No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Wear White, Bake White

I swear it wasn’t me. The woman outfitted in the screaming white espadrilles and the Wear-Your-White-Eileen Fischer-Linen-Dress-Now was responsible. Me? Just an innocent victim.

On the day after Memorial Day it seems that summer white is bustin’ out all over. My version of a summer work wardrobe mirrors the other three seasons rather closely. Granted, the leg wear gets a tad shorter but the conventional button-down shirts remain the same. It just so happens today’s shirt is indeed white but not alarmingly so. It’s more of a weary white, rolled-up sleeves on a traditional collared shirt that I snagged from Young Boston Scholar’s closet. Festooned with the day’s mise en place, you would say the look is neither crisp nor vacation ready.

Following a particularly sweltering tour of duty in the bakery, I am gathering a few gazpacho fixing incidentals from the Trader Joes. My focus is on the fresh basil and the not-quite-summer tomatoes. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Lady-in-Linen squeezing and juggling cantalopes and honeydews. She is so engrossed with
selecting the perfect melon, she pays no attention to the pyramid of organic Gala apples to her left. In a flash, pink and gold striped fruit is rolling helter skelter, circling my clogs. Mayday, I’m goin’ down and I grab on to a roll of green produce bags for dear life, trying to steady myself. Lady-in-Linen commandeers a strapping young sales fellow, demanding to know which melon is fruit salad worthy. Attired in a turquoise hibiscus emblazoned t-shirt, he can’t help but notice my flailing arms as I scramble for balance, the apples rolling underfoot. I scoop up a handful of the runaway bumper crop defending myself with a plaintive “It wasn’t me!” Another sales associate is summoned to right the literally upset apple cart. I hear myself saying, “Honestly, I don’t even eat apples in May…” What am I talking about?! As I set down the wayward fruit in an empty corrugated box, a young girl engrossed in a text message approaches the dwindling organic monument. She plucks one from the middle and I instinctively duck as the remaining Galas bounce from counter to concrete industrial floor. Clearly, I am in the wrong aisle at the wrong time. Sidestepping, I round the corner allowing the apples to fall where they may. There are easily dozens of shoppers in this store. Why is the falling fruit always my problem?

Not so casually hiding behind the plums and the nectarines, it’s impossible to ignore the Great Melon Debate. Finally resolved (honeydew wins), Lady-in-Linen clutches the winning melon in her perfectly manicured coral-toned nails. She pauses at the end caps (grocery speak for attention-grabbing items at the end of aisles) which have forsaken the barbeque holiday of yesterday and are now boasting a tropical theme; mangoes and 19 cent bananas. Turquoise t-shirt is hovering, eyebrow raised, waiting to see what trouble I might cause next. I fixate instead on a small gathering of white peaches and white nectarines, huddled together, unassuming yet fragrant. No doubt front and center over the holiday weekend, today they are yesterday’s fruit. Suddenly Mr. T-shirt is my new best friend. He nods towards the ripe fruit, “They’re fabulous.” We exchange peach pleasantries as I try unsuccessfully to untangle and find the opening of the damn plastic bag. It’s hopeless, the bag will not cooperate and I clumsily gather six of one (the nectarines) and half a dozen of the other (the peaches), tucking them into my hand cart. I know exactly what I’m going to make with my early summer windfall and just the crust to go with it. Cornmeal, brown sugar and orange zest with a splash of buttermilk can go from shortcake biscuit to pie crust with a little tweaking. Circumnavigating my way back to the citrus display, with the utmost care I select a naval orange and then pause momentarily by the dairy for the smallest container of buttermilk. Mr. T-shirt has disappeared behind the swinging doors adjacent to the coffee counter, Lady-in-Linen has just cleared the check out line. The song playing over the sound system is unmistakable; it’s the 1970s folk rockers America and in my present state of dysfunction I can swear they are singing, “This is for all the lonely peaches, thinking that life has passed them by…”

The friendly cashier wants to know if I found everything I needed. “Everything, and then some” I reply. Making my way towards the parking lot, the fellow gathering shopping carts offers a friendly, “How’s it goin?”

Just peachy.

Friday, May 23, 2014

One Smart Cookie

I am constantly amazed by the ferocious speed of the calendar. One week I’m putting gallons of cream in the side-by-side fridge at work with a ‘Use By’ date of December Mistle-toe and before I know it, this week’s cream announces Memorial Day weekend and we’re pulling out the star cookie cutters. It is a milestone week as I watch a steady FB procession of young adults sporting graduation caps and non-breathable floor length gowns in shiny tricot and dull matte finish. On a personal note, this has been a week featuring some pretty smart cookies.

One of the graduating Millennials belongs to me yet it seems we were just driving through the Holland Tunnel on a sleepy Sunday morning so she could audition for the program of her choice. We parked the car and then waited six hours seated on a metal folding chair in the performing arts building. (I vividly recall the folding chair coupled with my worst head cold of the season). More troubling is the image of the $115 parking ticket that greeted us upon return from said audition.  I also recall double parking the car six months later in that same locale, commandeering a hamper on wheels and moving our freshman into a high rise dorm. She reminded me of the Marlo Thomas character “That Girl”- embracing the wonderful crazy that is Manhattan. Armed with a subway map, she waved goodbye. And seemingly in a flash of tuition and housing bills, it’s four years later.

I haven’t thought about field trips in quite some time until a few days ago when a co-worker and I hosted a group of first graders at the bakery. Technically, we are closed on Mondays, just a skeleton crew getting a jump-start on the week. At 10:00 sharp, a yellow school bus pulled up directly in front of the bakery. I don’t know about you, but there is something about a school bus that makes me uneasy. I hated riding the bus; kids can be mean, plain and simple. For a moment, one look at the bus and I could almost feel the kid sitting behind me kicking my seat. That was then, but right now the kids bounding down the steps onto the sidewalk are downright adorable. Once inside my workplace, the first graders aged six and seven pose very serious questions. “Are you the Manager?” I reply that I do manage a few things, but my primary responsibilities are those of a pastry chef. The kids cut right to the chase. “Are you the Cake Boss?” No, no, nothing like that, I assure them. We circle around the bakers bench and they begin to identify kitchen items that they recognize, but on a much larger scale. They are somewhat impressed by the bins on wheels that can accommodate 100 pounds of sugar and flour. I explain to them that baking is physically demanding, an idea their young able bodies don’t have to worry about. They peer inside the commercial refrigerators and I point out the cases of eggs and butter, the flats of fresh strawberries. One of the young fellows outfitted in a no-nonsense Dr. Seuss Thing 1 Thing 2 sweatshirt raises his hand. “Are you the money manager, because when we have our bakery at school, I am going to manage the money.” I explain to the Young Entrepreneur that we use math everyday in the bakery and science, too. We talk about weights and measures, tally marks and accuracy. We agree it would be  calamitous to mix-up the salt and the sugar. They have moved on to a more burning question; how long have I been a baker. “Quite a while” I reply. “Yeah,” says the Fiscal manager, “probably a really long time. “ I pose the question, “Has anybody ever heard of the eighties?” Their response is one word, in unison, “Wowwww.” I move on to a demonstration of the oven timer which drowns out the screaming voice in my head that says, “The eighties weren’t so long ago! Bad hair-dos, yes. Shoulder pads and leg warmers, I’ll admit. But good times.” It occurs to me that the parents of these youngsters were probably born sometime in the eighties. I glance at my watch and conclude the kitchen tour.

Armed with clipboards and worksheets, the children hunker down around the front tables to jot down some notes about things they have learned. The teacher wants to know if anyone would like to share a thought about what they have seen on their field trip and their bakery project at school. One little girl with lop-sided braids raises her hand and says, “I would like to make a connection.” Goodness, what is she about to share with us?  The only thing I knew about connections in first grade was “Connect the Dot” as in “Dot to Dot” which we completed using colored pencils or Crayola crayons.  This group is way beyond that; Miss Braids has made a connection, rather an observation. “There’s a connection between working in a bakery and math and science and being an athlete.” I’m so proud- they listened! A few of them hug me good-bye (this is after I hand their teacher a shopping bag filled with cello wrapped brownies for snack time) and file out the door, worksheets in hand. As they are boarding the bus, Young Entrepreneur looks back at me and says, “Remember- you have to come to our bakery at school on Wednesday!” I explain that while I would love to, I have something important to do that day.

The reason I am unable to attend the Model Bakery at the field trippers elementary school on Wednesday is simple. I know someone who is graduating from college this week and I will be attending the ceremony. It just so happens I can make a personal connection between where the graduation will take place and the 1980’s.

There are many landmark buildings in Manhattan that I frequent on a fairly regular basis. One of them however, is not Madison Square Garden. To be honest, the last time I stood in line outside Madison Square Garden was in 1980.  The event? Billy Joel in concert. The cost of my ticket, right down front on the ‘Floor’ as it is called, was a whopping $25. 

Several years have passed since then. I am now jostling with a crowd waiting to enter the vestibule of the Garden. Inside we make way as ducklings, our feet barely touching the ground, the crowd moving as one. Pausing to be wanded through security, then up the escalators and into the theatre, it is one of those days that you hurry up and wait for. Amidst a sea of academic attire, I can just spot my graduate because she has decorated the top of her cap. We listen to witty and thought-provoking keynote speakers and crane our necks as members of the Class of 2014 claim their diplomas one by one. The tassels are finally turned from right to left and we spill out of the theatre on to Seventh Avenue.

At lunch, buoyed by flutes of champagne bubbles, we toast all manner of things; academic accomplishments, the end of tuition, the fear and excitement of the next chapter. I glance at the quote emblazoned across my graduate’s mortarboard. It is of course, a quote from William Shakespeare. “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Not only is That Girl one smart cookie, she has made a perfect connection. I will happily toast to that.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cartoon Interlude

A kitchen can be a dangerous place. The objects one would assume least likely to inflict pain and suffering have a way of sneaking up on you, stopping you dead in your pie tracks. It’s not necessarily the serrated bread knife that lops off your finger or the 400 degree oven door that singes your forearm. It might very well be the Sharp Cutter Blade rearing it’s ugly self in the Stretch-tite Professional Quality plastic food wrap. (Despite the word “Caution” on the box, I can personally vouch for the sharpness of the cutter blade. Much more impressive than a common burn, this injury cut a wide swath through my left wrist, six weeks ago. Now it just looks like a rope burn; that’s progress.) You think you’re paying attention but it is often the little kitchen tools that can wreak havoc, startling you out of your mid-morning reverie. Case in point, the seemingly harmless zester. I have zested my fair share of both lemons and limes, sans mishap. Over the years, I have removed the fragrant colored part of the peel, leaving the bitter pith behind, from literally cases of citrus sans bloodshed. My pristine record is now ruined by an errant Mineola orange and an overly zealous Microplane grater/zester. Will I survive? Undoubtedly. Does my injury require a bandaid? Absolutely. It is imperative that everyone in the kitchen be made aware of my laceration. What better way to broadcast my bravery than to sport a Band-Aid brand SpongeBob SquarePants adhesive bandage.  

Foraging beneath the espresso machine for a paper towel, I tend to the wound on the second finger of my left hand then blindly scour the first aid kit for a protective covering. Empty except for a box of gauze that could completely encase The Mummy. I stumble back to the kitchen realizing no one has looked up to acknowledge my catastrophic accident. Crestfallen, I rummage through my purse and secure a bandaid from deep within the dark recesses of that zipper compartment reserved for keys and loose change. I wrestle with a far-from-fresh, adhesive bandage, slightly rumpled, the paper wrapper no longer hermetically sealed. These are desperate times requiring immediate action; sterile conditions be damned. I am delighted to see that it is not just any bandaid. Encasing my injured digit in a SpongeBob bandaid, I immediately feel better. One of my cohorts looks up and asks, “Are you finished using the zester?”

I was unaware of the existence of pineapple real estate situated under the sea until Mr. SpongeBob SquarePants graced our television screen. A cleverly written animated series complete with not only food references but an opening song as well! And now the little brown pantalooned-pineapple was emblazoned across my throbbing finger.

Admittedly, I am more familiar with cartoon characters from the 60s. Maybe a bit too familiar in that I can quote dialogue from both the Flintstones and the Jetsons verbatim. (Sibling Barbara of the Pacific Northwest is also fluent in cartoon-speak and although younger, shares responsibility for this talent by imploring me to watch reruns of the aforementioned cartoons with her.)

With my one good hand, I'm still able to steer my rolling pin across  
the rough seas of pie dough and I’m now fixated on two food related cartoons that given my present line of work, are entertaining.

Long before the Food Network, Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble were selected as finalists in a baking contest. The night before the televised bake-off, Wilma and Betty are stricken with the measles. Fred and Barney step in to take their place, preparing the famous Upside-Down Flint/Rubble Bubble Cake. I always assumed the cake was made with pineapple, hence the “Upside-Down” reference.

A pineapple upside-down cake is also featured in the first episode of the Jetsons. Prepared by the Jetson’s new robot maid, Rosey’s home cooking is responsible for impressing George’s boss Mr. Spacely (of Spacely Sprockets) and securing for George both a promotion and a raise.

I’m interrupted from my cartoon interlude by the oven timer. My co-workers are bemoaning the early heat wave and we start trading war stories about Summer Kitchens We’ve Worked In and Loathed. I think I win having logged many restaurant and bakery hours during record-breaking Philadelphia heat waves. The conversation turns to suggestions for turning off the blasted ovens earlier in the day throughout the summer months.  No one seems to blame the Sconers or the Cakers for their contribution to the kitchen heat. It all seems to lie on the shoulders of the Pie Meister. What can I say? If you can’t stand the heat… I’ll bake the pie.

In celebration of a certain SpongeBob SquarePants-loving college graduate who will don her cap and gown next week, I’m thinking of a pie that is most certainly party worthy. After all of this talk about pineapple, I’ve got the perfect recipe. Sure, it requires turning on the oven for a bit. But in the end, the combination of fresh pineapple, macadamia nuts and rum spiked whipped cream is practically a tropical vacation in itself. And long before then, barring any pineapple slicing crises, my finger will have healed. (Note to self; Buy More Bandaids.)

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Not Quite Mother of the Year

We are in the midst of a veritable holiday frenzy and between the sugar cookies and the pie shells, my right hand is beginning to resemble “The Claw.” Predictably, there is an onslaught of First Communion crosses bumping into apples-for-the-teacher, gaggles of graduation caps trimmed in varying shades of collegiate cheer and an entire baker’s rack of pastel botanicals boasting edible pearls. Someone at work (a newbie) actually wanted to know my thoughts on Mother’s Day. The exchange went along these lines; “You like this holiday, right?” Silence. “Any plans for Sunday?” No response. “You know, Mother’s Day?” Pause. I finally took the bait; “I loathe Mother’s Day.” 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it for my Mother, and quite honestly, mothers (and fathers) deserve standing ovations of recognition.  And yet, you cannot please all of the Mommys all of the time. Just today, I dashed a Mother’s pie hopes. She called the bakery at 5 pm and wanted to order three distinctly different pies for Sunday. I’m sorry, I truly am, but no can do. She has the entire summer laid out before her to order Key Lime, Jumbleberry and Cherry pies. They are not on the docket for this weekend.

You wouldn’t think it, but I do enjoy orchestrating appropriate sweets, gifts, and salutations. But this Hallmark holiday is both tricky and tiresome; how many of each baked good to make? When do we stop taking orders from folks who claim they had no idea until this very moment that Mother’s Day is this weekend? Doesn’t everybody know that Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday in May?! I knew that long before I became a mother because it has been a workday for me throughout most of my adult life, plus a few years prior.

Beginning in high school, I worked as a busgirl at the now-defunct Somerville Inn. It was owned by a classmate’s grandparents and in its day, boasted a holiday-worthy dining room. It was my first encounter with the intricacies of a commercial kitchen and the pain associated with working a double shift. Our responsibilities kept us hopping between kitchen and dining room and just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be another white linen tablecloth to clear and re-set, the next reservation holders were making their way in my direction. The busgirls were an integral part of the operation; we served the tossed salads and the baskets of warm bread, refilled the ornamental butter pats, replenished the relish trays (celery stick, anyone?) and ceremoniously delivered the desserts. Vanilla ice cream was partnered with a sauce of either chocolate, strawberry or crème de menthe in a dimpled parfait glass. Both the classic layer cake and the double-crusted fruit pie were served à la mode. Scooping ice cream from a 3 gallon container that was frozen solid was a Herculean effort, and no doubt a forerunner to the P90X muscle-pumping exercise system. Not only did I struggle with the ice cream scoop, the hoisting of the weighty dessert laden tray and navigating it to the safe haven of the tray stand was a precarious journey. At the end of the day, I sat on the front steps of the Inn waiting for a ride home. Mother’s Day had come and gone as had the feeling in my legs. My mother had spent her holiday at home, reading the Sunday New York Times and weather permitting, plucking insistent dandelions from between the flagstone and planting annuals. Were there gifts? Generally an addition to the garden accompanied with greeting cards, both sentimental (from my father) and comical (from her four devoted children.) Jessie made a celebratory dinner with a towering coffee buttercream layer cake for dessert, and that was that. Going out to dine on Mother’s Day was as foreign to me as a Rosetta Stone course in Dutch.

There were very few instances when the words Mother’s Day and work were not synonymous. Lest you think I’m whining, I am not. There is a sense of satisfaction derived from laboring in the crazy world of food and a method to the madness. At work, be it restaurant or farm or bakery, I feel that I am contributing to the merrymaking of all things motherly. The rewards are fairly immediate, witnessing the setting aside of differences and shortcomings as folks gather to celebrate and say, “Thanks, Mom.”

Speaking of shortcomings, my own children might quote their mother, who has been known to casually say, “Enough about you, let’s talk about me.” Hardly in the running for Mother of the Year, I did not inherit my mother’s patience nor sweetness nor craftiness. Rommy is a Cake Girl while I am a Pie Girl and neither she nor I are Breakfast-in-Bed Girls. I cannot and do not knit, crochet, quilt, repair intricate pieces of jewelry, re-wire electrical outlets nor upholster furniture. I cannot hang wallpaper nor bookshelves in a straight line. Hopeless with a sewing machine (do not ask me to change a bobbin) and passive/aggressive when it comes to ironing, I did not inherit my mother’s green thumb but I do have a penchant for gardening. (Wait a minute. I do boast a green thumb, but it is more the result of a run-in with an over zealous bottle of mint green food coloring than anything found in nature.) Over the years I have had some garden successes and my preferred gift on Mother’s Day is something to plant. And please, it’s perfectly okay if I do the choosing of said plant/tree/annual or perennial. I will even put it in the ground if the carpal tunnel symptoms have subsided.

Looking back, one of my favorite garden additions was indeed, a Mother’s Day gift. I had selected a beautiful, yet hardy rose bush and painstakingly planted it outside the kitchen door. It was wonderfully fragrant, an over-achiever when it came to blooms and required little of me. It was hardy enough to dodge the dreaded rose “blight” but not hardy enough to withstand the interference of two youngsters who referred to me as Mom, or if all caps indicate loud voices, MOM.

In keeping with my Mother of the Year recollection, the scenario involved my children, their relentless determination to wash the car, a wayward garden hose both turned on and forgotten, and my favorite Hybrid Tea rose bush. The torrents of water caused the once blooming and fragrant plant to unearth, listing horribly to the side, eventually suffering a massive concussion as it landed headfirst in the wrought iron fence. In the end, the poor plant died a horrible death. My children, always sensitive souls, felt the need for providing the drowned plant with a proper burial and a few brief words of solace. The post Mother’s Day Rose Bush Homicide was the first time they heard me utter the following phrase, “Run along now children and find your mother…”

In this weekend of celebrating the Matriarch of the family, I might just bake a little seasonal something for myself to enjoy on Monday. A big proponent of Breakfast Pie, I hear raspberries, rhubarb and ginger with an oatmeal crumble calling my name. Mom. Ma. Mommy. Mother. MOM!!! (Yes, the children watched a fair share of Family Guy.) As for the long lost rose bush, I should concentrate more on forgiveness and less on holding a grudge. Like being a mother, it’s a process.

Happy Mother’s Day.