For bakers, Thanksgiving is so close you can actually touch it. With every pie shell rolled, every little (or large) oven burn, Thanksgiving feels quite tangible. Even if you aren''t trapped in the sugar trenches, there's an over abundance of holiday inspiration easily within reach.
In case you haven't heard, this could be your BEST last-Thursday-In-November yet. Inundated with articles and click bait taunting with the BEST recipe and methodology to achieve holiday superstardom is making me slightly nauseous. No offense intended in the way you might approach the meal, but I'm planning on roasting the turkey as usual. It's quite possible my stuffing isn't your idea of the BEST STUFFING EVER but we look forward to our tangle of matzoh, caramelized onions and fresh herbs doused in homemade turkey gravy. Best is such an over-used word. My best doesn't have to align with your notion of best. Wouldn't the words, "Our Favorite" be a better choice than "The Best" when penning those boastful headlines and directives? Because my favorite doesn't have to be your favorite and honestly, it doesn't have to be the preeminent in its category.
Thoughtfully prepared food enjoyed in the company of some of your favorite people should be more than enough to feed your soul. So no apologies here but I won't be spatchcocking, confit-ing or cane syrup-ing. I've given up the turkey-in-a-bath-of-brine and I will always return to James Beard for pie inspiration. Not because my way is the best way, but because it's our favorite.
What isn't a favorite and certainly not the best way to get Thanksgiving dinner on the table is learning that your oven has a safety lock. (Said lock activates when the oven has been on for too many consecutive hours.) In that case, it's always best to keep the oven manual within reach. One of this week's big surprises was finding a glut of Meyer lemons at the market. A far cry from the flavors of the season, the lemons made sacrificing a highly coveted pie shell from the freezer an easy decision. Best of luck as you navigate the days leading up to your very, very outstanding holiday.
Give thanks for pie crust that's a snap to put together and gives your rolling pin a pause. Mini pretzels, pecans (or walnuts), a bit of brown sugar and melted butter do the heavy lifting in this press-in crust. All the worries associated with making the perfect pie crust don't apply here. Ideally you want to align this shell with a stove top filling; my choice is butterscotch but dark chocolate is also a top contender.
I realize not everyone feels dessert is an integral conclusion to their nightly meal, but some of us do. And for the lead up to the big pie day, you might not want to be fussing with any more pie shells than are strictly necessary. This one does appreciate 8-10 minutes in the oven at 325 degrees to hold itself together although in a pinch, you can simply freeze it solid before filling. And the oven time affords you a brief opportunity to tidy up/clean out your fridge because you know refrigerator real estate (and freezer, too, for that matter) is of critical importance in the next two weeks. Don't say I didn't warn you.
In less than three weeks, Thursday the 24th of November will plunk itself down smack in the middle of your kitchen, ready or not. In my house, Thanksgiving morning commences with a ribbon cutting facilitated by Al Roker wielding a giant pair of scissors against a backdrop of West 77th Street and Central Park West. Broadway show tunes, the high flying antics of Underdog and Snoopy, plus a flotilla of floats (serving as mobile stages for pop/rock singers I’ve never heard of) fill three jam packed hours of the MACY's Thanksgiving Parade. In that small window of time, the morning feels endless. Once the National Dog Show takes over the tv screen, the clock is really ticking and getting Thanksgiving dinner on the table feels more like a sprint than a leisurely jog. For this particular race, fuel is essential, meaning a little something to accompany those multiple cups of coffee is an integral part of the operation.
Whether you are the ringmaster of the Thanksgiving circus or simply a guest trying desperately to stay out of the way, a no-fuss breakfast option is key. My Thanksgiving prep features more than a freezer full of pie shells. The inventory includes too many bags of cranberries, (some of them with a tear in the corner, allowing renegades to bounce around like runaway skittles), several containers of once fresh rhubarb, plus the fixings for turkey gravy. Additionally, I squirrel away a no-fuss breakfast option, one that asks little of me other than taking the time to prepare it in advance. No yeast-driven dough, no rolling required and not much needed in the way of embellishment. Even if you are not up to your elbows in giblets and gravy but instead, over-the-river-ing to someone’s house, it’s a really nice gift-able item.
For many years, my Sunday mornings were tethered to restaurants which meant dizzying numbers of quick breads, mini muffins and scones. Being responsible for the first course of many bleary-eyed, mimosa-sipping Philadelphians wasn’t exactly relaxing. Assembling two humble loaves in your home kitchen with your favorite tunes playing on repeat, however, is pretty delightful. While the holiday lends itself to some classic flavors, I tend to align myself with three steadfast loaves. A classic option is plump with cranberries, toasted walnuts and plenty of orange. My other two favorites showcase pumpkin; one swirled with dark chocolate and candied ginger, (a slightly assertive wake up call), while another is studded with apples and spiked with cider. I am happy to nibble away at any/all of the above, stopping only to brew a second round of coffee in the empty Chemex. With no offense intended, the one loaf that isn't invited to my November breakfast is zucchini. Let’s just leave zucchini where it belongs, in August. And if the stars align correctly, three weeks from today, your breakfast will consist of multiple slivers of leftover pie.
Regardless of whether your butter leanings align with sweet cream, cultured or European style, we are in the midst of a butter crisis. Butter's high price tag plus its elusive showing in grocer's dairy aisles is a multi-faceted issue, driven by both supply and labor shortages, not to mention the increasing costs of feeding and maintaining cows. If you feel inconvenienced, just imagine how dire this is for farmers, retailers and anyone tethered to butter for their livelihood. With the fragrance of pumpkin spice hovering in the air, it is just a matter of weeks before you'll be counting on Butter to star in your holiday bakes only to find she's not there. Where is she, you ask? Apparently, the new "It" Girl of the holiday entertainment season is a current trend known as the Butter Board. From what I have seen, and if offered a free monthly pass, I still wouldn't board the Butter Board Train.
I own two wooden cutting boards; a rectangular version made by Dansk, relegated to serving/slicing the occasional beef brisket, petit filet or London Broil. In close proximity resides a square wooden checkerboard of cherry and pine, just large enough to accommodate my preferred cheese offerings, a cello-sleeve’s worth of crackers and a few grape clusters. (Charcuterie boards, though tempting, are not the sort of thing I assemble on a regular basis.) The Dansk rectangular surface is certainly spacious enough to accommodate a party’s worth of thinly sliced meats and pinwheels of cheese, even a casual arrangement of olives, figs and nuts. But rest assured, the board with its wide lip for catching au jus stays in its meat lane. And I only invite the cheese board to wine and cheese gatherings. I am bewildered to learn that circling a board slathered in butter is a form of hospitality.
Is our fear of missing out so disproportionate to reality that schmearing excesses of butter across a board is now considered a craft? I thought making poms-poms out of wool was a craft. Paint by number, also a craft. Ditto weaving a potholder, cutting up magazines to create Modge Podge collages. But please, do not fill your shopping cart with pounds of butter for the sole purpose of butter boarding it. I might add that the reason butter dishes and butter bells were invented was to protect butter from pesky flies, wayward sneezes, and to keep it fresh before the advent of refrigeration. I’m flummoxed by the idea because I don’t like everyone hovering around some perfectly good butter that is, in my opinion, better suited to a pie crust or a scone or melting atop a mountain of popcorn.
If you are considering hopping on the Butter Board Express, do so with the understanding that the cost of butter is inching steadily skyward. In September of this year, butter was $4.70 per pound compared with $3.67 in January of the same year; stats provided by the Consumer Price Index Report. According to the US Dept of Agriculture (a serious group who keeps track of butter particulars), our cold storage “strategic butter reserves” are on the downward spiral. All of this means bakers in professional kitchens and at home will have some tough decisions to make in the next few months. Seems to me an easy decision is letting the Butter Board Express roll in and out of the station without taking any passengers and retiring it alongside Perfection Salad.
On the red carpet of Rosh Hashana desserts, honey cake has a far smaller fan base than some of its glittering apple counterparts. Yet honey cakes are iconic, tethered to the High Holidays as a symbol of hope for a sweet New Year and a nod to Israel, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Book of Exodus 3:8) The Jewish New Year is a time of introspection and celebration, and an opportunity to reflect on the previous year and consider the one forthcoming. It’s why Jewish bakers also gravitate towards circular baked goods for this season, symbolizing life’s continuous cycle.Honey-laced cakes have long been embraced by cultures around the world. As far back as the 12th century, Italian bakers were known for a dense and honey-sweetened semolina cake; in the 13th and 14th centuries, heavily spiced and honeyed gingerbread, studded with nuts and dried and candied fruit, was prevalent throughout Europe. Eventually, the Ashkenazi Jews in Central Europe embraced their own version, which they enjoyed alongside strong coffee or tea.
Honey cake—also known as “lekach” a Yiddush word derived from the German lecken, meaning “lick” and perhaps the Aramaic lĕkhakh, meaning to “mix in thoroughly”—is often maligned. Much like fruitcake, an overpowering spice profile and stodgy texture are at the heart of the dish’s bad reputation. Even honey cake devotees admit that the dessert is more often about family tradition than flavor, tethering us to generations that once circled the holiday table. In revisiting the tradition, I turned to a cake culled from Bayswater, Queens circa 1950, when recipe swapping was popular within the Temple Sisterhood and the American Jewish volunteer women’s organization, Hadassah. My grandmother, Minnie, was a dedicated member of both.
Minnie’s Rosh Hashana cake is a happy marriage between golden honey cake and rich chocolate cake. It is, as my grandmother would say, “a good keeper,” in part due to the high concentration of honey, which works as a preservative. Her recipe also includes a generous splash of Coca-Cola which, having been deemed kosher in 1936, has found its way into many subsequent Jewish recipes. Because we were a family of Dr. Brown’s cream soda fans, I’ve swapped that in (it’s also kosher) for the original cola. And though Minnie’s version was unglazed, I’ve also added a slick of dark chocolate-honey icing, which I find elevates this humble cake to superstar status.
Plums, apples and the last of the strawberries were strutting their stuff at the farmers' market last weekend. The prime real estate, however, went to the prune plums and the strawberries who boasted their very own gingham draped tables and the highest price tags at $10/quart. Bypassing the berries and prune plums, I opted instead for a combo of red and purple heart shaped fruit. The beauty of plums in pie (besides their sweet/tart flavor) is that they require zero peeling and their pits are pretty easy going; more of a quick pluck with your thumb as opposed to the surgical procedure required by certain stone fruits. While waiting to pay, my peripheral vision focused on a father/whining son combo alongside me, casually munching on plums they had not so nonchalantly taken from the wicker display basket. They munched and chatted and whined, waiting to purchase a handful of apples. I wanted to turn around and inquire if the plums were "free with purchase" but it was suggested by my co-marketeer it would be best to avoid a plum ruckus. Gathering up my 4 pounds of treasures, the father/son were next to pay. The farmer behind the register asked, "Anything else?" The father was busy telling the child (who had mostly finished the plum) they would find a trash can "in a minute!" (whining in this case, was clearly genetic) to throw away the remaining uneaten plum. "No, just the apples..."
Stepping away I silently wished for the plum thief and his child a gaping hole in the bottom of their bag of Honeycrisps.
My mother, Rommy, had a concise repertoire of hors d'oeuvres that she served with some frequency. Regardless of the size of the gathering, a fine selection of Planter's roasted mixed nuts was considered merely a token snack served alongside cocktails. A stickler for presentation, the medley of peanuts, almonds, brazil nuts and far too few cashews were transferred from their blue tin to one of my mother's signature fish-shaped dishes. The gray pescatarian enamel ware was oven-safe and was originally used by my grandmother, Dorothy, for seafood, the sort of first course appetizer with a buttery crumb topping that was quickly browned in the oven. The fish dishes were Rommy's go-to for any nut and/or dried fruit combination. Crafted in Copenhagen, their tails made them slightly fragile and so they were kept securely behind the glass doors of the mahogany breakfront. On the same shelf as the fish rested an assortment of serving pieces for pre-dinner offerings. An over-sized white platter was called on quite often because it served double duty. A small bowl affixed to the center made the dish suitable for shrimp cocktail (the cocktail sauce nestled in the bowl), and equally agreeable for pigs in the blanket, accompanied by hot mustard. The term "chip and dip" hadn't yet been introduced into our vernacular but I suppose that's what you would call that type of dish today. My mother also had a matching set of sage green earthenware with lids, I'm guessing they were about pint sized, retained heat well and were used for hot dips. One was reserved for the neon orange Wispride and crabmeat combo, the other for artichoke hearts blended with parmesan, lemon juice and mayonnaise. Hors d'oeuvres, quite frankly, teetered on excess, practically a meal in themselves. Imposing blocks and triangles of cheese, artistically arranged on a Dansk board with a matching wood-handled server was an integral part of Rommy's before dinner spread, but nothing was as special as the caponata. A medley of eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and olives, the chunky spread was served cold, alongside Sociables, an assortment of savory crackers. We were keen on the various shapes of the crackers, emphasized on the box as, "Perfect for Entertaining!"
My mother's penchant for caponata was primarily because it was generous with the olives, both green and black. There were plenty of recipes for the Sicilian dish, but my mother's version combined a little from James Beard, a little from WOR radio, and a number of newspaper clippings. It was also pretty tasty served with Ritz crackers, the salty eggplant/olive-y spread nicely balanced by the slightly sweet, buttery cracker. Ritz, however, was not nearly as much fun visually as the Sociables, and were in all honesty, not the first pick on the cracker team. Which meant that the following day, when the Sociables had been exhausted, my mother and I would content ourselves with Ritz, standing in the kitchen, lavishly spreading leftover caponata on cracker rounds, commenting on how the caponata always tasted even better the next day. With the hors d'oeuvres dishes safely returned to the breakfront, without the clink of ice cubes in cocktail glasses, eating caponata on crackers alongside the hostess with the mostest always made me feel like the party hadn't quite ended.
Montreal's iconic Atwater Market has been in operation since 1933. The four season market is housed in an Art Deco style building a stone's throw from the Lachine Canal. Before wandering the stalls, it's probably a good idea to don your favorite stretchy pants. The care in which vendors display their goods is quite staggering. And unlike our typical farmers' market mauling, Canadians are pretty respectful of the produce. Making thoughtful selections with far less touching is the norm, not the exception; something we could take a lesson from.
Inspired by the splendid selection of stone fruit and berries, I returned to my kitchen and assembled a raspberry-nectarine pie with a toasted almond crumble. As summer draws to a close, tree ripened stone fruit and garnet berries are on their way out. Nearly any combination of fruit will yield winning results as long as you allow the fruit to do its job and don't over-sweeten things. Live a vicarious Canadian life and consider sweetening the fruit with just a touch of good quality maple syrup. Counter the incessant back-to-school sales swirling around you with a slice of warm, end-of-summer fruit pie and pretend you're on vacation.
Popovers are some of the most dramatic dinner 'rolls' to grace a table. We were lucky to enjoy them fairly often as kids. Other than admonishing my siblings not to jump and make a ruckus when popovers were in the oven, Jessie baked them fairly often, and with little fanfare. I was an integral part of the process, meticulously buttering the Pyrex cups, making sure no one opened the oven door mid-bake to take a peek. Jessie had heat-resistant fingers, enabling her to gingerly transfer the crisp/custardy bakes from oven to napkin-lined basket without flinching. We devoured them with plenty of butter because fat and cholesterol didn't concern us in the least until much later. Reliant upon few ingredients but dependent upon well greased pans, high oven heat to start (followed by lower heat), and most importantly, no peeking, my take was that popovers were magical. I don't own a popover-specific pan, opting instead for the simplest of ovenware, the same individual Pyrex custard cups Jessie used for decades. Room temp ingredients and a very ready 450 degree F oven encourage success; ditto well-buttered bakeware.
Opening the oven door mid-bake will surely cause the high climbers to topple and the baker to weep. The addition of sweet corn, summery herbs and a serious hit of freshly ground pepper yield popovers well suited to mid-summer suppers. A classic popover recipe is plenty riff-able and easy to mix by hand using a whisk. Following the rules will deliver a basket of airy popovers that much like summer, are ephemeral and should be enjoyed post haste.
There's a long, snaking line at the farmers' market. Waiting amidst the melting shoppers, I'm juggling too many ripe tomatoes, feeling like a last minute Cirque du Soleil understudy forced to go on. Twisting, shifting tomatoes from right to left, (yet fearful of losing my place in line), I gingerly tuck one tomato in the crook of my neck and embrace the remaining heirlooms, cautiously hugging them against my white t-shirt. In short, I should have snagged a basket. The woman next to me is pawing through a collection of garlic scapes, turning them over and over, asking no one in particular, "What should I do with these?" I long to respond, "Stop touching them, for starters" but bite my tongue. Inching my way to the front of the line, I debate whether picking up a few ears of corn means sacrificing the tomatoes.
"Next?" Is my access to the produce scale. Not-so-gently setting the tomatoes down, I turn around and grab half a dozen ears (six for $5.00 is agreeable; more so when you stop to think about the farmer who is tending the cornfield in this heat) and two of the garlic scapes because they're within reach, and I love them. The corn refuses to lie still so I slip the garlic scapes over my wrist. "Whose tomatoes are these?" the cashier asks the crowd. Sheepishly I plunk down the corn and hold up my garlic scape bracelets. "Yes, yes," I confirm, "and these," pointing to the corn, "and these" displaying my garlic scape jewelry. "Do you want to buy a dozen eggs?" the cashier asks innocently. I can't even imagine navigating the tomatoes and the corn in the tiny canvas bag clutched in my sweaty palm. Adding a dozen eggs to the mix? Perish the thought.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm