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.