No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Sweet New Year

One would think that ushering in a New Year might just quell a bit of the wacky. Fresh from my recent upstate pie-scapade, I returned to work buoyed by the optimism that accompanies a new season. The rotary phone was ringing as I set foot inside the bakery. What I didn’t realize was that Murphy, of Murphy’s Law was walking in right behind me.

Coffee business is brisk and I find myself foolishly answering the phone. (Second to Murphy’s Law is the “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” Dictum.) My phone conversation is with a woman who is moderately pleasant but most insistent that we pay strict attention to her cupcake order. She had retrieved her custom cookies the day prior and felt they were a touch paler in color than what she had envisioned. She could live with the cookies but she wanted to make sure that the gum paste letters that were to bedeck today’s sweets would sit atop more dramatic shades of pink and blue buttercream. Not baby pink or baby blue, but dark. But not too dark. But not too pale. And not too babyish. But not too mature. She did relinquish control over where the letters would perch on top of the cupcakes. That was all up to me. Lucky me.

History indicates that Murphy was not the actual fellow behind the adage, “Anything that can possibly go wrong, does.” Nonetheless, I give him full credit. His law is particularly prevalent during
holidays, regardless of the time of year. I have often considered the fact that this Murphy fellow must have toiled in a bakery at one time. What other explanation is there for things going horribly awry around a Bakers bench?

If I have to point a finger at the individual responsible for the technical difficulties hampering the bakery this week, I’ve got to go with Mr. Murphy himself. Nothing says “L’Shanah Tovah, Baby” the way multiple commercial equipment crises can. In our intimate space, we are down one Hobart mixing bowl and one convection oven. These glitches have forced both bowl and oven to bow out of the Rosh Hashanah baking party. A plucky crew of bakers are we, priding ourselves on being ever adaptable. The baked goods however, are less so.

Like women and children lining up for life rafts, trays of scones and banana breads, coffee cakes and cookies are running to the front of the oven line. The oven timer blares like a Captain over a megaphone, “Scones and Gluten Free Breads first! High Holiday Baked Goods step to the end of the line.” Personally, I’m about ready to jump ship.

The apple studded cinnamon batter is forced to wait impatiently in Bundt pans, while honey cakes spiked with strong coffee and a generous splash of whiskey are lollygagging in loaf pans. The bittersweet chocolate truffle cakes are the most needy; it’s all about them, divas demanding water baths and moderate oven temperature. I beg of the unbaked goods, can’t we all just get along?

My New Year’s resolution of “calm and serene” is rapidly flying out the window. The biggest monkey wrench of the day is a wayward pie order due at 3 o’clock. Pies prefer blistering hot climes in order to set the crust, with a gradual downward temperature spiral. No can do without incurring the wrath of the truffle cakes.

What I needed was a sign. A sign that despite its malaise, I could turn to and turn on the malfunctioning oven. There is a corollary of Murphy’s Law, “If there is a worse time for something to go wrong, it will happen then.” I opined that by engaging the top oven, odds were likely the repairman would appear. I had no sooner uttered the words than who should arrive but Mr. Parts and Service.

His timing was impeccable, his ability to diagnose and treat the problem, less so. With the lower oven blazing full steam ahead stuffed to flux capacitor with Bundt pans and loaf pans, and Pate Brisée crusts on hold in the freezer, Mr. Parts and Service maintained a poker face as he began to dismantle the top oven.

With little if any bedside manner, the oven surgeon would not tell us what we desperately needed to know. Would the patient survive, and if so, how long before the oven would be up to temperature? His answer was nothing if not vague, and once I heard him mumbling something about not having the part on his truck, I disengaged. Ms. Three o’clock Pie would need a heads up that three was desperately optimistic. With the apple cakes and honey cakes out of the oven, the truffle cakes were next up for their spa treatment. The pies simply could not jump the line.  The truffle cakes took their sweet time while I continued to peel apples. Mr. Parts and Service was busy making phone calls, nuts and bolts and oven parts strewn in his wake. When the timer finally signaled that the delicate chocolate cakes were ready, I blasted the oven up to high and urged the pies to bake faster. Pies do not respond to idle threats. Neither do repairmen.

I slithered out of the bakery as the sun took a nose dive in a pastel sky. As I exited stage left, Murphy and his Law exited stage right.

On Thursday, with the Jewish holidays in full swing, there was a little bit of Christmas happening at the bakery. Murphy’s departure heralded the arrival of Mr. U.P.S. delivering a package filled to the bubble wrap brim with Hobart goodies. Whisk and paddle and dough hook attachments were tucked inside a brand new mixing bowl. If that wasn’t celebration worthy enough, the word on the street was that Mr. Parts and Service will have our oven up and running in mere days, not weeks.

This very well may shape up to be quite the New Year. Sweet.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Spinning the Pie Wheel

The journey to Saturday’s Pie wheel was daunting, but we were unafraid. Despite the stubborn GPS that insisted bypassing Greenville, we eventually found our way to Main Street. Armed with pumpkin apple breads and enough pie shells to feed an army of Food Revivalists (and then some), we unloaded the car.

The weather Gods smiled upon us Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The last of the summer peaches were ripening in the sun, early autumn apples were fresh for the picking and the tubs of Door County, Wisconsin cherries had arrived as promised. In fact, legend boasted that it had never rained on the previous Revivals. Note to self: never say never.

With the voice of Marvin Gaye pouring out of the makeshift iphone speakers, we were on a roll and a crimp. Dakota was a formidable partner in pie crime, blanching, peeling and slicing peaches, blind-baking crusts and navigating pounds of sugared apples beneath circles of pate brisee. She is gifted with good baker’s hands, and the sunniest of dispositions. She also washed an arsenal of dishes, never once complaining.

The oven timers beeped constantly, reminding us to rotate trays, cover edges with strips of foil to prevent over-browning and catch wayward fillings. I was painstakingly doing Baker’s Math, checking and double checking my recipes while stock pots of wild blueberries and sour cherries reduced on the stove. The crumble for the cherry pies was tempting, and we nibbled on dark brown sugar, toasted almonds and oats.

The long wooden dining room table groaned under the weight of the pie parade. We had commandeered every available surface in the kitchen as well. Pies rested on cooling racks, their aroma a medley of sweet and spicy, fruity and nutty. The fragrance tumbled through the window screen on to Main Street. Apple, (both double-crusted and crumb), blueberry, cherry, peach, pecan and lemony buttermilk.

The final two pie flavors required Saturday morning assemblage; miniature lemon meringue pies and tipsy rum raisin custard.  At five o’clock on Friday afternoon, we called it quits and headed to the barn for dinner. There was a pronounced flavor of autumn chill in the air.

On Saturday, the weather app on my phone indicated a 30% chance of rain in the morning, inching its way up to 70% by mid-afternoon. Smirking in the face of an inclement forecast, I proceeded full steam ahead. Egg whites and sugar rode the merry-go-round whisk attachment of the red Kitchen Aid mixer. I desperately wanted to believe that my meringue would laugh at the weather and hold their marshmallow swirls high.  

The drizzle began timidly, but the air was downright bone chilling. In desperation, I layered my running leggings beneath waterproof knee high boots. To say it was going to be a bad hair day was an understatement.

Pies were sealed in rain bonnets of commercial plastic wrap and window bakery boxes. The lemon meringue pies didn’t stand a chance. They were not the only ones fighting the elements. By noon, the deluge was steady, a bonafide carwash of rain, causing chefs to don baseball caps and striped woolen hats. Foodie participants huddled in the barns, shoulders hunched against the chill, Popsicle toes inside soaking wet shoes. We were cold and soggy and smelled like a barn full of wet dogs. At one point, I sought refuge in the car for a brief spell, blasting the heat on high. My hair refused to dry, dripping steadily like a leaky water faucet.

The Pie Wheel was relocated from the field to inside the barn. We wiped the water from the pie boxes and set them down on the moist gingham check tabletop. At six o’clock the rain finally called it quits and we assembled for a sumptuous dinner with dessert to follow. Cue the pies.

The end was in sight, and for the first time since the onslaught of torrential rain, I was beginning to regain feeling in my toes. I no longer needed a hooded slicker, or so I thought. Just as the rain ceased dripping down my forehead, a most unfortunate incident occurred. The opening of a bottle of carbonated water at the dinner table went horribly awry, exploding in my immediate direction, drowning my finally dry curls.

As I expected, I wasn’t the only one reeling from the effects of the weather. The combination of rain and condensation had sabotaged my lofty lemon pies. Were they tasty? Definitely. Were they standing tall? Hardly.

Overall, the pies were a great success and 80 pies is indeed a fine warm-up for that November pie holiday. Will I include lemon pies on the Thanksgiving menu? Doubtful.

As of this writing, I am back in the bakery and just in time for the first holiday of the season. Apples and honey will take center stage next week with nary a lemon nor an egg white in sight.

But not to worry. In honor of the 2014 LongHouse Food Revival, our beloved and witty Media Lab Director Megan brilliantly dubbed the signature dessert of the weekend; she calls it lemon meraingue. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Turning the Page

I am most reluctantly acknowledging the date, slowly turning the page from August to autumn.  One last run up the hill, hermetically sealed in a lime green slicker. The rain is steady; my sneakers know the way and are more brazen than cautious through the puddles.

August had unfolded slowly, picking up momentum then culminating in a photo-finish of work. I am reminded of this as I reflect on the past four weeks. We have witnessed amazing woodland creatures in our paths and ‘some pig’ miracles at Crosby Farm. Local celebrities have been photographed and interviewed, The Erie Canal and the Midwest have been analyzed in excruciating detail. Feel free to ask me just about anything pertaining to Cincinnati Chili, Jell-O or Perfection Salad.

The fine lined pages of our daily journals are filled with words and visions; we crane our necks to look forward, we glance back over our shoulders to remember where we’ve been. Against the backdrop of a rambling creek that runs just beyond our windows, it has been a journey of self and solidarity.

The little red barn at the top of the hill is generously offering Free Squash for the taking. In fine print, we are admonished not to take the baskets housing the canary yellow crookneck veggies. Not to worry- I’ll take a pass. We have eaten our fill of summer vegetables. And for restorative purposes, our fair share of Ronnybrook ice cream. Putting pen to paper can be a Herculean effort.

The most obvious common thread among this diverse group of Scholars is our passion for food. The refrigerator has been in a constant state of ebb and flow. My contribution has primarily been in the dessert portion of our food pyramid. Farmer Tim’s bounty of blueberries have afforded us several evenings of sweets. Most recently, the sweet and sassy berries tumbled into circles of butter pastry. I folded them over into half-moons, sealed with a kiss of cream and sugar. I decided for medicinal purposes, the Scholars would benefit from a pair of turnovers capped with vanilla Ronnybrook ice cream and Caramel Bourbon sauce. It was just what we needed.

Heading down the hill, I tuck my rain-drenched head below a canopy of now autumn leaves, just beginning to blush crimson. Tomorrow I will pack the car and bid my fellow Scholars fare thee well. It is remarkable that in a very short time, total strangers can become kindred spirits.

September beckons. It is time to turn over a new leaf.