It's hard to be a pie on Thanksgiving. It's the quandary of the big feast: everyone wants to see pie on the table, it seems, but after all that turkey, stuffing, gravy-drenched mashed potatoes and marshmallow-topped yams, few have the available real estate inside to truly do justice to a slice (or more) of pie. All that time you spent rushing around sourcing precious leaf lard from the appropriately happy, local, and pasture-raised pigs, all that careful crimping and filling, hovering and squatting in front of the oven window, praying that the crust edges wouldn't overbrown, finally sweeping up the big floury mess, and for what? Nothing but the sight of all your tipsy, satiated friends and family asking for "just a teeny slice" and then pushing it around on their plate while they drink more wine and attack the whipped cream instead.
Pie, of course, is the best day-after-Thanksgiving breakfast ever. But you can only count on leftover pie if you’re hosting the dinner in your own house. Bring the pies to someone else’s dinner, and you must hope and pray to be sent home with what remains. After all, a pie must be brought over intact; a pie minus one piece is a used pie. Sadly not every host/ess has the grace to make up little care packages of leftovers. What this means, besides no turkey sandwiches for lunch, is that you could have rolled and latticed all day long, seen lots of uneaten pie on the counter, and still ended up with no pie to go with your coffee the next morning. This has happened to me more times than I would care to remember.
You can get around both these scenarios in one easy step: just turn your pies into bars. This works best with solid, open-faced pies—pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan, or the chilled cranberry-tangerine, below. Apple or other sliced-fruit pies won’t work, but someone else will make these, anyway. Instead, imagine a lemon square refashioned for autumn, with crunchy crust on the bottom and creamy-firm filling on top. Baked and then chilled until well set, these can be cut like brownies into narrow rectangles or small squares, a two- or three-bite morsel, perfect for both children and overstuffed adults alike.
How to do it? Use a cookie-like crust recipe, one with egg yolk and vanilla in the dough instead of just water, what's usually called a sweet tart dough. This dough, sturdier and sweeter than a typical plain pie dough, can be easily rolled out and/or pressed to fit into the bottom of an 8"x8" square pan. Prick lightly all over with a fork and bake until just blond and set. Let cool, then pour on filling and bake as usual, keeping in mind that it will probably take a little less time to bake than a regular pie, since the filling won't be as deep. Cool, chill, and cut.
Cranberry Tangerine Bars
This cranberry-tangerine dessert is a longtime family favorite. It's particularly great for any holiday get-together, as the nut crust holds up well in the fridge and doesn't get tough or soggy. You can definitely make it the day before; because of the gelatin, however, you'll need to keep it refrigerated until dinner time. A nice blob of fresh whipped cream helps balance the tart fruitiness of the filling.
Yield: 16 squares
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 20-25 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 5-10 minutes, plus several hours' chilling time
1 cup finely chopped, lightly toasted walnuts
3 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (4 oz) butter, softened
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1-2 tbsp water (optional)
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp water
1 envelope (1 TB) unflavored powdered gelatin (such as Knox)
3 cups fresh or frozen whole cranberries
1 1/4 cups sugar
Rind and juice of 1 tangerine (you may not need all the rind; add half first, then more if you want a stronger orange flavor)
1 tbsp good orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau (optional)
Whipped cream for serving
1. To make crust: Mix walnuts, sugar and flour together in a large bowl. If you have a stand-up mixer (like a KitchenAid), use the paddle attachment to beat in the butter. Otherwise, mix and mash in with a hand-held mixer, a pastry blender or your fingertips. Stir in egg yolk and vanilla to form a crumbly dough, adding water as necessary to make the dough stick together. Chill dough for 1 hour.
2. Preheat oven to 350F. Press dough into an 8x8 square pan, preferably glass. Bake until light golden and firm, about 20-25 minutes. Let cool before filling.
3. To make filling: Sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup water and let sit until gelatin swells and softens into a pasty, translucent gel. In a saucepan, combine cranberries, sugar, rind and juice, and remaining two tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes, until berries have popped and mixture is thick.
4. Remove pan from heat, cool slightly, then stir in gelatin and liqueur, if using. Let cool to room temperature. Taste for sweetness, adding more sugar or liqueur as desired, keeping in mind that a bittersweet tartness is this dessert's main charm, then spread over crust.
5. Chill until firm, at least several hours or overnight. Cut into bars and serve with fresh whipped cream.
Still need pie therapy? Local pastry chef and caterer Meloni Courtway, who taught last year's wonderful Orchard to Oven workshop, is offering a hands-on apple-pie workshop at the Marin Country Mart on Saturday, November 19. All participants go home with a hand-made pie that can be frozen and baked fresh for Thanksgiving.