No More Mr. Nice Pie

No More Mr. Nice Pie
Drawing by Retsu Takahashi

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Nutty Nostalgia

Recently calibrated oven, you think you're so cool. Truth is, you're the slightest bit too hot. Yes, you are working quite well. Perhaps a little too well. Not only are you responsible for branding one of our new bakers on the back of her arm, you baked the chocolate chip cookies lickity split. When I'm greeted with, "There are cookies for you on the rack," I know I am not being offered a mid-morning snack. I will be forced to make the difficult decision to feed them to the food processor and turn them into crumb crust. Luckily, I have just the recipe for this culinary challenge. And a good thing too, because the apples have yet to be delivered and the pears are several days away from being ripe.

There was a bit of a pie squabble at the counter on Saturday. Nice enough fellow wanted to buy an apple pie, double crust. So did the woman behind him and another who had sidled up to the left of the espresso machine. Unbeknownst to them, several of the pies were already spoken for, their order slips hidden beneath sticky apple pie syrup. Others, still warm from the heat of the newly repaired oven, were available but sported crumb topping. Apparently folks have very strong opinions about crumb topping. In my book, if the crumb is toasty and not too sweet, and the fruit mirrors the appropriate season (the Granny Smiths and Ginger Golds definitely taste like fall), then it's a great match. These Pie Seekers clearly did not receive the crumb memo clarifying this. Thus began a pleasantly heated conversation regarding pie ownership.

Oven mittened, I am dodging the blistering hot oven racks, rotating sheet pans of apple pies. They require a dosey doe throughout the baking process which brings me up front and a little too personal with the retail pie public. I am thinking but not saying (which is terribly challenging for me), "all you need to do is place an order and you can choose double crust or crumb. I'm pretty agreeable when it comes to that." (I know, I surprise myself sometimes.) The bakery is hot, the oven is hotter still and my Saturday patience is growing thin. So is the fabric on the right hand of the oven mitt, between thumb and forefinger.

When folks start to get territorial and use the expression "My Pie" I have a Cafette-of-Philadelphia flashback. And it's even more appropriate this week because I am shocked to discover that one of our new bakers is a Cafette alumna. True, we worked there at different times, but the odds of that happening in one little bakery proves it is a small, small, restaurant/bakery world indeed.

I miss Philly, particularly Chestnut Hill and autumn’s crunchy leaf running trails in Valley Green. I also miss my Farmers Market and the twist-your-ankle cobblestones of Germantown Avenue. So many tempting food options up and down that hill. The double punch aroma of sweet and savory breads, yeasty and buttery tumbling out of Baker Street and Metropolitan bakeries. (Sadly, there is a huge freshly baked bread void in my current Village.) At the top of the hill, Farmer Andy offered the freshest produce 7 days a week. I miss the wicker baskets of soft-but-lovable fruit that I scooped up (some might say hoarded, but that seems harsh) and were mainstays of Cafette pie fillings. In October, weathered wooden counters held a patchwork of options; purple-blue Italian plums, limited edition fresh figs, puckery Concord grapes, citron green quince and adorable Seckel pears. Apples in shades of red, yellow, pink and green overfilled bushel baskets. It was more than a market, it was a 'round the corner gathering place. Much like chatting over the fence with your neighbors, Top of the Hill Market was where you got the scoop before you read the weekly Chestnut Hill Local. I frequented the market almost daily.

In the same way, Cafette was a neighborhood eatery, a mainstay tucked inside a Philadelphia row house. In the warmer months, the side flagstone patio was in full swing, a curlicue wrought iron gate open and inviting. The garden fragrant and blooming, twinkle lights overhead, tea lights illuminating umbrella topped tables. In October, the patio umbrellas wrapped themselves up tightly to ward off the chill and pumpkins sat in front of the secured wrought iron gate. Pie offerings transitioned from peaches and berries to apples, pears and plums.

There was one pie in the Cafette repertoire that knew no season and was popular year round. The slightly crispy chocolate chip cookies at work this week retrieved it from my memory. The pie in progress looks like this:

The original recipe for Chocolate Walnut Pie called for semi-sweet chocolate, but I changed it to bittersweet and I think it's a better fit.  We sailed through many of these pies on a weekly basis, although the fruit pies consistently outsold the chocolate.

Due to the confines of the restaurant, folks waiting for tables would gather alongside the narrow space in front of the counter that displayed the desserts. At the height of the dinner hour, the crowd spilled out on to the street, hungry diners clutching BYO bottles of wine, perching on benches out front.

Customers became territorial about pie offerings and often times reserved their dessert in advance. Little toothpick flags earmarked the saved slices, and if I underestimated, well, folks got a little bit cranky. Sorry.

I'm sorry, too, that the crumb versus double crust became a Thing on Saturday. I did offer to slice one crumb pie in half and one double crust in half creating an Apple Pie Duet in two completely new and shiny aluminum pie plates. I thought that was a pretty good compromise. No takers.

Several days ago, one of last Saturday's Pie Seekers returned for coffee and casually mentioned that the crumb pie was actually delicious; not too sweet, the right amount of lemon, a good amount of crumb and more than enough apples.

Just trying to do my job here. Which right now, is to salvage the chocolate chip cookies and transform them into a tart filled with bittersweet chocolate walnut-iness. As I'm reaching for the commercial food wrap I'm reminded of one of my favorite line cooks from my Philly food days. Omar, a Gumby of a man who was as tall as he was thin, outfitted daily in over-sized black and white checkered chef pants. When it came to mise en place, he was exceptionally well prepared for the Cafette lunch and dinner line. Less so, when it came to his wardrobe. The one accessory severely lacking from Omar's clothes closet was a belt. In his inimitable style, he made use of what was readily available behind the speed rail opposite the six burner stove. Eighteen inch commercial food wrap, twisted and fashionably tied made an impromptu belt that almost held up his trousers. I miss Omar and the Cafette kitchen crew. I miss the meals that were crafted in that tiny kitchen and enjoyed on the patio. Jan was a gracious owner and employer, Richard an inimitable host. That was then.

This is now.

No comments:

Post a Comment