The minute we extinguish our Jack-O-Lanterns and turn the clocks back, we are in the thick of Thanksgiving preparations, specifically pie. It doesn’t matter whether you align yourself to a double-crust apple, rich pecans suspended in buttery brown sugar, or vibrant pumpkin spiked with warm spices; pie takes center stage on Thanksgiving. But first, let us consider the last moments of October.
This will be an a-typical Halloween weekend for most of us, unless your tradition includes hunkering down at home, armed with a binge-worthy selection of Netflix and an over-sized bag (or two) of your favorite candy treats. I am ashamed to say that I didn't purchase a single Halloween sweet this go around, preferring to drown my 2020 disgruntlement in daily consumption of peanut butter cups, neon-colored DOTS and bagfuls of Cheesy Puffs. Bemoaning the fact that I totally missed Ocktoberfest-ivities, I opted to turn my attention to beer and pretzels. Pumpkin-stout soft pretzels with candied cider apples and a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream was a fine distraction from the fact that Halloween, like most events of 2020, have been put on hold. Maybe October 2021 will prompt a grin from a Jack-O-Lantern, but I can't swear to it. I can, however, vouch for the fact that on Sunday, there will be an extra hour of sleep and plenty of half-priced Halloween candy for the choosing. I am in no hurry to embrace November, but armed with a bag of Hershey miniatures and the last of the Reese's peanut butter cups, there's a glimmer of hope in the November distance.
WE GATHER TOGETHER, OR DO WE?
The world has yet to right itself; last week Canadian Thanksgiving came and went and I never received my Porter Airlines boarding pass. It felt like being uninvited to both Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport and New Jersey's Liberty Airport. The socially distant dinner hosted by my sister and attended by my Canadian peeps was not an option. Border crossings during a pandemic can be funny that way/not funny. The more I thought I about it, the more pie I consumed. I didn't discriminate; leftover pie, frozen leftover pie, fresh pie, collectively they made me feel better. Slightly buoyed by carbohydrates and pumpkin custard, I felt incrementally better until I glanced at the statistics flooding my inbox. The fact is domestic November festivities are also in a state of flux. Will we gather, should we gather, do we gather? Indoors? Outdoors? I wish I knew.
The day before yesterday, after closing the commercial freezer door on a leaning tower of pie shells and wandering towards my car, the NY Times Food Section posed a timely 2020 question in my newsfeed; “How Big a Bird Will Be Going Into the Oven?" https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/dining/thanksgiving-turkey-coronavirus.html
When I saw the words, ‘Big’ and ‘Bird’ used in the same sentence, for a brief instant, I thought perhaps this was a warm, fuzzy story about Muppets. Instead, it was a thought-provoking article exploring the plight of the turkey industry amidst an anything-but-normal Thanksgiving.
On a personal level, this Thanksgiving will be almost as unusual as last year. Unlike last year's surreal holiday without family, this year, we will expand our place settings from two to five. While maintaining a reasonable distance, we will circle a table that once accommodated upwards of a dozen guests. It is both sad and strange and undoubtedly, the turkey will be smaller than in years past. There will be no need for my over-sized roasting pan, the one I keep sequestered in a box on a metro shelving unit in the basement. An ordinary pan will do and there will be no brining and whining that the turkey is too heavy to maneuver from counter-top to oven. It will be a Goldilocks turkey, not too small and not too large, but just right with a little extra for leftovers.
The pie equation however, is dire. Not on the home front, but out in the retail bakery world. One of the great unknowns of this holiday is how much pie will be enough without being too much, and (perish the thought) without being too little. I have to believe that after many months of kitchen quarantine-ing, folks may very well have learned how to roll a pie shell, how to bake a pie. Maybe they watched a few hundred YouTube videos or actually signed up for a Master Class on Pie 101. Perhaps those on lockdown had time enough to peruse every single cookbook on their bookshelves and studied pate brisee, blind baking, and crumb crusts. It’s quite possible that during a seven or eight month time frame, you could binge watch every episode of MARTHA ever filmed, honing in on her pie tutorials.
The truth is we won’t really know what to expect until we (much like Wondra flour and gravy) are in the thick of it. Until I get a pulse on the state of pie and its holiday forecast, I’ll keep the butter cutter busy and the dough sheeter plugged in. My personal pie decisions will be made last minute; with Master/Master and Sweet Soprano on the other side of the border, it’s doubtful we’ll need an oversized Wild Nut Pie. The pumpkin selection will remain faithful to James Beard, but it’s the wild card pie, the one culled from a freezer stash of warm weather fruit that is uncharted territory. To be honest, the turkey is less stressful than all the pie shells swirling around in my subconscious and my reality.
It’s comforting to know that any unresolved questions can be fielded by the steady folks at the Butterball Turkey hotline and those in the know at the King Arthur Baking company. The sad truth is that the only certainty circling Thanksgiving is the uncertainty. Since I’m unable to travel to Canada and Canada can’t travel to me, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
October slipped through the kitchen door, arriving unannounced and without invitation. The Italian prune plums have exhausted themselves playing back-to-back performances in in Marian Burros’ plum torte. Now it’s simply a matter of weeks before Pie-mageddon sucks the life out of every retail driven baker.
As clear as a cello windowed 10” x 10” x 2”½” pie box, I know that lurking behind every sugar cookie ghost is an empty pie shell begging for attention. Spooky Halloween sprinkles do nothing to distract from the fact that October is followed in rapid succession by a series of weeks lost in a blur of flour, butter, sugar, and burn cream.
Recently, a weighty, corrugated box arrived at my doorstep. Nestled beneath a mountain of neon yellow paper shred, I unearthed an impressive collection of cast iron bakeware, courtesy of LODGE. As promised in the accompanying literature, this very well may be the last bakeware I ever have to purchase.
Setting aside the stately loaf-pan for a lazy Sunday in January, I turned my attention to the generous baker’s skillet. Lining the pan with whole wheat pie pastry, a mix of local apples and the very last of the fresh blueberries, a wide lattice sprawled across the behemoth pie.
Cast iron and I originally bonded over a mutual love for fried chicken, but cast iron is equally comfortable sharing the oven with baked goods. More importantly, one of cast iron’s best baking features is affording a perfectly baked bottom crust. I have enough to worry about without Mary Berry weighing in on the integrity of my pie crust.
My new bakeware pan yielded enough pie to feed a rather large gathering, if in fact, we were gathering. Since circling a table with a large group is more 2019 than 2020 (and fearfully 2021 as well) I will continue cutting sliver after sliver, making my way through the maple-y fruit, dotting the crust with whipped cream or ice cream or yogurt. I’m anxious to take my brand new cast iron loaf pan out for a spin, but that feels like a commitment better suited to a season sans pumpkins, turkeys, or gingerbread. Short term planning seems more prudent at this juncture, standing at the crossroads of Holiday 2020, facing chaos in all directions.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm