By Amy Halloran, Stephen Leon, Darryl McGrath and B.A. Nilsson
Pie Crust Made Easy
This is the time of year when celebrity chefs, food writers and home decorating mavens share pie crust recipes with their readers, often with more than a little condescension. The unspoken message is that by making the perfect pie crust—their recipe, of course—you will bask in the compliments of your blissed-out holiday dinner guests.
I’ve read many of these recipes, but as soon as I get to the part about ice water and a rolling pin, I go no further, because my family really does have the perfect pie crust formula. It’s called Mrs. Isaaksen’s Pie Crust, and it’s the recipe my mother, now 93, made for nearly 50 years of holiday baking. It’s also the recipe that my sister, my newlywed niece and I all use. It’s fast and flawless and demands no special skills. It can be stored in the freezer baked or unbaked—just wrap the raw dough in waxed paper or plastic wrap—and it bakes into a golden, flaky pastry. You don’t need a rolling pin or ice water, you will never again make a tough or dry pie crust, and your guests will indeed be in bliss as they dig into dessert.
I’ve been told that this is a Scandanavian-style pie crust, because it uses oil instead of butter. I can’t vouch for that, but the real Mrs. Isaaksen taught a rug-hooking class my mother took in the 1960s. This recipe was an unexpected bonus of the class, after Mrs. Isaaksen baked a pie for her students and shared the technique with my mom.
A few notes: The basic recipe never seems like enough for a standard 10-inch pie plate, especially for a fruit filling that gets juicy. But a double batch sometimes seems like more than I need. My suggestion: Make a double batch, use about three-fourths of it for the actual crust, and either freeze the leftover dough or use it to trim the top.
Also: This recipe is not easy to roll or handle outside of the pie pan in which you mix it, so it’s not an ideal recipe if you are bent on a double-crust pie. You can produce a lattice top or decorative cutouts if you double the recipe and pat about three-fourths of it into the pie pan for the filling. Reserve a handful of dough, stiffen it with additional flour, and roll it onto a smooth surface—a stone countertop or marble pastry board. Don’t have a rolling pin, which was a more common kitchen tool in the genteel days when most women baked? Use a wine bottle, which you’re far more likely to have, especially if your in-laws are coming for dinner. Cut the lattice strips into sections and piece them together on top of the filling, instead of trying to weave them. Use a knife or cookie cutter to shape decorations. Or, skip the fussy touches and make a crumb topping of butter, flour, cinnamon and brown sugar.
MRS. ISAAKSEN’S PIE CRUST
1 1/2 cups flour (A mix of 1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 white, which can be purchased in five-pound bags, makes a nice change from plain white flour.)
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup Mazola oil, mixed vegetable oil or canola oil (I have found that canola oil works best)
2 Tbsp. milk, cream or half-and-half.
Stir the flour, sugar and salt together in pie pan. Blend in milk and oil with a spoon, and then with your hands. Press evenly by hand over the bottom of the pie plate and work the dough up the sides and to the edge. Flute the edges slightly with your fingers. Add your filling and bake.
So Many Wines . . .
Although you’re too hip to confine yourself to hidebound holiday tradition, chances are that a roasted turkey will grace your Thanksgiving table, making it the main item you’ll be looking to pair with wine. It welcomes a broad array of styles, with what may be some surprises.
Todd Yutzler, who owns Delmar’s Delaware Plaza Wine and Liquor, suggests a dry rosé as an option, “like Tavel from the south of France. And a dry Riesling has an excellent acidity and marries well with turkey and mashed potatoes.”
Jim Nejaime, who owns Spirited in Lenox, Mass., advises that there’s a Riesling “that’s dry and gorgeous from Freiherr von Schleinitz estates in Germany’s Mosel region. Domestic Rieslings aren’t as dry, but there are excellent ones coming out of Washington.”
“I try to promote New York state wines,” says Yutzler. “Lafayette Reneau on Seneca Lake has a dry Riesling, as does Hermann Wiemer. But, changing grapes for a moment, I especially like the Rkatsiteli that Dr. Frank produces in the Finger Lakes. It has a great mix of sweetness and acidity. He also has a sparkling wine I enjoy, the cremant-style Château Frank Célèbre, which has a wonderful fruit in front, followed by acidity.”
Whatever you choose, the stores are stocked and ready. Adam Morey manages website sales at Albany’s Empire Wine, and has been watching online buying skyrocket. “It started last week, and now it’s flying off the shelves. Many people buy a case of red and a case of white and throw in a port or an Eiswein. With such an array of different flavors on the table,” he suggests, “something light like a Pinot Noir will work with everything.”
“Pinot Noir goes with almost every dish,” agrees Nejaime, “and Primarius in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has an excellent example. We sell a lot of Cabernet because people are comfortable with that, but I try to steer them to other reds. However, you’ll find a good Cabernet from Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles. Red Zinfandel can be more appropriate. Foxglove Wines in Paso Robles is a small winery that produces a Zin that’s not overblown, with great Zinfandel characteristics.”
Although this is the time of year when Beaujolais Nouveau hits the stores, it’s not necessarily suited for Thanksgiving, says Ralph Bonavista, co-owner of All-Star Wine and Spirits in Latham. “It’s very fruit-forward, almost tannin-free, a fun, easy wine—but I wouldn’t say that it’s the best wine out there. Some people want to keep the holiday patriotic and go with American wines, so red Zinfandel is always a great candidate. It’s California’s own grape, it’s got body and quite a bit of fruit, a little zesty.
“Côtes du Rhône always works well,” adds Bonavista, “as does a Spanish Garnacha or an Australian Shiraz. And Sangiovese and Dolcetto are both northern Italian reds that I recommend.” In the realm of white wines, he says, “We’re already overindulging at the table, so it’s good to back off on the oak. Which is why Chardonnays generally don’t work well.”
But there are exceptions, notes Nejaime. “Ferrari-Carano has a Sonoma County Chardonnay that’s not too oakey.” He recommends having both red and white wine on the table, and recommends that the white “should have a little more fruit to balance the seasonings and spices, but that doesn’t mean more sweetness. Miner Family, in the Napa Valley, has a medium-bodied Viognier I recommend, but if you want to spend a little less, there’s a Pine Ridge blend of Chenin Blanc and Viognier. I tend to steer people away from Sauvignon Blanc, which tends to be high in acidity and goes better with seafood. “
And after the entrée is cleared? “We see much more interest in Eiswein,” says Bonavista. “Port can work well, but it has a high alcohol content for that part of the meal. I like to recommend Sherry or Madeira—but real sherry and Madeira. The notes in a good sherry have a lot of parallels with dessert—nutty, caramel, with a hint of brininess that goes well with pies.”
Another vote for the right sherry comes from Nejaime. “Spanish solera Sherries made with the Pedro Ximénez grape are less expensive than an eiswein. But if you’ve had a fair amount of wine with the meal, a good low-alcohol dessert wine would be a Boeri Moscato d’Asti from Italy. It has 5- to 6-percent alcohol and a wonderful flavor.”
If choosing your wine still sounds intimidating, consider Bonavista’s bottom line. “With so many things on the table, and so many options, don’t lose sight of the fact that you should drink what you like.”
Camaraderie, Not Formality
I had the worst Thanksgiving dinner of my life in 1986, the first year I worked as a reporter.
A group of newsroom staffers was stranded without food during the day shift, and someone had the bright idea of picking up a Thanksgiving meal at the local diner. The turkey tasted like rancid Fryolator grease, and left me with a lasting impression of how depressing it was to miss a home-cooked holiday dinner.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I was planning my first Thanksgiving in my own home. My husband and I had plenty of journalist friends who would be working that day. We sent out a general notice that dinner was on us, and that started our tradition of an “open table” for Thanksgiving. Last-minute guests were always welcome, and we rarely had a final head count even as we sat down to eat.
We learned how to improvise and let dinnertime extend from mid-afternoon into early evening. We were sometimes serving dinner to a late arrival as everyone else was well into coffee and dessert, but somehow, the relaxed approach seemed to set off a peaceful vibe. The lack of a smoothly oiled schedule never really mattered.
I have particular memories of certain dinners from this phase of our holiday entertaining, a few of them bittersweet but still special. One year, the potential guest list was growing to impressive lengths, even for us, and then at the last minute, we learned that an older divorced friend would be alone for Thanksgiving. My husband and I quickly conferred and invited him, too. He brought dessert, ate two complete rounds of dinner, and provided a lasting private joke for us by complaining that the dinner rolls hadn’t been heated. He left a heartfelt message of thanks on our answering machine a few days later, and a few weeks after that, he died alone in his home from the complications of a long-running health problem.
We continued the practice of an open-invite Thanksgiving for years, until the core group of newsroom waifs and strays married, moved or otherwise dispersed. But what I remember most about those dinners was how unexpectedly relaxed they were. The emphasis was on feeding appreciative people, not on setting the perfect table.
It helped that my husband shared in this spirit. If one of you is a control freak and the other an improviser, an open approach to a holiday dinner could be a disaster. But if you are both game, then plan on producing successive meals from the fridge over several hours. (Don’t let stuffing and other bacteria-prone dishes rest at room temperature past the time it takes to serve your initial meal, or you will never have anyone come to dinner ever again, period.)
So what if you end up microwaving individual portions of turkey and mashed potatoes several times in one night? This approach to Thanksgiving is about camaraderie, not formality. Stack the plates, silverware and napkins in the kitchen; point people in the right direction as they come through the door, open an extra bottle of wine and then sit back and relax.
And you might learn, as we did, that what goes around comes around, sometimes in unexpectedly delightful ways.
In all of our years of feeding other people, we have collected only one invitation to someone else’s home for Thanksgiving. As it happened, we had already invited our own first dinner guest to our house, a friend who was new to Albany and a long way from his family. We were thrilled to let someone host us for a change, but we didn’t want to leave our own guest stranded. I called our prospective hosts and explained our dilemma.
The wife in this couple thought like us, and didn’t miss a beat. “Bring your friend along,” she said. And so we did.
Grains of New York
If you’re going local this Thanksgiving, don’t forget the grains. While you’re not going to meet the producer at a farm stand or market, there are farmers, millers and bakers at work in our fine state. This means that you can, with a little work, get wheat that breathed Empire State air, or at least stuff we exhaled and blew across one of our borders.
Let’s start with the whole grain. One idea is to make stuffing, or a side dish, from wheat berries grown in New York or Vermont. Honest Weight Food Co-op and Chatham Real Food Market sell these wheat seeds in the bulk sections. They look like fat grains of rice, and they cook up much like rice, too, using about twice as much water as grains. The berries come out pearly and round, which makes a really nice texture in salads and casseroles. I think beets, shredded raw or cooked and chopped, plus wheat berries, is a fancy start for any side-dish improv—the combo shines deep red, almost like gems.
If you’d like to make stuffing from bread that uses locally grown and or/ground wheat, you have a few options. All Good Bakers uses flour from North Country Farms, a Watertown mill that stone grinds flour from hard red winter wheat sourced in a 300-mile radius. Heidelberg Baking Company and Rock Hill Bakehouse also use this flour in some of their breads. Placid Baker in Troy uses flour from Milanaise, a Quebec Mill that sources 75 percent of its wheat in the province.
If you want to get down to the flour yourself, here’s how to decode your options.
Farmer Ground Flour mills New York state-grown grains in Trumansburg, outside of Ithaca. Their half-white bread flour is at Honest Weight and would go swell in your dinner rolls. The co-op in Chatham also stocks their pastry and rye flours, as well as their cornmeal, which comes highly recommended for your stuffing-bound cornbread. Try it half and half with that whole-wheat pastry flour, in the crust for your sweet potato pie.
Wild Hive flours are available in Chatham. Milled from regional grains in Clinton Corners, this flour has some foodie superpowers. The mill makes special grinds for Eataly NYC, and Café La Perche in Hudson.
North Country Farms’ whole-wheat flour is at Honest Weight, and area supermarkets carry their white and wheat flours in five-pound bags.
Champlain Valley Milling is in Westport, and many of their flours are at Honest Weight. This mill sources grains from out of state as well as in state, so look at the label for each flour’s origin.
Disclaimer: This is a list of what I know of local grains, not a thorough encyclopedia. If I’ve overlooked a local baker or flour, do forgive!
My son Jackson must have been around 5 years old, and having an absolutely delightful time running around whacking at the tennis ball with his little hockey stick, digging it out of snowbanks and trying to stickhandle through the mostly older people playing street hockey in front of my parents’ house. We’d been out there about an hour, my mother was at the front door yelling that it was time for dessert, and moist important, the score was tied. So I called out “Next goal wins?” and most everyone nodded in agreement.
A few minutes later, one of Jackson’s cousins, and his teammate, put the “puck” in between the pylons we used for goals, and that was it. And then Jackson—victorious—burst into tears. He had been having so much fun that whatever solace he might have taken from winning was overwhelmed by the despair he felt because the game was over.
He got over it, and was able to participate in subsequent Thanksgiving and Christmas day games without the dramatic finale. And for the few more years we continued this holiday tradition, I think he came to appreciate what his father and uncles and aunts and cousins had always enjoyed about the post-dinner games over the years: the mildly competitive atmosphere, the breaking up of a long day indoors with some outdoor exercise, and the good-old spirit of fun. Before my nephews got older and athletic enough to run circles around my generation, they enjoyed coining phrases to explain why the old guys were winning (the most common penalty was “big butting,” and trying to sneak a goal by lifting the puck 20 yards high in the air to a waiting teammate was a “silly pass”).
Holiday activities (besides the obvious cooking and eating of the enormous meal, and at Christmas, the opening of presents) don’t have to be traditions set in stone to be repeated, year after year, until they are approached with something akin to dread; in fact, the demise of our street-hockey tradition owed in part to the increasing reluctance of the older participants to drag themselves off the sofa. But I still have fond memories of it, and I know my sons, nephews and niece enjoyed it while it lasted.
Over the years I’ve always enjoyed an outdoor activity on the morning of a holiday family gathering—a walk at Five Rivers, touch football in Washington Park, etc.—and these are especially good for spending quality time with children before they head back inside for reruns of The Office and playing with the Wii. Lately, my kids have come to look forward to another tradition we began a few years ago: seeing a movie together at the Spectrum on Christmas Day before we head back home to prepare and eat the feast.
Once every few years, my sister-in-law’s family comes from Oregon to spend Thanksgiving with us, which is extra-special for us and the kids because they usually stay in the house a couple of nights. Besides being able to, um, open an extra bottle of wine or two because no one is going anywhere, it also gives us time for an after-dinner game of charades—something we hadn’t done together in many years until they visited again last Thanksgiving. As in the past, there were moments of hilarity; also revelations, such as the fact that Jackson (now 14) is good at more than just soccer and street hockey. I had barely signaled “fourth word” and started to pull on pretend pants when he blurted out “Sponge Bob Square Pants” to win the round in record time. The next time they stay with us for a holiday, I have a feeling we’ll play charades—and I’m sure Jackson will be ready.
The Long, Long Table
I don’t know too many people who have a dining table that seats 15, as that kind of furniture started to vanish after the Victorian era. But it’s easy to end up with a dozen or more guests for Thanksgiving, as we had the year we invited my hustand’s entire Boston clan to Albany. Here’s one way to put everyone at the same table, which will make for a delightfully raucous, fun meal.
Pick the largest “company room” in your home. If you don’t have a dining room—and many houses and apartments do not these days—then set up dinner in the living room or the all-purpose dining/living/entertaining area in your home. Don’t worry if it’s in full view of the kitchen as you’re finishing dinner—everyone will end up in the kitchen anyhow as you take the turkey out of the oven.
Expand the basic table to its maximum length with the leaves. Send out a call for folding chairs.
If you don’t have an expanding table, all you need is a covered surface. It doesn’t matter what’s under the tablecloth. A picnic table, plywood or—no joke—a door turned hardware-side down and resting on a temporary base such as small filing cabinets- can all do temporary dining table duty.
If the table still isn’t long enough, then fit an additional small table against one end. A card table is perfect. It doesn’t have to be the exact height or shape as the main table. Once you cover the entire surface, small differences in shape or height will be a lot less obvious. A pad under the tablecloth will soften any disparities, and a folded blanket or two will do just fine as a table pad.
Cover the entire surface with your tablecloth. If you don’t have a large tablecloth, think rustic and funky: a vintage quilt; vintage bed linens; a new canvas drop cloth. You can also use a few different standard tablecloths; just overlap the edges. It doesn’t matter if they don’t match, because you’re going to divert everyone’s attention with a table runner down the center. A roll of brown craft paper; parchment paper, or extra-wide heavy duty foil can all become table runners, with the added benefit that they can be recycled for other uses after dinner. You just want something traveling down the table in an unbroken line that draws everyone’s attention to that center point.
Finally, anchor the runner with small bowls filled with . . . just about anything: eggs (pastel varieties, available in farmers markets and food co-ops, are great conversation pieces); marbles; nuts; clementines; beach rocks—anything that will act as a paperweight and add a decorative touch. The bowls don’t have to match, either; their contents will pull together the look. Then sit down and enjoy your dinner at your improvised table for 15. The Victorians may have had more matching furniture, but they probably didn’t have as much fun getting creative.