Cakespy note: this picture is not Nesselrode Pie. More on that later.
It all began innocently enough: with a book. This time, it was in Barnes & Noble, where amongst the "Northwest" section of cookbooks, there was, inexplicably, a cookbook of classic New York City foods. Curious about the anomaly, we picked it up and looked through the table of contents for the desserts. The usual suspects were present--rice pudding, crumb cake...and nesselrode pie.
We'd never heard of Nesselrode Pie.
According to the author, Arthur Schwartz, this pie is extinct, though it still lives on in the memories of older New Yorkers. And it seems so--as an excellent New York Times article by Bernard Gwertzman confirmed in 2004, "Like baked Alaska and Charlotte Russe, it seemed to have gone to the equivalent of food heaven." In fact, at the time of the article, the pie was only available at one New York City bakery--Teena's Cake Fair of Canarsie, Brooklyn.
So what is this Nesselrode pie? Going back to our guy Schwartz,
Nesselrode is named after one Count Nesselrode, as are a number of dishes that
are made with chestnuts or chestnut puree.
The pie...however, was popularized by Hortense Spier, who started her business not as a pie bakery but as a brownstone restaurant on 94th St. between Columbus Ave. and Central Park West. The restaurant closed before World War II and Mrs. Spier baked her specialty pies for other restaurants after that. Besides the nesselrode, there was a lemon meringue, a banana cream, and a coconut custard. By the mid 1950s, these were, indeed, the standard pies served in New York's seafood restaurants and steakhouses. When Mrs. Spierr died, her daughter, Ruth, and daughter-in-law, Mildred, continued the business.
Nesselrode pie is really a classic Bavarian cream -- in a pie shell, of course -- which is to say a custard base into which gelatin is blended for stability and egg whites are folded for added volume and lightness. The flavoring ought to be candied chestnuts and rum, but chestnuts haven't been a major part of the pie for a long time. The following recipe uses a product called Raffetto's "Nesselro" fruits, which does indeed contain a trace of chestnut, though the first ingredient listed is, of all things, cauliflower, which apparently has a similar texture to chestnuts when candied. The remaining ingredients are candied fruits. You can use a mix of candied fruit -- tutti
fruiti -- if you cannot find the Raffetto product.
For those who are intrigued, or just cauliflower enthusiasts, if interested in buying your own "Nesselro", it is manufactured and marketed by Romanoff International, Inc., the same people who market the caviar found in suparmarkets. It is distributed through Haddon House.
But really, we're just telling you this to explain why, at 6 a.m. this morning, our Head Spy Jessie emerged from the JFK terminal after a red-eye flight to head not to a hotel, not to a friend's home, but to Canarsie, Brooklyn, in search of the coveted Nesselrode Pie. After two train transfers, a bus ride, and a 1.5 mile walk with luggage in hand, she found herself on the stoop of Teena's Cake Fair, shortly after they opened for the day, eager to see this mythic baked good.
But like many epic tales, the story's ending was to be bittersweet. "We don't regularly carry that pie in the summer," the employee explained, "too hot. We usually just have it for the holidays". Of course, this makes sense. While yes, it's true, a request could have been put in ahead of time and saved our spy a trip, we really just wanted the satisfaction of seeing it in the bakery case; alas, that joy was not to be found this time. And so, our heroine Spy humbly ordered a black and white cookie, which at 7 a.m. was still warm and freshly frosted--and upon the first perfect bite (half chocolate, half vanilla frosting), reflected that maybe it's just as well that there was no Nesselrode pie--for isn't the journey half the fun?
Teena's Cake Fair is located at 1568 Ralph Ave., Canarsie, Brooklyn, (718) 763-9100; the closest Subway stop is the end of the line on the L Train. Nesselrode Pie is only available around the holidays.
For those interested in making a Nesselrode Pie, the recipe can be found at Arthur Schwartz's website, thefoodmaven.com; there is also a link to buy his book on the site!