No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, October 30, 2014

You Say Potato, I Say Sweet

Halloween rears its candy corn head today meaning that pie holiday is inching its way closer and closer. In an effort to keep things lively in my little corner of the Bakers bench, I am trying to spend the next week or two preparing pies that are not part of the Thanksgiving (oh NOOO, I said the word!) repertoire. Like an actor playing the same role ad nauseum, I’m trying to keep things fresh.

I requested a small case of sweet potatoes from Lancaster Farms because I am a huge fan of Sweet Potato Pecan pie. Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen and K-Paul’s Restaurant made this dessert quite famous in the early 80’s. No one else in the bakery seems particularly aware of nor interested in this flavor combination so I will extol its virtue to Sibling Baker from Seattle who is also a fan. Sweet Potato pie on its own is generally too sweet for my liking but it does have somewhat of a modest following in this locale. Fortunately, there are as many recipes to choose from and doctor up as there are accessories to bedazzle my favorite spud, Mr. Potato Head. I began to pore over recipes this week for pies boasting yams but became preoccupied with memories of the creative play toy.

I was rather smitten with Mr. Potato Head, which says an awful lot about the power of 1960s television advertising. (Mrs. Potato Head was not on my radar until the introduction of Toy Story.) Mr. Potato Head was featured on a commercial that aired repeatedly in the afternoons, drowned out by Jessie’s Sunbeam mixer as she whipped together dessert ingredients while simultaneously preparing dinner. Perched on a wooden kitchen chair, my eyes glued to the portable black and white television set, Wonderama and cartoons played on WNEW’s Channel 5. Jessie wasn’t sold on the idea of the Hasbro toy, and when I finally received a gift of the highly coveted Mr. Potato Head kit, she was less than happy to hand over a spud. Prior to 1964, you needed a genuine vegetable to accessorize; I don’t believe the plastic potato body became imperative until kids sustained injuries, jabbing the sharp little plastic pieces into both root vegetables and themselves. Jessie begrudgingly relinquished a perfectly fine potato that she assured me would sprout and lose it’s pep soon enough. She was right. I kept my Mr. Potato Head in a small Jumping Jacks shoebox with just enough room for him to stretch out comfortably alongside the plastic accessories. Jessie knew a thing or two about potatoes and it was just a matter of time before Mr. Potato Head was starting to look like something out of Creature Features. I salvaged the spud’s expressive facial elements plus his appendages, eyeglasses and jaunty hats then gave the starchy vegetable a proper shoebox burial. I moved on to Mattel’s Beanie and Cecil Disguise Kit which boasted a longer shelf life.

Mr. Potato Head would return to haunt me in later years when I least expected it. While on the road in late fall of 1981, I received a letter from the Idaho Potato Commission, the official home of the Idaho spud. They were interested in launching a new ad campaign featuring my boss as spokesperson. My immediate reaction was to avoid broaching the subject with His Majesty who had just recently (and rather vocally) rebuffed a gift from the Cabbage Patch people who had created his likeness in 'hand-stitched soft sculpture art.' The Potato Commission had included in their letter of introduction a proposed storyboard for the commercial. I had to admit, the likeness of my boss side by side with a potato, was uncanny. It was crystal clear to me what his response would be without showing him the paperwork. I made a very casual, passing reference to the correspondence ultimately deciding to politely decline the potato project. I filed the letter under “Miscellaneous Requests,” directly behind the xeroxed copy of my thank-you note to the Cabbage Patch folks.

In December of the same year, the tour was booked for an extended stay in Ft. Lauderdale. Nearly as exciting as sightings of alligators in the Sunrise Theatre parking lot were the holiday parties. We consumed a good bit of Key Lime pie, but not a single slice of Sweet Potato. Hanukkah intertwined with Christmas and gifts were exchanged against a backdrop of palm trees and Early Bird Specials. I hosted a small ‘Ring in the New Year’ soiree at the Mediterranean-inspired avocado green house I was renting. The General Manager, who was privy to most drama in Siam, both onstage and off, joined us. Insisting I unwrap his gift before he flew back to New York, he handed me a rectangular box, outfitted in the merriest and happiest of holiday gift wrap. As I carefully tore away the paper, there was no mistaking the familiar face, boasting oversized features, sporting a sizable mustache and outfitted in a shiny black hat. He grinned from behind the cellophane window of the Hasbro box, looking barely a day older than he had in 1964 when he was made out of potato, not plastic.

Recipe Here

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Apples + Cider = A Personal Pie

Pre-caffeination, math is not my forte. It’s not much better post double-shot latte. I am unprepared for my workday word problem, and it’s a doozy. If the mother of a Bar Mitzvah boy serves a red velvet half sheet cake to 100 adults and 50 thirteen year olds are eating ice cream, not cake, will the caterer need a table larger than 36” round to accommodate the cake?  I don’t know, what time did the cake leave the train station?

I move on to more immediate challenges. What size bowl is needed for 32 ounces of apple slices per pie times twelve pies? This is excruciatingly tricky bakers math first thing in the morning. The answer? A bigger bowl than the one I have just poured the apples into. Now clean up the apples that have just tumbled out of the bowl onto the bakers bench. Next, divide Thanksgiving pie projections by five different kinds of pie, factor in double crust plus crumble and honestly, the numbers are dizzying. This leads me to the extra credit question; how many pie shells will I need to roll between now and November 27th? But I am getting ahead of myself, anticipating the swan song of Daylight-Saving time and the onslaught of November. Better to focus on the now which is surprisingly all about me for a change, and a yearning for my very own apple en croute. Not a double crust workaday pie, a personal pastry that will satisfy an autumnal hunger.

I have yet to eat a single slice of apple pie this fall. It seems almost criminal having spent close to three decades eating Jessie’s apple pie for dessert most Sunday evenings in the months of September and October. Jessie crafted pie crust without really measuring the flour/sugar/salt, nor the butter/shortening which she cut in using a red handled pastry blender. She couldn’t be bothered ‘fussing’ with ice cubes, choosing instead to toss in cold, filtered water from the tap. The largest of the nesting Pyrex bowls was overfilled with apples to which she sprinkled in a handful of both white sugar and brown sugar, a notable pinch of cinnamon, a smidgen of nutmeg and just the slightest bit of thickener to capture runaway juices. The top crust had a magic carpet quality; hovering over the tower of apple wedges, floating downward and settling comfortably. Jessie folded top with bottom, tucking in errant apples without referring to the pinching of the dough between her fingers as crimping. No egg wash, no sanding sugar, just a generously filled 10” glass pie plate taking a snooze in the oven for an hour or so. If a fragrance could be both tart and sweet, the apples were just that, tangled up with spices and a squeeze of lemon. There was an aroma of warm caramel from the brown sugar, a toastiness where the crust turned deep golden around the edges. When the pie was almost ready, my father outfitted in cardigan and corduroy, would pass through the kitchen to make sure the freezer held a container of Welsh Farms vanilla ice cream. I don’t remember what we had for dinner. I do recall with utmost clarity the taste of that pie.

Apples were classified in Jessie’s kitchen as either eating or baking apples. Some were saucy, others were pie worthy. Organic? What was that? Secure apples from Sunday morning farmers markets with artisan anything? We did not. Pick-Your-Own, baskets of apples and jugs of local cider were available at farm stands dotted around NY and NJ. But just as many apples came from the A&P, and they were far from local.

Last weekend, in a quest for some tasty apples and cider, I learned a horrifying autumn truth. Maybe I knew this and had forgotten, but when I worked at the farm in Bucks County, crowds were plentiful, not frightening.  I’ve been a little out of touch. The quaint farm stand and market has been gobbled up by hordes of folks squeezing into grab-your-own orchards, mega corn mazes and arena sized pumpkin patches. Way-too-long lines snake around snack bars offering roasted corn and cider hotdogs, small children cry and crumpled paper cups dot the landscape beneath the recycle bins. I wanted to cry, too. It was more carnival than country, primarily about traffic control, white-gloved policemen directing families in and out of the pastoral setting. Giant tractors transported folks to their Great Pumpkin destination, and throngs standing in line waited for apple cider doughnuts with a sense of frenzied anticipation.

Cider doughnuts were an everyday option at my former workplace, warm with a thick coating of cavity-inducing cinnamon sugar. I love the idea of a cider doughnut, but witnessing the batter parade through the hot grease on a daily basis scarred me for life. We also made hundreds of apple dumplings, of which I am still fond. There was a cider press too, and jugs of the sweet unfermented juice available in the Tabora market. Occasionally, a small group of rosy cheeked pre-schoolers would wander through clutching an apple from the field in one hand, a smiley face cookie with sprinkles in the other. Tractor rides and corn mazes were not in the offing.

Sibling Baker from Seattle tells me the apple/pumpkin mayhem stretches nationwide. Apparently there is a farm in Washington State that boasts a giant pumpkin slingshot. Just thinking about the potential in a slingshot situated in a field packed with cider doughnut fueled children is terrifying. And similar to baskets of apples, ripe with possibility.

Washington State triggers a Seattle fruit-in-crust memory for me from Macrina Bakery. I don’t want an entire pie for myself, just enough for let’s say, breakfast, or Saturday following eight hours of toil in the sugar and kosher salt mines. The ideal, dare I say, artisanal small batch of apple dumplings. I will not be rolling out the dough using a commercial sheeter that prepares enough for six dozen dumplings at a clip. (That remains in the bakery at Tabora Farms.) This will be hand crafted, with hazelnuts in the pastry and tart Montmorency cherries and brown sugar tucked inside the fruit. Since it’s for me, I’m going to cook down a good bit of the apple cider that I waited for none-too-patiently last Sunday, swirl in some heavy cream and make some cider caramel. No, it’s not exactly Jessie’s apple pie, but unless I get ahead of myself, I won’t have to wait in line.

Recipe Here

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Kingdom for a Quince

Last week posed the seasonal crisis of the unripe pears. A still life of Anjou beauty on the outside, the interior however, refused to budge. Swaddled in brown paper bags, I piped in the opening bars of A Little Night Music’s Send in the Clowns. They continued to dig in their little pear heels, defying me to ripen. With a stack of pie shells cool and aloof in the freezer and a container of almond oatmeal crumble with a mismatched lid in the fridge, I was taking up valuable bakery real estate. (There is always constant conversation and raised eyebrows about the lack of room for the CAKES.  Good thing this pie baker has a thick skin.) As the days rolled on, it was abundantly clear, a watched pear doesn’t ripen. Feeling like the coach of the Varsity Pear team in the midst of a seasonal slump, there was no other choice but to forge ahead. I coaxed, I cajoled, I threatened. “C’mon! You can do this! Fear not the brown sugar and vanilla bean; look that ginger and lemon zest straight in the eye. Do I have to bring in the cardamom? Are you pears or wax fruit??!! For goodness sakes, give me a little something!” The resulting pies tasted ever so slightly of pear, more along the lines of cucumber. Isn’t it rich?

This is a new week and to kick things off, Mr. UPS arrived with a very special package from Hudson, New York. Marianne and the folks at The Hudson Standard ( know how to craft bitters and shrubs of amazing clarity and flavor. Using local ingredients from New York’s Hudson Valley, their
concentrated shrubs and distinctive bitters are incredibly versatile. I had the good fortune of meeting Marianne at the LongHouse Food Revival in September. When I scanned the list of ingredients in the Pear Ginger Honey Shrub and then tasted it, it was clearly pear pie destiny.

Admittedly, I was concerned about securing ripe fruit following last week’s Anjou debacle. I have also been on a bit of a quince quest. The more elusive a pie ingredient is, the more I crave it. Pears and quinces play beautifully together in a pie plate. The trick was to secure the quince. Neither Whole Foods nor the local farmers market carried them. I was beginning to lose patience, bemoaning my quince-less state to my family. My mother suggested my quince passion was genetic. Her mother, my grandmother Dorothy was a lover of quince. Great gene pool. I decided to ask a few other folks how they felt about quince.

NMMNP: Are you on the bus? Can you hear me? How do you feel about quince?
BAKER SIBLING IN SEATTLE: (disembarking from the commuter bus) The Queen? How do I feel about the Queen?
NMMNP: No, not the Queen. Quince. The fruit.
BSIS: Now I can hear you. Yes. Quince. It grows out here. There are quince trees, somewhere out here. But I don’t see any at the moment.
(I then asked Young Scholar who upon graduation, we now call Master/Master.)
NMMNP: What do you know about quince?
MM: Quince? Never heard of it. 
NMMNP: Of course you have. It’s an incredibly fabulous fruit. You are living in the thick of quinceness.
MM: I live in Boston.
NMMNP: You have heard of Quincy Market, haven’t you?
MM: The market, yes. The fruit? Nooo… Wait. Is this your way of asking me to go to Quincy Market searching for quince? Because my initial reaction is that you should approach this the way I approached Boston Cream Pie. Ask an old…
NMMNP: I already asked Rommy, and yes, there’s a genetic connection. How can it be you have never heard of it?!
(Mildly interested, but not terribly so, Mr. Sweet As Pie chimes in.)
MSAP: I don’t believe the two are connected, the market and the fruit.
BLONDILOCKS: Hang on, quince? Is that more or less than a pence?
NMMNP: Not quid. Quince. It’s an autumnal fruit with the most incredible fragrance.
BLONDI: Oh. I thought you meant the currency.
NMMNP: This is important. Last week, I had a terrible time with pears. This is a new week, a new pie. And I can’t find any quinces.
BLONDI: So if you track down the quince, is it quince, or quinces?
NMMNP: It’s like fish…
MM: They taste like fish?
MM: I still don’t understand what you plan to do with the quince. Quinces.
NMMNP: I am going to pair them with pears and the pear-honey-ginger shrub that just arrived from Hudson, N.Y.
MSAP: Quince. Quinces. Right. You may want to put gas in the car first.

(Pause. It is critical for a baker to surround herself with a Practical Person. It is suggested to me that unless my quince foraging is to be on foot, there needs to be a fuel stop along the way. I know this, but I have a tendency to get caught up in the moment and overlook things like the gas gauge hovering on ‘E.’)

MM: Where does the shrub enter into things?
NMMNP: The pear honey ginger shrub is true pie crust kismet.
MM: Is it? Or is the shrub part of a cocktail? Does the taste of the quince improve after you mix the shrub with, say, some Bourbon?
NMMNP: First of all Master/Master, what they obviously did not teach you in graduate school, is that both apple cider vinegar and vodka (separately, not together) are ideal additions to pie crust. The shrub is made up of apple cider vinegar, pears, honey and ginger. This makes it ideal for both crust and filling. As for the quinces, you poach them in all sorts of warm spices, honey simple syrup and a good bit of lemon, then you combine them with pears, or pears and apples. I’m also thinking of using some sharp cheddar or nutty gruyรจre in the crust…
BLONDI: Whoa. You’ve got an awful lot going on there. Just saying.
NMMNP: No- all of the components will compliment each other. The end result will be a pie that tastes like the most fragrant and delicious apple slash pear slash rose…
BLONDI: This is beginning to sound like an Equity pie gig. Actor slash dancer slash singer, Quincey Rose Lee!
MM: I have to get ready for work…
NMMNP: Wait! What about Quincy Market?
BLONDI: You know, I once played the role of Peter Quince at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia…
MSAP: Quincy Market was named for Mayor Josiah Quincy. Nothing to do with your elusive quince. Sorry.
BLONDI: Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show…
NMMNP: So where does this leave us?
BLONDI: But wonder on till truth makes all things plain
MM: Probably listening to a Shakespearean monologue… or a number from Gypsy. I hope you’re not making quince pie for Thanksgiving.
BLONDI: This man, is Pyramus, if you should know This beauteous lady, Thisbe is certain
NMMNP: Well, now I don’t know. Maybe there won’t be any pie for Thanksgiving…
MM: As long as there’s Wild Nut pie, we’re good.
NMMNP: (Silence.)
BLONDI: She’s sulking. I can hear it in her silence.
MM: Yup. Okay then. See you Thanksgiving eve. Good luck with everything.
MSAP: I’m going to put gas in the car.
BLONDI: This man, with the lime and rough-cast doth present
Wall, that vile wall, which did these lovers sunder
And through the wall’s chinks, poor souls, they are content
To whisper, at the which let no man wonder.

This is what happens. I try to engage them, include them, and all they care about is what they care about. Which is neither quince nor pear. I am prepared to sulk for quite some time, tracking down the wayward quinces on my own. And while I’m at it, I will enjoy my sulk with some shrub. Over ice, with a few fingers of whatever The Hudson Standard recommends.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Just A Gluten for Punishment

I am trying to be a more tolerant person in the New Year 5775. So far, it is not going swimmingly. Friday was a classic example and it was not for lack of trying.

There are those who appreciate the vintage charm of the rotary phone in the bakery. From where I answer it, it is severely lacking in one area- there is no way to place an individual on hold and connect them with a pleasant customer service representative. Clearly, I am not that girl. Friday was as chaotic as Times Square on matinee day. As my workday was drawing to a close, the phone would not cease and desist, so I grabbed it. 

I counseled a woman making a torturous decision regarding a birthday cake for a two year old. Was I patient?  I was. Helpful? That too. Pleasant? Let’s not get carried away. And then came the zinger, at the very end. “Wait!” she pleaded, sensing I was about to wrap things up. “Can you also add a small train, and some train tracks, somewhere in the middle of the cake?” If it’s trains you seek, Madam, we are mere blocks away from the New Jersey transit station. In fact, you can actually watch the trains roll along the tracks from the bakery window. But I didn’t say that. “Nooo- we can’t just add a train,” I sighed, rolling my eyes.  “Okay, okay, one more thing.” (She must have heard my eyes rolling.) Isn’t there always one more thing? “I also need to order cupcakes.” In keeping with my resolve to be more agreeable, fine, I’ll jot that down, too. Until she uttered those two little words in conjunction with two other words. Gluten Free. Mini cupcakes. Aaaargh! I just couldn’t do it. I have resolved myself to our Gluten Free culture, but I am still seeking therapy when it comes to mini cupcakes. If you want to eat a cupcake, eat a cupcake. Mini cupcakes don’t count. Despite what all the new moms think, they are not large enough to satisfy a two year old. Nor are they a low calorie food for adults because you need to consume copious amounts for any sort of sugar high. So what’s the point?! Are they cute? Perhaps. But many things in life are cute that don’t require their own painstaking packaging in enormous cardboard boxes fitted with miniscule cardboard inserts. Mini cupcakes also require the hands of a surgeon to orchestrate their execution. And what you don’t want is for them to bump their tiny buttercream heads as you close the lid of the box. “Can they be white cake? Can they have sprinkles? Can half of them have vanilla frosting and half have yellow frosting to match the inscription on the cake? Hello? Hello?” They could probably be all of those things, but not on my watch. I did what was best for all birthday parties involved, I handed the phone off to the closest barista in sight.

I have more critical things to tend to. I am on the hunt for the elusive quince. Whole Foods promises to have them. When I arrive it is clear that Whole Foods is not in the quince loop. What they do have in vast quantities are pyramids of beautiful plums. And a sale on raspberries. I will have to adjust my recipe planner. That I can easily do.

As I wait on line to relinquish the contents of my wallet to the check-out fellow, I stop dead in my flour dusted tracks. I am convinced that my work life runs parallel to my real life in not-so-subtle ways. It can be positively frightening. The check-out line gridlock forces me to stand directly in front of the magazine rack. There is no escaping it, the selection is stem to stern all of one genre.

When I return home, there is a package waiting for me. Fresh out of the oven, a brand new t-shirt emblazoned with the letters WIJWGF. The brainchild of artisan bread baker and wood-fired oven wizard Richard Miscovich, the sentiment is awfully appropriate in my workplace. “What If Jesus Were Gluten Free?”

It might just be what to wear to work on Gluten Free Thursday. I know. I had high hopes for the High Holidays; clean slate, fresh start, sensitive to people’s kneads. But realistically I have to look at it this way. If I’m riding the struggle bus of a kinder, more tolerant me, I may have to try this again on December 31st.  Three months is a fair amount of time to practice.