One hundred gluten-free banana breads left the building on Wednesday followed in hot pursuit by who knows how many gluten-free cranberry orange breads. The dedicated kitchen team continued rolling, crimping, scooping and sconing, pausing only to empty and refill convection ovens that had been running continuously since Sunday.
Crowds waxed and waned in and out of the bakery on the day before Thanksgiving, waiting in one line for a latte, queuing up in another to pick-up pre-orders. They left clutching pie-normous brown kraft paper shopping bags. Some left empty handed only to circle back and haggle for a crazy hot pie just out of the oven. It was equal parts Pie-mageddon, a gluten-free-for-all, a sugar cookie odyssey iced in ganache and flourless chocolate cake. Madness. All rolled up in one day, tied securely with twine. I’ve been told the final pie count was 637.
At four o’clock on Wednesday, I left work carrying three pies in the aforementioned kraft paper bag. The pies belonged to Marty and Cynthia, neighbors residing in an assisted care facility within walking distance of my house. I offered to deliver the pies because in Marty’s case I’ve been doing so for years, and for Cynthia, she confided in me that her family had recently taken away her car keys. In the future, I suppose Master/Master and Blondilocks will have to take away my car keys. I just hope they never have to take away my rolling pin.
As I eat a slice of pie for breakfast on the morning after Thanksgiving, I’m reminded once more of the importance of being thankful. I desperately want to mention to all of the folks who were unhappy, short-tempered and downright unpleasant because they didn’t get a pie on Wednesday, that in the end it really isn’t about the pie on the table. It’s about paying attention to the people seated around the table at that very moment, and thinking about those who had once sat there reminding the children to keep their elbows off the table.
Although the mercury hovers around early fall, we are one week shy of this year’s festivities. In many ways, a bakery on the eve of Thanksgiving mirrors the launching of a full-fledged theatrical extravaganza. The one thing missing is a completed script. What we do have is a vague idea of the plot and how it unfolds:
Act I, Scene 1: Enter the pies, the scones, the coffee and the coffeecakes, the gluten free for all and the cookies.
Act I, Scene 2: Enter the maddening crowd.
Act I, Scene 3: Bake more.
As tricky as the retail component of the holiday may be, I’d be remiss to ignore the variations on family traditions, often as complex as the ingredients one might encounter in a gluten free/nut free/dairy free birthday cake.
In many homes across America, apple pie is an integral part of the Thanksgiving menu. Based on last year’s pie sales, Granny Smith and friends were invited to many family gatherings. Though most often seen sporting a double crust, some were teamed with cranberries beneath a cloak of oatmeal crumble. This year is no exception; I have more than enough bruises from tripping over apple crates and ten cranberry stained fingertips to prove it.
Apple pie didn’t make the cut in our family because it was something that made an appearance most Sunday evenings beginning in early September. By the time November rolled around, Jessie felt it was time to turn the page on apple. Pumpkin and pecan were reserved for Thanksgiving, perfect triangular slices leaning against scoops of rapidly melting vanilla ice cream. For those so inclined, Jessie also baked a towering layer cake, either classic yellow or devils food with swirls of dark chocolate frosting. There was always a tangle of sterling silver cutlery to contend with; pies were sliced with multiple offset servers and serrated long handled knives so as to avoid pumpkin-pecan comingling. The cake succumbed to an elaborate ‘cutter comb’ that lived in the bottom of the silver chest and was reserved for Thanksgiving. (The only other time I saw it used was for slicing the occasional angel food cake.) In keeping with tradition, the cake cutter comb now resides in the bottom of my silver chest where I glance at it from time to time.
Over the years, pumpkin broke out of its classic pie shell to take a spin in a springform pan as cheesecake, in a loaf pan as bread pudding and in a punch bowl as trifle. The most staggering take on Thanksgiving dessert to date is the Cherpumple, a somewhat terrifying combination of cherry, pumpkin and apple pie encased in spice, yellow and white cake layers. No doubt a knee-jerk reaction to the Turducken, both have blissfully enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame and moved on. Almost as troubling and already spotted in too many shopping carts is the latest offering from Trader Joes, Turkey Stuffing Seasoned Kettle Chips. I’ll take a pass.
Today, the interweb provides more Pinspiration than can possibly be incorporated into one meal, though many have tried. Forgive me if my schedule precludes hollowing out Comice pears and filling them with hand-cranked pomegranate sorbet. My Thanksgiving menu is unwavering, an homage to the turkey stuffers and turkey carvers, pie bakers and pie slicers that came before me. It is also a reflection of those seated around this year’s table.
As Al Roker snips the ribbon kicking off this year’s Macy’s Day Parade, there will be the creaking of wooden floors and the shuffle of slippers in a small house in New Jersey. Three of the most irritating words in the English language will echo through the kitchen; “What’s for breakfast?”
Barely looking up from what clearly resembles a crime scene, I will respond with equal parts fatigue and frustration, “BREAKFAST???!!!”
My housemates will inquire about breakfast with sincerity and well meaning. With miles to travel before dinner, the question is fair and a little something to eat is hardly criminal. I will continue stuffing, trussing, basting and hoisting the bird to a precarious yet well oiled rack. Wrestling the rack to a weighty roasting pan reserved for this one particular day, I will be cranky. My back will hurt, my neck too, and I’m sure there will be some of that involuntary eye rolling, head nodding thing I’m so wrongly accused of.
I love Thanksgiving. The real trick is getting there.
You may not be traveling over a river nor through a wood, but the odds of encountering a pumpkin pie when you reach your Thanksgiving destination are as likely as my continuing association with mountains of 9” aluminum pie plates.
How did pumpkin pie achieve its coveted place at the Thanksgiving dessert table? Did it always play the starring role following the tryptophan-riddled turkey? That depends on where you pulled up your chair. If you attended the original festivities held in 1621, it is doubtful that pumpkin pie was on the menu. Pilgrims and members of the Wampanoag tribe participated in a three-day festival where meals were most likely served out of doors. If pumpkin was part of the meal, it was neither served in pie form nor as a coffee beverage in a paper cup with an ill-fitting lid.
The pumpkin might have been boringly stewed or hollowed out and filled with spices, sweetened with honey and made creamy with a splash of milk. Regardless of the preparation, it was eons before the debut of game show television precluding the early settlers from winning an Amana oven in which to bake their pies. Coupled with the odds of Sears delivering the oven between the window of 1621 and 1670 was just like today, highly unlikely.
In 1685, Robert May’s cookbook, The Accomplisht Cook, featured a pumpkin pie riddled with spices, apples, currants and a generous splash of wine or juice from unripened grapes. Thank goodness Amelia Simmons arrived on the scene.
Amelia Simmons, presumed the first known American cookbook author, is credited with introducing a version of pumpkin pie in her 1796 cookbook, American Cookery by an American Orphan. Ms. Simmons’ pumpkin pudding baked in a crust most closely mirrors the version of pumpkin pie we bake today. It's quite possible that Amelia was also the one responsible for launching the infamous pumpkin spice ship when she teamed her 'pompkin' (a nod to the French word pom-pom) recipe with molasses, allspice and ginger.
Additionally, the Libby canning company introduced a line of canned pumpkin in 1929, eliminating the need for roasting and straining squash. To facilitate pie baking, in 1950, Libby’s began printing their classic pumpkin pie recipe on the labels of their canned purees. It was around the same time that spice king McCormick placed cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves under a single tin can roof. This one-stop spice mix quite possibly catapulted the runaway pumpkin spice train from the station. Pumpkin pie was now within easy reach, creating a standard recipe many bakers grew up with and still return to. A recipe as predictable as the Macy’s Day Parade in November.
For nearly twenty years, I sat in the kitchen on the last Thursday morning in November, half-watching Jessie prepare matzoh stuffing to fill an oversized turkey, half-watching Underdog fly over Herald Square. One can of Libby’s pumpkin and one can of Carnation evaporated milk waited patiently on the counter alongside a bag of pecans and a bottle of Dark Karo corn syrup. There was also a container of heavy cream waiting in the fridge that went into the pumpkin pie, although it was not written on the recipe. Always meaning to ask Jessie how much to add and when to add it, foolishly I never did. I assumed that Jessie would always be around to orchestrate Thanksgiving. That too was foolish.
Years later, woefully unprepared to accept the Thanksgiving mantle, I began thumbing through the cookbooks tucked into a cabinet high above my mother’s kitchen desk. James Beard’s The Fireside Cook Book and James Beard’s Menus For Entertaining were wedged alongside Jessie’s collection of well-worn books. A thin slip of paper with Jessie’s curliqued handwriting served as a bookmark on page 323 in Menus for Entertaining. It led me to James Beard’s menu for Thanksgiving dinner. Jessie’s notes were more shopping list than recipe, but like a good horoscope, I took it as a sign.
I studied the Thanksgiving menu, from hors d’oeuvres through dessert, then turned to The Fireside Cook Book for further investigation. In both instances, the pumpkin pie intrigued. Far from Jessie’s traditional recipe, evaporated milk took a backseat to heavy cream and Mr. Beard introduced ginger, cognac and mace to the mix. It is the pumpkin pie I have made every year since.
I know, I know. Jessie would have immediately dismissed the candied ginger and cognac, accused me of “fussin” with a recipe that was perfectly good the way it was. I can’t argue with that, but every now and again old traditions fade, new traditions are created. If you don’t believe me, just ask Underdog.
Expressions of gratitude penned in washable marker are scrawled across the bakery window heralding the arrival of the holiday season. The month of Pie-vember draws nigh and the hits keep coming. On Wednesday night, literal hits led the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series victory since 1908. For those of us who stayed up late to watch the exciting conclusion of the game, more sleep deprivation awaits. This coming Sunday at 2:00 am local time, clocks will be set back one hour allowing you to awaken at dark o’clock until early March. Before you touch that clock dial however, there’s another celebration worth noting.
If by chance it has been a few years since you sat in a Social Studies class, you should still remember, remember, the 5th of November. We would be remiss glossing over the anniversary of one of the earliest pie-rotechnic plots, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Commemorated in England as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night, Mr. Fawkes’ debacle in an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament is a very big deal across the pond. Although history paints Guy Fawkes as a bit of a hot head, he was one of a Baker’s dozen of conspirators involved in a plot to assassinate King James I and his ministers. The explosive expert in the group, Fawkes was left to ignite the explosives in the cellar beneath the House of Lords. Upon discovery by authorities, Fawkes was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Withstanding two days of torture before confessing, he was sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death- a hanging followed by being drawn and quartered. Ouch. Fortunately for Mr. Fawkes, he opted to jump from the gallows prior to the hanging and broke his neck. Sounds like a reason to celebrate, wouldn’t you say?
Bonfire Night celebrations feature elaborate fireworks, campfire cooking and plenty of sweets. Parkin is a cake traditionally eaten at winter festivals and particularly on Bonfire Night. Combining many elements of oat cake, gingerbread and sticky toffee pudding, there are numerous versions of the dessert. Depending upon your roots (Yorkshire or Lancashire) you may prefer a sticky, moist cake or a dense, spicy, oat cake. Originally known as a ‘good keeper,’ the flavors of parkin mellow over time. A cursory glance through Gaskell’s ‘Yorkshire Cookery Book’ features more than a dozen recipes for parkin. Sounds like ideal subject matter for The Great British Bake-Off.
In less than three weeks, my workplace will be in the throes of our own Bake-Off. As I’m rolling pie shells and mentally fumbling through baker’s math of epic proportions, I find myself imagining a parkin-inspired pie.
As a medicinal precaution, it seems sensible to add a generous splash of alcohol to whatever recipe I cobble together. Unable to secure traditional black treacle, I’m opting for dark molasses, a little bit of dark corn syrup and brown sugar. Oats, three kinds of ginger and walnuts will round out the ingredients. Though Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood would deem my hybrid pie the work of a traitor, I hope they can find it in their hearts to pardon my parkin.
As we jump off the scaffold into the holiday season, the Sonos playlist will undoubtedly offer classic 40s seasonal tunes. Personally feeling a little more Guy Fawkes than Guy Lombardo, I could very possibly be pushed to my limit, forcing me to quietly plot my own Thanksgiving week uprising. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be in the cellar.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm