Yikes! Have you looked at the calendar recently?
While we were being distracted by lawn signs, pundits, sordid mudslinging and relentless robocalls for the last way too many months, the year has marched on apace. Now that we are finally coming up for air from the world’s most horrific election cycle, there’s no time to breathe. Can you believe Thanksgiving will be upon us in little more than a week?
Yes, Turkey day is closing in fast. And as you know, as regards this column, that can only mean one thing.
It’s time for my annual whine about trekking to Florida for our family get-together at Judy’s house in Boca Raton. Combined, of course, with a report on Judy’s hyper-organized, spread-sheeted, Gantt-charted plans for the big meal.
But, surprise. We’re mixing it up this year, with a change in venue, hostess and methodology.
My Chicago sister Margie is straddling two cities these days, but mostly living in Los Angeles with her boyfriend. With that option available, we have decided to change coasts, and are converging on their house in Westwood for the holiday this year.
It’s going to be very different from the well-oiled system that reigns in Florida. The menu likely won’t vary much, but with Marge as hostess, I am anticipating some big changes nevertheless.
For one thing, Marge is not a spreadsheet kind of a gal.
She is organized, but in her own hard-to-follow way. There won’t be a list, but somehow the vast amount of needed ingredients will eventually get bought. Probably some of them will be bought twice, because she forgot she already got them. And forgotten items will require multiple additional trips to the store. But eventually, after the application of vast amounts of money at Whole Foods, the kitchen will be stocked.
For another thing, Marge is, to put it nicely, a bit of a clutterer. Whereas Judy’s kitchen is so pristine it looks like a showroom model, Marge has never seen a flat surface she didn’t want to drop something random onto. Finding clear workspace will be a challenge.
Another challenge is the number of mouths we’ll be feeding.
Marge is very social. She keeps inviting more people. Every time I talk to her, the number gets bigger. Right now, it’s hovering somewhere between 25 and 30. We’re going to be cooking for an army.
I say “we” because I’m assuming it will be a group effort among all four of us sisters. But really, the dinner prep will be a study in family dynamics.
If past experience is any indicator, “we” really means Judy and me. Judy, because she loves nothing more than cooking enormous quantities of food, plus she won’t be able to resist the compulsion to create order and tidiness from the chaotic mess that is a given in any room Margie enters. And me, because I like to eat, and prefer that dinner be complete and ready somewhat on time. (Plus I really do love to chop things.)
You’ll notice, however, that I am not including our hostess in our number. I’m sure she’ll contribute, but as Judy is fond of pointing out, Margie is a master delegator. Her greatest skill in the kitchen is her uncanny ability to appear distracted and overwhelmed. This causes everyone nearby to jump in and help, thus relieving her of the job.
In truth, of course, she is not the least bit incompetent, and a very good cook. But she has so perfected this Tom Sawyer method of getting food to the table that it is now second nature for her to wander off to focus on her guests and open another bottle of wine, trusting that the meal will somehow prepare itself.
I have also not mentioned our other sister, Laura. She, too, is a very good cook, so in theory she should be a big help. But I predict that at the critical moment, she will get distracted by an email and then spend the next two hours on her computer working on an “I’ll be done in a sec” work project that absorbs her so completely she wouldn’t notice if a firecracker went off under her feet.
Fortunately, her husband Doug is an even better cook, and used to run a restaurant. So if we can entice him into the kitchen, we’ll be in good shape.
And actually, come to think of it, we will have a number of young recruits who have yet to find their role in the Thanksgiving process. Perhaps this is the year we start to hand the prep work over to the next generation.
I have a lot of faith in millennials.
Plus I think that if they’re old enough to vote, they’re probably old enough to peel sweet potatoes.
Toasted Pecan Pie
Our family holiday menu is pretty much the traditional one, with turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans and all the other old stand-bys. The rest of the year Judy and I try out recipes from all parts of the world, but for Thanksgiving dinner, we don’t experiment.
Dessert also hews close to the standard, with three kinds of pie. The pumpkin and apple are always delicious, but the jewel in the crown is the pecan pie.
We think our version, perfected over the years, is pretty much the best out there. We find that toasting some of the pecans first deepens the flavor, and using ground pecans in addition to chopped and whole ones gives it a great texture (and makes it incredibly rich).
1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 Tbsp. (or more) ice water
4 cups pecans (about 14 ounces), divided
6 large eggs
2 cups sugar
2 cups dark corn syrup
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
Lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving
For the crust:
Blend flour and salt in a food processor for 10 seconds. Add the butter, pulsing just until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Then dribble in 4 tablespoons of ice water and pulse until moist clumps form, adding more ice water by teaspoonfuls if the mixture is dry.
Gather the dough into a ball and flatten it into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill 1 hour before rolling out. (You can make this up to two days in advance. If so, keep it chilled in the refrigerator, softening it slightly at room temperature before rolling it.)
Roll out the crust on lightly floured surface to a 13-inch round (crust will be thin). Transfer it to a 10-inch diameter pie dish. Fold the overhanging dough under, forming a high-standing rim. Crimp the edges decoratively.
Freeze crust for 20 minutes before filling the pie and baking it.
For the filling:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Reserve 1 cup of the most attractive pecan halves for use on top of the pie. Coarsely chop 2 cups of the remaining pecans and reserve.
Spread the fourth cup of pecans on a cookie sheet and toast them in the oven (watching them like a hawk, so they don’t burn). Or do it on top of the stove in a cast iron skillet. Judy notes that there is a very fine line between toasted to perfection and burned. Look for oil to come out on the surface of the pecans, then toast them just a beat longer. As soon as they are toasted, remove them from the pan immediately, so they don’t continue to cook.
Cool them, then grind the toasted nuts finely in a food processor.
Whisk the eggs in a large bowl until frothy. Add the sugar, corn syrup, melted butter, vanilla, salt and ground pecans; whisk until blended. Mix in the chopped pecans.
Pour the filling into the crust. Arrange the reserved pecan halves on the top of the pie in an attractive concentric pattern. (Note: we often seem to have filling left over, so we keep an additional pie crust on hand just in case.)
Bake pie until crust is golden and filling is puffed and set (the center may still move when dish is shaken), about 1 hour 10 minutes.
Transfer to a rack and cool at least 3 hours.
Serve at room temperature, with whipped cream.