Thanksgiving is a celebration of bounty — a feast that pays homage to the harvest, to family, friends and good fortune. And although we'd be hard-pressed to explain to any alien species why a bread-stuffed turkey — or tofurkey — somehow symbolizes gratitude, we'd like to think those Martians would be too busy savoring pies to even ask.
It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a knockout pie — preferably several — and the classics are hard to beat. But after the umpteenth go-round with the recipe on the back of the pumpkin can, even the traditional can get a little staid.
So we've turned to a trio of experts — sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen from Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop and Berkeley, Calif.'s queen of chocolate, Alice Medrich — for some ideas on updating those familiar flavors. Salted Caramel Apple Pie, anyone?
“It's cool to get adventurous,” Emily Elsen says, “but I want a classic on the table.”
The Elsens' tiny pie shop will be operating 24/7 Thanksgiving week, churning out more than 1,000 apple, brown butter pumpkin, chocolate-pecan and Salty Honey pies. If their name is familiar, you've probably run across a mention of the duo on the Food Network, or in the pages of the New York Times or Martha Stewart's various publications. They were named Artisan of the Year in 2011 by Time Out New York. The Salty Honey has become a New York cult fave, and their Salted Caramel Apple Pie is so popular, they make it every single day.
It's an interesting pie, to be sure. The list of ingredients is a tad startling — Angostura bitters, flake salt and black pepper? — and the name suggests a certain candied apple gooeyness. But the pie emerges as a carefully balanced, deeply complex and distinctly un-gooey dessert, which tastes even better the next day.
“It's like built-in anticipation,” Emily says. “Fruit pies are better the next day — and it has to cool before you cut it, otherwise it falls apart.”
In fact, nighttime's when the Elsens do their baking, so the pies have ample chance to cool and set, and for those flavors to develop before being devoured the next day. From a frantic home baking standpoint, that's cause for thanksgiving right there.
Many of the Elsens' recipes in their new “Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book” (Grand Central, $30) include savory or unexpected elements. A Junipear Pie mixes fresh pears with honey, lemon and dried juniper berries, in a dessert inspired by the Bee's Knees cocktail. A Strawberry Balsamic Pie uses black pepper and Angostura bitters, as well as vinegar.
Fueled by the craft cocktail renaissance, a bitters craze has emerged on both coasts, so when the sisters encountered rhubarb bitters a few years ago, they tried adding it to rhubarb pie “to give it a little amp.” Now Angostura and Old Fashion bitters have become part of their baking arsenal.
“Angostura is a distillation of roots and herbs and things,” Emily says. “It's like the secret ingredient. It gives it a little something special.”
Pies tend to be single-note affairs, so spice- and sugar-heavy that there are times when you can hardly taste the main ingredient. Pulling back on the spices and adding other elements — browned butter, deeply caramelized sugar and carrot juice, in the case of the Elsens' Brown Butter Pumpkin Pie — means “you're hitting all the notes,” Emily says.
Some baking ingredients are added not for their specific flavor, but because of what they do to their compatriots in the dessert says Medrich, who makes apple crisp — “the 50-year evolution of my mother's pie” — and Chocolate-Pecan Pie for Thanksgiving. The yogurt in her pie dough not only makes the flaky crust more tender, it makes the butter taste better. And, says Medrich, “we need a little chocolate on the table.”
But exercise a little restraint, says the woman, who introduced chocolate truffles to this country 40 years ago, via Cocolat, her iconic shop in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. Use good quality bittersweet chocolate — 54 to 64 percent cacao — but not too much. It's all about balance.
“If you put too much chocolate in pecan pie,” she says, “you lose the pecan-pieness of it.”ADVENTUROUS THANKSGIVING PIES