The days before Thanksgiving are calibrated by shopping lists and baking times, a checklist universe clicking down to a shared meal of thanks and camaraderie. And if your universe is populated with children, that checklist becomes even more important -- especially if you're taking your feast on the road.
Deciding on a portable course that involves the under-12 demographic is pretty easy: dessert. A selection of homey pies will involve them in the preparation and hold their attention -- both in the baking process and during feast-time, as the kids can take charge of serving the meal's finale. (Let's play restaurant!)
Kids and pies
Pies are fun, easy to make, feature seasonal ingredients and are as much a Thanksgiving sine qua non as the turkey. You can also make them the day before, a crucial element to feast-planning -- especially if your nascent pastry chefs need breaks for meals, play, bedtime.
As pie is to the dinner menu, so the crust is to a good pie. This is my perfect pie crust recipe, lifted from cookbook author Deborah Madison and suitable for pretty much any filling. You can stick to the basic recipe, or substitute whole-wheat flour for some of the all-purpose, add grated lemon or orange zest to the dough, or a teaspoon of cinnamon or other spice, depending on what's ending up inside.
Have your kids help with the mixing and the rolling; just be sure to refrigerate after mixing and again after rolling out the pie shell.
These built-in increments of time are actually very useful, as you can pace yourself and your helpers. Fill in the gaps with lunch for them, coffee for you, assembling the various fillings and making the garnishes -- and with a bit of pie decorating.
Divide the dough into two parts, one slightly larger than the other. After the dough has chilled, roll out the larger piece, line a 9-inch pie plate with it and return it to the refrigerator. The second bit of dough -- which will form the top crust -- is where things get interesting.
Roll out (or have your helpers roll out) the dough, then take a cookie cutter or a kid-friendly knife and cut out leaves or apples or dots, whatever your kids decide. My kids, with Halloween jack-o'-lanterns still in their minds, cut out the top crust in the shape of a pumpkin, then used the bits of dough to form eyes, a nose, a mouth.
If you want to get fancy, roll out the top crust, cut it to fit and use the scraps to form leaves and berries, even a pear. Put the dough on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and refrigerate (with the pie shell) while you start on the fillings.
A classic pumpkin pie is standard, but if you're on pie duty, you can think out of the box -- or pie plate -- a little too.
Mix ripe pear slices with a handful of blackberries. Use frozen blackberries this time of year, as they're available, cheaper and actually cook up better than fresh -- they won't break apart when you stir them in with the other ingredients.
Add some lemon zest, a dash of cardamom, and an unexpected grind of black pepper for an interesting spin that brings out the qualities of the fruit.
While the oven is heating, put a sauce pan of more frozen blackberries and a small amount of sugar on the stove to thaw. When they've thawed out, press the berries and their juices through a fine mesh sieve, add some lemon juice and check for sweetness and you have a fantastic, easy blackberry sauce to go with the pie.
Dots and swirls
If you have a plastic squeeze bottle, pour the sauce into it. This is a great way to store sauces, and a fantastic way to serve them as well. Just shake up the bottle when you're ready and squeeze a big dot of sauce onto a plate next to a slice of pie. Or let the kids make dots or squiggles -- it's pastry chef training without the mess.
Or make an apple pie, laced with spices. Apples are top-notch right now, with market stalls and produce aisles loaded with Galas and Pink Ladies, Winesaps and even Arkansas Blacks if you're lucky. The kids can munch on extra slices while they help fill the pie shells.
For a Thanksgiving spin, try topping the apples with a layer of dried cranberries that have been macerated in orange juice and cider, and torqued with vanilla and fresh ginger.
After the oven's ready and the crust and decorations have chilled, load the pie with its filling (dot the top with butter) and brush the rim of the bottom crust with egg wash. Lift the upper crust from the parchment and place it on top. Crimp the chilled dough any way you want -- forked, fluted, waved -- then add the decorations, brushing with egg wash to keep them in place. Brush the crust with more egg wash, sprinkle with sugar and bake.
While the pies are in the oven and the aroma of fruit and spice is filling the house, make a quick pecan brittle on the stove -- it's a great garnish for the apple-cranberry pie. Or you can sprinkle it on ice cream for anyone -- gasp -- who might not want pie (add some of the blackberry sauce too).
Cook sugar in a clean, metal saucepan, until it turns golden brown -- this is a beautiful chemistry experiment, although one kids should watch from afar while the sugar's still hot -- then stir in pecans. Spread the candy out on buttered parchment; it will cool in minutes, then keep nicely in a sealed plastic bag.
With all this done in advance, on Thanksgiving you only need to pack the car and corral the family. Along with the pies, sauce and brittle, bring some whipping cream and an immersion blender if you have one (a whisk will do too), for a bowl of last-minute chantilly cream.
Then, after the guests are gathered, the turkey carved, the meal enjoyed -- course by course, platter by platter, generation by generation -- send the kids around with a pad of paper and a ready pen to take dessert orders.
A delicious piece of pie, garnished and served with a dramatic flourish by your young staff, can provide a moment of true thanksgiving.
Scattergood is a Times staff writer.