Sisters in Pie

cranberry pies (left) and apple pies

The Sisters in Pie held their annual Thanksgiving Eve meeting today, and I believe the results speak for themselves. I so look forward to this each year, when my neighbors Kay and Cathy (aka Queen of Pie) get together to make pies for our respective family dinners and finish off any bottles of red wine that might be in my refrigerator.

Because Cathy is the expert crust-maker, she prepped and rolled every inch of the pie crusts. That’s something like 12 crusts. Kay and I chopped fruit, handed stuff to her and refilled her wine glass. Those tasks we can do.

Cathy taught me to make pie crust, and I can do it. But comparing mine to hers is like putting Pashmina next to a silk scarf. But I have vowed to get there. That, someday, my crusts will be as smooth and flaky as hers and not look like a 4-year-old was let loose with Play-Doh.

Our pie day is a tradition that we all enjoy, and I hope we can keep it going. It really means a lot. And The Hub is even learning to pat and roll.

We made our usual apple pies this year, with fillings full of cinnamon, mace and a dash of cardamom. Plus some spirits: cognac in mine, dark rum in the other two.

Pumpkin? Oh, come now. So overdone.

We added our adapted version of a cranberry pie recipe in “Southern Pies” by Nancie McDermott. Below is our edition – which has a little kick, naturally.

Cranberry Pie from the Sisters of Pie (adapted from “Southern Pies” by Nancie McDermott)

Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie

1 cup sugar

1 bag fresh cranberries

1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 cup golden raisins

Grated rind of half an orange

1-2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a pie pan with one of the crusts. In a large bowl, stir together the remaining ingredients. Pour into the pan. Use a pizza cutter to cut the remaining crust into approximately 1 1/2 to 2- inch wide strips. Weave them across the top of the filling in a lattice pattern. Place the pie on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake until the filling is bubbly, about 40 minutes.


Sing a song of collards

A lot of you are cooking them for the big feed tomorrow. Take a break and watch a tribute to the Southern collard: “Leaves of Greens: A Southern Oratorio in Three Parts.”  Yes, a collard opera. The opera, which was inspired by poems from the Ayden Collard Green Festival in North Carolina, was the rousing close to this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Ms. Find out more about this fabulous organization after you get your dose of collard culture here.

Grin and eat it?

Thanksgiving isn’t just a time for eating with the family. It’s also a time for menu conflict.

Take this email I received from my friend Maureen: “I put my son in charge of deviled eggs for Thanksgiving. He’s come up with a very ordinary recipe (though it does use cream cheese). Can you tell me one or two simple items that we can toss in there that will give these puppies a little pizazz?”

At Thanksgiving, one often must smile and eat. Granny’s marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes that contain more sugar than a pie. Aunty’s dressing that crumbles like sand. Maureen, if you are determined to snatch up the plate when he arrives, dump the eggs’ filling into a bowl and add what you like to it yourself, I do have some suggestions.

– Bacon. Bacon makes everything better.

– Since there’s already cream cheese in the recipe, add some chopped smoked salmon, onion and capers.

– Add a little mayo, Dijon mustard and blue cheese for a rich deviled egg. Top it with bacon.

Thanksgiving, gravy and me

If you thought you saw me coming out of Williams-Sonoma today clutching a brown jar – no, you didn’t. You didn’t see one single thing. You never saw me making my annual purchase of my Thanksgiving secret weapon.

I have been pretty successful in being little  like my mother, except in one way. (Well, two, if you count the hereditary Link-Shaw jowls.) The older I get, the more I believe, as she did, that if I don’t really enjoy  it, I shouldn’t have to cook it. This attitude causes a problem at Thanksgiving, because I am lukewarm on one of the holiday’s sacred cows: Turkey gravy.

I like gravy OK, but I don’t believe that a Thanksgiving meal without it is a prosecutable offense, as some seem to. And when I’m finishing up several dishes as hungry people are prowling around the kitchen like starving cats – well, gravy looks like a frill, to me. I can make it; I just don’t choose to.

I thought I’d be excused from the gravy requirement when we started deep-frying our turkey. No roast turkey, no drippings, no gravy, right? Oh, no. No matter how much, shall we say, natural moisture the fried bird has, people want to board the gravy boat. When I discovered that The Hub has a love of hot turkey sandwiches (a deeply rooted childhood thing) using the leftovers, I caved on turkey gravy.

Then, I found the jar. “Traditional Turkey Gravy Base,” it says. I ignore the directions to use milk (The Hub’s dairy allergy) and whisk it with some chicken broth. If I hide the jar, the gravy gobblers never know.

And you never heard it, either.

Holiday horrors part 2: Cold turkey

The coupon in the paper showed a creation shinier than a plastic car bumper that was so mind bending, it left me a bit queasy: An ice-cream cake shaped like a Thanksgiving turkey.

According to the maker, Baskin-Robbins, the legs are made from sugar cones that are covered with the same glaze as the rest of the ice cream and topped with white paper poofs. The wings are doodled on. You can order it in any kind of  ice-cream you like, but I don’t think the company offers stuffing flavor.

Making gravy could be a problem with this turkey, unless you let it sit for a few hours at room temperature. It would solve the problem of what to feed vegetarian guests, and it surely tastes better than a Tofurky.

The recipe box speaks

Google “meat loaf” all you want, O children of the modern age. But there are plenty of us who prefer stuffing random recipes into receptacles, then excavating for gold among the bits of paper.

I learned this from the many comments I received after my Sunday Dinner column yesterday. And I should know by now that if I mention a recipe, y’all are going to want it. So, here’s the dressing. Really, the dressing doesn’t contain chestnuts or foie gras or anything like that; it’s just good, plain, dressing.

Country Corn Bread Dressing (with thanks to Helen Moore)

6 cups crumbled corn bread (see my notes at the end)

3 to 4 pieces loaf bread, crumbled

1 cup chopped celery

3/4 cup finely chopped onion

2 to 3 tablespoons margarine

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon or more dried sage, or to taste (see notes)

3 eggs, beaten

2 or more cups turkey or chicken broth

Crumble up the corn bread and loaf bread in a big bowl. Saute the celery and onion in the margarine in a frying pan until tender, but not brown. Add to the breads and add seasonings. Helen wrote: “The 1 teaspoon of sage is modest. Let your taste buds be your guide. I probably use 1 tablespoon of sage, because it seems to take more of the storebought seasoning to give a good flavor. If you don’t like sage, use marjoram, rosemary or thyme or a combination.”

Stir in the eggs, Worcestershire sauce and enough broth to make a mixture with a pork-and-beans consistency – sort of soupy. You’ll need to add sufficient broth so all the moisture won’t cook out of the finished dressing.

Pour into greased 9- by-13-inch baking pan and bake at 375 degrees for 40 to 40 minutes or until browned. Makes 8 to 10 servings

Notes: These are my suggestions. Several weeks before Thanksgiving, I purchase two packages of corn bread mix, bake them and freeze them to use in the dressing. (Don’t tell Helen.) I also freeze random bits of leftover loaf bread to use. For seasoning, I use 1 heaping teaspoon dried sage plus about 1 teaspoon each dried marjoram and dried savory. There’s a lot of bread and you want flavor. The 3 eggs makes a soft-textured dressing; if you want a less soft one, use 2 eggs. If you follow Helen’s description on adding broth, you will have a moist, wonderful dressing; deviate at your peril.

Food news roundup

Last-minute Thanksgiving planners, there’s plenty of help out there for you. The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer  offers management tips and quick recipes here, including a cranberry sauce recipe I can get behind – it has jalapenos. It’s in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), too, along with a rundown of the Triangle’s growing craft beer movement. Read about that here.

After the eating comes the shopping, and the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal offers gift ideas for cooks, including some fancy measuring spoons. Those may look silly, but I look at them as kitchen jewelry – it’s fun to use something funky if you cook a lot. Read more suggestions here.

And what comes after eating and shopping? The leftovers. Thanksgiving leftovers are great, but a little creativity makes them even better. There are some great-looking turkey sandwiches using cranberry sauce and Fontina cheese in the Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.), plus other goodies.

Thanksgiving is the most conservative, food-wise, of holidays. People expect certain things, like sweet potatoes the way Grandma made them, not the way you’d like to do them, with a little chipotle and tequila. But gratins are a nice way to sneak in something new in side dishes, and the Detroit Free Press has recipes here.

In my part of the world, there’s no over-the-river-in-the-snow Thanksgiving. Which means we can grill to our hearts’ content. For, I’ve offered a menu that puts most of the meal out of the house and over the coals. There are other recipes here as well.

Courtesy of USA Today, we have today’s wackiest Thanksgiving-related phrase: Beltsville Poultry Semen Extender. Find out what it is here.

Getting flaky

Chapel Hill, N.C. author Nancie McDermott was winning over the room at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Saturday as she talked about her new cookbook, “Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan” (Chronicle, $22.95). The table full of pies from the book, that she’d baked for sampling later, was attracting gazes. Then McDermott said something that drew gasps: Crust doesn’t matter.

The biggest gasp came from my friend and neighbor, whom I call the Queen of Pie. She has been making pie crust from scratch since she was 10 years old and could do it in the dark.

Isn’t pie all about the crust?

McDermott explained that she meant that people should make and enjoy pie without stressing over creating The Perfect Pie Crust. The pressure of the crust often scares off cooks. Without that pressure, making pie is – well – easy as pie, especially when you compare it to the efforts frequently required to make even a simple cake. Cake is an opera; pie, a folk song.

Pie is a good filling, using things an even moderately well-stocked kitchen would have (sugar, lemon juice, buttermilk, canned pumpkin, peanut butter) inside a simple crust. It’s the weeknight dessert, not the towering special-occasion effort of a coconut or devil’s food cake.

There’s no fuss and bother about pie, just enjoyment. And McDermott encourages cooks to approach it that way. Her cookbook includes crust instructions, if you want to make your own. I do make pie crust…most of the time. I have to say, the refrigerated crusts are not bad at all. Don’t let a mere crust stand between you and pie.

The cookbook leans toward classic pies, with a whole section on variations of chess pie. There are a goodly number of chocolate pies and classic apple. But there are also some intriguing left-field pies, like Sweet Tea Pie and Summer Squash Custard Pie (another way to use up excessive summer squash without leaving it on neighbors’ doorsteps in the middle of the night).

When I left the signing, the Queen was having a word with the author over her crust statement – she had just won the QRB-sponsored pie contest and was flush with confidence. Emails were exchanged, but only sweet words.

The nightmare is over

Take the cans out from under your beds and sleep easy tonight: The Great Pumpkin Shortage is over. After reading this article, I have to say – gee, people, I like pumpkin bread OK, but I’m not obsessed with it. And here’s another heretical idea. I don’t serve pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. It’s apple at my table. Don’t even bring that pumpkin-flavored beer into my house, either. Would the Pilgrims have put pumpkin in their beer, if they’d had either pumpkin or beer? I think not.

Don't torch that turkey

Ah, the signs that Thanksgiving is on the way: Canned pumpkin shortage in the supermarket, Christmas songs on the radio and the annual photo of a turkey fryer going up in a fireball.

I have deep-fried turkeys for years, and I still have a house. Obviously, it’s possible to do this safely. But ever since the torched-turkey pics started hitting the media, people arrive, see the fryer and think I’m trying to kill us all. No, that congealed salad of coleslaw and lime Jell-O (my mother made that once) may kill us, not my turkey fryer.

I have extensive, safe directions for frying turkey in my cookbook “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” (Harvard Common Press, 2007). But the most important ones are: Use equipment specially designed for deep-frying whole turkeys, do this only outdoors (not in a garage or carport), do not overfill the fryer with oil and never leave the fryer unattended.

To get the right amount of oil, I place the turkey in the fryer pot, then measure and add water a quart at a time until the turkey is covered but there’s still a few inches of room at the top of the pot. The number of quarts of water you used equals the amount of oil you’ll need. Dry the pot and turkey thoroughly before heating the oil to prevent spattering.