At long last, family. Traditions ebb and flow as dictated by circumstances. Our crew (and the generations of folks circling the table prior to 2021) always believed the devil was in the details. Very specific menu choices served on very particular dishes on a certain damask cloth capable of stretching across all of the leaves in the table. Yes, it was a dressy setting, but there was plenty of casualness amidst the formality. Splashes of indelible wine, mammoth spills from toppled water glasses, waxy candle drips, and giant trails of gravy. It was never Norman Rockwell-ian, more akin to the dinner scene in My Favorite Year. A little raucous, just enough eye rolling, with simultaneous conversations drowning out my father's commentary that "hot food should always be served hot." He wasn't wrong, but getting a large meal of multiple courses on the table amidst familial chaos is challenging for the cooks. (And that's probably why gravy was invented; drowning your formerly hot/now tepid meal in scalding pan drippings.) 2021 was significant for many of us who finally had the opportunity to sit down in person independent of a zoom screen. It was as effervescent as a glass of bubbles.
Unlike my grandmother's Thanksgiving dessert offerings which always featured three pies and a layer cake, we skipped the cake and one fruit pie. There was still plenty of overkill within the pies; all the nuts and more than a generous splash of cognac and a side of whipped cream. Yes, there were fewer leaves in the table but just as many spills on the tablecloth. Because, tradition.
As we inch closer to the last Thursday in November, sooo much heated conversation swirls around the dessert course (and the side dishes) that the holiday’s former star, Turkey, is seeking new representation.
Always a greatly anticipated guest at the Thanksgiving table, Pie has reached such an elevated status that there’s no place left to go but back to humble. Sure, drop-dead gorgeous pie art isn’t leaving any time soon, but as always, pastry repeats itself. Which means classic is perfectly okay, dare I say, cool again. That said, when you envision your Thanksgiving dessert it’s a really fine idea to keep it within your skill set; in other words, you dough you.
The minutiae of pie making begins with, obviously, the ingredients, but also with a timeline. With less than two weeks remaining, stock the pantry today. Ditto for pie dough in the freezer. I know there’s something dramatic about baking your pies on Thanksgiving morning while Underdog floats high above the Macy’s day parade. But it’s also a little nerve wracking and doesn’t leave much wiggle room for oven traffic or unlucky gravitational crises, or those pesky supply issues. Something along the lines of, “Hey!!! Weren’t there a dozen eggs?" or "I’m sure there was a lemon in here…" or the ever popular, "You put the heavy cream in your coffee??!!”
With your mise-en-place seriously hidden/camouflaged in the fridge and pantry, get a jump-start. Pie is forgiving but also stubborn, knowing when you’re stressed and rushed. To avoid squabbles with melty or rubber-bandy dough, embrace the cumulative process of pie making. Dough likes to lounge in the fridge before rolling, and rest again once rolled. These tasks are easily done in advance. With pie shells hunkered down in the freezer, check that off your list and congratulate yourself. As you inch closer to Thanksgiving, you now have the opportunity to partially bake or double blind-bake your pie shells a day or two before you fill them. I’m a big believer in the blind-bake simply because a nice crispy shell is always preferable to one that isn't. Trying to accomplish everything in a single morning is exhausting. Being less of a perfectionist doesn't mean Pie will suffer. And consider relaxing about the presentation and focus more on the tangible act of getting your hands involved in some dough. It's pretty meditative, if not restorative.
Pie attire can range from simple Pyrex to humdrum metal to chic ceramicware. Embrace the easy going crimp, the occasional pumpkin crevice; Casual Pie requires no apologies; it is perfect in its imperfection.
The kitchen magic required for a slightly warm and quivery pie is impractical; if that is important to you, you will need to frantically negotiate some oven time with Turkey, a notable oven hog. Any pie menu that includes a custard based choice, (I’m lookin’ at you, Pumpkin and Pecan), will need a slow oven. The simple truth behind the magic of a still warm pie simply means someone has to get up at half past dark o’clock to get things rolling. And because Pie is a little bit unstable when it exits the oven, it needs some time (translation: hours) to pull itself together before coming to the party. Regardless, the first slice(s) will be stubborn in the pie plate and not nearly as glamorous as you’d hoped, despite your painstakingly curated mid-century china.
Whether your go-to is the signature red-capped aerosol whipped topping, artisan ice cream, or a dollop of whipped cream seriously spiked with liquor (because, Relatives), channel your inner Ina/Martha/Julia/Maida. Get organized. Get going. In two short weeks from today you’ll be finishing the last slices of your pie efforts with some morning coffee. Or you should be.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm