The minute peaches are elbowed out of the way by apples at the farmers market, my summer reverie is interrupted by thoughts of Thanksgiving. As a professional pie baker who discreetly waves goodbye to each pie as it leaves the bakery, I take my job seriously. Most years, more than 600 pies cross the baker’s bench on the day before Thanksgiving. This year, the approaching holiday season feels as upended as a tarte tatin. My guess is that pie sales will be brisk despite the uncertainty of gathering. One thing remains constant: Pie makes us feel better.
Except for July 4 (which this baker dubs Thanksgiving Junior), pie distinguishes Thanksgiving from all other holidays. According to a 2019 survey from the Harris Poll, 94 percent of Americans conclude their Thanksgiving meal with pie. No wonder even the most casual of bakers are prompted to reach for their rolling pins and dimpled pie plates. Thanksgiving has a way of sneaking up on us, long before our stash of leftover Halloween candy has been depleted.
While pulling an all-nighter on the eve of the holiday might be your go-to, a far less frazzled approach is to stage a dress rehearsal a few weeks prior. Pie is an agreeable sort but is better behaved in the company of a cool touch and a cooler temper.
Whether you favor a classic double crust or prefer to craft intricate pastry cutouts, there’s plenty of room for advance preparation. What there isn’t room for is rushing around at the last minute.
Itemize Each Recipe and Prepare a Shopping List
Begin by making a list and creating a timeline. Rein in your ideas, remembering there is nothing wrong in keeping things simple. Make a copy of the recipe(s) you will be using. Create a calendar of pie tasks to complete, leading up to the holiday.
Pay a visit to your pantry. Check flour, sugar, spices, and nuts for freshness. Are you pro maple or corn syrup, molasses or golden syrup? Don’t forget about coarse sanding sugar or Demerara sugar as a garnish.
Nonperishables such as flour, sugar, and canned squash/pumpkin will become elusive in just a few short weeks. Stock up now. Always buy an extra pound or two of butter because as you near the holiday, the price will inch skyward. Keep the surplus in the freezer. Check expiration dates on eggs and dairy before purchasing. Keep in mind that heavy cream often becomes scarce the closer you get to the holiday. The quality of your ingredients is reflected in your pie, so shop accordingly. If you are relying on seasonal fruit, seek out local farmers when you can.
Play to Your Strengths—but Also Practice
If pie pastry makes you skittish, practice will improve your skill set. While there are plenty of casual options, such as press-in crumb crusts, pie dough is a skill worth mastering. Practicing on a quiet day when you can really pay attention is invaluable. Take your rolling pin out for a spin. Experiment with pie crimps and practice weaving a lattice on a sheet of parchment paper.
If a custard-based pie is on your holiday menu, you owe it to yourself to master a beautifully baked pie shell. Blind-bake a pie shell so you get the hang of it. Use the shell to try out a new recipe you’ve been eyeing. Read recipes and recipe reviews. Gift a few slices to those who will appreciate it. Fill the freezer with a well-wrapped, unbaked pie shell for the holiday and another just because. Crumb toppings can be prepared in advance and stored in the freezer in zip-top bags.
Take Notes (and … Buy an Oven Thermometer)
Don’t forget to reflect on last year’s pie successes and those less-than-stellar forkfuls. When was the last time you checked the temperature of your oven? A well-calibrated oven is critical to a well-baked pie. An oven thermometer is a small yet worthy investment.
Pay Special Attention to Details
Take the time to zest and juice lemons a few days in advance of baking. Consider orange zest for brightening classic fillings such as pumpkin and pecan. Reduced apple cider is the best secret weapon for elevating a humdrum apple pie to something memorable. Invest in quality spices; consider a spice grinder, or at the very least a nutmeg grater.
Set Up a Pie-Baking Station
Line a rimmed half-sheet pan with parchment paper and outfit it with pie essentials. Pre-measure spices and sweeteners and place them in clearly labeled containers. Print out a copy of the recipe(s) for hands-on reference; no one wants a flour-dusted phone or a screen sticky with sugar. (At the very least, sequester your phone in a zip-top bag while you bake.) Don’t forget that you will need egg wash and sanding sugar, the finishing touches that will add shine and sparkle to your top crust. Invest in a new pastry brush that doesn’t shed. Aluminum foil strips are ideal for protecting pie edges from over-browning. With everything in one place, organization is within reach.
Apple Cider Pumpkin Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
• 1 1/2 cups all-purpose or white whole wheat flour
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
• 9 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
• 4 1/2 tablespoons apple cider
• 1 1/2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
• 4 to 5 apples (such as Granny Smith, Rome, Honeycrisp, or Crispin) peeled, cored, and cut into ½-inch cubes, enough to yield 3 cups
• 1/3 cup (70g) firmly packed dark brown sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 tablespoon cornstarch
• 1/3 cup apple cider
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 3/4 cup (170g) canned pumpkin puree
• 1/2 cup heavy cream
• 1/4 cup whole milk
• 1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
• 1 pinch finely ground black pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 1 large egg, lightly beaten
Think about the path from freezer to oven to table. Choose the most practical pie plate(s); metal or aluminum can go from freezer to oven without a glitch. Ceramic pie plates, while decorative, often cannot withstand the extremes in temperature and are better suited as serving vessels. A standard 9-inch aluminum pie plate will snuggle up nicely inside many decorative pie plates. Earmark the proper serving pieces; serrated knives make handy work of thick edges and intricate lattice. Polish that heirloom pie server with your grandparent’s initials. Don’t forget storage containers for leftovers.
Enjoy the Ride
By planning ahead, your worries should be limited to choosing between whipped cream or ice cream and where to hide a slice of pie for breakfast.
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