Ellen Gray is gearing up to bake nearly 600 pies for Thanksgiving—and to work 12-, 14-, and 16-hour days to pull it off. The baker at The Able Baker in Maplewood, New Jersey and the author of the forthcoming book Why Pie, Ellen has been rolling out pie shells since Halloween. And this week, it's show time.
She likens this Pie Olympiad—a huge number of pies baked in a comically small kitchen—to the mounting Broadway production. "It really involves all kinds of hands and talents"—and that includes baristas from front of house lured to help in the kitchen and customers off the streets, who volunteer for two-hour apple-peeling shifts.
It's a lot of stress over butter and fruit.
Baker Ellen Gray, putting pie in perspective
Once the scene has been set, the rehearsals rehearsed, Ellen will open the doors to audience on Wednesday—"and there they are." She has to satisfy all pre-ordered pies while anticipating walk-ins closer to the meal itself: Customers can buy whole pies—pumpkin, pecan, apple, buttermilk, and cranberry apple—as late as 4 P.M. the day before Thanksgiving. But predicting how many to have ready for walk-in orders is an impossible gamble that sometimes leaves the bakery with 30 or 40 or extra pies come Friday.
But even though Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week will all glom into one long exhausting day (interspersed with a few naps) for Ellen, Thanksgiving remains her favorite holiday: "It’s kind of interesting that this is how I spend the days leading up to it—but it’s very rewarding. It’s a great job to do and to have, but it’s stressful. It’s a lot of stress over some butter and fruit.”
Now, straight from a pie Olympian, here are the tips we can apply to our own (albeit humbler) Thanksgiving baking challenges:
Don't try to rush the process: "You can’t monkey with the temperature.
You think, 'I'll just blast this thing,' but you really have to behave yourself and bake according to temperature—you can’t just crank it up and walk away. You have to turn them, spin them, watch them, and whisper to them." Better to bake your pie ahead, then gently reheat, than to hurry along the baking (or, just as critical, the cooling) process.
Make ahead, but in order of fragility: Many pies can be made ahead of time, but some hold up better than others. At The Able Baker, Ellen bakes in order of how the pie—and its filling—will hold up over time: Pecan pie (hers has a splash of Jack Daniels) is the heartiest and therefore comes first (and the filling itself can withstand a couple of days in the fridge before being poured into a frozen shell and baked). Next comes apple, which requires more time in the oven (each 9-inch pie gets two pounds of apples). And lastly, the pumpkin pies, whose filling can be finicky if it sits too long and fragile once baked.
Respect, and work with, the weather: If the weather is cool, and so is your microclimate, your pies will cool properly, without refrigeration. In a warm environment, you may need to take more active measures: Put the cooling pie near a window or a fan and, if the oven is in use, move it far away.
Have extra ingredients on hand: Even Ellen—whose run-of-show "starts as a master plan" that's carefully orchestrated, with each ingredient accounted for—admits that there's a little bit of "the dashing out" when she finds someone has used the last of the nutmeg or the cloves. Play it safe on Thanksgiving, especially if your schedule is tight: Buy extra non-perishables rather than skating by on the bare minimum (you can always donate them to a food pantry, or keep them around till next Thanksgiving, or next pie, cometh).
Take care of yourself: Thanksgiving, for many, is a cooking marathon. Remember to eat and sleep.
Buy plenty of (savory) snacks: "We love salty things, so we learned we were in better spirits if we have bags of salty things to eat while we were baking." (The same was true while we were working on photo shoots for Food52's Baking.)
Try not to get sick of pie—and when you do, try a new-to-you variation: You'd think Ellen would be all pie'd out by the time her own Thanksgiving rolls around. But such is not the case. She makes a wild nut pie, a spin-off of a traditional pecan but with hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, and walnuts that gets baked in a springform so it’s very tall and very heavy. She'll also make pumpkin pie with cognac and something with apple, "but I usually eat that Friday morning for breakfast.”
What's the biggest number of pies you've made in one week? Tell us in the comments!