No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, June 26, 2014

It's Swedish To Me

In the land of Pie, it is the most wonderful time of the year. Brisée is busting with berries, and summer peaches are waiting in the wings. One of the most luxurious of berries, the raspberry, has been made available to me in gloriously large quantities. These are not just any raspberries, these are so fresh it’s almost criminal.

I have my friend Speedy Icer to thank for this bounty. “S.I.” is a combination of brilliantly talented illustrator, fast-as-the-wind runner (and cookie decorator) and gardener extraordinaire. The gem-like raspberries in her garden exemplify fresh. Add to that the fact she’s a damn fine baker in her own right and one of the nicest people I’ve met (and worked with) in this little pocket of the Garden State.

I daren’t mention the raspberry windfall at work because the next thing you know, folks will be ordering raspberry pies. As long as the raspberries are gluten free. So I will keep this little secret and bake up a bunch of pies for a select few family members that just happen to be coming to town this weekend.

As a result of this onslaught of company, it is necessary to take a field trip to a retail emporium I both love and loathe in equal measure. It has been well over a year since setting my sneaker-clad feet inside the iconic blue and yellow Swedish Superstore adjacent to Liberty Airport. Suffice it to say that last year’s exhaustive search for run-of-the-mill curtain hardware ended in a linguistic debacle. Team Leader Curtain Hanger and yours truly wanted to hang several pairs of black out drapes in a blazingly sunny room. (I am about to stray off course here with a little bit of theatrical trivia. Without name dropping, let me assure you I am extremely well versed in black out drapes. From east coast to west, I was responsible for the installation of black out drapes in the luxury hotel suites of a certain celebrity. The hardware, however, was not my department.)

As I do not consider Swedish my native tongue, last year there was a problem identifying the necessary brackets and finials needed for our humble sunroom. In a voice vaguely reminiscent of the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, I insisted to Team Leader, “No, no, no! We need the Betyldig” when in fact, we really needed the Skulptur. In all of the commotion, I never had the chance to visit the kitchenware department.

Now we’re back and this visit, the search seems simple enough. A few wine glasses to replace those that a certain baker knocked over with a runaway rolling pin, and if we’re lucky, one or two lightweight FULLY ASSEMBLED chairs for outside. If we don’t find the chairs, I suppose we can certainly drink the wine standing up. Anything that requires hardware intervention does not make the cut. I also feel rather hopeful that this time I will have the opportunity to visit kitchenware and if nothing else, come back with a few 6” pie plates that are sorely missing from my repertoire. 

A curious encounter occurs as we near the entrance. An older couple arrives at the door at the very same moment we do. I come very close to bumping into them because I’m preoccupied, reliving last year’s visit, already blinded by the neon yellow and electric blue signage. I do notice that the older gentleman is attired in a complete leg cast and brace. It is curious to me that he would opt to fight the crowds and shop at a vast multi-level complex, especially in a leg cast. To each his own Swedish fish.

Rule breakers that we are, we opt for entering through the exit, around the corner, so as to avoid weaving our way through the entire store. Cautiously optimistic about the chairs, we grab a cart directly adjacent to the Hej då! (good-bye) sign. Each of the four wheels is skirting the ground in opposite directions making the navigation of the cart challenging. I should exchange it for another, but it’s too late, and besides, they were probably assembled by folks with my hardware skills. We are swept up in the sea of shoppers but I feel fairly confident that I can steer this ship. Much to our surprise, we stumble upon lightweight pre-assembled chairs that fit the bill. Loading them into the cart, the next stop is glassware and bakeware. 

A smorgasbord of seasonal items tempt me along the way; I’m quite taken with the jars of Lingonberry preserves (Sylt Lingon), and look at this! a huge display dedicated to bottles of Saft Rabarber, Rhubarb drink. I’m so excited about the possibilities in that bottle of rhubarb that I let the cart get the better of me and run directly into the heels of my Team Leader. “Sorry- sooo sorry! Look at this- Rhubarb! And did you see the raspberry/blueberry jam?” He limps away in the direction of glasses as I commandeer the rolling vehicle. Not wishing to relinquish the cart, “No problem, I’ve got this…” is my reply, simultaneously pushing and pulling the cart. We run into a little trouble in glassware, once again a bit of a language barrier. “I think we want the Svalka” Team Leader indicates, leaving a good bit of distance between himself and the cart. There’s some back and forth as we pore over the boxes, trying to distinguish the red wine from white, not to be confused with the 6 pack of Snaps (Schnaps) glasses, all precariously stacked under the title of Svalka. We decide combining the glassware with the chairs is probably not in our best interest, and we take a quick detour to secure another wagon. In the distance I spot a wall of white- dishes and serving ware. My 6” Smarta pie plates await my arrival and I delicately place them in my cart, tucked in between the chairs the Saft Rabarber, and the Sylt Lingon.

There is quite a line at the checkout counter, and it is unclear which is the most expedient. I’m weaving in and out, just close enough to once again, nip the heels of the man at the helm of the wineglass shopping wagon. I abandon my cart with him, and take a quick whirl around the food aisles. Spotting the one item I’ve wanted all along, I grab it and rejoin the line. I’m not really paying attention, thinking about the fresh raspberries that are going to fill my new pie plates when an arm reaches out and grabs my shoulder. It is my trusty companion admonishing me to hold on to my cart. I am a mere whisper away from crashing into the leg of the cast-sporting gentleman we met upon arrival. This is all too much for me. The man hobbles away, we check out and call it a Swedish day.

Back on the road, I’m foraging through the goods in the back seat, desperately hunting for a small bag. Ripping it open, I offer a Swedish delicacy to the man driving, as a bit of a peace offering for the multiple cart run-ins. The fish are as advertised on the package, both soft and chewy. There’s a pronounced fruit flavor; not quite strawberry, not quite lingonberry.  Sort of a cross between raspberry and snozzberry. Now I’m terribly thirsty and thinking that when we get home I’m going to christen the new glasses with some ice cold Saft Rabarber. Then I’m going to sit in one of my new pre-assembled chairs and leaf through some cookbooks until I find just the right raspberry pie recipe. Hej då.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Fruit Oversharing

Who better to vent to than a houseguest?

“And the woman actually asked me if the almonds had come in contact with peanuts. Not on my watch, I assured her. But I can’t vouch for who they fraternize with outside of the bakery…” No response.  “Another individual grilled me about the strawberries; ‘Are you sure the berries in my Great Grandmother’s lavender buttercream birthday cake will be ripe?’ Who am I? The Fruit Whisperer?”

Without looking up, the houseguest nods as I continue. “Would you like an apple for the train? Granny Smith or Braeburn? Probably cold storage this time of year.” She assures me Granny Smith is fine. I hand her the blindingly green apple, advising her it’s probably not as tart nor crisp as it would be In Season and she tucks it into her handbag. “Wait a minute- you should take a few of these cherries. Rainier. From Yakima, Washington, not too far from Aunt B.” Poking my head in the fridge, I wonder if she would like a few fresh apricots. She doesn’t respond because she can’t hear what I’m saying.  “Well, would you? They’re just right- a little sweet, a little tart. And perfect in a pie, with the cherries." I continue that they’re small and won’t take up any space in her bag. She hates to carry anything back on the train that doesn’t fit in her bag. “Yes to the apricots?”

The top of her curly blond head finally looks up from the Frank Langella biography and she remarks somewhat sarcastically, “I suppose you are going to tell me the apricots are from Rancho Cucamonga, and you toured there in the 80s?” I pause. “What is it you are trying to say?” I ask tossing the yellow/blush pink cherries in a paper bag.

“You have this thing you do. I think of it as your Faux Fruit Travels.” Grabbing my attention, I urge her to continue. “Actually, there are two things that you do. One, is you have a habit of speaking directly into the refrigerator when you are talking to someone in another room. Then you are crestfallen when they don’t respond to what you are saying. Secondly, and more critical, is you have become a Fruit Oversharer.”

I need to know if this is literal or figurative? “Actually, it’s both. It’s literal in the sense that you feel the need to send me off with a veritable fruit bowl even though my train journey is a mere 35 minutes.”  I’m rethinking the cherries, setting the paper bag down on the counter.  “Then there’s the way you identify every piece of fruit you come in contact with. You tell me from where it hails, you tell me if it is in season, what it should taste like, what it should be teamed with in a pie shell, and then you bring it all home by insisting you have been to/driven through/or worked in the locale of said fruit. It’s not only Fruit Oversharing, it’s not normal.”

Clearly this is an issue that deserves exploration, but blissfully Blondi-locks has a train to catch. “So is that a yes or a no to the cherries?” I take no response as a yes and tuck them into her bag, but leave the California apricots behind.

We wait on the platform with a few others returning to the megalopolis, several of them toting brown paper bags emblazoned with the words Trader Joe's. “See? You’re not the only one carrying a few items back into the city. And you didn’t even need a shopping bag.” She ignores me, then hugs me goodbye as the train pulls in. I watch and wait, scanning the NJ Transit car she boards so I can perform my famous Titanic wave and kiss. I spot her in the window and as the train pulls out, I’m waving and waving until my phone vibrates. It’s my traveler asking me who on earth I am waving to. “You, of course” I reply. She texts back, “That wasn’t me…”

There is a couple standing on the platform within earshot and as we walk to our cars, the mother says to me, “Til they come home again...” and I’m sort of listening and sort of wondering if I should give up on the traveling fruit bowl. Maybe I am a Fruit Oversharer. Just maybe, the banana earrings were a bit much.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Third Sunday in June

Compared to the neighboring retail establishments, we seem to be underplaying the third Sunday in June. The bookstore and the stationary store are heralding the arrival of this week’s holiday with great fanfare and gift suggestions. At the bakery, we are taking a more relaxed approach. Cupcakes sporting fondant shirts and ties, sugar cookies gussied up for the occasion. And of course, pie. It’s been brought to my attention that Dads love pies and no one seems to bake them anymore. What do you mean, no one? 

I'm someone, just someone who doesn't get out much. Bakers work  odd hours in windowless kitchens. No wonder they seek exposure to the great outdoors whenever they can squeeze it in. Occasionally  the great outdoors finds its way to the bakers.

I did not participate in Tuesday's ‘catch and release’ of the black widow spider. She piggybacked on one of three cases of organic eggs. I’m of the ilk that respects spiders well enough to give them their own space and honestly, I had my own wild kingdom woes to contend with. You wouldn’t automatically equate the Garden State with dangerous animals, but they seek out pedestrians, runners and  bakers (who run) just waiting to pounce.  This I know through a personal, harrowing experience.

Donning a pair of tired yet reliable gel-cushioned Asics and logging miles can be fraught with danger but it’s my sport of choice. This genetic pre-disposition (some would call it a flaw) of foot pounding pavement, I inherited from my father who, at the tender age of 87 just recently retired his running shoes.
The obvious challenges, uneven sidewalks, double parked cars, pedestrians walking four abreast and growling dogs all pose a threat. Yet it’s the silent, unseen hazards that you never anticipate coming around the bend. Especially if you reside in New Jersey.

Returning from a serious run in the early June heat, I noticed a suspicious, yet unidentified object hitching a ride on my leg. Never one to over-react, my voice can’t help but vacillate between hysterical whisper and outright scream; “My LEG! My LEG!!!” Fortunately, my spouse is not engrossed in theatrical box office grosses and looks up from the paper. I’m hopping on one foot, pointing, whisper/shrieking, “I think it’s a tick! Oh NOOOOO…” Without missing a beat, my calm-under-pressure trusty companion strikes a match, performs a tick-offa-me and suggests I cleanse the area with a little alcohol. “You mean, like gin?” I’m already Googling Lyme Disease and spouting what I believe to be facts. “It says I have Lyme Disease! It says if you live in the Garden State where it is most prevalent… IT’s JUST A MATTER OF TIME!”

With one hand I pour half of a bottle of hydrogen peroxide over my injury, while with the other, I’m rummaging through the medicine cabinet. What the heck, I prop my leg up near the sink and drown the area with rubbing alcohol. I’m beginning to feel faint from the fumes. “What’s the antidote? What do they administer to tick-bitten victims in old movies? Isn’t it quinine?”  My husband’s response, “You may want to seek professional advice” is solicitous, but clearly he’s starting to lose interest. I dial the number of a man well acquainted with the deer tick.  Over the years, he braved a trifecta of Garden State Lyme disease. And lived to tell the tale. I’m crestfallen to hear my father’s words echoing those of his son-in-law. He too, is of the opinion that I consult a physician.  Returning the phone to its cradle, I follow the man who has saved my life down the stairs, limping, holding on to the railing for dear life. BFA Acting skills die hard.

The next day at work, we are a skeletal crew, preparing for Sunday’s onslaught of chubby fisted children wishing to purchase shirt and tie cookies for their daddies. One of my favorite co-workers is bound for veterinary school in the fall and is always a wealth of information. I casually mention my recent brush with demon tick. “You know, “ Vet-to-be remarks cheerfully, setting down her offset spatula, “If you had only been bitten by the black widow spider on the egg crate the other day, the spider venom would have given you a fighting chance against the Super Lyme Disease that is most likely invading your system.” Super.

Despondent and seeking a change of scenery, I take a stroll with the intention of purchasing a Father’s Day card. Passing the ice cream parlor a few doors down from the bakery, I can’t help but notice the floor-to-ceiling signage in the window. Far from subtle, it’s imploring me to “Get Dad Something Cool for Father’s Day.” My father is a lover of ice cream, yes, but he is undeniably more Classic than Cool.

In the early days of his running career, my father wore plain old sneakers. He ran long before running gear was a fashion statement, attired in non logoed sweat pants and a t-shirt, his only accessory a white terrycloth headband we bought him many years later for Father’s Day. Never would you see him sporting earbuds or listening to music; he was a serious runner, tallying his mileage on a calendar thumbtacked to the inside of the kitchen pantry door.

As a kid, I was perplexed by my father’s hobby. Where on earth was he going? My brothers and sister and I ran all the time; running bases, hide and seek, tag-you’re-It. In the 1960s, the only dads I saw running were clutching leather briefcases and sprinting to catch their commuter trains. For my dad, running was more than exercise; it was a hobby that played out against a backdrop of changing seasons, requiring no one other than yourself.

My dad was, and still is, keen on the great outdoors, particularly the area we refer to as the “Green on the map,” Adirondack State Park. As a youngster, he rode the overnight train from Grand Central Station to Old Forge, New York, spending his summers at sleep-away camp. As a family, we returned to neighboring Osgood Pond (think On Golden Pond) for many years.  We accumulated countless hours of board game victories and defeats, sacrificed a number of fishing poles to the lake, and left behind miles of running shoe footprints in the soft, fragrant pine needled trails.  Donnelly’s homemade custard (ice cream) provided critical vacation nourishment.

Although we currently call him the man without a hobby, my father considers crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles and voracious novel consumption hobby enough. He is a man who passed on to me not only the running gene, but also the perfectly acceptable notions of pie for breakfast, the occasional ice cream for lunch, and most importantly, everything in moderation. (The third continues to be a work in progress.)

As far as getting my father something Cool for Sunday’s holiday, it will undoubtedly be something Classic and something in a pie plate. His favorite pie is generally dictated by the season, although I’ve never known him to turn down an apple pie. Either teamed with a slice of sharp cheddar or capped with vanilla (never chocolate) ice cream, it’s a far better choice than a necktie.

Returning to the sweltering confines of the bakery, my personal physician/Vet-to-be wants to know what kind of pies I’ll be making for the weekend. I can’t say with certainty what I’ll be baking for Father’s Day. With confidence however, I can tell you what I will not;

Key Lyme.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Word of the Day

There’s a little game we toss back and forth across the bench. It’s called Word of the Day in which we select a word not used in everyday banter and try to incorporate it into our vernacular. This is completely separate from our most favorite  entertainment, Baker’s Puns (something I spearheaded because I’m terribly kneady).

Thursday began innocently enough until Word of the Day was sidestepped by Foreign Phrases Least Likely to Appear on a Cake. Barely inside the bakery door, bobbing and weaving amidst the caffeine challenged, I arrive at the bench where the conversation revolves around a birthday greeting. Before I can even roll out my turnover dough, I’m assaulted by one of the baristas, imploring me to write on a cake. Inscriptions are not really my thing but I am no better, no worse than my fellow bakery inmates. To be honest, I’m selected for the task because my compastryots (sorry, that’s the last one) are not keen on spelling and they have seen me write copious salutations on cakes of all sizes. Depending on the intricacy of the greeting, it is generally best not to consume one’s double espresso prior to writing so as to avoid pastry bag tremor. Rolling up my sleeves, I glance at the order form. Before I continue, a little backstory on my initial foray into the land of pastry bags fitted with number two Ateco brand writing tips.

I honed my birthday cake penmanship under the tutelage of Mr. Robert Avery at the Home Dairy in Ithaca, New York. Surrounded by an infinite palette of buttercreams, it was evident early in the game that many of the colors were not found in nature. Mr. Avery patiently demonstrated the spacing of H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y.  Over and over again, I practiced on squares of parchment paper. Looking back, that was the beginning of my spatial relationship inadequacy. It probably would have been better to practice on parchment circles. That’s buttercream under the bridge… Suffice to say that my first few attempts (I use the word ‘few’ generously here) were lacking in both finesse and letters. More often than not, my greetings were along the lines of “Happ Birt” with the y-space-h-d-a-y dangling precariously over the side of the cake. My hope was that the recipient would be blinded by the rhapsody in blue buttercream roses and the illuminated birthday candles, oblivious to my not-so-handiwork. Over time, my writing skills improved. Incrementally.

There is one cake inscription that haunts me still, linked to my farm stint in Bucks County. Long after my tutelage at Home Dairy, before Cake Wrecks had a following, I was responsible for the following birthday cake salutation, and I quote: “Feliz Cumpleaños Quinceañera Doris.” Boasting that previous experience, today’s little writing exercise shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.

Pausing for a moment to relocate the 3 flats of blueberries and blackberries that have just been delivered, I cut the corner a little too closely and elbow meets oven. Funny bone is a total misnomer; it if were possible, my elbow would be seeing stars. Ouch. Clearing a small yet serviceable space for the needy cake which is to be picked up momentarily, I fish my glasses out of their case and read the order particulars. “Wait a minute! What the heck does this say?” The barista who took the order tries to cajole me claiming she was under the impression that I knew foreign languages. I counter with, “I may in fact write the letters on the dreidl cookies for Hanukkah, but this is Greek to me.” One of my co-workers assures me the hieroglyphics on the order form are obviously Latin. “You know,” I hear myself saying in my indoor voice, “this would all go swimmingly if one of you could kindly fill one of those (I nod toward the espresso machine) recyclable cups with ice and a few shots of espresso and maybe a splash of milk.” They have seen that look before and realize it’s best for all of us if they enable my morning caffeine dependence. Barista bids a hasty retreat.

The gentleman who ordered the cake I am about to inscribe is back. From behind the bakers racks I peer through the loaf pans of gluten-free breakfast bread. If ever a person resembled a cartoon character, this fellow is a dead ringer for Boris Badenov, of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame. Studying the inscription once more, I use my years of pastry experience to replicate the symbols on top of the six inch cake. (Of course it’s a six inch cake affording me as little room as possible. I’m having a Home Dairy flashback, “H-A-P-P B-I-R-T”…)

There’s nothing like having someone pacing within your peripheral vision to spur you on your way. I have successfully captured the first two lines and I’m in the home stretch. The last word is a blend of both letters and symbols. Glancing at “Boris,” I instinctively start to write Natasha. On closer inspection the last word is a cross between Anushka and Verushka. Aargh!

There is no white-out for buttercream. Boris is starting to grow impatient and it concerns me that his next move may be to bring in Fearless Leader. With an offset spatula, I painstakingly remove Natasha and replace it with a variation of Anushka/Verushka. Done and done.

It just so happens that the greeting on the Boris cake was actually a Bulgarian salutation. Had I but known, jumping on the interweb would have acquainted me with the tutorial Easy Bulgarian. The material is presented in an “easy-to-grasp fashion” allowing me to learn the language almost “effortlessly.” Next time I’ll know better. Next time, someone else can do the writing.

In addition to our regular group of bakers, this week we have the good fortune of hosting an enthusiastic high school senior who is tirelessly working as an intern. Not only is she polite, she is infinitely capable of performing all manner of bakery tasks despite her diminutive size. Swimming in her commercial linen service apron, she is adorable and oh-so-happy to be one of us. I hate to squelch her enthusiasm but old habits die hard.

Trying to engage our intern, I inquire where she is headed to school in the fall. Without much fanfare, she utters three letters identifying a prestigious university situated in Massachusetts, reserved for only the very brightest. Her chosen field of study? Physics, which prompts our word of the day; “Spaghettification.” My immediate thought is that she has said Spaghetti Fixation. Oh no, Young Intern assures me, Spaghettification (it does have a lyrical quality) is also known as the ‘Noodle Effect” pertaining to astrophysics. I’m still thinking along the lines of Spaghetti Pie, but apparently the Noodle Effect has something to do with an object caught in the gravitational field of the black hole. I may not know astrophysics, but I do know about being pulled toward the black hole, figuratively. Every time I answer the bakery phone, each time I accommodate a last minute order, and most recently, when I set aside the turnovers to write in Bulgarian, I’m being pulled toward the black hole.

And in the end, who gets blown up? Me.