No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Winds of Change

Winds of Change are set to blow through the bakery. I may complain about and criticize the Barista crew, but I have to admit that I am going to miss them. Particularly the ones that have been my sidekicks in the kitchen.  Cookie icers, pie shell rollers, and most critical to my needs, caffeine enablers. August always heralds the departure of the summer staff. Most are returning to either undergraduate or graduate school programs, and they are all pretty smart cookies.  I am also headed off to school for a month, freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils and notebook in hand. All of this change has me a touch melancholy. Not to the extent of Picasso during his Blue Period, but blue nonetheless.

My week began with a computer glitch that necessitated a visit to the Apple store. Despite my reservation, there is an enormous line snaking from the front door all the way back to the Genius Bar. It seems terribly unfair that after all of the signing in and waiting for a blue shirted Genius to acknowledge you, that complimentary beverages are not offered at the Bar. But who am I? Clearly not the Genius. I’m just a baker clutching a laptop and waiting my turn. The crowd around me is loud, some are crying, and the folks in Blue seamlessly slip in and out of secret passageways making the whole experience a little bit surreal. It is also (maybe it’s the children crying) reminiscent of hours logged in the pediatrician’s office; both as patient and later, as parent. None of it is good, but thankfully, it is temporary. Dr. Genius runs a battery of tests on little MacBook and after a tweak or two, declares it fit as a fiddle. I’m sent on my way with nary a sticker nor a lollypop. Seems slightly unfair.

Many things are unfair. Or more accurately, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” fifteen minutes prior to closing.  Folks who walk into a bakery right about this time looking for a cake are generally there because they forgot it was Somebody’s birthday. Such was the case with Salt and Pepper Haired Dad and Younger Camper Daughter. As I’m walking out the door, I take pity on the pair and offer to write “Happy Birthday Mom” on top of a chocolate buttercream cake. That just won’t do. Sure, they call her Mom, but they also call her ‘Schnooky’ or ‘Schnookums’ or ‘Sweetums’- I stopped listening. Mr. Salt and Pepper has a bit of an attitude, indicating with his overpriced sunglasses that there’s not enough room on the cake to capture all he wishes to say. Tell me about it; you’re not the one doing the writing. Clearly, there was more going on here than could be repaired with a simple birthday greeting. He would have been better off with a Papyrus card and one of those tennis bracelets that the Moms in yoga pants swear by. Turns out, Mom’s birthday had come and gone, this little cake was supposed to make everything right again, and to seal the deal, at the end of the buttercream sentiment, he wanted a heart. I wanted to go home.

Dad is still rephrasing, squeezing in more than a 6” cake can possibly accommodate. I have to interrupt. “Excuse me, but I am actually about to go home, so I’m afraid we need to wrap this up.” They decide on Mom and the heart. I carry the cake back to the bench and set it down with a bit of a thud, for dramatic effect. Fishing through a container of pastry bags filled with buttercream in assorted shades of ROYGBIV, I grab the Tiffany blue. In my tiniest hand font, I scrawl Happy Birthday Mom and punctuate it with a heart. I proffer the cake to Dad and Camper who barely look up. I barely look back.

On my walk home, I opt for the route through the little park, dotted with benches that run parallel to a quiet stream. My mood improves dramatically. In the distance, I can make out a group of very young campers, sporting identical t-shirts, accessorized with macaroni necklaces. They walk one behind each other, à la Make Way For Ducklings.

The very next day, I am in the thick of several flats of blueberries. Rinse, stems-be-gone, pat dry, repeat.  The berries are rolling pell mell, through the sugar and lemon zest, finally landing in brisée lined pie plates. Latticed, egg washed and sugared, each sheet tray of three weighs quite a bit. One of my favorite Baristas helps me navigate the weighty trays into the oven. I’m totally caught off guard when Barista poses an interesting question. He wants to know what I consider my favorite pie.

“To bake or to eat?” I ask him. He says, “To eat.” That’s a really fine question and I have to admit, I’m stumped. This Barista is one smart cookie, enrolled in a Chemical Engineering program in New England. It is the second summer we have worked together and I suspect it will be the last. Next year, he will most likely have a fascinating internship somewhere that does not involve grinding espresso nor folding bakery boxes.

I tell him that I’m rather fickle when it comes to choosing a favorite. A good bit of my pie affection has to do with pie memory. Who baked it, where I was when I enjoyed it, what was going on in my life at the time. I also explain that it’s difficult to grow tired of pie because it is a constant reflection of the season. Blueberry pie tastes like summertime in both Far Rockaway and Maine. Strawberry pie conjures a few short weeks in late May, early June and reminds me of the farm in Bucks County. And one of my favorite pies is hands down, summer peach. There are however, certain pies that get a year round pass. For instance, I can enjoy Key Lime pie regardless of the weather. It matters not what the thermostat says because one forkful of Key Lime always creates the illusion of balmy and tropical. That is not the same as New Jersey hot and humid. Totally different. And that’s why, on sweltering Garden State days, nothing tastes better than Key Lime pie directly out of the freezer. Young Engineer-to-be takes note of all of this.

A few of the summer staff have already turned in their aprons, and I’m mere days away from doing the same. But I must tell you that the smallest gesture of the week has had the largest impact. It null and voided all of the wacky, and most of the crazy. Young Engineer-to-be Barista stopped by the bakery today with an ‘End-of-Summer, Going-Back-to-School’ gift for me. He baked me a pie. A fresh peach pie and it was delicious.

As for me, I am handing over the reins for the next several weeks. Filling in here will be Sibling Baker from Seattle, Young Scholar in Boston and Blondilocks of the Big Apple.

Fare thee well, Barista Ducklings. Happy August to all. See you in September.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

No Baked Goods For You, And By the Way, Happy Birthday

Clearly, I have the need, but neither the time nor the inclination for a therapist. If I did however, I imagine he/she would urge me to “experience the crazy and then let it all go.” Just crumple it up like a butter-stained sheet of parchment paper and throw it away. I’m working on it as I place one running shoe in front of the other.

This is the last you will hear of the Dinosaur cake and cookie saga, simply because in all of its ridiculousness, it borders on the sublime. On Saturday morning, our beloved Helicopter/Tiger Mom was due to collect her birthday cake and matching cello-bagged cookie favors. We awaited her arrival not because we wished to further engage her, but because we needed the refrigerator and shelving space.

Mom calls the bakery shortly before pick-up time to let us know that she has seen photographs of the dinosaur cookies on a social media website and her soon-to-turn four year old darling is (these are her exact words) “frightened by the squiggly smile” on the blue T-Rexes. He is not frightened by the grin on the pink Stegosauruses. Might I interject that nothing favorable ever comes from gender specific cookies. It is too late for the cookies, (Mom realizes there’s a time factor involved) but she admonishes us to adjust the expression on the gumpaste Rex that is lollygagging atop the vanilla buttercream. Holy Dinosaur.

I recounted this tale to my former roommate, the terribly sensible and talented pastry chef Betsy, who suggested we take the Soup Nazi approach, “No cake for you.”  My brother and sister-in-law echoed the identical sentiment and added a footnote. Perhaps some new signage out front, similar to those found in school lunchrooms; “This Is a Nut-Free Zone.” I think both of these ideas are brilliant and will broach the subject at the next staff meeting. Until then, I’m crumpling up this piece of crazy and tossing it right over my shoulder.

The House of Dinosaur is not the only family celebrating July birthdays. This week we will mark (no pun intended) the birthday of Mr. Sweet As Pie. (Clearly, opposites do attract.) He is a classic Birthday Pie sort of fellow and lucky for him, he married into a family well versed in fruit and crust. Better still, the dessert of his choice is all the rage making him a bit of a trendsetter. Personally, the popularity of this dessert is a bit of a deterrent; I hate it when Foodies think they’ve invented something newer and hipper than anyone else. I’ve been told ‘pastry repeats itself’ which is the case for Slab Pie.

What a concept! What a Way to feed a Crowd! What it does, is serve gaggles of pie-hungry folks. What it is, is something my Grandmother and Jessie baked every summer and became in later years, July Birthday Pie. Forgive me if I quietly applaud this dessert without jumping up and down on the Slab Pie bandwagon. Been there, baked it, still love it. But it’s not new, nor is it the brilliant invention of the folks toiling away at food magazines and food networks.  And why must every photograph of Slab Pie capture it resting on a hand hewn birch bark tray, dappled willow tree in the background?

Jessie’s approach was straightforward, boasting little more than fresh peaches and blueberries as its cover photo. The fruit is fanned over a pastry known as ‘Cookie Dough for Open Pies,’ a recipe found in any number of grandmotherly cookbooks. The beauty of the dough is the ease in which you can coax it into the pan, where it provides the perfect canvas for rows and rows of summer fruit. Hot out of the oven, a tangle of peaches and blueberries bubbling over the side, thick and jam-like, begging for a good lick of vanilla ice cream.

Traditionally, this is composed of July’s bounty; blueberries and peaches. Unless of course, someone in the house is unaware, such as the intended recipient of said birthday pie. Totally unaware that you have been saving the exceptional peaches for this very recipe and over several days, has consumed them for his breakfast.

I think I inherited the ‘Saving’ thing from Jessie. She was always earmarking various items for sundry uses and then relinquishing them when they were no longer of value. For instance, “Don’t eat those bananas! I’m saving them for banana cream pie.” The following day, “Why don’t you eat those bananas? They’re too ripe for banana cream pie.” The most famous of the Saving generally entailed a limited edition dessert (limited in that there were only two remaining servings) that Jessie fiercely protected for “the girls” (that would be my sister and me). Just ask my brothers.

As a result of the breakfast peaching, it’s quite possible that at this performance, the role of summer stone fruit may have to be played by sundry berries found lurking in the fridge.

I am bemoaning my fate to Sibling Baker from Seattle and she’s not particularly sympathetic to my plight. As a matter of fact, she gently criticizes me for chastising the consumer of the peaches. She suggests that one must create new traditions, variation on a theme and all-that-fruit-jazz. “It’s not your birthday,” I hear her saying. “What’s the big deal? You get so fixated with things- lighten up a bit.”

“That’s not the point,” I counter. “The peaches were in waiting. I know I made that perfectly clear.”

“No, you probably thought you said something to that effect when most likely you were having a conversation in your head, with yourself, while you were out running. It’s quite possible the poor man was not privy to this information. You do know that you do that, have conversations with yourself and think that others have witnessed these monologues?”

“Not this time- I’m certain he knew… How could he not? You know when the peaches are just perfect, and you cradle it in your hand, and there’s just the littlest bit of fuzz tickling your fingers? And it smells like summer…”

Sister cuts me off with “Have you ever considered there are people in the world, who actually wake up in the morning and think about eating breakfast? Before noon? And coffee doesn’t count. They may not view things through the same fruit colored glasses that you do. Dare I say, there’s nothing criminal about seeing a few peaches in the refrigerator and thinking, ‘that might be nice on my morning granola.’ As simple as that. There’s nothing sinister, no pre-meditated agenda. It was probably just breakfast.”

“Fine, fine, go ahead and defend the Birthday Boy. I don’t even care anymore.”

Sounding more and more like Dr. Frasier Crane, she continues. “But you know you do. You just can’t help yourself. It’s who you are. We’ve talked about this. How you’re just the slightest bit controlling in the kitchen. How you allow yourself to ruminate over the silliest little things. You will ask for an opinion or a suggestion regarding a baked good. You will listen, or appear to be listening. And then, in the end, you are just going to make what you planned all along. And if you have to take a slight detour enroute to the oven, that’s all we’re going to hear about.”

I believe I have heard this before.

“Good grief! There’s no crime in swapping cherries or blackberries for peaches and blueberries! You may just stumble on to something you like even better. Hmm? Might I remind you that you are not saving lives here. We’re talking about dessert.”

Maybe. There’s silence on my end of the line.

“For heaven’s sake, just bake a little something for the Birthday Boy. Stop playing the Peach Blame Game. If you don’t have peaches, consider another fruit. Or go in a completely different direction…”

“You know, I could veer in a completely different direction…”

“I just said that.”


“Doesn’t he love Boston Cream Pie? Make him a Boston Cream Pie.”

“Is that technically ‘pie’? It’s more cake than pie…”

“It doesn’t have to be pie. It’s his birthday...”

I interrupt with, “He doesn’t even like his birthday.”

“No, you’re the one who doesn’t like your birthday. This isn’t about you…”

I remind her that I do indeed like other people’s birthdays.

“So where are we? What did you decide?”

“I’m riding the struggle bus on this one. I’ve got so many beautiful blueberries…”

“You can buy another peach!”

“They won’t be as ripe. I’ll have to wait for them to ripen and by then, the birthday will be over.”

Now there’s silence from the Pacific Northwest.

“Are you there? Where’d you go?”

“Are you quite finished?”

“I suppose I am.”

“Feel any better?”

“Maybe. Not really. I’m aggravated, and now I have to go to work.”

“Sounds like a picnic to me. Now run along and have a good day.”

“You too.”

“Don’t let the Crazies get you down.”

“Promise. Oh no! Wait! What’s this? I just got a text from Blondilocks that there’s a recall on peaches!!!”

“That’s at Costco and Trader Joe’s. You live in the Garden State, for goodness sakes. Get some local peaches.”

“Right. I will. And I’ll bake what I had originally planned. You know, this pie and a little vanilla ice cream, no, maybe cinnamon ice cream; it’s going to be quite the party.”

“I’m sure it will. Just one more thing before I ring off…”


“You really should consider seeking professional help. Just someone you can talk to.”

“I don’t need professional help. I have you.”

“That will be five cents, please.”


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dora in the House, Music in the Park

I had such high hopes for the second week of July.  The very first of the local peaches were making their way from field to market, the ghastly heat had taken a vacation and there was nary a holiday on the calendar, unless you wish to count Bastille Day. We chose to ignore it at the bakery because there were more than enough birthday cakes and festival cookies to occupy us. I was up to my elbows in fuzzy yellow peaches.

I also have a new BFF. She’s a little bit Gluten Free and a little bit not and she only wants to talk to me. I don’t really want to talk to anybody which can be tricky on a Saturday.

Saturday is a big pie day, but a good portion of the morning is dedicated to waving farewell to celebration cakes. All manner of themed events dependent upon pounds of buttercream, gum paste and fondant. Often these high-falutin’ cakes cause quite a bit of additional stress. Take for example, a red velvet cake featuring Dora the Explorer and more specifically, her backpack. It has been painstakingly handcrafted out of fondant (not my field of expertise), the three dimensional backpack perching somewhat  precariously atop a slab-rather-than-a-schmear of cream cheese icing. From where I stand slicing wedges of perfectly ripe peaches, I can see Dora is in trouble. The cake in all of its gum paste glory can’t quite fit in the 10x10x6” bakery box. Perhaps cream cheese is seaworthy in the cooler months, but it is probably not the best choice for an al fresco party in July. There is also a mob forming from door to espresso machine; Ladies and Gentlemen and Children of All Ages. Not an angry mob, yet not a happy one.

I’m watching the Dora scenario play out, trying not to interfere. Every so often I make a small observation such as, “Hmm, maybe a bigger box would do the trick?” or “Sometimes an offset spatula is a useful tool for lifting the cake instead of using your fingers,” and a favorite, “It might be helpful to leave the lid of the box slightly ajar rather than try to close it… Oh dear.” Little things that are most often met with total disregard. Fine, I will simply continue zesting and sugaring, lattice weaving and egg washing in my little corner of the bench.

There’s a free concert in the park, a two day event featuring regional musicians, plenty of funnel cake and more falafel than steak on a stake. This caters to a hipper, healthier crowd than a Renaissance fair. We are doing our part in terms of community spirit; our emporium will be well represented selling baked goods and cold brew (not at all the same thing as pedestrian iced coffee), and sugar cookies decorated to mirror the tie dyed t-shirts most of the concert goers will be wearing. I will stay in the bakery, serving as reluctant Ringmaster while tending to my pie shells.

I overhear someone asking if they can order a fresh pie for tomorrow. In their mind, they conjure a woman outfitted in a red and white gingham apron, seated by an open window. The summer breeze nips at her shoulders while she slices juicy peaches the color of sunshine. Seven days a week.

Barista treads back to the kitchen to confer with me about said Sunday pie. There will be pies baking I explain, all day, today, but not tomorrow. It is not the answer she had hoped for. She returns to the front, imparts the news to the customer and promptly returns to me. “How about now? Can they have a peach pie now? I told them they can have one now.”

Noooo- I never said that. Pie shells are lined up, three to a parchment lined sheet tray. Peaches have yet to snuggle up against the brown sugar, and the rick-rack lattice remains to be cut. “No, Veruca Salt, you can’t have it nowww.”

“Ok, I’ll tell them to come back in an hour. Can you talk to this person who wants a Dairy Free Cake that doesn’t have to be Gluten Free but the frosting has to be Dairy Free, just in case. She says she knows you. She only wants to talk to you. And she wants dinosaurs. One in bright blue, one in bright pink. But the blue can’t overpower the pink. And can she get dots around the sides? She doesn't care what color dots.  Says that she is not going to micromanage the color of the dots. She will leave that up to us.”

It’s not my circus, but somehow they continue to send in the clowns.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Here Comes the Judge, Part II

The morning of the 4th dawns drizzly and cool. Half awake, mostly asleep, and a bad hair day greeting her in the mirror, Honorary Judge Baker dons a pair of shorts featuring a comfortable waistband and a gray t-shirt adorned with the silhouette of a Hobart mixer. Inclement weather has forced the Baking Contest to a different venue, a touch crosstown from the Municipal Building. This change of location necessitates the use of Google maps which can only result in tardiness.

When I arrive, long banquet tables are already gussied up for the holiday, groaning under the weight of the entries. Narrowly escaping a beheading by red, white, and blue helium balloons and curling ribbon, I cross the creaky wooden floor to where the other judges have assembled. New to this game, I need explicit instructions. The first directive is to fill out a peel and stick name tag and affix it to my shirt. I secure a proffered permanent marker and scrawl my name within the confines of the tag. Simultaneously, I am handed a stack of papers which are to serve as my note taking memoranda, a pen, paper napkins and a plastic fork. Tucking the note papers under my arm, I attempt to peel away the backing from my name tag. It will not budge. Clearly I have been handed a malfunctioning Hello-My-Name-Is. Concerned this might be some weird initiation for the newbie judge, I indicate that the tag will neither peel nor stick. "Where's your name tag?" one of the other judges queries. "I'm having a little trouble," I acknowledge sheepishly. “Well, you have to wear it. And this-" I'm handed a lime green ribbon indicating I'm a legit judge. Did I mention everyone else is attired head to toe in red, white and blue? It takes two volunteers to rectify my name tag crisis and I stick it on my hip pocket where it's both askew and illegible.

The woman in charge is equally cordial and no-nonsense. “Let’s get started!” she announces. We are reminded to pay attention to not only taste, but presentation. More importantly, we are admonished to hold on to our forks. We begin at, of all places, the pie table. I’m introduced as a ‘Professional’ which probably does not endear me to the other judges. Yet the Court nominates me as the knife wielding pie/cake/bar cookie slicer. I’m handed not one knife, but two, plus a pie server, and to cleanse my palate, a bottle of water. I still have a stack of papers tucked under my arm. Trying to organize myself, I set everything down on the plastic tablecloth but there’s no time. “Taste or appearance? 1st, 2nd, 3rd or Honorable Mention? Circle the appropriate box.” This is worse than the SAT. “Excuse me, where are we?”

“Thoughts on the Blueberry/Key Lime?” Judge in Red Polo/Denim Skirt inquires. I suggest it’s rather dramatic, the border of blue against a backdrop of key lime, garnished with freshly whipped cream. I’m asked to slice and distribute a few tastings which I do. My slices may be slim, but we’ve got miles to travel on this pastry trail. A co-judge in star-spangled capris comments, “There’s hardly anything on your fork!” Believe me there is, I assure her and we are now in a dead presentation heat, debating the Blueberry/Key Lime and a European style Torte. Let me pause for just a moment and express my utter frustration. First of all, the competing Linzer is indeed a Torte, but the judges are insisting it is a Tart. It has no place competing on the pie table, and I’ve got to be honest, it’s a little heavy handed in the Odense almond paste. I’m the only one who thinks so as the other judges are bedazzled by the almond pastry constellation atop the raspberry jam. “Taste or presentation? 1st, 2nd, 3rd or Honorable Mention?” Ribbons are flying across the table and I continue slicing, keeping my head low. Needing a moment to reflect, I pause for a sip of water but the judges are already on to the next entry. We never finish clarifying torte from tart.

I carve up a few smidgens from a free form apple galette and offer it to the Honorable Ladies. It’s quite good, the taste bright with just a touch of lemon zest. There is a sense of urgency in the voice of Navy and White Seersuckered Judge to move on to the cake table, so I continue demonstrating my knife skills. Tidy slices are a challenge in many cases. One of the judges asks me what causes so much liquid to form in the pies. “As a Professional, what do you think?” Choosing my words most carefully, I try to be honest yet tactful. “Perhaps some of the pie bakers were a tad shy with their thickening agents and oven temperatures. Will you just look at that table full of cakes…”

The patriotic Dollar Store tablecloths stretch before us, each cake clamoring for attention. There is nothing subtle about the entries. The home bakers clearly took advantage of food colorings made available from the Rockets Red Glare collection. Swept up in the holiday spirit, I am most impressed with a towering flag cake. Alternating layers of red velvet and vanilla sponge sliced razor thin, culminate with a square of blue cake depicting a flag. I daren’t divulge the secret of the Wilton magic cake pan responsible for this flag artistry, but many hours in the kitchen are required to pull it off. No one seems to notice- they prefer the fondant attired Captain America cake. "You know," I start to say, “the crumb on the flag cake is very well done. It's moist. And look at how even the red and white layers are. All thirteen stripes! And did you notice the blue square indicating our flag was still there?" Captain America’s super hero fondant details are snagging the spotlight. Damn.

There's also a ginormous almond encrusted number. It's not only formidable in height and width, it's the only cake outfitted with a gold scalloped cake circle and heavily perfumed with almond extract. It makes me wonder if it came from the commercial bakery one town over. I'm skeptical. I have a vague recollection of seeing that cake in a movie once, and you can almost hear the faint strains of "Speak Softly, Love" as I attempt to cut a whisper of a slice. It's much too tall to accommodate the small knife I've been juggling. The other judges have moved on without me. I leave the cake scalpel embedded in the slivered almonds and hope no one gets hurt.

I'm way behind, my plastic fork momentarily naked. Fondant seems to be closing in on Ready-To-Spread and the judges are applauding a green leafy motif sprawled across a maple nutty entry. "It's good," I agree but I'm a little confused. Are we now debating frostings or cake or presentation? I look back to see the knife I abandoned in the side of the almond cake dangling precariously. If I were running this show, there would be strict adherence to cake height guidelines, the way they do it on the Food Network.

Now it's cookies and bars. I'm starting to feel a little queasy- I've got to take a pass on the caramel ripple cheesecake bars and the Flintstone sized whoopie pies with cookie dough filling. "I'm sure they're delicious" I lie. Pausing for a sip of water, I see we are nearing the end of the cookies. Two more to try, Classic chocolate chip and butterscotch kitchen sink. Perish the thought.

Taking a casual stroll around the Kids table, I spy a wiggle of red Twizzler that has capsized from its icing ship. It has rolled due south of its cardboard base and my attempt to place it back on the cake causes more destruction. I don’t know what to do with the confection so I discreetly pop it into my mouth. There’s a photographer capturing the excitement and she waves me over to a cake outfitted in tri-color July 4th fondant ribbons and skewered marshmallow firecrackers. “You know,” she whispers to me, “You can actually eat the ribbons. They’re made out of fun dent.” Still chewing the cherry licorice I nod and nod again. I'm thinking, you can, but I can't because I'm presently committed to this Twizzler. The next thing I know, there’s a team cordoning off the contest area with yellow crime scene tape to discourage interlopers. I’m panic-stricken that the almond cake knife may be responsible for a homicide, fingering me as the accomplice. No one seems terribly concerned. They are more intent on gathering together for a photograph.

“We can count on you for next year, can’t we?” Lead Judge asks me. Returning the unused paper goods and crumb coated utensils to the clean-up committee, I re-join the group for our portrait. You can’t miss me. I’m the one standing in the back row holding up my plastic fork with a bit of red Twizzler stuck between my teeth.