Mocksgiving Prep: version 18

This is the 18th time I’ve prepared to host my friends for the Mocksgiving meal. I’m perilously close to having had as many years of life with Mocksgiving as without it. Adam and I were married in August of 2000, and moved into a cute little apartment in Roslindale, which I saw for the first time in the 5 hour layover between returning from our wedding in Washington and leaving for our honeymoon in Greece. I worked from home that first year of married life, and I got really bored. Bored enough, it turns out, to try to learn how to cook. Adam’s family had lately been going to restaurants for Thanksgiving. I decided to give them the treat of a “real homecooked meal” instead… just as soon as I learned how to cook.

I was young, but I was no fool. So two weeks before Thanksgiving, I decided to give it a trial run. So I did a “mock” Thanksgiving. But I knew that two people couldn’t eat a turkey (not and repeat the performance a scant few weeks later!) so I invited some of our best friends (and all of our wedding party). That year 13 of us sat around a table and shared a meal and it was FANTASTIC. Also, that year, it just didn’t work out with the inlaws and Thanksgiving. We had such a good time that I repeated the performance the next year. And the next. The Mocksgiving that was most likely to not happen was the one that happened a scant two and a half weeks after Thane was born. But that one happened too, although I barely remember it.

Just as a caveat, I always feel somewhat self-conscious about Mocksgiving. We have long since hit the physical limit of how many people it’s possible to invite. I can say with relative confidence that no more than 30 adults can be seated simultaneously. Even though my circle of friends and welcome faces has continued to grow, my dining room as not. So I cannot invite many people I would wish to invite. If you’re feeling a little wistful about not being able to come, I likely feel a little wistful about not being able to invite you. Please don’t use this as a litmus test of friendship!

Anyway, one of the things about this particular day in my year is that I always spend it talking to you in my head. I’m not sure why. I think there’s something about the continuity. On this day I practice skills and revive recipes that go back in time. My bread recipe, for example, is a simple one. But my mother used to make it as both a therapy for her aching carpal tunnel hands, and as our primary source of bread. My grandmother made it, and served it in neat slices at lunch. My great grandmother, sharp blue eyes and wry smile, made it before her. I can see generations of capable hands making the same mysterious, practiced gestures. As my hands gnarl out of their childish softness, long having left maiden behind and well into matron (on my way to crone), I see the hands of my maternal line. And these recipes are really throwbacks. Adam’s bread, which he makes year round and which is our “normal” bread, is a healthy, whole-wheat, no-knead recipe he’s improved over years. My bread bears all the hallmarks of the fifties – white flour, butter (or margarine, as the recipe calls for) and the Crisco which lays unused in every other recipe but my high holy day recipes.

So, with no further ado, here are the notes I’ve saved for you so far. I’ll likely continue to add as breaks in cooking allow!

Step 1: Get the kids out of the house

There’s pretty much never school on my prep day, due to Veteran’s Day. Mocksgiving and Veteran’s day almost always line up. I probably could do this with them home. It actually would probably be great if I taught them in this long line of heritage. But man, that sounds exhausting. I find it very relaxing and centering to just do this one thing – readying everything – on Mocksgiving day. This year I found out a few days too late that their regular afterschool and vacation program, the Boys and Girls Club, actually had an offering. Oh well, enjoy your LARP lads!

One of the great quests of Mocksgiving is the procurement of the turkey. It falls *right around* the time that stores start getting their fresh turkeys, or rather usually a day or two before. That’s what makes it exciting. I’ve noticed even the fresh turkeys tend to be rather frozenish for Mocksgiving. I went to Wegman’s first (figuring that any place that has an open bin of oyster mushrooms would have, you know, turkey). I was wrong, so then I went to Stop and Shop which had just gotten their shipment. I selected the largest turkey I could find, clocking in at 24 pounds. I once got an artesenal farm-raised, locally grown and ethically sourced turkey. It was terrible. It turns out that places like Butterball inject brine into the birds. I’m here to tell you that’s what makes them DELICIOUS. So I cheerfully buy Butterball turkeys and they always turn out amazing. Unfortunately this year, the Butterballs were all still frozen, so I went with an organic turkey that was marked as fresh. (Although is still rather suspiciously rock-like.) I trust that brine is organic, and I won’t miss out on any deliciousness due to upgrading.

My first task of tomorrow morning is almost always chiseling out the gizzards & neck of the frozen bird, while swearing that next year I’m going to find a turkey that is ACTUALLY not frozen, not one that just claims to not be frozen.

If June Cleaver played D&D

Aprons are most critical when you’re doing stuff that involves a lot of flour. Both making the bread and rolling out pies have this unfortunate tendency to enflour your midriff if you don’t wear an apron. So I wear an apron. I also have learned to seriously sequester my hair while baking.

Checking to see if the yeast is alive

The first step of my ancestral bread recipe is to make sure the yeast is alive. You add the sugar, salt, hot water and yeast and then go clean up the kitchen a bit. If you see this bubbling, your yeast is fine. If you don’t, you might as well stop now or you’ll get unleavened bread. This yeast was particularly vibrant.

Molten dough-flow

I actually really don’t like my KitchenAid mixer, which I know makes me weird. I miss my Sunbeam mixer, but I got one of the “after bankruptcy” models that was poorly manufactured. I find it hard to add ingredients with the KitchenAid, and I can never mix in enough flour. I have to finish off getting the flour in by hand on the kneading table. The dough is warm, and moves like a slow lava-flow. I think the kneading is one of the spots where you need to know what it “should” be like, and where practice makes a big difference. I added almost 3 cups of flour more than the recipe called for to get the bread to the right consistency.

The bread goes through three rises. It doubles in the bowl twice, and then it rises in the loaf pans. While the bread is rising, I clean up the kitchen and get started on the pie starter. I should’ve made it last night, but I was lazy.

Vegetarian pie starter

Once upon a time, I had a perfect pie starter made out of Crisco. Then Crisco took the trans fats out of their shortening. I’ve been complaining about this for like 5 years, and I may complain about it for the rest of my life. Anyway, they’ve improved the recipe, but I still find that the all Crisco recipe doesn’t taste as good as it used to. I really like working with a lard crust. It’s super forgiving. But it’s not vegetarian (which many of my guests are), and the taste also isn’t perfect. The mixed butter-Crisco crust is pretty hard to work (I use a vodka-water mix to help compensate), but has the best taste/flakiness quotient.

It’s possible I have strong pie crust opinions. By my reckoning, I’ve made about 200 pies in my life.

Big crumbs – increases the chance I’ll have to roll out the crust twice which makes it less flaky

I still hate cutting in shortening. I often make Adam do this, but he’s working and I didn’t delegate early enough. The crumb on this isn’t quite small enough (eg the shortening bits should be smaller), but I’m a little lazy and this is good enough for me to work with. Its in the freezer now, getting super cold so I can work it.

Second rise

As I mentioned, my yeast this time was super active. I think it cut nearly an hour off the regular rise time on the bread. (I’ve also learned on particularly cold days – like today – to prewarm my ceramic bowl by filling it with hot water.) This is the second rise on my dough.

Formed and ready for their last rise

My mom does a set of loaf-shaping activities I’ve never quite mastered. I suspect that if you plan on entering your bread in the State Fair they’re an important step. But so far no one at Mocksgiving has complained. I really like forming the loaves – you get to slap the bread with a satisfying “thwack!” that brings me back to being a little girl. I suspect there’s about a half cup of Crisco that ends up in the recipe, from how much I slather my hands with to make the forming possible.

Single crust for lemon meringue

Here’s another task I should’ve done last night – the lone crust for my favorite pie, lemon meringue. Fun fact: I can’t spell meringue. I’m now at the point in the day where I’m watching the clock about when I need to pick up the kids. I still have three pies + the most difficult pie filling to go before I can rest. Maybe four. I saved some rhubarb this summer and I’m pondering whether I can make a pie of it. (I always think about the “extra pie”. I never make the “extra pie”.)

Why a pastry cloth is a must

All the pie crust recipes I use are high-shortening and hard to work. There’s a few things I keep in mind: all ingredients must be COLD. Handle the dough as little as possible (an opposite from the lovingly worked bread dough). But I don’t know how you’d be able to get the crust in the pan if you used a board instead of a cloth. I fold it with the cloth. Sometimes with a particularly difficult roll, I’ll even drag it over on the cloth. Then I can gently unfold it. I still end up having to reroll after this step half the time.

No reroll this time – possibly because it got stuck and I already had to reroll. That makes it tougher but easier to work.

I usually make lemon meringue, blueberry from farmshare blueberries set aside over the summer, peach ditto, and two pecan pies (which are SO EASY compared to all the rest). I didn’t make peach pie this year because, um, I’m lazy. I was really busy when the peaches were in season. It’s a pity because peach pie is my favorite. My mom can make the dough actually round when she rolls it out. I can’t. Also, my edge-crinkling skills have improved, but they’re not up to her standards.

Lone pie crust

This pie crust gives me fits every year. It always schlumps on me, regardless of crust recipe. I’ve tried different pie pans. My mom pricks the bottom like three times. As you can see, no inch goes unpricked. There’s actually specific gadgets you can get for this, although I’ve never tried it. So I take that as validation my schlumping issue isn’t incompetence. This year it came out ok. My mom’s looks way better. It’ll taste great with lemon meringue in it though!

Meanwhile, the bread’s out of the oven just in time to put the crust in.

Baked bread – the sheen comes from the last use of Crisco in my Mocksgiving prep
First offering on the porch

I like how the bread and the wood of the porch are the same color. I keep all my baking on the porch because my cats are jerks. Ask me about the year that some feline stepped right in the middle of my pie and I had to eat it all by myself. Tragic. The lone crust goes in right after the bread comes out.

The schlump. This one is within acceptable tolerances, so I won’t try again.

It’s amazing how interrupting it is picking up the boys. An hour gone, with nothing in the oven! Dark is falling, and I’m not nearly done! I came back and got started on the two pecan pies. The kitchen is a major disaster area – once I get the blueberry prepped I’ll need to clean it again. Then the last pie of the day is my lemon meringue. I should probably make that before I clean up, but I’ll need the mixer bowl cleaned.

I’m pretty sure there’s other stuff I should be doing too, but I’m momentarily forgetting it.

Pecan pie – sometimes I just dump the pecans in. Sometimes I carefully arrange them. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter.
Two pecan pies

I should really make just over 3 pecan pies in Pi plates for perfect geekery. I tried to trace a pie in pecans on one of them, but I think you’d have to be staring pretty hard to make it out.

I’m starting to flag, energy wise. Now’s the hard part.

5:30 pm –
It occurs to me I should’ve been time stamping this all along. Sorry.

Luscious farm share blueberries

I’m in the home stretch now. The blueberry pie is in the oven. The pecan pies are cooling. I still need to make the lemon meringue filler before I collapse, but that’s not so bad. It could also THEORETICALLY happen tomorrow, but that’s not a good idea. I also made a sad discovery with regard to one of my favorite pie plates. It was a gift from a friend, oh, ten years ago. It’s my “go to” for blueberry pies. Lately it’s been a little porous and leaky. But it has now developed a fatal crack. Farewell favorite pie plate. Sniff sniff.

The crack doesn’t look that bad until you look closely

On the plus side, the pecan pies are looking excellent.

You can see the bubbling

8:51 pm –
It’s done. The last pie has come out of the oven. The meringue came out very nicely this time! I could eat that filling by the spoonful. I’m a little nervous about putting on the porch. The temperature out there is currently 34 degrees, and I don’t think the meringue should freeze. There’s no room in the fridge (I moved the turkey from the front porch to the fridge, because the front porch was too cold to help thaw it). So that leaves the oven. (It doesn’t need to be chilled.) But the real question is … will I remember to remove the pie before I preheat the oven for the turkey?

Tomorrow morning – turkey, stuffing, potatoes & butternut squash! And table settings, cleaning house, and other preparing.

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People I never thought I’d be

I spent the first part of this week in Tampa for work. I had not yet unpacked my suitcase from the LAST business trip I was on (Minnesota) before I had to pack for this one. It was my third business trip in about 8 weeks. I felt – as I went through the well practiced shoes-laptop-liquids process – like a jaded road warrior.

Tampa did have some advantages over Minnesota
Tampa did have some advantages over Minnesota

I remember my first few times flying – Boston to Seattle in college – when I stared horrified a the people blowing off the whole “in case of emergency, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device” speech. Didn’t these people care about their lives? I pitied them their calcified ways – eyes on the Harvard Business Review as this remarkable patchwork of humanity is exposed below them. Do they not know that their flight represents the wildest fantasy – never to be obtained – of generations of humanity? How can they so casually close the window and catnap?

Yeah. During the safety notification, I check to see which is my nearest exit. I wonder if there is anyone, anywhere who doesn’t know how to buckle their seatbelt. Then I open Harvard Business Review (ok, actually it’s usually a fashion magazine for a Technically Pretty fashion magazine review). I still like the window seat, and I still try to spot my house/college/guess-the-big-city as I fly, but the magic is indeed gone.

The training I took was on Pragmatic Marketing. Why I needed this training was a story for another day. It was excellent training – well delivered, thought-provoking, very educational. But there were a lot of identity-crisis moments for me in it. Here was I: liberal arts major, lover of medieval literature, classical musician, backpacker, mother, role-playing-gamer-who-wishes-she-could-talk-her-gaming-group-into-dungeons-and-dragons, baseball-lover, programmer, technical architect… in a marketing class. The word marchitecture was extensively and non-ironically used.

I learned a lot of extremely interesting things I had never previously imagined knowing, but wondered to find myself in such a place under such circumstances.


I am – at this moment – sitting at Chuck E Cheese. I know – I’m breaking form. Usually my now-weekly posts are written at the YMCA during basketball practice. But today Grey and Lincoln have a video game playdate, which would not be nearly as fun if the “little brother” was present. So I told the little brother type person to name his entertainment, and for two hours it would be his. He picked the rathole.

I’m lurking on a local wifi network (seriously, Chuck E, how can you not have wifi). I have a GREAT idea for a new type of business… imagine a big central play area for kids from 3 – 10 years of age. A big, bouncy-housed arcade. Imagine seating around the sides – maybe raised – with great visibility of the play areas. Maybe there would even be closed circuit cameras covering the blind spots. Then imagine this seating around the edge was a mix of 4 – 6 person tables and one to two person locations. There would be a light appetizers and drink service to the grownup section. There would be great wifi, tons of power, comfortable seats, lower noise (low enough that a phone call would be plausible) and someone at the door (like they have at Chuck E’s) to make sure there are no small person escapees.

Work-from-home parents and folks like me would come with our laptops, offer our kids some great exercise/fun (maybe with their friends). We could either catch up on our work/personal digital lives, or come with our friends (who are increasingly the parents of our children’s friends) and catch up on the latest together. It would be awesome. Maybe there could be a per hour (or per day) fee, or you could sign up for a monthly membership. Maybe they’d even mix in some enrichment activities, like sports/activities.

They’d rake it in, I tell you.


I find the process of being no longer young continues to surprise me on a regular basis. My latest “get off my lawn!” moment happened last weekend. I was making some pies. Now, you must understand that I know how to make pie. I was running some quick calculations in my head, and I figure I’ve made between 100 – 120 pies in my lifetime. Every single one of those pies was made with the same recipe, inherited from my grandmother, which is hard to make but deliciously flaky.

Then, a few years ago, Crisco changed its recipe in response to the backlash against transfats. As far as I can tell, Crisco was all trans fats. This pie crust recipe that my grandmother passed down to me is entirely made of Crisco. It took me a while to eat through the old pie starter and Crisco I had. But then I started having trouble. I blamed it on all sorts of things: not enough flour on the pastry crust, too much shortening in the pie starter, not cold enough, too much water, not enough water. Finally though, very tired on a Friday night and working on pie 2 of 6, I finally realized that it just. Wasn’t. Working. For the first time ever, I actually got a pie crust so bad I couldn’t make it work and I had to throw it out. (That was a pie crust that ACTUALLY didn’t have enough water.) Dawning realization hit: it wasn’t me. I wasn’t making a mistake. It was the pie crust. It was unworkable. Crisco ruined my recipe.

Depressed, I turned to America’s Test Kitchen and made a shortening-and-butter crust that came out much, much better. But I had that “Why do they go “improving” perfectly good things and ruining the way I’ve always done them?” I mean, in this case I understood. Transfats = bad for health. But a tie that went back to the early 20th century, and my bright-eyed great-grandmother, was just severed. I mourn its loss. As I move from youth to middle age, I better see the costs – not just the benefits – of the inexorable march of progress. I know how things once were (through the rosy tinted spectacles of youth, of course) and lament their loss. My sons will never learn to roll a pie crust using Grandma Finley’s recipe (unless some enterprising entrepreneur brings back the classic formulation – you never know.)

My grandma’s caramel corn recipe requires corn syrup and brown sugar. Perhaps I’d better make it while I can!

Pie-d Piper

This was still not all the pies
This was still not all the pies

Yesterday was Piemas. For those of you not familiar with the phenomenon, Piemas, it is a complicated holiday with a long and extended history. It is a holiday we made up about 7 years ago to celebrate the eating of pie, and other pie shaped festivities. Mmmm pie.

This year, I made:
2 chicken pot pies
1 blueberry pie from farmshare blueberries this summer
1 lemon merangue pie (which I just finished – it’s my favorite)
1 pecan pie
1 Nutella crack pie (because I had an empty crust and needed a filling and I had Nutella lying around – this was a digestive bombshell)

Many other people brought many other pies. We had a 1:1 pie to person ratio, with the advantage slightly in favor of the pies. There were, as always, many delicious and exceptional pies. There was much talking, and much game playing. There were 8.5 kids, but their chaos generation fields were overwhelmed by the tumult of Adults Eating Pie. There were savory pies, sweet pies, ice cream pies & boozy pies. In an innovation this year, I also served fancy teas in my fancy silver tea pot in fancy cups, which was really fun. There were new people, and folks who’d been around since the thought first occurred that Pies were important enough to merit their own darn holiday.

The whole thing was really fun, and I didn’t make it to bed until 2:30 this morning and I regret not a whit of it, and I’m so grateful to everyone who came and brought pie and ate it with me – except for Josh was was CLEARLY cheating at 7 Wonders in order to beat me that badly. And for those of you who couldn’t be here – I missed you. Next year.

The rabbit crawfish pie was amazing, and definitely made off with the award for most interesting presentation.

You can see full pictures of the festivities here: Piemas!!!

Today is Piemas

The Saturday closest to 3/14, at 1:59 pm, is Piemas. This is a very complicated concept, but basically Piemas is a day dedicated to the eating of pie. For the purposes of Piemas, a pie is defined as a circular food object with at least one crust: so quiche, shepherd’s pie, cheesecake and tartes would all qualify. We usually have nearly equal number of savory and sweet pies. And basically we sit around all day and eat pie.

It’s a fantastic holiday. And it starts in about an hour. I made only four pies this year: lemon merangue, pecan pie (which is practically cheating it’s so easy), and two chicken pot pies which are in the ‘fridge to cook as appropriate. Everything is in readiness for a long day of dedicated pie-consumption.

Let the pie begin.

Mocksgiving

Eight years ago, I was a newly wed in a grownup apartment with a grownup job and a grownup husband doing the grownup thing for the first time. I had just turned 22. And being a grownup, I volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner for my extended family of inlaws. Having been raised in a Protestant-and-turkey family, I just could never quite get behind the idea of going to a restaurant for Thanksgiving. Still can’t, truth be told.

There was just one problem: I didn’t know how to cook. I’d never cooked a turkey before in my life. Thanksgiving day, with my new inlaws arriving, seemed like a bad time for a first turkey, especially since my mom (whom I had on speed dial) would also be busy that day. A second problem presented itself, however. Two people cannot eat a turkey by themselves and stay married. Since I was (am) fond of my husband, I invited a few friends over to help us eat it, and broke out my still-new wedding gifts to serve the turkey. I think there were 13 of us for that trial, or “mock” Thanksgiving. We had a fantastic time. We ate, drank, told stories, and celebrated together. By the time the evening was over, we decided we’d had so much fun, we had to do it again next year.

I ended up not hosting Thanksgiving for the family that year. I don’t remember why. But every year since, I’ve hosted Mocksgiving. It’s a huge annual event. People ask me about the dates months in advance. People fly in. (I have a friend from DC here now.) It even engendered a spinoff holiday — Piemas. (Which merits its own post in March at the appropriate time.)

Tonight is Mocksgiving Eve. Usually for Mocksgiving I make: 5 pies, a batch of bread, a turkey, 10 pounds of mashed potatoes, a significant amount of butternut squash, stuffing (in the turkey and outside) and gravy. (It seems like there’s usually something else too. I used to make salad, but no one eats it so I gave up.) It is potluck, so in addition to the vast amounts of food I provide, most folks bring something else too. There is a LOT of food. This year I trimmed down to one pie. I was going to make a lemon merangue too, but my crust collapsed (must remember not to use that pie pan for lemon merangue — this is the second time this has happened). On Mocksgiving Eve, I used to spend a lot of time panicking, cleaning, polishing silver (yes, I actually have silver), and er, panicking. Now that I’ve been doing this for NEARLY a decade, the panic is significantly diminished. I know what I’m doing.

As I sashayed around the kitchen, with a candle lit above the sink and my music in the background and the scent of yeast rising in the hot water, I felt very happy and where I belonged. I love Mocksgiving.

It occurred to me this year that this is one more way in which my children will grow up warped. Piemas is fine — it is a standalone. (Plus, there is no such thing as too much pie.) But after cooking for up to 30 people a week and a half before Thanksgiving, I’m in no mood to cook a proper Thanksgiving dinner. And since we have no family remaining in the area, we don’t usually end up doing, well, anything for Thanksgiving proper. I wonder how old my sons will be before they figure out that not everyone does Mocksgiving, and moreover, most people do more on Thanksgiving. They get the Thanksgiving experience, only a bit earlier and with a slightly less great-aunt-heavy crowd.

There is one thing I hate about Mocksgiving. It is a sit down meal. We all sit down at proper place settings at the same time and eat together at table. And it is inherently important to me that Mocksgiving be held in my HOME. Therefore, there is an upper limit to the number of people who can be invited. I think I topped out at 28. Twenty-eight people in your house is a LOT of people, in case you’re curious. But I have more friends than that. I invite more people than can fit because there are always people who can’t make it. But I hate hate hate sending out the invitations. I can never invite all the people I’d like to. I know there must be friends of mine who feel left out — maybe hurt — that everyone else is talking about this fantastic affair to which they have not been invited. I wish I could figure out some way that it wouldn’t happen that way, but I don’t know how to make that work. Ah well. Generally, I invite everyone I invited last year, minus people who haven’t been able to make it for a few years or whom I haven’t heard from in quite a while, plus a few new folks with whom I’ve become closer. The first few years I was able to throw it open to everyone who wanted to come. I miss that.

But the bread is made, the pie is cooling, the largest-possible-turkey is in the fridge. Tomorrow I will wrestle with it (cursing) in the morning. My friends will arrive with hugs and casseroles. There will be the hard half-hour after the turkey comes out when everything must be done simultaneously. My kitchen, immaculate at the moment, will look for all the world like a hurricane hit it. We will retell stories, contemplate our very full bellies, stay up too late, catch up on gossip and generally have a fantastic time. I can’t wait.

The attendees at last Mocksgiving

Table 1 - the Grownups table
Table 1 - the 'Grownups' table

The kids table -- I always ended up here. This year I think well be able to do one long table.
The kids table -- I always ended up here. This year I think we'll be able to do one long table.

We usually end up with one or two (or 13) desserts.
We usually end up with one or two (or 13) desserts.

What my kitchen looks like afterwards -- I believe this was the year the sink broke.
What my kitchen looks like afterwards -- I believe this was the year the sink broke.