Our team of butter-sugar-flour enablers have arrived at the other side of Thanksgiving, and not a minute too soon. The am crew overlapped with the pm crew, as days slid seamlessly into nights then back again into daybreak. Wedged elbow to elbow around a worktable covered in scales, mixing bowls, and flats of organic eggs, we crossed the checkerboard linoleum, from bench to walk-in to bench then oven, bruising our hips on every corner of unforgiving stainless steel.
Working eight consecutive days in a row makes you a little punchy in the end. Even the convection ovens feel it, taking their own sweet time when you’re tapping your kitchen clogs, or taunting with hotspots when you run downstairs to fetch more pumpkin. Ovens are like children, requiring constant babysitting. Straining to hear the oven timer over the din of the kitchen, it is imperative to stand at the ready, poised to rotate, adjust, and retrieve.
Every year there are lessons learned and this Thanksgiving was no different. A few new challenges reared their ugly heads requiring the following notes-to-self.
1. Pizza is truly the official food leading up to Thanksgiving.
2. Never underestimate the importance of commercial plastic wrap in a commercial kitchen. Minuscule rolls of Saran Wrap laugh in the face of holidays.
3. Hot ovens run too hot, slow ovens are too damn slow. Oven timers think it’s funny to turn themselves off. For this reason, it is imperative to stock your bakery medicine cabinet with plenty of analgesics and anti-inflammatories.
4. Oven racks like to glide into place some of the time. When least convenient, they will struggle, splashing hot buttermilk custard in your direction, specifically towards the exposed area where oven mitt ends and bare skin begins.
5. You cannot coax pumpkin pies to bake faster. They could care less about your stress level and will show their defiance with unsightly cracks.
6. Apple pies appear to be easy going but in fact, they are prima donnas who complain about their delicate complexions being exposed to the top rack of a convection oven.
7. Soft apples (I’m looking at you, Cortland) have their place, namely in applesauce. They should best stay home and decline any invitations to the apple pie party.
8. Canned pumpkin should have a lift-top tab opening. Canned pumpkin requires
a lift-top tab opening.
9. The oven mitt with the hole in it that you swore you threw away will return time and again. You will reach for it and wear it when removing the weightiest, hottest sheet pan from the top shelf of the oven.
10. People who don’t eat enough pie on a regular basis are cranky in general and more so when they are told they can’t have a pie because they didn’t order one.
11. People who eat lots of pie all the time are less cranky until they are told they can’t have a pie because they didn’t order one.
12. Pie seekers who forget to order their pie are sneaky, cajoling, and ultimately belligerent.
13. Pie scalping is really a thing amongst pie purchasers with one too many pies.
(This was confirmed by a highly reliable source; someone who witnessed the event outside the bakery.)
14. Pie bakers should absolutely squirrel away their preferred non-traditional fruit pie fixings in the freezer. They should bake that pie and eat the leftovers, if any, for breakfast on Black Friday.
15. We should seriously consider moving Thanksgiving from November to February 29th.
Let it be known throughout the kitchens of the land; November 15th has been designated “Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day.” Created by the home economists at Whirlpool Home Appliances in 1999, those savvy consumer educators knew what was lurking in the back of our single and double door refrigerators. They also knew that a week or so shy of Thanksgiving, we needed to don our Hazmat suits, fill our buckets with hot, soapy water and face our fridges. The time was ripe, so to speak, to tackle those nearly empty Kozlik’s Canadian mustard jars, to empty the unlabeled Tupperware in the rear of the left hand corner, to throw away the once-sprightly-now-decomposing herbs lurking in the crisper drawer.
In 1999, if you needed assistance, it was not uncommon to pick up the phone, dial a toll free number and speak with a customer service representative. Up to your elbows in your best yellow rubber gloves, you could cradle your Nokia or Motorola flip phone in one hand while attempting to realign the shelves and crisper drawers with the other.
Over the years, the folks on the receiving end of the toll free line have changed their tune. The hotline has been dismantled, and we’ve been instructed to consult the manuals and literature that accompanied our appliance when it was first delivered. When you’re attempting to put your refrigerator back together without breaking any of the integral parts of the unit, it seems somewhat impractical to remember where those manuals are squirreled away. The unwieldy glass shelves that were easy to remove and scrub down just moments before, now stubbornly refuse to line up within their designated brackets. The door of the refrigerator mostly closes, but doesn’t quite create the airtight seal we are hoping for. This could explain why the home economists at Whirlpool and the customer service representatives at 1-800-FIXMYFRIDGE no longer answer their phones.
On a recent foray into both my double-door refrigerator and below ‘see’ level freezer compartment, I encountered a few items that were frost-bitten and forgotten. Both the trash and the recycle bin welcomed these abandoned foodstuffs with open arms. Some things were salvageable, namely an unopened bag of macadamia nuts that had been frozen for safe-keeping, and a bottle of dark amber maple syrup that had been neglected behind three jars of nut butters. Without being judge-y, please understand that some days call for unsalted peanut butter, while others call for crunchy/salty peanut butter and for some, almond butter is the only way to fly. I’m eyeing the almond butter, hesitant about its shelf life. Since the almond butter couple has relocated to the land of Kozlik’s mustards (where they keep an impeccably tidy refrigerator), I debate whether to keep the almond butter or toss it. There’s enough in the jar for a sandwich or two, and the ‘use by’ date is only gently expired. I’ll keep it for now. Closing the door of the fridge it seals shut, almost.
I’m watching cubes of cold butter and pounds of all-purpose flour collide with the paddle attachment of the commercial Hobart mixer. Armed with a plastic pitcher of ice-cold water and a splash of gluten-inhibiting cider vinegar, I’m working on my umpteenth round of pie dough. It’s a little bit like a game of jump rope, when you’re waiting patiently for your opportunity to jump in without getting tangled up in the rope. I don’t want the water to get tangled up in the butter and flour until the mixture is the proper consistency; what folks in my line of work refer to as “coarse crumbs with the butter pieces being no larger than the size of a pea.” No one has clarified whether we’re looking for a split pea, or a very young, Le Sueur pea from Minnesota, or your run-of-the-mill frozen pea from the Trader Joe’s freezer case. I want the pie dough to be all of the right things; tender, flaky, and buttery but none of the wrong things; dry, tough, and elastic. There are three more rounds of cold butter and flour taking up space in the walk-in. Turning off the mixer, I pinch the stubborn butter bits, flattening them and sending them back into the brisée fray. Impatiently, I add water to the mix, stopping and starting the machine, tossing the floury butter bits with my fingers, trying a little more water but not too much. With the persistence of Goldilocks, I gather together the shaggy dough, declaring it ‘just right.’ There’s a clump of unmixed flour and butter at the very bottom of the bowl. Damn. Using a plastic bowl scraper, I empty the dough onto a parchment lined sheet pan and squoosh the wayward flour bits into the mix with a sprinkle of cold water. ‘Just right’ is highly over-rated when the elusive number you're hoping to capture is upwards of 700. You might say we’re just warming up.
The not-so-funny thing about commercial pie baking for Thanksgiving is the absurdity of the process. Just when you think you’re closing in on 700 plus pie shells for the day before the holiday, the cold harsh reality hits you over the head like the weightiest rolling pin. Before we congratulate ourselves for rolling and crimping hundreds of 9" shells, I remember; every single one of those pastry-lined pie shells has to be filled. My goals for the next two and a half weeks are humble yet critical. If I can limit my forearm oven burns to a minimum, if I remember to defer anything requiring math skills to a calculator, and if I'm strict about keeping a fully charged oven timer close at hand, I should be golden, just like a properly par-baked pie shell.
It’s a touch too balmy for the last day of October. The weather has been mercurial; chilly in the mornings, stretching into the low 70s later in the day. On Halloween at 5 pm, the thermometer hovers at 74 degrees. It’s been raining on and off, vacillating between substantial showers and the kind of drizzle that definitively makes it a bad hair day, even beneath a bandana.
There’s a parade winding through our little Village, starting at the top of the main street near the train station, zig-zagging past the movie theatre, the local supermarket, a variety of restaurants, finally ending a little past the bakery. Shop merchants are filling plastic pumpkins, tired pillowcases, and outstretched hands with Halloween candy. The children are equally represented by grown-ups, most sporting elaborate costumes. Even the family pets are outfitted as super heroes, skeletons, and ‘hot’ dogs. My costume is subtle- a pair of black and white checkered chef pants, a starched white button down shirt and a bandana emblazoned with kitchen paraphernalia. I carry one solitary prop; an empty wine bottle. Inspired by my vocation, I am a pie baker at five o’clock, somewhere.
Inching my way towards the car, a pair of high school-ers dressed in inflatable T-Rex costumes are taking up much of the sidewalk. Ducking and weaving, I scoot past, only to sideswipe a man on stilts. Yikes. Out of the fray, there’s a lone trick or treat-er dressed as a Lego. He’s wearing a multi-colored cardboard box on his head, and walking past him, I catch a whiff of craft glue and fresh paint. Alongside the Lego is his mother, her hands spattered with paint that matches the cardboard box. Little Lego and his mother wade into the ocean of costumes, the cardboard box bobbing along against a family decked out as Toy Story. Lego has a near miss with Buzz Lightyear and Woody, but steadies himself.
I’m driving with extreme caution, keeping an eye out for trick or treat-ers. There are plenty of distractions along the way. A few blocks from home, a front lawn overrun with an absurd number of Halloween inflatables is snarling traffic. The inflatables are oversized to a fault, better suited to a parade. Cars in front of me are slowing down to take in the inflatable show. I’m losing patience and turn left. There are plenty of sensible decorations on my street; toothy Jack-O-Lanterns grinning from front steps and strings of orange light outlining porches.
No sooner do I pull into my driveway than my ears begin to twitch. There is a high pitched wailing coming from the house across the street. My neighbors have fashioned a faux graveyard in their front yard, a tableau of appropriately frightening tombstones draped in cobwebs. It’s difficult to tell how the sound is unleashed but it is on a steady loop, a cross between a rusty hinge and an animal in distress. Its only speed is full throttle and the relentless lamentation is beginning to irritate me. The dwindling bag of Halloween candy in my kitchen still has a few worthy choices. I reach for a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Peeling back the gold foil wrapper, the milk chocolate is soft, a little melty, leaving streaks of chocolate on the wrapper and my fingers. The graveyard soundtrack continues interrupted only by my doorbell.
Wiping the chocolate from the corners of my mouth, I answer the door to a black cat and a pumpkin. I drop a few pieces of candy in their bags and watch them walk next door, leaves crunching beneath their feet. There’s not much in the way of trick or treat-ers on foot, maximizing their candy quota by dashing across front lawns and running from house to house. Instead, I’m witnessing a steady cavalcade of cars, stopping just before the intersection to unload a collection of candy seekers, leaving the driver in the car, eyes glued to a cellphone.
It is unlikely that my parents would have been the Uber to my trick or treating. Before my older brothers bowed out of the festivities, our Halloween celebration began with a party at school and trick or treating when we returned. Most years, I waited impatiently while my mother finished stitching the last details onto my costume, (this was before hot glue guns) grabbed a quick snack so I wouldn’t perish, and ventured out into the pre-dusk afternoon. We circled the neighborhood together, brothers and sisters with a few friends, never going inside anyone’s house, never eating anything that was homemade, and always being aware that apples had the potential to harbor foreign, dangerous objects. Our feet grew tired before we exhausted our itinerary. It was crystal clear that we would be home before dark; the only kids who ventured out at night were high schoolers, less likely to be gathering candy and according to my parents, more likely to be looking for trouble.
We spent the evening emptying our pillowcases and our plastic pumpkins onto the dining room table. Taking inventory of our haul, we discarded anything unwrapped, any stray candy corn that had found its way into the mix, and of course, any apples. We argued and traded, fighting over Pixie Stix, Sweet Tarts, jawbreakers that changed color, Bonomo Turkish Taffy, BB Bats, Double Bubble and Bazooka. Candy necklaces were highly coveted, Mary Janes, not so much. I have no recollection of being told how much or how little to consume, I only remember begrudgingly brushing our teeth as a preventative measure against loathsome cavities. The candy was popular for quite a while until all the good choices had been exhausted leaving us with a few tired Tootsie Rolls, the Mary Janes, the Bit-O-Honeys.
Around eight o’clock last night, the wailing from across the street finally ended, restoring peace to our little neighborhood. With the conclusion of Halloween, we are propelled into the thick of the holiday season. I count fewer than thirty days, less than a month to go before Piemageddon. More frightening than the oversized inflatables, the droning graveyard and a bag filled with loose candy corn, I shudder at the thought of it.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm