No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Me the People

Traditionally, I look forward to the day following Easter. Bunny cookie cutters are tucked away for the season and Cadbury chocolate peanut butter eggs are 2-for-1 at most pharmacies. This year posed a major conflict; work summoned with a very large decorated cookie order at the same time I had been summoned to fulfill one of the “highest duties of a citizen,” Jury Duty.  Of course I wish to contribute to the administration of justice in the Garden State. More importantly, I do not wish to pay the $500 fine for rsvp-ing in the negative. Enroute to the Hall of Justice I count eleven fried chicken emporiums.

Everyone is exceedingly cordial upon my arrival. I’m scanned, screened and handed a badge emblazoned with the word JUROR and my name directly below. My badge must be visible at all times (makes me feel a little Hester Prynne-ish) and it is highly recommended that I remember my juror number.

Ushered into Room “A”, there’s nary a Henry Fonda nor a Lee J. Cobb in sight, but we all resemble Angry Men. The man seated behind me is slung low in his chair, giving directions in a stage whisper on his cell phone. “Just move the sheetrock, that should cover it.” Uh oh. That should cover it as in “Move the sheetrock to hide the body?” or “Move the sheetrock to complete the addition to my summer palace?” The man is agitated and I don’t want to be placed in a group with him. When they call our numbers, guess who is in my group?

Overhearing two would-be jurors in front of me discuss their Easter Sunday, I’m reminded that this invitation to the Hall of Justice conflicts with my chance to stop at the pharmacy and pick up a few Easter Monday Cadbury chocolates. Now I’m starting to get a little bit hungry, but no, not for fried chicken.

We are instructed to watch a video detailing our responsibilities as Jurors. Mr. Sheetrock is having none of it and steps over me uttering a few choice words. The audio on the Responsibility Video isn’t working so we are given permission to recess to the Coffee Lounge with strict instructions to wear our badges in full view. Exiting “Room A” we tumble out into the vestibule and are immediately assaulted with the scent of Styrofoam cups and Coffee-Mate. In the distance, I can hear the sweet sound of a vending machine. With chocolate and peanut butter on the brain, I’m hoping for a peanut butter cup or a Snickers. Better still, I spy the familiar red and brown wrapping of Goldenberg’s original Peanut Chews. Unearthing a dollar bill from my jacket pocket, I make my purchase only to find that the confection deposited in the slot is not my Peanut Chews at all, but a package of Twizzlers. A fellow Juror suggests I try again using the Twizzler button instead. “Why would I do that?” Turns out the numbers in the machine don’t quite align with the selections and you have to choose the candy next to the one you want. It works. Things are looking up. Until I look down and realize that I am experiencing a badge malfunction. The clear lucite name tag sleeve is clipped to my sweater, but the JUROR badge is missing. Having committed the heinous crime of losing my name and number, I am fairly certain this is punishable by law. Am I not entitled to one phone call and one candy bar?

Awaiting my sentence, my name is called over the loudspeaker urging me to return to the main desk.  A bespectacled Superior Court representative hands me my badge and I offer her a peanut chew which she declines. Clearly, there’s no bribing the clerk and there is little chance of being pardoned for good behavior.

We return to Room A where we spend the next three hours listening to HGTV (“Love It or List It?”) and waiting to be sprung for lunch. I don’t want lunch, I want to go home. Actually, I need to go to work. Fortunately, we are allowed to leave the building from noon until 1:30. Warm in the sun, lunch hour (and a half) is spent in peanut chew bliss.

At 3:00, our group is divided in half and my group is allowed to go home, with the understanding that we are to return the next day at 9:30 am. I run to the parking garage with the fervor of Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread.

The next morning I dial the Juror Hotline number with the hopes that my appearance today has been deemed unnecessary, but it is not to be. “All Jurors must report to the Hall of Justice.”

Bad deja-vu all over again; I am scanned, screened and badged. The second day is more challenging; we overspill from Room A to Room B (ESPN, not HGTV) and are told not to linger in the hallway. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Mr. Sheetrock and my fellow band of Merry Jurors angling for seats near the vestibule connecting the Hall of Justice with the Hall of Records. They must know something I do not. The Clerk takes her place at the front desk and turns on the PA system. She begins summoning Jurors by name and number to be taken to the Court House by a Sheriff sporting a handlebar mustache. They call my number but the name is wrong. I look at the name on my badge, it’s correct. They call my number again and call me Ms. Green. Now everyone is looking at me as if I’m some sort of rule breaker. The Clerk looks at my badge, looks at her list, looks at the Sheriff, and for a moment I fear they may actually send me up river. Instead they “instruct me” to follow the Sheriff and the rest of the group to the Historic Courthouse which is several blocks away. This can’t be good.

Sheriff Mustache is standing directly in front of me and tells us that he is our escort to the chambers of the Honorable Judge So and So. We are advised to keep up because we will be traveling through the intricate tunnel system that runs below the Hall of Justice. He sets off at a furious pace and I am right on his heels. The labyrinth of passages are dimly lit, with a slight Shawshank Redemption feel to them. Mr. Sheetrock must be a non-athlete, because he is falling far behind. When we arrive at the Historic Courthouse, Sheriff Mustache advises the elderly members of our group that they may wait and take the elevator to the fourth floor. Sheetrock feigns old age and hides amidst the geriatric crowd. The rest of us are to continue on at breakneck speed up four flights of dizzying marble. The building is a magnificent structure, recently renovated to the tune of almost $50 million. A placard states this courthouse has received the highest award from the Preservation and Landmarks Committee, and it is indeed jaw dropping. There is a blur of museum-quality murals on all sides and soaring Tiffany skylights overhead. We learn that the building was designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of New York City’s Woolworth Building and Washington, D.C.’s U.S. Supreme Court. Interesting to note that the Historic Courthouse dates back to 1907. Had this been been an Art History field trip, I’d be all for it. But it’s not.

Ushered into the courtroom, we hunker down to listen to the Judge (who is not smiling) as he begins his monologue concerning Jury Voir Dire. Jurors come and Jurors go, citing extreme personal hardships. When it is time for the Judge to speak with me at “Sidebar” (cue Law and Order soundtrack) the attorneys and the Judge tell me that the case will require two to three more days of my service.

“But, I, I, have to go back to work.” They want to know what I do. They are not moved by my response and send me back to the bench in the front of the jury pool. I’m frantically treading water as I see my entire week slip sliding away.

There is a brief synopsis of the case to be tried. More questions, more Sidebar. The attorneys deem me unable to render an impartial decision. Fancy that. Ultimately, blissfully, the Judge excuses me from the pool. One of the attorneys feigns slight interest in my line of work. “So what is it that causes you to hurry back to work?” Swearing to tell the whole truth and nothing but, I reply, “We are in the midst of a huge cookie order. It has to be completed and then shipped to D.C.”  The nation’s capital grabs their attention so I add, “350 cookies, decorated to look like the White House.” The Judge states, “You are excused.” I had hoped he would bang the gavel and say, “Next Juror.” He doesn’t.

As I make my way back to the parking garage for the second day in a row, I pause to reflect on the day’s proceedings. Did I just get away with murder?


Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Elijah of Produce

Poor Elijah left his Seder Tuesday evening in a light prayer shawl when he really needed his North Face parka. Despite a dusting of the white stuff the night before last and the frozen windshield that greeted me Wednesday morning, I am cautiously optimistic that spring is hiding just around the bakery corner. Would that the produce man could secure the spring pie essential that seems just out of my oven-mittened reach.

I’ve been known to occasionally push the “in season” fruit envelope, promising certain pie availability before delivery of the very ingredient I’m seeking. When there is a vague response from the produce distributor, (“Let me put you on hold…”) odds are less than stellar that what I’m hoping has just arrived from (in this case) Washington state, has not.

In the week leading up to this very Sunday, there have been numerous queries about and requests for the very pie that says spring has sprung. Strawberry/Rhubarb has become the “It Girl” of Easter week pies, edging out coconut cream and lemon meringue by a nose. I only say this based on my own personal pie experience, having worked in restaurants, bakeries and on a farm that pumped out hundreds of pies every single holiday. Fresh strawberry/rhubarb season is strictly a limited engagement which contributes to its cult status. Knowing this full well, I still fall victim to the belief that if I want and need the fruit, it will be available. Somewhere.

Quoting Clare Boothe Luce, our favorite saying at home which I use repeatedly at work is, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Most recently I indicated to a favorite customer (there are exceptions to all retail rules) that I had seen fresh rhubarb at the market and was fairly certain it would be available for Easter. Of course that was an egregious mistake on my part because every time in the past month when I tried to order one case of rhubarb from our supplier, the wholesale produce deity was unable to commit.

Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the noise of the convection oven, but there are times when I’m working that I swear I hear certain words repeated over and over again. Not necessarily around the bench, but up front, on the other side of the espresso machine. Words that haunt me. This week, the word was rhubarb.  Customers were chatting between mouthfuls of scones and macchiatos, “I’ve ordered a strawberry/ RHUBARB pie for Easter.” Nodding in agreement, the woman in Audrey Hepburn sunglasses replied,  “I wonder what time I can pick up my strawberry/RHUBARB pie.” I casually walked over to investigate the clipboard of orders for the upcoming Easter festivities. I had to wrestle it away from one of the baristas who was tallying up the columns. My right hand was cloaked in remnants of bunny-ear-pink royal icing which was now flaking all over the Boden raincoat of Audrey Hepburn. I grabbed the clipboard and discovered there was indeed a column dedicated to the very pie for which we had no fruit. Did I mention how much I love holidays?

At the end of the work day, I was still awaiting confirmation from the produce folks about the elusive fruit, rather vegetable that is rhubarb. “But I’ve seen it in the supermarket!” I started whining. They would neither budge on their indifference nor commit to tracking it down.  Leaving me to fend for my rhubarb self.

Arriving at Whole Paycheck, I grabbed a hand cart and made a beeline for the fruit and vegetable emporium. I spotted the spring green and pinky-red stalks in the distance, but they were few in number.  An affable fellow who appeared to be in the know was stacking a pyramid of avocados. Stepping back from the precarious Haas structure, I asked if there might be more rhubarb available. He shook his head and uttered the dreaded words, “It didn’t come in. Maybe tomorrow.”  Aaarrgghh- I felt crazy coming on so I gathered the half of a dozen stalks and proceeded to the check out. It was while I was making the turn alongside the yams and sweet potatoes that I spotted another shopper with a bundle of MY rhubarb. A voice started playing in my head, “Unhand that rhubarb, Madam! It has my name written all over it’s poisonous leaves and edible
stalks. There are people waiting for pies!”

Instead, I casually walked ahead, glanced over to the woman and smiled. “Making pie?” (Singular pie, not lattice-top for the masses.)  “Nooo,” she replied. “Jam.” That was it, end of conversation. I had lost the rhubarb battle and felt I was soon to lose the war.

At $4.99 a pound, my paltry stalks weighed in at a mere one pound, one ounce, barely enough for a solitary pie. I drove home in  silence, occasionally glancing over at my seventeen ounces of rhubarb.

The next day was a blur of macaroons and flourless chocolate cakes, lemon curd and baskets of bunny cookies. I looked up at one point to see the linen guy lugging in the week’s worth of kitchen towels and crunchy-with-sizing white aprons. He was followed by Mr. UPS who was delivering of all things, pie boxes and right on his heels, cases of milk, heavy cream and buttermilk from the organic farmer.

Somewhere between finding room in the downstairs fridge for the dairy and rolling out pie shells, I must have missed him. The Elijah of produce had slipped in when the front door was open and left a case of rhubarb on the stainless steel work table.

Every once in a great while, for just a moment, holidays cease to collide and decide to align in harmony. And the best part of the rhubarb windfall? There was now sufficient rhubarb to bake a birthday pie for my favorite soon-to-be 22 year old.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Fifth Question: When Do We Eat?

At long last April has arrived with two holidays careening around the bakery corner. They will collide on the cookie counter, bunnies snuggling perilously close to macaroons. It is a delicate dance between the leavened and the unleavened, especially when working in a spatially challenged kitchen. I will address both holidays individually and jointly, consecutively and at random. (Multiple holidays in the span of two weeks can do that to a person.)

Forgive me for not delving into the religious significance of Passover and Easter. I am familiar with the characters and the plotline of both holidays. Extra credit for paying attention to exhaustive slides of the Last Supper in Art History classes. Bonus points too, for having watched “The Ten Commandments” on more than one occasion and working for the fellow who played Pharaoh Ramesses.

What seems obvious to me is that somewhere along the bunny trail on the way to a Seder, Elijah must have broken matzoh with Peter Cottontail. From a culinary point of view, Passover and Easter share many similarities. In the dessert category there’s a flurry of coconutiness going on, and marshmallow shenanigans too. Both holidays feature jellied sweets; Barton’s and Boston jelly fruit slices sparkling with sugar are as popular at the Seder dessert table as jelly beans are in Easter baskets. (My teeth hurt just thinking about them.) Between macaroons, layer cakes, pies, tortes and chocolate eggs, coconut is practically its own food group. Even marshmallows jump on the coconut bandwagon, dressing themselves in toasted coconut while the Peeps folks are over the moon with gaggles of neon marshmallows. I will also point out that each holiday features a hunting-we-will-go activity; one for eggs, the other for the Afikomen. The Easter egg hunt always seemed non competitive to me culminating with the consumption of Easter candy. The hunt for the Afikomen featured a bit of sibling rivalry and a blissful break from sitting too long at the table. (I always thought the fifth of the "Four Questions" should have been, "When do we eat?") Concealed in a white damask napkin and generally hidden in the living room, upon discovery the square of matzoh was redeemed by my father for cold, hard cash. There were no winners, no losers, and barring tradition, there was no way that we were going to be content with the Afikomen as a final course.

Never a family to let a little unleavening stand in the way of dessert, our Passover meal drew to a close with an assortment of sweets orchestrated by Jessie and my grandmother. I must add that more often than not, Passover coincided with my father’s birthday. Currently there are 5 birthdays in our family tumbling pell-mell through the flourless holiday. The cake that takes Seder center stage is (drumroll) the Kiss Torte.

Long before Pavlovas were splashed across the cover of every food magazine heralding the arrival of spring, there was the Kiss Torte. Tucked inside a recipe box the color of spearmint, right behind “Busy Day Cake”, “Carrie’s Chocolate Cake “ and “Rosetta’s Cheesecake” is “Passover Kiss Torte.” After a bit of sleuthing, it turns out the Kiss Torte was so named because the original recipe was composed of three layers of meringue crowned with kisses. I’m not sure when the recipe was streamlined but I always saw it baked in the same ginormous springform pan. Knowing the characters, it is entirely possible that Jessie took her no-nonsense approach to the original recipe and said to my grandmother, “Why are you fussing with all that?” The fussing would have referred to tracing circles onto brown paper grocery bags, (no doubt from the A&P) spreading thin layers of meringue within the circles and then piping or spooning the remaining meringue into kisses. Jessie had an entire dinner to prepare and she was not interested in piping anything. The springform pan was weighty, fashioned out of tinned steel and measuring 10” across by 3 and ¼” tall. Filled with mounds of vanilla-spiked meringue (and not a speck of flour or leavening) made it the perfect Passover dessert. The torte baked up crispy on the outside and marshmallowy on the inside. Just before serving, Jessie would split the torte in half, whip up more than a little heavy cream, halve and sweeten fresh strawberries and then layer them between the meringue. Swirls of cream covered the sides and top of the torte, further gilded with a few of the prettiest berries. If it was to be adorned as a birthday cake, a single, dramatic taper selected from the top drawer of the dining room server signified the festivities.

Lest you think that I have overlooked the Passover Pie, I was amused to find written on the back of the Kiss Torte recipe, instructions for preparing half the amount of meringue, spreading it inside a pie plate and baking it until crisp. The “pie shell” was to cool and then serve as a vessel for lemon curd or berries and cream.  The pristine condition of this side of the index card says to me that Jessie had no interest in fussing with meringue in a pie plate.

Passover commences this Monday evening and the bakery will do its part to sweeten the Seders of our little village. (Yes, there are actual signs right outside the bakery welcoming you to our “Village.”)  One of the biggest sellers will be the quintessential little black dress of Passover desserts, the Flourless Chocolate Cake (which is more of a torte than a cake). There will also be dozens and dozens of macaroons happily reinvented, combining both sweet angel and crisp desiccated flakes resulting in the perfect coconut hipster.

The Kiss Torte will only walk the red carpet at our Passover Seder.  She will be wearing egg whites and heavy cream direct from Snoep Winkel Farm and strawberries by Driscoll. And since this year’s Kiss Torte is indeed a birthday cake, there will be a candle. Further sweetening this multi-generational celebration is the fact that we have traveled from near and quite far to be together. Borrowing from the dramatist, librettist and poet W.S. Gilbert, “It isn’t so much what’s on the table that matters, as what’s on the chairs.” Happy Holiday.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

All Things Cherry

Loretta is my go-to Cherry Girl. She is the matriarch at Hyline Orchard and Farm Market in Fish Creek, Wisconsin. Established in 1958, Hyline boasts (rightfully so) all things cherry and then some.

Loretta and I became acquainted by telephone in 1984 when I started ordering Wisconsin cherries for the restaurant. We served them at breakfast on top of steaming bowls of oatmeal (healthy) alongside small pitchers of heavy cream (not) and pure maple syrup (delicious).  We also tucked them inside pie crusts and under blankets of cobbler biscuits.

I can’t do the math (obviously) but over the ten years we were in business, we ordered more than our fair share of cherries from Hyline. Unearthing the phone number recently, I was fairly certain the line would be either disconnected or answered by a computer generated voice. I nearly dropped the phone when the voice on the other end of the line was unmistakably Loretta’s.

Loretta’s voice is equal parts grandmotherly warmth and no nonsense shipping department efficiency. “When do ya need 'em?” she would ask. I envisioned her on a single line Bell telephone armed with a three part order form, carbon paper separating the invoice from the packing slip. Out of courtesy she would ask my delivery preference but clearly Loretta was running the cherry show. Depending on the weather and the time of day, she would reply, “I’ll get 'em right out” ensuring delivery within 3 days. If it was particularly warm or nearing the weekend, she would most likely postpone things a bit.

Cherries arrived in plastic tubs, methodically wrapped in the ‘Advocate’ newspaper then slid into large plastic bags and knotted most efficiently. I suspect Loretta had instructed the shipping department in the tying of those knots. They were nearly impossible to undo but well worth the struggle. 

The rewards were two-fold; the Door County Advocate from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin was newsworthy, printing articles about folks vastly different from those featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Perusing the obituaries, I realized many of the deceased had lived to be nearly 100 years old or better. Decades of consuming local cherries probably contributed to the hardiness of folks living in that beautiful stretch of Wisconsin. Finally the tub itself- the outside emblazoned with a label boasting all the particulars:

and inside, burgundy cherries both sweet and tart, still frozen, the layer of ice crystals at the top forming the very best cherry slurpee ever.

Loretta recalled shipping cherries to the restaurant in Chestnut Hill. “You were just outside Philadelphia. That was a few years ago…” She continued, “You know, I have to credit my grandkids for putting us on the Internet.” Could it be? Quickly Googling Hyline Orchards and sure enough, there they were complete with color photos and an exhaustive list of their product line. The ordering process however, was the same. “When do ya need ‘em?” Loretta asked. Sooner than later I explained. “I’ll get 'em right out.” Time warp. I asked her if everything was computerized. “Oh no, I don’t use that. If I need something from the computer, I go and get my grandkids.” We talked pies, prices. She wondered what pies went for down in “the city” and when I told her, silence. Then, “Oh no, I don’t charge that much for a pie.” I suggested she could probably raise her pie prices just the slightest without meeting much resistance. Down here, pie is the new cupcake. Again silence. I suggested that up there, pie is still pie. She laughed. “Yes it is."

Three days later, the cherries arrived. Packaging was exactly the same, plastic tubs wrapped in the Door County Advocate, slid into plastic bags, tied with that inimitable knot. I looked at the order form/packing slip. Same handwriting, blue ink pen on white note pad, carbon copy in yellow. Loretta, steadfast at the helm of Hyline Orchard where cherries remain delicious and pie is still pie. Thank goodness.