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