Thanksgiving. Hands down, the day (actually, collection of days in preparation) that I look forward to the most throughout the year. On the night before, when I was little, I’d sleep on the couch so that Grandma could sleep in my bed and be here to start the cooking bright and early. I didn’t mind though since I could hardly sleep on Thanksgiving’s eve anyhow. I would wait for her to get out of bed and pass me on the couch and into the kitchen. I’m telling you, it give me more butterflies in anticipation than waking up to Santa ever did. I’d leap off the couch, scurry into the kitchen, and strap on my mini apron. Mom would come in after and put on a pot of coffee. It was just past dawn–in those days we hosted Thanksgiving at our home and made all appetizers, side dishes, turkey, and desserts for 35 people. (Today, that’s considered a small gathering looking at our family’s holiday dinner roster list of the past several years–we never make it to less than 50 people). We’d wake up around 6:30, grab the giant 29lb turkey from the fridge and let it hang out on the counter as mom and grandma slowly sipped their coffee. The moment of that awakening is something I’ll always remember: the still silence of morning before we began. A brisk chill of the morning, the virgin state of the kitchen–cold, untouched. Clearly the heat had vanished after we finished baking the last of the pies the night before. We’d all stand against the kitchen countertops, the only exchange between the three of us was this shared anxious-filled glare at the lump of a turkey before us, then at each other… all of us thinking of the order of today’s cooking operations: get the turkey in there, then start the dressing, peel the potatoes, cut the yams…. on and on. It was the calm before the storm. The lull before we realized we wouldn’t breathe like this again until we sat down at that dinner table twelve hours from now. After the last sip of coffee, the last glance that meant “let’s get to it” was expressed. I just remember the clatter of pans as we heaved them onto the stove top. Then the first ignition of heat — get the pans hot and start to make the stuffing. The first pour of olive oil, then a heavy dollop of butter in the pan– that thick, milky way swirl they created as they melted together. Then hit it with the onions… god, that aroma. That is Thanksgiving morning.
In the last several years, my mom’s cousin Tony opened up his home on the Westside in the Palisades so we could accommodate more guests. Up to 60 of us one year I believe. Mom, Grandma and I still make all side dishes and the desserts–48 cups of bread for the italian style bread stuffing, 15 lbs of potatoes that get mashed, 3 trays of candied yams, mounds of green beans, wild rice, and 7 pies. Somehow we end up bring all the tables and chairs too. We caravan as many as 4 cars up to the house. One with tables, one with chairs, the others with pies in everyone’s laps and hot items in the trunk. The turkeys (two 15lb-ers) cooked by Tony’s wife Suzanne and Grandma’s sister, Pat, end up getting carved by my dad and I — he’s still stumped has to how he got stuck with the job year after year since he is not longer the “man of the house” in which we eat. At the Greco’s house, we fill the rooms completely, and the kid’s table remains the same — even though we’re in our 20’s now, we still end up choosing the string of card tables in the entrance hallway by the front door. Dinner only begins once Tony announces the food is ready (however, us in the kitchen flip because the stuffing needs to crisp, the marshmallows haven’t quite caramelized) so everyone grabs a seat, and probably their third glass of wine. And thanks to Tony’s natural grand orator skill, his opening speech expressing gratitude and love to all ends up buying us more time in the kitchen (This year it bought me 8 1/2 minutes!)
I end up surprised at how many people end up eating dessert after all the trays of food are basically all consumed, everyone’s plate cleaned. But there’s always room for pie! This year I made 2 pumpkin, 1 pecan with bittersweet chocolate, 1 apple pie, a bourbon pumpkin cheesecake and an apple-pear-cranberry crisp.
I’m pretty stuck on the pie dough my grandma taught me to make. I sort of refuse to try anyone else’s…. The crust comes out SO flakey and tender and just the right amount of give when you roll it out. The secret to this dough is that it uses ONLY shortening, no butter. So you can make the dough and should roll out and shape the crusts right after it’s mixed. You don’t need to wait around for refrigeration time. In fact, do NOT refrigerate it. The shortening will not allow the dough to roll out properly, and its moisture will affect the flour if settled too long. It makes the dough split when rolling. I found this out the hard way… made all 6 pie crusts the night before and went to roll them out the next morning. Disaster. I had to remake all of them! Here’s the dough recipe–makes 2 crusts (or one base and enough for lattice):
: Pie Dough :
• 2 cups all-purpose flour
• 2/3 cup vegetable shortening
• 1 tsp salt
• 5-7 tbsp water, ice cold
In a large bowl, combine flour and salt (no need to sift). Add 1/3 of the shortening, and incorporate into flour with a pastry cutter or fork, until mixture is mealy, like corn meal. Then add the other 1/3 c shortening and incorporate until it’s the size of small peas. Add 3 tablespoons of water, and gently mix. Proceed to add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until dough is moist enough to form into a dough (usually takes 7 tablespoons). Transfer dough to work surface and gather into a ball, gently kneading to combine. Do not over work! Cut dough in half and reshape each piece. Flatten slightly into disks. Roll out immediately. Cover dough that is not rolled out yet with plastic wrap. Keep at room temperature. Makes 2 crusts.
I was STUNNED by the how the pecan pie turned out. I usually hate the thing–who wants lumps of corn syrup and eggs with nuts? I never understood it. But I tried a versions from Gourmet that was out of this world unbelievable! A layer of bittersweet chocolate at the bottom of the pie shell cuts the sweetness of the corn syrup. It adds contrast without more richness. Pretty phenomenal.
: Bittersweet Chocolate Pecan Pie :
(Gourmet November 2007)
• 1 (3 1/2- to 4-oz) fine-quality 60%- to 70%-cacao bittersweet chocolate bar, finely chopped
• 2 cups pecan halves (7 oz)
• 3 large eggs
• 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 3/4 cup dark corn syrup
Preheat oven to 375°F with rack in middle. Melt chocolate in a metal bowl set over barely simmering water, stirring. Remove from heat. Roll out dough into a 13-inch round on a lightly floured surface with a lightly floured rolling pin. Fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim excess dough, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang. Fold overhang under and press against rim of pie plate, then crimp decoratively. Spread chocolate in bottom of pie shell with back of spoon and let it set.
Cover shell with pecans. Whisk together eggs, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt in a bowl, then whisk in corn syrup and pour over pecans. Bake pie until filling is puffed and crust is golden, 50 to 60 minutes. (If pie is browning too fast after 30 minutes, loosely cover with foil.) Cool pie on a rack to warm or room temperature. Serve with whipped cream.