Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 – A Year of Culinary Types

Whether one cooks or not, the kitchen connects all of our lives. In 2008, I was drawn even more closely to the miraculous bond between people and food. The journey introduced me to an uncommon assortment of “Culinary Types.”

Along the way, we encountered Bonnie Slotnick and her charming West Village shop, filled to the rafters with antiquarian cookbooks. We tasted the heirloom recipes of Chris and Helen Junda at Junda’s Pastry, Crust and Crumbs on the North Fork of Long Island, and embraced the hand of friendship of John and Diane MacPherson, innkeepers at the Foster Harris House in Little Washington, Virginia.

We celebrated the brilliance of Chefs Patrick O’Connell and Daniel Boulud and learned the techniques of French country cooking with legendary culinary instructor Anne Willan. We paid homage to The King of Paella and chatted with Kelly Alexander, the woman who revived forgotten food writer Clementine Paddleford.

We sampled the pioneering spirits of the Whisky Master of Rappahonnock County, and savored the simplicity of roast chicken. Culinary excursions took us from Jackson Heights, New York to Sonoma Valley, California and even a stop at Miss Polly’s in Memphis, the home of “Love, Peace and Chicken Grease.”

Together, we experienced the joys of sustainable organic agriculture in the fields of Sophia Garden, perfected Tapas and endured the rigors of Cheese Boot Camp. Retro Cakes were both whimsical and surreal, and food historian Francine Segan confirmed that pie is “the next big thing.”

And, as always, there were faithful food blogger friends to comment and complete the story, be it the celebratory Louise, the intriguing Cakespy, Kathy the collector, the methodical Veronica or the prolific Lydia of the Perfect Pantry. Someday, I’d like to meet Lydia in person. Perhaps that’s a story for 2009 …

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year to All!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Christmas Cake

The Christmas season has sped by. There’s been snow, Bach, thin crust pizza, tapas, pear tarts, Jimmy Stewart, butter cookies and the annual office holiday party at mega decibels. And, now Christmas Eve, and lots to prepare.

This Christmas Cake is indeed “the dreaded” fruitcake. I’m taking quite a gamble serving this for dessert for Christmas Eve dinner, given the sullied reputation of fruitcake, but it is a “Martha” cake, so as my pal Puck puts it, “How bad can it be, really?” It is indeed the very model of a modern Christmas Fruitcake, with dried pears, dried apples, candied ginger, pineapple and lemon zest, soaked in Armagnac.

The English enjoy a grand tradition of Christmas Cake that came to pass in the late 19th century – iced fruitcakes that are decorated with holly or snow scenes. Some cakes are started months in advance and fed with brandy. Mine’s a tad younger, but hopefully not too callow.

This “Snowcapped Fruitcake” is robed in fondant, and Puck says she’s afraid of fondant. Well, fondant is my friend, but Royal Icing is a royal pain. I ended up skipping the final piping on the snowflakes – the icing was stiff and my piping form is not up to snuff.

Still it was the addition of Armagnac – a brandy made from wine in the region of Gascony – to the dried fruits that intrigued me. I’d never tasted it, and I figured if Martha called for Armagnac, there must have been a good reason. So, short on time as usual, I drop into the liquor store in Penn Station at 8 a.m. and ask for a bottle of Armagnac. The proprietor says, “This is a very nice bottle.”

I say, “I’m baking with it. It doesn’t have to be that nice.” But, it’s the only one he has, so I take it, pay the hefty price tag and head on to work.

Later I learn that Armagnac is matured in oak, and there are various labels indicating the age. XXX means three years old, VO means from 5 to 10 years, and VSOP means up to 15 years. I decide to check my label (after I’ve used 1 and 1/3 cups for the cake). The label says, “Hors d’Age” which means that the brandy has aged at least 25 years!

This better be one magical cake, Martha! Ah, well, Armagnac is also good for sipping while one is blogging …

For now, the entire family is gathered, from the oldest (80 years old) to the youngest (8 months old). The stockings are filled, the champagne is on ice and the lasagna will shortly go into a piping hot oven.

As that Jolly Old Elf adorned in red is known to say, “Happy Christmas To All, and To All a Good Night!”

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Cookies – Tante Kremer’s Walnut Egg White Kisses

Some bakers are legendary within families. They create confectionary magic with love that stays with you long after the fragrant aromas have left the kitchen. In our family, that baker is my mother’s Tante Kremer. I barely remember Tante, but most holidays, my mom will manage to conjure up a sweet memory of Tante’s baking, be it her elegant Hungarian Nut Torte, or a delicate Christmas cookie.

Here’s how my mom told the story last year:

“We called her simply “Tante” and her husband “Uncle.” But they were Elizabeth and Joseph Kremer, my father’s aunt and uncle who had emigrated from Hungary. My father’s mother died when my father was a teenager and Tante mothered him from then on. Tante and Uncle’s home in College Point, Long Island became Dad’s home more than his own. In fact, I never remember talk of any other home. Dad absolutely adored Tante and Uncle and his three cousins Rose, Katie and Margaret. He became one of their family.

“Tante was an excellent baker and had several specialties that were baked year in and year out for the holidays and for celebrating special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. I remember four types of cookies: 1) Kupfel (horn) filled cookies made with cream cheese and butter, which were like mini-croissants filled with apricot or prune butter, 2) Walnut Egg White Kisses like swirls of meringue with a walnut half in the middle that just melted in your mouth, 3) Hard, flat, round anisette cookies about the size of a 50 cent piece, 4) Rolled butter cookies cut in shapes – stars, crescents, diamonds, hearts – brushed with egg whites and sprinkled with finely chopped nuts mixed with fine granulated sugar – so fragile and delicate they just melted in your mouth. My Mom became very proficient at making the rolled butter cookies. For Christmas Eve, Tante made round donuts with coins baked in the centers – pennies, nickels, and dimes for good luck.”

Walnut Egg White Kisses is one of Tante Kremer’s few surviving recipes, so I thought I’d make it for my mom as a remembrance of holidays past and share the recipe with you. I debated renaming the recipe with a more modern title, like “Walnut Meringue Kisses,” but I think that might have created a level of pretense that would mar the pure home-made simplicity of this recipe. As you might expect, the words of the original directions are not overly-detailed, as baking was more instinctive back then. And, all the mixing was done by hand with muscles developed in the kitchen over many holiday seasons. One can only imagine what Tante Kremer would have created with a KitchenAid Mixer. The recipe produces several dozen kisses, which Elizabeth Kremer was said to have packaged up and delivered to all the relatives. Like Tante, I sent over a batch for Mom and Dad to have with their coffee and brought a batch to the office to satisfy our daily cookie addiction.

Tante Kremer’s Walnut Egg White Kisses

4 egg whites beaten with 1 lb. superfine sugar and juice of ½ lemon. Beat until whites stand in a good stiff peak. Add 1 lb. of quartered walnuts. Drop by teaspoon on wax paper on cookie sheet – using a piece of nut on each spoonful. Bake in slow oven 300 degrees until brown.

(Notes: Bake “until brown” means slightly beige in color. I baked the kisses for about 20-22 minutes rotating the pans halfway through the baking time. The walnuts actually conduct a bit of heat and bake the inside of the cookie more quickly than a typical meringue cookie.)

I’m submitting Tante Kremer’s Walnut Egg White Kisses to “Eat Christmas Cookies – Season Two” the annual, worldwide cookie swap hosted by Susan at Food Blogga. Check out the rules and round-up for dozens of favorite family cookie traditions.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 15, 2008

Royal Banquet

My friend Rocky recently confirmed his title as the King of Paella. My friend Hal2008 is a culinary prognosticator, and has recently been palling around with Frank Bruni. He also says he’s the King of Risotto (this claim is still to be tested). Rocky’s lovely wife enjoys good food, follows politics obsessively and was recently a YouTube sensation.

They’re all coming to my house for dinner. I’m a little stressed. They’ve read the blogs, and now I’ve got to deliver the goods.

I do a bit of hand wringing over the menu for weeks. I try any number of recipe combinations and then discard them. How do you even come close to a charming story of a paella recipe acquired in Spain and passed down from mother to son? Or, an eclectic culinary walking tour through Jackson Heights?

I finally land on a concept. Each course will reflect a stop on my own culinary journey. I make a pilgrimage to Murray’s Cheese in Grand Central and purchase the makings for a cheese platter. I have a delightful time selecting the different varieties of cheeses, using all of the skills I learned in Cheese Boot Camp.

I decide that I probably still have enough time to make a run to Whole Foods to pick up some additional ingredients. It’s late. Nobody is going to be there. Au contraire! It’s “Singles Night” at Whole Foods in Jericho, New York. Everyone is wearing sticky tags on their lapels with their first names printed in thick, black magic marker. There’s some sort of auction going on in the gourmet food section. I manage to dodge a couple of adventuresses prowling the baking aisle. There’s a creepy, love-sick guy loitering near the smoked salmon. New couples are having their digital photos taken next to the cantaloupes in the produce aisle. As I’m trying to exit, a very large group of women eye me like a piece of meat. I narrowly escape with my dignity and my Bell & Evans organic chicken.

After that, things go pretty smoothly. I spend the weekend cooking on all burners and manage to prepare everything in advance so I can spend as much time as possible with my guests.

Every time I host a dinner party, I suspect I may have the Felix Unger gene. About an hour before the guests arrive – since everything else is completed – I start obsessing over the cleanliness of the house. It doesn’t seem to bother me at any other time, but suddenly I’m seeing cobwebs everywhere. I realize the hand railing at the kitchen door is gross, so I’m out there with the bottle of Windex spritzing away.

But soon, my guests arrive, having safely made the journey from Manhattan to suburban Long Island. They’ve been speculating about the menu. The guy who guessed football snacks is dead wrong. Hal2008 has an exquisite, homemade flourless chocolate cake in hand. Rocky and Hal2008 enjoy a round or two of Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky. We dig into the cheese platter – Valencay, a fresh goat cheese, the bloomy rind of Jasper Hill Constant Bliss, a sinky, washed-rind from Virginia called Meadow Creek Grayson, Mrs. Quicke’s Farmhouse Cheddar from Devon, and a biting Cashel Blue.

We then move on to the pasta course. I make fresh tagliatelle from the recipe I learned in Florence, with porcini mushroom sauce. Rocky grates the cheese. It is earthy and satisfying.

Next up, is a rustic recipe from Provence – a piquant Fricassee of Chicken with White Wine, Capers, and briny green Olives – simple goodness that simmers lazily in a Dutch oven. There is a tense moment when Hal2008 suspects that the capers might be peas. Hal2008 hates peas. It takes a little reassuring, but we do manage to serve the main course.

I’m pretty bad about taking photographs, and have completely failed in my blogging duties. I miss photographing the cheese plate and the pasta entirely. I can bring home the bacon and cook it, too. But don’t ask me to multi-task. Next time, I’m hiring a photographer.

Dessert is an embarrassment of riches. Hal2008’s flourless chocolate cake is sublime elegance – made with a couple of pounds of luscious Italian chocolate.

I make a Pear Tart with Almond Cream, first learned at the feet of Chef Candy at the French Culinary Institute. I must admit, it’s pretty fetching.

After all the preparation, it’s a lot of fun, which is really what good food should be about. Not bad for Sunday dinner on suburban Long Island. It could have been meatloaf …

Next up, we’re planning an excursion to a classic Italian pizza joint in midtown, that’s described as a slice of “pizza heaven.” I’ll make sure I bring the camera. Meanwhile, I’ll be enjoying a couple of days of leftovers, and some delectable chocolate cake!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Two Pear Tarts and a Partridge in a Pear Tree

That song has been playing constantly on satellite radio. And, it’s SO long. So many choruses. I can’t get those lyrics out of my head.

Don’t they know we’re officially in a recession? Nobody can afford 12 Days of Christmas gifts, and all the multiples of the previous days.

I’ve got more important things on my mind. "The King of Paella" (Rocky), his wife and Hal2008 (who has been palling around with Frank Bruni as of late) are coming for dinner, so the stove has been on overdrive. I’m a little nervous. I have a lot to live up to.

I was pleasantly surprised that my dessert, Tarte aux Poires a la Frangipane (Pear Tart with Almond Cream) begat two miniature versions as well. It seemed a sweet treat to share with all of you who love mini tarts (and, you know who you are!).

However, there is no partridge on the menu. Just chicken. We are in a recession, after all.

Tis the season!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 08, 2008

Christmas Cookies - Nana’s Sandbakkels

The Barritt’s are not from Scandinavia, although there are a couple of fair-haired blondes in the group. Regardless, every Christmas, we always looked forward to Nana’s signature treat, “sandbakkels,” a crumbly Norwegian almond cookie baked in delicate fluted tins.

Nana’s ancestral roots were primarily German. So how did she end up known, among other things, for a Scandinavian Christmas cookie? Ruth Barritt (pictured below, a little before my time) was a bit of a recipe hoarder (could we surmise that this is a genetic trait?), and when she tasted something she liked, she usually made a point of getting the recipe and trying it herself.

Perhaps she had a friend who was Norwegian who passed along the recipe, or maybe the fluted tins were a gift? Did she find the recipe in the newspaper or a magazine? I think she probably appreciated the ease of the recipe, and the delicate results produced by the gleaming little cookie tins.

We’ll probably never know exactly how sandbakkels became a family tradition, but although Nana’s been gone for a number of years, we still remember her enormous, affectionate hug, her snowy white hair, and her plate of “sandy" and buttery almond-flavored sandbakkels, particularly at Christmas.

My brother Jim has kept up the practice at Christmastime, but I’d never made sandbakkels until now, and didn’t honestly know if they really had any direct association with the Christmas season beyond our family memories. I did a little investigating and turned up the book “Keeping Christmas” by Kathleen Stokker, which looks at Norwegian Christmas folk traditions and their evolution in the United States. Stokker mentions a seminal Norwegian cookbook, written by a minister’s wife named Hanna Winsnes in 1845, where recipes for sandbakkels and other traditional Norwegian cookies can be found.

Sandbakkels were one of many cookies prepared during the Advent season. Norwegians would serve cookies with a glass of wine at midday or with after-dinner coffee. Stokker notes that cookies such as sandbakkels became popular among the professional class around the time the Winsnes book was published, and were adopted by the peasant class much later in the 19th century. The Winsnes book was hugely popular and carried by Norwegian immigrants to the United States where many of these baking traditions took root, as the sandbakkel tradition did in Nana’s kitchen in Laurelton, New York. And, in that same tradition of passing good recipes along, I offer her version here:

Nana's Sandbakkels

One cup of sugar
One cup of soft butter
One egg
½ teaspoon almond extract
2 ½ cups sifted flour

Cream the sugar and butter. Add egg, flavoring and flour. Pinch off small pieces of dough about the size of a walnut. Press them into the center of a sandbakkel tin, and press thinly and evenly into sides and bottom.

Put the tins on a cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 12 minutes or longer.

When cooled, tap gently on the bottoms of the tins and the tarts will drop out easily. (Caution – cookies are very fragile, so remove them carefully)

I’m submitting Nana’s Sandbakkels to “Eat Christmas Cookies – Season Two” the annual, worldwide cookie swap hosted by Susan at Food Blogga. You can check out the details here, and check out the selection of cookies from around the world here.

Merry Christmas, Nana!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Drop In & Decorate Delivers Holiday Cheer

Drop in & Decorate

Bake. Decorate. Donate.

Free how-to guide!
Cookies are such a sweet signature of the holidays. A homemade cookie – beautifully decorated – inspires good cheer, evokes memories of loved ones and restores childlike wonder. So many of us have these gifts in abundance, but there are many who aren’t as fortunate.

One of my favorite food bloggers, Lydia Walshin of The Perfect Pantry, long ago recognized the restorative power and sense of community found in a whimsical batch of cookies. Some years back, she created the program “Drop In & Decorate: Cookies for Donation” based on a simple idea: bake some cookies, invite family, friends or co-workers to help decorate and then donate the cookies to a local shelter, food pantry, lunch program or senior center. Then watch the magic happen.

Over the years, Drop In & Decorate has inspired hundreds of people to organize decorating parties and spread the flavor of holiday cheer to those less fortunate in the community. Lydia has worked tirelessly and this year established Drop In & Decorate as a not-for-profit association that helps people organize Drop In & Decorate parties year-round.

Lydia believes that every day is an opportunity to spread comfort and joy in the community, but of course, the winter holidays are a particularly good time. She’s been baking furiously the last few weeks, and is encouraging all of us to do the same in this season of good will. Check out the links provided here for resources and tips on how you can host a Drop In & Decorate party. You’re just about to start that holiday baking anyway, so why not make an extra batch, host a decorating party, and watch the magic happen in your own community?

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Tennessee Thanksgiving

The early morning sun casts an ethereal, timeless glow across the taupe and buff-dappled fields of Grassland Farms in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Thanksgiving morning is a moment of serenity. There is only the distant clang of a cowbell, the soft mewing of a cat, or the flutter of a bird to be heard.

The regal, white antebellum manor house sits majestically on a slight ridge. There is no actual documentation on exactly when the house – described as “Tennessee Vernacular Architecture” – was built, but the date is thought to be 1825 or earlier. It is known that a Revolutionary war soldier named Alexander Greer acquired the property through a land grant from North Carolina in 1815.

These days, Pittypat prowls the yard as protector of the property...

Inside the brick cook house, preparations for the Thanksgiving Day feast are underway...

Mom slices sweet potatoes for a casserole sweetened with apricot jam. Jim shapes the crust for a homemade pumpkin pie …

The aroma of cinnamon and cloves fills the house as the finished pie cools on the kitchen table …

I join the communal preparations, dicing butternut squash for a puree sweetened with maple syrup …

Ray prepares the turkey, and Jim clips sprigs of fragrant rosemary from the kitchen garden to perfume the bird …

By afternoon, the table is artfully set …

A platter of American artisanal cheeses is put out – including clothbound Cheddar from Cabot Creamery in Vermont and gamey and gooey Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia …

Soon, the turkey is done, and Dad begins his designated carving ritual …

As the sun begins to recede behind the foothills beyond Grassland Farms …

We take our seats at the table and give thanks for good food and blessings, an appreciation of place and the moment, and – despite any obstacles that might arise – an enduring sense of family.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving – I Swear I Didn’t Steal the Pie

Happy Thanksgiving! I’m heading to Tennessee for an old-fashioned Southern holiday meal, but before leaving, I thought I’d serve up this cautionary tale.

If somebody offers you a free pie, you might want to think twice.

Last week, a group in the office throws a late afternoon happy hour. On the menu – beer, cupcakes and pie. Don’t look at me. I didn’t plan the menu. Maybe the pairing of snacks and beverages wasn’t optimal, but the sweets were top of the line – pumpkin pie, and pumpkin cupcakes with maple cream cheese frosting from the Magnolia Bakery. Yes, cupcake fans, Magnolia has opened a new midtown branch just down the street from the office. My administrative assistant is VERY worried about my waistline.

But, I digress. Due to the fact that the noshes and the beverages, didn’t exactly … uh, mesh, there were some leftovers – several gorgeous pumpkin pies. So, a very nice colleague named Sophia suggested I take one home. I was unsure for a second, since I had a theater engagement that evening, but decided that free pie doesn’t come along every day, and I could figure out how to pack the pie securely for the trip from Midtown Manhattan to suburban Long Island.

So, there I am, walking down the hallway with my boxed pie, feeling like I won the lottery, thankful for my colleague Sophia, and thankful for my free pumpkin pie. I pass by a few colleagues.

“Did you take that pie?” one of them asks.

I shrug off the comment, since most New Yorkers are an obsessively suspicious lot.

I arrive back at my office. My office neighbor “Danbury,” an aristocrat from Connecticut, gives me an accusing glare.

“Did you steal that pie?” he demands.

“It was a gift!” I insist.

I am now feeling like a criminal and thoroughly demoralized. Not one, but two people have taken what was a lovely holiday gesture and turned it into an incident worthy of the Fox News – “The Executive and the Purloined Pie – Film at 11!!!” Secretly, I am feeling a little guilty, because I had been contemplating a blog post on how one can eat for free for days on office leftovers. Scratch that idea.

I leave the pie at the office and go to the theater. After the final curtain call of “On the Town” I pick up the pie and head for the subway. The train never comes, and I am at risk of missing my train to Long Island. I hop an alternate train, that lets me off one block from Penn Station, and I have to sprint to the train, pie in hand. If you had seen me running down 34th Street at 11:32 p.m. carrying a pie, you might have thought I’d stolen it, too.

After all that, the pie makes it home relatively intact, with just a few cracks, as you can see from the photo above. If I squint at it, I can pretend it’s a smiley face.

The presence of the pie inspires a whole Thanksgiving dress rehearsal, of sorts. I pour over the recipe books and magazines, because you can’t have pumpkin pie without all the fixings, right? I roast a chicken, because Thanksgiving is all about a plump, juicy bird:

I make a silky-smooth gravy from the pan drippings:

I prepare a luscious dish of Maple-Glazed Sweet Potatoes:

And, I forgo the timesaving temptation of Stovetop Stuffing in favor of making my own from scratch – simple stuffing with apples and raisins. I even cube a whole loaf of Italian bread:

It’s all a build-up to that magnificent pie. It is a glorious feast, indeed, and a perfect prelude to the official holiday of thanks.

The spread is so good, in fact, that I am stuffed to the gills, and have absolutely no room left for the pumpkin pie!

May you fare better, keep your good reputation intact, and be sure to get your slice of pie!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Small Publishing Milestone for T.W.

Somebody once said, “Good things come to those who wait” (Was it Shakespeare, or Hillary Clinton?). It has certainly tested my patience at times to wait for the publication of “Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl – An Encyclopedia,” but it has finally arrived.

“Entertaining…” is a two-volume encyclopedia published by Greenwood Press which contains 120 entries that explore the history and cultural significance of all aspects of entertaining. Yours truly was one of 64 contributors, and I joined the project in the spring of 2006, even before “Culinary Types” arrived on the scene. Sometimes, the project seemed as if it were taking about as long as the history of world entertaining, but I suppose there were a lot of dinner parties and dirty dishes for the contributors to sort through in researching this tome.

Authored by T.W. Barritt are five hefty entries, Colonial America, Dinner Parties, Martha Stewart, Fourth of July and Wine, as well as a sidebar on how to prepare Plum Pudding. The contributors are described in the preface as “all experts in their respective fields,” and I do claim a certain familiarity with wine and have prepared a plum pudding or two in my day. While I’ve come close to meeting Martha on one or two occasions, that event has yet to happen. I do hope if she reads the entry, she feels I portrayed her influence on entertaining with accuracy and insight.

I am indebted to the delightful Francine Segan, who first invited me to join the project when I contacted her out of the blue more than two years ago to interview her on her specialty, culinary history. I greatly appreciate the opportunity she provided.

Now, I’m really not expecting you to run out a buy a copy. “Entertaining…” will be marketed to reference libraries and retails for $199.95 on Amazon.com. However, I thought you’d enjoy hearing the news. I was pretty thrilled!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pie for All Seasons

Pie is messy.

It doesn't slice very neatly, the crust fractures easily, and the filling eventually becomes a soupy glop on the plate. Yet it is somehow comforting. Pie is familiar, flexible and always ready to adapt. Just like a big, sloppy, wet kiss, pie emanates home, hearth and love.

Winter weather has arrived in New York and a frosty wind pummels me as I hurry along Lexington Avenue. The Dow has done another one of its late afternoon nose dives, I’ve got a strange and feverish buzz from the flu shot I received earlier in the day and its god-awful cold. It’s the perfect night for a comforting piece of pie. Maybe two. Maybe even three.

I enter a large classroom painted in primary colors and adorned with works of finger painting art in the basement of the 92nd Street Y. There, author and food historian Francine Segan is setting a groaning board of nearly a dozen, picture-perfect pies. Francine has one of the best jobs in the world. She researches and recreates historic recipes, and has authored several stunningly photographed cookbooks. She cooks with the Today Show Family, interviews Jacques Pepin and hosts lectures focused on the kinds of foods most of us obsess over. Tonight, she’s serving up a lip-smacking program on the history of pie.

Francine was my editor on a now-completed publishing project that seemed to last a millennium (more on that in another post). She's witty, exuberant, sweet, tart and frothy, sort of like one of those mile-high lemon meringue pies. And, she’s got a plethora of pie lore at her fingertips. She takes me aside and explains that this week leading up to Thanksgiving has more Americans focused on pie than any other time of the year. And, she confirms that – as I’ve been hearing recently – “pie is the next big thing.”

Frankly, the group of guests looks a bit beleaguered, but things are about to brighten up, as Francine invites us to help ourselves to a little pie. The momentary commotion at the pie counter resembles a Blue Light Special at K-Mart.

“If you’re allergic to anything, you’re out of luck,” says Francine. “There’s nuts, there’s fruit and there’s plenty of sugar.” Within minutes we are back at the table, each digging into a plateful of pie. The mountainous plate before the woman across from me looks like a three-dimensional work of abstract expressionism. Wayne Thiebaud, eat your heart out.

There are eight choices, and I can proudly say I sample almost all of them, including Honey Pumpkin Pie, Banana Cream Pie, Medieval Meat Pie, and the ever-popular Mock Apple Pie. Pie for dinner you ask?? Don’t raise your eyebrows at me. You’d do it too, in a second. It proves to be a balanced meal indeed – the Pumpkin Pie chocked full of beta carotene, the banana cream pie a good source of potassium, and the savory meat pie providing a full-serving of protein. Not to mention all that love.

As we munch away, Francine takes us on a little journey of pie through the ages. Among the morsels,

The first recorded recipe for pie comes from Roman times and was a Rye-crusted Goat Cheese and Honey Pie.

As Francine describes it, in the Elizabethan era “pie was kind of like a Tupperware container where you put your leftovers,” resulting in all kinds of varieties of meat pies.

The Lemon Meringue Pie was invented by a woman from Philadelphia named Elizabeth Goodfellow.

Pie a la Mode was made famous on the menu at the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York, but was actually invented by a professor from Cambridge, New York who liked to combine pie with ice cream.

The Eskimo Pie, invented in the 1920s, borrowed the name. It is not a pie.

During times of bad economic news, we as a society tend to turn to sweets (might this explain the hefty portions of pie we are attacking during the lecture?)

Likewise, Prohibition seemed to have inspired the invention of a variety of sweets (we will satisfy our addictions, somehow).

Mock Apple Pie was invented in the 1930s as an economic alternative to the genuine article, when crackers were free, but an apple cost a penny.

When the good times returned in the 1950s and smart suburbanites turned to home entertaining, the cocktail hour, inspired “Cocktail Pies,” like Grasshopper Pie and Brandy Alexander Pie.

As you might guess, the classic pie-in-the-face is a distinctively American invention.

As Francine wraps up her lecture, she notices that a group of staff members from the Y are standing outside the door and looking in, longingly. Are they drooling? She invites them in to partake of some pie. Francine is a crucial part of the 92nd Street Y employee retention program.

Meanwhile, I’m in Pie Paradise. It’s a bit like Hog Heaven, but a whole lot sweeter.

©2008 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Twilight at Sophia Garden: The CSA Experiment Concludes

The crescent moon looks like a sliver of fingernail – thumbs down – against the blackened sky as I approach Sophia Garden on foot. It is a cool night. The volunteers are huddled under the canopy and a propane lantern casts a beacon of light across the remaining bins of vegetables.

It is my last pickup at Sophia Garden, the heavenly organic farm run by a group of Dominican Sisters on suburban Long Island. I joined on an impulse, and now the growing season is over and the summer has turned to autumn. The fields are plowed under and little evidence remains of the plants, stakes and vines once bursting with vegetables. It has been my first experience with Community Sponsored Agriculture. I feel a sense of accomplishment, but a tinge of sadness that it is over. And, my wallet is feeling just slightly pinched at the thought of having to return to supermarket prices, just as the economy is experiencing a meltdown.

The yield is far smaller now. Three carrots, two eggplants, a butternut squash and just a half pound of still ripening tomatoes. Gone are the days of nine pounds of tomatoes, bushels of burgundy beans and bundles of crisp lettuce. Still, I will likely make good use of this produce, generating close to two weeks of meals.

I learned a great deal through this CSA experiment. I approached my meals differently, learning to cook according to the yield of the garden instead of some spontaneous food craving. Usually, I made great use of the pickup, preparing enough good food to carry me through lunch and dinner for nearly two weeks. On those weeks when some of the produce went to waste, I felt badly, and tried a little harder the following week. I cooked in quantity on Sunday and Monday, although I can still improve how I organize my freezer. I also became more thoughtful about where my food comes from.

I learned that I love chard and one can eat greens as a main course. I’d always been afraid to try it, and now I’m pining for its sweet, tender flavor. I learned that pasta, rice and couscous can help extend a meal for days. And I discovered that even three small carrots can lead to a surprisingly good meal when transformed into an exotic Moroccan Carrot Salad. I also took the opportunity to purchase more vegetarian cookbooks than one guy should really own.

The rainbow-colored heirloom tomatoes were glorious. I ate them in salads and soups, and used gold and red jewels to adorn the tart pictured above. I even mastered the art of preserving some for later, thanks to Lydia’s recipe for oven roasted tomatoes and some guidance via email on a Saturday night.

The pounds and pounds of potatoes have made their way into frittatas and Spanish Tortillas:

The luminous purple, white and green eggplants became Ratatouille:

In the end, the garden only gave me two butternut squash, but it was the base for a silky autumnal soup with apples, leeks and cider:

Acorn squash goes all fancy when roasted with pure maple syrup and butter:

And, there are even still more potatoes to prepare, this time in a lovely golden potato leek soup:

With all these vegetables, thoughts eventually turn to dessert, and even there, veggies are victorious in nutty and dense whole wheat zucchini bread:

Finally, I must report that I did actually make it to all of my scheduled volunteer work shifts, although at times my attendance seemed precarious. On one occasion, I was introduced to a talkative 8-year-old boy named Elijah who told me his life story and peppered me with questions about mine for three hours as we pulled weeds from between the string bean plants. I also sustained quite a few mosquito bites along the way. On my final shift, I actually found myself alone in the shed with only my thoughts, sorting cherry tomatoes and watching as a burnished, golden haze enveloped the garden. Eventually, it was too chilly and too dark to see what I was doing and it was time to conclude. There were times when I didn’t want to report for duty, but I was usually glad I did, especially when I would complete a task. The garden needs continual care, but at times the weeds seemed daunting. But there was some sense of satisfaction leaving a vegetable plot more orderly and tidy than it was found. Dare I say that Sophia Garden may, in fact, be a metaphor for life?

Happy Winter to the blessed organic sisters of Sophia Garden! I’ve already signed up for next season!

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