The count is in and the digits don’t lie; this year’s Piemaggedon culminated with a mass pie exodus totaling 713. Fare thee well apples, cranberries, pumpkin, pecans and sweet potatoes.
In the blur that is the final week leading up to Thanksgiving, the kitchen is in a constant state of loco-motion. You have to be the slightest bit crazy to cross the line from front of house past the convection ovens, baker’s bench, and groaning Hobart mixers. There is a logical progression to the madness, a systematic organization to the chaos. It is both physically and emotionally impossible to conquer Thanksgiving without a team. I am enormously grateful to be working elbow to elbow with a bandana clad crew uberly capable of dodging dangerously hot ovens and a maze of baker’s racks, while at the same time maintaining tempers below the boiling point.
On the home front, this was a bittersweet holiday, the very first without the patriarch of the family supervising and reminding us of the critical importance of food temperatures. He would have been thrilled to know that the hot foods were served appropriately hot and the cold foods perfectly chilled. It was also record breaking in the fact that we forgot to check the decaffeinated coffee supply. This resulted in a coffee-free pie course; I am happy to report we survived.
One of my favorite holiday moments occurs following a marathon of work hours on Wednesday afternoon. Leaving the bakery crazy behind, I stop before heading home to drop off a few pies to my pal Marty, who resides in an assisted living community. Marty likes to remind me to appreciate the little things because when you reach your eighties, life is a constantly changing landscape. His words ring true most days, but particularly on Thanksgiving. There were fewer chairs around the table this year, a sad commentary on the passage of time. In light of this, a 9” aluminum pie tin lined with a circle of dough and filled with fruit seems less significant. What is significant, is contributing to a holiday that brings folks and families together.
Christmas Carols are already tumbling out of the car radio. As you embark upon the holiday season, it seems only fitting to fortify yourself. I highly recommend a healthy triangle of post-Thanksgiving pie followed by a brief stroll. Follow this up with a substantial nap and December should be a breeze.
Oh, the things that go wrong when you so desperately want them to go right. This week in particular, despite strategic planning and our best intentions, the bakery cannot stop the onslaught that is Thanksgiving. Inanimate objects have a way of becoming problematic. Freezers balk, kitchen sinks swallow kitchen towels, crates of Granny Smith and Crispin apples aggressively elbow each other for prime floor space.
We are bumper car bakers on a collision course, bobbing and weaving, dodging hot sheet pans, crashing into pointy edged work tables. Thousands of beautifully decorated sugar cookies require wrangling into baskets and cello bags. Bundt pans riddled with nutty coffeecake vie for space next to loaf pans proclaiming their gluten-freeness. The cold butter is too soft, the soft butter is too cold. Freezers have reached flux capacitor while the walk-in refrigerator is a dangerous obstacle course fraught with cases of eggs, dairy, and that damn cold brew coffee. Stepping into the walk-in used to provide a momentary safe haven; now it can make a baker cry.
In the final countdown towards Thursday, there is a sense of the surreal. Numbers take on a strange meaning; dozens and hundreds and thousands start to feel one and the same. It is best to look at the spreadsheet of orders and then look away, shielding your eyes from what seems comically absurd. At the same time, I am bombarded by a daily newsfeed of helpful hints that promise to make my holiday both flawless and fabulous. Holiday emails promise to hold my hand as we walk the maple-leaf strewn trail towards the perfect Thanksgiving dinner table. I want to scream.
Online food platforms tell me not to worry, that this is going to be my best Thanksgiving ever. Apparently, counselors are standing at the ready to assist me in my time of feed. All of my turkey queries can be handled by the knowledgeable folks at the Butterball Hotline. Pie questions will be fielded by folks at Crisco, King Arthur, and of course, the unflappable Martha. There are lists of Thanksgiving don’ts, shouldn’ts, and mustn’ts. Thank goodness I have a team of experts looking out for me.
I cannot vouch for being a Butterball expert, but the fact that my turkey has been ordered means that I am well on my way to hosting the holiday. I will admit to having tucked pie shells in my freezer and assembled the fixings for Drew’s Wild Nut pie and an out of season rhubarb/cherry. If my dinner consists of nothing more than those offerings, next Thursday is looking pretty good.
From a pie perspective, if you are tasked with baking one, or two, or more for friends and/or relations, here are a few thoughts to help you navigate the butter/flour/fruit (or pumpkin) highway.
Sad pie is usually the result of trying to do too much (Ten Drop-dead Gorgeous Pies You Must Bake This Thanksgiving) or waiting until the last minute to make the pie dough, or skimping on good ingredients. Good pie takes time, so give it the respect it deserves.
There is truth to the adage of cold butter, cold water, cool hands. Add to that a cool temper and a generous splash of good humor. If you plan your pie in stages, the outcome is usually better than slap-dashing it together between brining the turkey, cursing the gravy and rummaging through the refrigerator desperately seeking the kale salad.
Make your pie dough NOW. Let it rest in the fridge and then roll it out and ease it into your favorite pie plate. Cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest again before blind baking (a non-negotiable if you are making a custard filling; that means you, pumpkin and pecan) or let it continue to chill while you prep your fruit. Take the time to preheat your oven so it’s good and hot, so the crust has an opportunity to hit the heat and settle in for the ride. It’s wishful thinking and impractical to throw your pie in there alongside the bird and hope for the best.
Show your pie a little love; keep an eye on things and gradually adjust the heat downwards if need be, rotating the baking sheet that holds the pie, so it bakes evenly. In every commercial oven I’ve ever met, there has always been a hotspot, one corner that just loves to bake faster than the rest of the oven. This is generally the case at home, as well. You should accept the fact that the edges of your pie feel the heat first, necessitating strips of aluminum foil to protect their delicate features. This is especially critical if you have fallen prey to the aforementioned, Ten Drop-dead Gorgeous Pies and you’re attempting one of those.
If you are baking the pumpkin or pecan or a buttermilk pie, remember they are members of the custard family and require gentle heat. Don’t come crying if you take your pie out of the oven with minutes to spare before serving and wonder why it’s a puddle on your plate. Give the pie some time to pull itself together. Consider being an overachiever and bake the pies ahead of time. You can certainly bake them on Tuesday or Wednesday for Thursday; let them cool, cover and refrigerate the custard varieties, let the fruit pies cool and keep them safely covered and sequestered on the kitchen counter. Will the bottom crusts be as crispy as a pie you bake Thursday morning? Incrementally less so, but the trade-off in calm is well worth it. Also, pies that have had a chance to settle down after baking are infinitely easier to cut than those that have just come out of the oven. Serving dessert should not include wrestling with a pie server while your guests teeter on the brink of a tryptophan induced food coma.
We need to remember to find the humor as we divvy up triangular slices of generosity. Focus on what goes right instead of what goes wrong. This is pie, not world peace. The lovely thing about pie is that if you don’t achieve your perceived version of success this go around, there’s always another round of pie dough and filling waiting in the wings.
On a personal note, I would be remiss in not sending a Thanksgiving shout-out to a Broadway company that seems to embody all that is good and riotously funny; the folks responsible for making audiences laugh until they cry. The Play That Goes Wrong at the Lyceum Theatre is strictly ensemble driven, which is essentially the way a well-orchestrated bakery kitchen should work. Actors in the confines of a stage, bakers in the confines of a kitchen, taking their cues from each other, hoping to spread a little laughter, a little joy, and in our case, enormous quantities of butter and sugar. Thanks for letting me stop by, Heidi Giovine and company in order to jump-start your Thanksgiving. Moreso than March 14th, this Thursday is my pie day.
I wish you plenty of happy with ample leftovers to share.
You say butter, your grandmother says shortening. You say thoughtfully sourced from an open field and the elderly woman on the check-out line behind you says Libby. If you happen to be shopping in a New England supermarket, the pie filling you will place in your cart is from One-Pie.
On a visit to Great Barrington, Massachusetts last summer, I found myself staring at a wall of One-Pie products in aisle 12 of the local Big Y supermarket. While dear friend Abbie gathered sensible groceries, I juggled several cans of both the pumpkin and the squash varieties. You can’t help but fall in love with the vintage pie slice image and comfortable type-face dancing across the 15 oz. cans. Dubbed the unofficial brand of New England, the squash and pumpkin fillings are responsible for creating generations of pie memories rich with molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger.
In the early 19th and 20th centuries, Maine was home to well over 100 canneries. Canners realized the importance of label-recognition and sought to tempt consumers with vivid images. One-Pie clearly found their niche, creating distinctive artwork that has remained virtually unchanged for more than 50 years. The fine print tells us that One-Pie hails from West Paris, Maine though digging a bit deeper, it appears the product is actually manufactured in Illinois. A victim of competition from other parts of the country, Maine’s canning industry diminished substantially over time. The food memories associated with One-Pie’s squash and pumpkin fillings however, are much more resilient.
Thanksgiving pie bakers are passionate folks. We love to discuss and analyze the perfectly flaky crust and the virtues of the blind-bake. We are as divisive about canned vs. fresh as we are about pumpkin vs. squash. And don’t get us started on Pyrex, French ceramic bakeware with dimpled edges, and vintage tin. We are an opinionated bunch to be sure, and more than happy to offer our thoughts to anyone within earshot.
The Marthas of the world may fill your iphone screen with images of fresh-from-the-field gourds. You will hear the virtues of roasting your own pumpkin or squash, gently scooping out the seeds (which you will save and roast for garnish) and the ease of removing any fibrous stragglers. Your food processor will make pureeing a snap! What’s missing in your kitchen is a staff of interns designated to make quick work of the roasting pans, blade attachments, and jagged bowl scrapers that now fill your sink. Said interns are also critical when disinfecting and bandaging any gourd slicing wounds you may sustain. Sadly, most of our kitchens are not staffed with interns.
I’ve had a few fresh pumpkin disasters; flesh that is terribly water-logged, fibers as cumbersome and unwelcome as a can of Silly String. If I had to choose my favorite squash, butternut would win for ease and flavor. For consistency of product and little fuss however, there’s no shame embracing the 15 oz. can.
The fact is Thanksgiving pies are inextricably velcroed to our memories. Some folks consume one slice of pumpkin pie per year, never thinking about it from one November to the next. Others dream of a steady dessert diet, rich in pumpkin pie cloaked in whipped cream. You can swear by the Libby’s on the label or the butternut squash you tote home from your organic farmer. The beauty of pie is that you begin with a blank canvas and fill it any which way you choose. If you are lucky enough to choose a can of One-Pie filling, it is most definitely worthy of your pie plate. Based on label looks alone, the filling from West Paris, Maine wins, oven mitts down. Thanks, Abbie for introducing me to the Big Y. If I survive Pievember, I'll see you next summer.
The next time you burn your lip sipping your nutmeg and cinnamon spiced latte, take a moment and consider this; pumpkin spice has sadly become our seasonal global warming, surround-sounding our senses. If you are a professional baker during the month of November, the assault of cinnamon and nutmeg wrestling with allspice and clove is a very real work hazard. It is something we should pay attention to because pumpkin spice was originally created to spark holiday joy (and boost Starbucks' flavored coffee sales.) From where I now stand, it only sparks dread.
I would never be one to criticize or point a finger as you scroll through an instagram feed of accelerated pie shell rolling, or bubbling fruit pies. But I do see you smile in a dream-like state, thinking of the pies you’ll be making this month. Just remember; not everyone will have the time to lovingly craft a gluten-free/dairy free/open-faced/free-form/mostly-vegan pie in celebration of Friendsgiving. Some of us won’t have time to create a traditional-yet-overfilled pie for Thanksgiving, busting with heirloom apples gathered from a small, sustainable farm in upstate NY. I can attest for a few hard working bakers who will arrive at their Thanksgiving tables half asleep, praying their head doesn’t bob too closely to the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce staring back at them. The grim reality is that professional bakers don’t wear rickrack trimmed bib aprons from Anthropologie nor pristine oven mitts scrawled with “Good Things Come To Those Who Bake.” Professional bakers battle with a stack of linen-service aprons that make us itch, prying one free in the hopes of starting the day relatively clean. We end our day wearing a Jackson Pollock-esque abstraction of chocolate, pumpkin, cranberry, and butter. For some of us, the 23rd of November means war.
Pie-mageddon is a strategically planned mission requiring a cool temper and a cooler pair of hands. Between now and Thanksgiving, in bakeries humble and ginormous, pie bakers will be swimming against a tide of orange and apple-red, cases of eggs and pounds of butter. Inching our way, pie shell by pie shell towards the biggest triangular dessert holiday of the year requires an adjustment in attitude. Might I suggest a little coffee and cake, or more specifically, a little kaffee und kuchen?
During times of stress, we can take a lesson from Austria’s Kaffeekultur. Not only does a frothy coffee known as a mélange serve as a cup of calm, you will find nary a whisper of pumpkin spice in the room. The room is NYC’s Café Sabarsky, a haven of quiet and kuchen, tucked within the Neue Gallerie where Fifth Avenue meets East 86th Street. On a recent much-needed visit, thoughts of Pie-vember’s blitzkrieg faded away the minute I slid into a curlique-backed wooden chair. Pleasantly missing was a shout-out from a barista behind a wall of eco-friendly paper cups, summoning me to retrieve my beverage. Instead, a coffee framed in foam and a glass of still water arrived quietly, set down by a polite, soft-spoken waiter. Tucking a fork into a tri-decker mohn-torte of poppyseeds, cream, and scarlet berries provided an instant oasis of tranquility and denial. Thanksgiving? What Thanksgiving?
As we approach the turning back of clocks and move full speed ahead into the holiday season, I prefer to sequester myself away from the madness. That means deleting the lists of “must haves” and “must dos” from my inbox. Pumpkin Snickerdoodles may very well be a party in your post-Halloween fanged mouth, but not in mine. I’m not interested in waking up this Sunday, the single sleep-in-late holiday of the year, to a French toast casserole spiked with leftover candy corn.
We can all do our part to stop the pumpkin spice madness. It is possible to find an unspiced, unadulterated haven. You owe it to yourself to take a vacation from cinnamon and nutmeg and anything marbled with screaming orange. Save the spices for the baked goods, and even then, use a gentle hand. Here’s something else to consider; in some parts of the world, such as southern Austria’s breathtaking picture-postcard known as Styria, not everyone flocks to pumpkin spice like lemmings. Pumpkin seed oil is the hot-diggity, an oil the color of sage, distinctive and intensely nutty. Pumpkin seed oil is made from roasted, hulled, pumpkin seeds and it is not something one heats because that makes it bitter. It is well suited to vinaigrettes, or splashed over vegetables, and its nuttiness makes it a perfect accent to morning yogurt. But the breakfast connection stops there, which is why you won’t find anyone dispensing pumpkin seed oil into the bottom of a grande insulated coffee cup. You will find however, pumpkin seed oil drizzled atop vanilla ice cream, something I can attest to and applaud, thanks to the kindness of Sweet Soprano and Master/Master. History tells us pumpkin seed oil was initially used for medicinal purposes. Seems to me if ever a month necessitated an elixir boasting healing powers, this would be the month to keep a bottle handy.
At last count, only 225 aluminum pie plates have been outfitted with pate brisee and stacked shoulder to shoulder in the bakery’s freezer. We have barely dipped our toes into the raging pie waters. I have money on my Metro card and an extra NJ Transit ticket tucked inside my wallet. I know how to get to Café Sabarsky. In a pinch, a bottle of pumpkin seed oil stands at the ready in my fridge and a container of vanilla ice cream waits in the freezer. November? You don't scare me.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm