Baker, Cook, Writer, Pursuer of Gastronomic Joy

My Thanksgiving Table

As I subtly alluded to last week, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Especially now that both my sister and I are off at grad school and college respectively, and my dad is often traveling for work, getting all immediate family together is a chore in itself. And all of us getting together with any family friends? Fugettaboutit! Thanksgiving is now often the first time all of us will be together for any significant period of time (all of three days? Woah.) since the previous year’s Christmas! In addition to that we share it with our two lovely family friends whom we have not seen in a year. Circumstances alone make Thanksgiving dear.

Then there is the pomp and circumstance of the occasion. The clean, shiny table cloth. The good family silver and china. Butter on the table on a nice butter dish. It’s similar to the feeling of a nice evening at The Theatre (this is not to be confused with a night where you go to a show. Seeing a show and an Evening at The Theatre are very different. Both things I enjoy, but not in the same way). This is not to say that my Thanksgiving experience is any sort of black-tie event. But it is the single day of the year we eat in our dining room rather than at the kitchen table. It’s the best of dining experiences our home has to offer, all stops are pulled.

But most importantly: the food. Classic Thanksgiving food is some of my favorite food on the whole planet. This is mainly because my favorite things are fat, carbs, salt, and sugar. Give me a plate full of that and I’ll be a happy guy. On Thanksgiving you’ll find me exceedingly joyful with a plateful of stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, dinner rolls, turkey, cranberry sauce, cranberry-orange relish, and the smallest amount of green beans. After the main meal and a break of vigorous cleaning I then fill another plate full of apple, pumpkin, pecan, and the occasional slice of cranberry-pear pie with a healthy scoop of vanilla bean ice cream (not vanilla. Vanilla bean. I don’t have vanilla ice cream a lot, pretty much only with cake or pie, but when I do it better be vanilla bean). I can be found soon after utterly knocked out on the couch with my eyes desperately attempting to shut while my spirit is fighting to see the first Christmas movie of the season, or an episode of The Great British Baking Show. I would wish for this day more times a year, but I fear the frequency would diminish the singular joy. This is not to say that certain elements should not be replicated throughout the year. For instance, a post-Thanksgiving day sandwich can simply not be for only the day after Thanksgiving, but should be enjoyed year round. Thanksgiving food is just all around the best.

This year I had the honor of trying two new culinary endeavors for the Thanksgiving table. For the dinner I made a maple bourbon sweet potato casserole with a pecan crumble, and for dessert I was left responsible for the two pies we make every year; apple and pumpkin. Usually we use the Pillsbury store bought pie crust for both pies. I will unabashedly stand by that crust till the end of time as a perfectly yummy pie crust. While Pillsbury has been our tried and true, we have been on the search for a pie crust recipe that might offer more. While we have been trying for a few years, they never seem to come out quite as flakey or flavorful as desired. So, this year I not only made the pies but found a new pie crust recipe to try. While I assisted with other aspects of the meal, these were my main undertakings.

First, I started to tackle the sweet potato. The aspects I knew I wanted to include were maple syrup, bourbon, and a pecan crust. I could not find a recipe that quite fit what I was looking for, so I looked at a few and put together the best aspects of each of them. Six sweet potatoes, roughly a stick and a half of butter, two eggs, a few pours of milk, some vanilla extract, a little over ¼ cup of real NH maple syrup, a healthy dose of salt and pepper, and about 4 teaspoons of bourbon made up the creamy sweet potato mash. I went back and forth between hand mashing, using the stick blender, and the food processor. In the end I went with hand mashing. It gave me an extremely creamy result and it didn’t feel like it needed to be overworked with blades. The crust was created by a cup plus a small handful of pecans roughly chopped, about ¼ cup of brown sugar, some butter, and a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg. I put it all together the day before so as to not make such a crowded kitchen on the big day, and stuck it in the fridge with a foil cover. When it came time to cook I placed it in the oven at 375 °F for about 30 minutes. The result was the absolute best sweet potato dish I have ever consumed. Rich, full of flavor, smooth potato with the occasional crunch from the pecans. You’re not gonna get the nutritional benefits of sweet potato, but that is hardly what this day is about.

The pie crust was a journey. Before deciding on a recipe, I had to determine whether I was gonna be using butter, shortening, lard, or a combination of any of them. I ultimately decided on butter to hopefully get some flakey layers with the maximum potential for flavor. I also really wanted to use the food processor because, well, it’s easier. This led me to the apple pie crust recipe from the creator of the youtube channel Binging with Babish, Andrew Rea. I was extremely aware of how important it was going to be to keep the butter extremely cold so we could achieve flakey layers. This fear of melted butter spurred me to chill the food processor blade and the rolling pin. Ultimately, this seemed to work, for when I had the resulting dough I could see full flecks of butter waiting to melt in the oven and create the texture I craved. I quickly split the dough in half, wrapped the halves in clingwrap, and tucked them in the fridge for a few hours. Once the apples were mandolined and seasoned, the crusts were removed and rolled out with my thoroughly chilled rolling pin (I should say that I am not at all sure if the chilling of the blade, and especially the chilling of the rolling pin is necessary. But the colder anything is that comes in contact with the dough the better, and I knew I was already at a disadvantage with these naturally warm hands). With apples fully covered and edges crimped I applied an egg wash, sprinkled on some granulated sugar and put it in the oven. Thirty minutes later a pie emerged more shiny and golden brown than I could have ever hoped for. The smell was intoxicating and the fact that I had to wait 24 hours to consume it was maddening. But eventually the time came, the moment of fate when we would discover if this pie would be up to snuff or another crusty disappointment. My first bite told me all I needed to know. This was everything a pie crust should be. This crust had everything I wanted from a pie crust that I didn’t know I wanted. Buttery, flakey, flavorful, and a perfect complement to the apples. If you’re looking for a double pie crust recipe to try, try this recipe.

The pumpkin pie did not go as smoothly. I used this pumpkin pie crust recipe, again from Babish, but something went wrong with the blind baking. Despite following the instructions to a T and putting in weights during the initial bake, the crust slid down the sides and was not baking correctly at all, instead resulting in a slumpy mess that looked more like a shortbread sweating butter. Due to it being late the night before Thanksgiving, a quick crust would have to do. An old shortening based crust recipe was found, a few additions were made in hopes that more flavor would be achieved than in previous iterations, and the pumpkin was whipped up. This crust was not as flavorful, but it acted as a good sturdy base for the pumpkin filling. In future I might add even more salt and sugar to this recipe but keep the shortening to maintain the texture that seemed to work for this single crust pie. Despite some last minute problem solving, we ended up with two amazing pies that pleased all in different ways. Some preferred the apple pie crust, liking how it was just as big a star as the apples in the dish. Others preferred the pumpkin, not wanting a loud crust but one that supported the leading lady of the filling as that crust did admirably. There was a crust for all types.

It was really great to not only be able to be back cooking in my home kitchen, but also trying new things. The only thing better than making something tasty by hand is making something new and not knowing how it’s gonna come out. There is so much discovery and learning that takes place in the kitchen and I am simply addicted to it. On top of that, I get to share the new experience with loved ones and give them my love in the form of a pie or a casserole. I’m always thankful for Thanksgiving, and this year was no exception. I look forward to another year of food, cooking, and exploration. Until next year Thanksgiving.