Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving: The Great Pie Challenge

I've been drowning in pie.

In the last week and a half, I've made more than thirty five apple pies. Vegan crumble apple pies, to be exact. How does one person find the need (or time) to make that many apple pies? Well, it all starts with four big boxes of apples, a bit of elbow grease, and a little help from a simple - but mighty - kitchen tool.

Every year, a group of young Portlanders I used to live with throw a Thanksgiving dinner for about 300 people the Sunday before the actual holiday- complete with deep fried turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and, four two years running, 25 of my apple pies. I don't know what had initially driven me to take on a task like this, but I credit that initial impulse for my current penchant for baking. I was never much of a baker before college - usually leaving the holiday cakes and pies to my sister or, more often, Marie Callender's - but there is quite the tradition of Apple Pie in my family, and the instinct was tested in the toughest of baking challenges - vegan holiday goods, and lots of them. 

My tried and true recipe is very loosely based on this one, and it has since evolved into a slap-dash memorized assembly of a few simple ingredients, mixed together without much actual measuring, but it always seems to come out well. I'm proud to say I'm now one of those women who has a pie recipe that I couldn't share with anyone - not that I don't want to, but if pressed, I don't think I could actually recall any actual quantities or cooking times - I just do it the way I've been doing it for years: good ingredients, messy countertops, an eye for when it "just looks right".

My crust is hand-made, part white part whole wheat flour, with vegan margarine that lives in the freezer up until I need it, a pinch of salt, and ice water. The margarine is scooped on top of the flour and salt, straight out of the tub without any actual measurements - just a spoon, until it's "enough". Then it's all rubbed together with my fingers and pulled together with ice water. It's then popped back into the freezer until I'm ready to roll it out - sometimes the next day, sometimes the next week, sometimes in 15 minutes. Yeah, I know a bunch of bakers who would really cringe at my crust method, but it works! Every time! 

My real secret is the filling. 

This little gadget is one of my all-time favorite kitchen tools, and probably the only reason I can cook so many pies this time of year. It peels, slices, and cores the apples, big or small, and it only takes a few passes with a knife to make the preferred small segments of apple for the filling. I pre-cook the apples and use a streusel topping, again, no measurements to be found. Sometimes there's four apples in a pie, sometimes six. My grandma used to piles in raw apples with cinnamon and sugar, and it would cook down in the crust - a mountainous pie would go in, and a much smaller pie would come out, with the individual apple slices standing on their own. Her's was great, but I love a bit more cohesive filling, so I saute the apples in a little more margarine, sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of flour. This gives the fruit it's own syrup, and the pies stay roughly the same shape as they cook - a perfect base for my really simple crumble topping - just margarine, flour, and sugar! All told, that's six ingredients, seven if you count water, and after a while I get into a groove and the pies come out of the oven eight at a time. 

The day of the feast, I showed up with my pies in tow, and began serving to a long line of hungry people. 34 minutes later, 15 hours of pie baking was devoured without a moment to snap a picture. Yep. This is a blog without a photo of the final product. What can I say? Some things are best left to the imagination, and the image of row after row of pie on my kitchen counters and dining room table were quite the sight to see.

I made about ten more throughout the week for my housemates and my "real" Thanksgiving with my friends, which was a fantastic event full of music, monkey-bread, and two HUGE turkeys. Something about the day caught me up in the moment, and I felt no desire to be separated from the action by a camera lens. Yes, the biggest food holiday of the year passed by with not so much as a full-table food shot. And I don't feel guilty about that in the slightest. 

So, one holiday down, a few more good ones to go before my favorite - the new year. This season means pie season, and the smell of spiced apples isn't going to fade from my kitchen any time soon. Assembly-line baking does have it's zen element, but let's just say I'm done with pie for a while. At least until December. 

Happy Holidays, and Eat Well!


  1. You have a very nice and interesting blog, I like your layout and information. My food/cooking book just published (Nov/08)may be a useful addition to your kitchen shelf: it is a combination of kitchen references and my catering recipes. Check it out:

    “Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen—Secrets of Making Great Foods” (

  2. Glad to hear your holiday was a tasty one! :)

  3. Yum! I think if you're going to drown in anything, pie is the way to go ;o)

  4. what's the name of that wonderful apple core-er / pie-maker saviour??

  5. It's literally called and apple peeler corer slicer. Creative, no?

    Here's the kind I use -