on our way. The Thespians seem none too concerned about missing out on the tire-changing intricacies. They assure me they will be living in a city with public transportation. You have to admire the naiveté of youth. My daughter feels confident they will make their train and their 8 o'clock curtain. She also compliments her father on his grace under pressure and her mother on the safe-keeping of the lug nuts. We glance over to the Little Apple Pie. The odds of it being gifted seem to be dwindling.

Eighteen hours later, Party Revelers and Play Goers reunite for the trip home. It is a given that the return voyage will be on a spare 'donut' which will necessitate traveling well below the speed limit. This will add time to the journey and we don't want to slow things down because of course, the Actors have a NYC bound train to catch. We soldier on, staving off hunger and focus on catching the 4:54. We pull into the station with moments to spare, the rear tire limping in exhaustion. The Thespians gather up their bags and I realize we never gifted nor consumed our pie. As I kiss them goodbye, I reach over and hand them The Little Apple Pie as a parting gift. The Most Tolerant Spouse doth wish to protest, "Why?" but I hold up my hand and without saying a word shoot him a glance that says, "Whey nut?"

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Happy Pi/Pie Day

I've bemoaned the fact that many holidays are colliding this week, but I forgot to mention one. Earlier this week on the 9th of March was the birthday of my pie baking mentor, Jessie. It seems most fitting to remember her on of all holidays, Pie Day.

As flour flew out of the bowl all over the checkerboard linoleum floor, Jessie would glance up from peeling apples while watching "Dark Shadows" and say, "Why don't you use a bigger bowl?" And so my baking apprenticeship began. Under Jessie's watchful eye I learned the intricacies of sifting and measuring, separating yolks and folding in whites. She taught me how to navigate rolling pins and icing spatulas, what was meant by "clean test" and "springy to the touch." Jessie had me baking right alongside her in a grown-up oven while all of my friends were baking by light bulb in their EZ Bake ovens.

Seasonal pie baking was a constant- a Farberware double boiler held center stage for cream pies and lemon meringue. In warm weather months, a huge red and white bowl held berries or peaches for tossing with just enough, but not too much sugar.

Jessie's handwriting was curlicued like the white icing scrawled across Hostess chocolate cupcakes. Most of her recipes were of course, in her head. When I would ask for specifics Jessie would say, "This much" offering a visual of her flour dusted hands or a verbal, “That’s enough” when adding water to pie crust.
I would try to repeat her directives, not always successfully. Never one to mince words Jessie would say, "Next time you don't want it to look like this... "  I must also credit her for teaching me not only recipe development, "Why you fussin' with that? There's an easier way..." but also problem solving, "Here. I fixed it."

Jessie's culinary talents encompassed sweets and savories; she prepared dinner nightly, desserts daily and could orchestrate and execute holidays such as Thanksgiving and Passover seemingly without effort. I must say that her fried chicken was legendary, and her pies as well. She would pack up care packages of fried chicken to send me on my way back to college after holiday breaks. It should also be noted that she was responsible for my early Music Education. Her bedroom was located directly below mine and in the evenings, the voices of Ella and Frank, Billie and Nat would creep up through the floorboards.

I still have the red and white bowl for mixing fruit pies and I think about her and miss her every time I'm in the kitchen. My kids would often say, "We should have had a Jessie" to which I'd reply, "Everybody should have had a Jessie."

My workday would not be complete without making a few rounds of pie dough. As I hoist the 20 quart mixing bowl onto the commercial Hobart with the paddle attachment mixing the butter, flour and just enough cold water to hold it together, I always think, "See Jessie? I'm using the bigger bowl."

Happy Pie Day.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Annual Rolling of the Hamantaschen

Sound the trumpets- it is the annual Rolling of the Hamantaschen. How fortuitous that Pi/pie day is this week as well because boy, do I need to hone my math skills. Purim provides a perfect opportunity to do so beginning with multiplication. One full sheet pan can accommodate symmetrical rows of triangles running 4 across by 6 down. Mrs. Delbaum, my 3rd grade teacher at P.S. 104 in Far Rockaway is to be credited for teaching me my multiplication tables, so no worries, I got this. It’s when we get to the geometry portion of the program that I may need some extra help.

History paints Queen Esther as a resourceful gal, and I bet she was crafty too. Seems to me if she were running things in Hamantaschen Central this week, she might approach it a little differently. While channeling my inner Esther (think Lucy Van Pelt) it occurs to me we're going about this the wrong way. Traditionally, Hamantaschen are small, diminutive. They start out as a 3" inch circle and after being gussied up with a dollop of filling (I'm an apricot fan but poppy seed and Nutella are none too shabby, either) they are folded in triangular fashion. Tasty, yes. Quick to execute? Not particularly, unless you are folding them by the hundreds and you start to develop a rhythm. After the first few sheet pans your fingers begin to take flight and your mind starts to wander. Leading me to think that maybe Hamantaschen really yearn to be something bigger, more deserving than a two bite wonder. I think it warrants a larger plate at the sweet table. After all, this dough has yielded delicious results in other guises. What seems to separate a circle from a triangle from a half-moon appears to be simple geometry. Personally, I never found anything simple about geometry. Here's the full disclosure: if this were a blog about cake, I would tell you that the only way I managed to pass Coach Apsley's geometry class was by baking him a checkerboard cake. True. But this is about Hamantaschen so I'll save that for another time. 

The truth is the rich, buttery dough lends itself to both hand pies and galettes. Just maybe this can be classified as a Proof; one circle of Hamantaschen dough folded in half equals a hand pie, therefore (isn't there a symbol for this? I'll check with one of those math games kids from Seattle to confirm) this very dough folded in a larger triangle that can serve several people equals a Haman-tarten. With a nod to Esther, I am going to tuck the poppy seeds into the dough and add some orange zest which should go nicely with the apricot filling. Esther was Royalty after all, so let's add a little extra bling after the tart is baked with a light brush of jam to make it shine. If Esther has a good PR person, the next thing you know, she will be featured in the Spring issue of MARTHA, demonstrating how to easily and beautifully prepare her tart. It will be touted as the next Good Thing. See- this is the sort of Crazy that happens to a person as she toils for 8 hours making Purim pastries for the masses. My mind begins to wander yet again, wondering if there's a special Purim cocktail I don't know about.  Because by the time I finish my work day, it will be well after 5 o'clock somewhere...