Not all of us are like my friend Shawn. Her Christmas shopping for this year, bought during January’s after-Christmas sales, is wrapped, tagged and stored in her attic. Her freezer is already lined with color-coordinated Tupperware housing Thanksgiving jewels waiting to debut on the fourth Thursday of November.
While Shawn’s foresight is unthinkable for most of us (and drives even her closest friends a little crazy), some plan-ahead strategy does much to lower holiday stress. Take Thanksgiving dessert, for instance. With a little freezer space and a few hours before the big day, delicious pies and cakes can be made ahead and frozen, leaving our ovens free for that big ol’ bird and all the fixings to go with it.
Dessert has a special meaning on Thanksgiving. No matter how stuffed we are, there is always room for a piece … or two … or maybe three (but that’s definitely it) of dessert —- and since we’re making room, just a little ice cream or whipped cream to keep them company. These autumnal desserts acknowledge our appreciation of the harvest. Crisp apples, succulent pears and crunchy nuts are baked in buttery crusts. Vibrant pumpkin and cranberry pies mirror the vivid colors of the leaves as they change to orange, then crimson.
While many classic desserts lend themselves to make-ahead status, some do not. Many fruit pies and moisture-rich custard pies are best frozen before baking or prepared shortly before serving. But just as many desserts easily make the transition from freezer to table.
So unwedge that rolling pin from its perch as a safety lock for the porch sliding doors, reclaim those measuring cups from the basket of baby toys, wipe the cobwebs off that electric mixer and start baking. But don’t despair if time gets the better of your good intentions. These desserts will still be winners made the day before or on Thanksgiving Day.
Spiced Pumpkin Pecan Cake: This deliciously moist cake is filled with aromatic spices, crystallized ginger, pecans and a hint of rum. Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar and ginger-flavored whipped cream. Don’t be put off by the lengthy ingredient list; most things are in your cupboard.
Apricot, Cranberry and Walnut Pie: Loaded with the colors of fall foliage, this pie has the sweetness of a pecan pie, with the toothsome addition of dried apricots and cranberries. Lightly toasting the walnuts before baking brings out their flavor and ensures crispness. Mix the ingredients gently to avoid a mottled appearance. A scoop of vanilla ice cream is the perfect complement.
Maple Apple Walnut Crunch Pie: Unlike a traditional apple pie, which should be frozen before being baked, this one, made with grated apples and crunchy oatmeal and walnuts, can be baked ahead of time and warmed before serving. Good baking apples include Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Cortland, Rome, Baldwin and Winesap.
Pumpkin Cheesecake: Cheesecake is a great make-ahead dessert, especially for those with limited freezer space. This scrumptious version is baked in a gingersnap crust and is flavored with cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. You can make it on Sunday or Monday and hold it in the fridge until Thursday.
Apple Ginger Bundt Cake: Talk about convenience; this autumnal cake skips the work of peeling and chopping apples by using applesauce. Add some crystallized ginger and raisins and you’ve got a dessert to be reckoned with. Serve with cinnamon or vanilla ice cream for an extra treat.
A FEW WAYS TO ASSURE SWEET SUCCESS
• Always read through the recipe completely to make sure you have everything you need. Have all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before beginning the recipe. Measure accurately, and do not substitute ingredients.
• Choose high-quality ingredients. Unless noted, use large eggs, unsalted butter and all-purpose flour.
• If using a premade pie crust, choose a refrigerated version that fits into your own pie plate, not one frozen in an aluminum pan. If you must use that variety, choose the deep-dish version.
• Make sure there are no cracks or breaks in the pie crust before baking. If necessary, patch any weak areas with excess dough.
• Keep pie crusts chilled in their pans while preparing fillings. If cooking a filling, cool it completely before putting it in the crust.
• Bake pies in the middle or bottom of the oven. Always check a pie during baking to make sure the filling and/or crust aren’t overbrowning and that the filling isn’t bubbling over. If necessary, shield with foil and/or slip a foil-covered baking sheet under the pie.
• When baking a cake, have all ingredients at room temperature for better blending. Take out refrigerated items an hour or two before they are to be used. > When using an electric mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl periodically to fully incorporate all ingredients.
• Choose pie fillings that do not have excess amounts of liquid. As Elinor Klivens explains in “Bake and Freeze Desserts, ” as food freezes, its moisture forms ice crystals. Small crystals preserve a smooth, fine texture, while large crystals can rupture the cell walls of food and cause moisture to flow out of the food as it defrosts, leaving desserts unpleasantly mushy.
• Make sure that the dessert is thoroughly cooled before freezing, or condensation will cause it to get soggy.
• Use good-quality packaging materials: heavy-duty aluminum foil, plastic wrap zip-top bags specifically for the freezer. Force out extra air before sealing the bag.
• Label desserts with date and contents. Freeze pies up to one month, cakes up to three months.
• Nearly all Thanksgiving desserts taste great with a scoop of vanilla or cinnamon ice cream or freshly made whipped cream.
• Sprinkle cakes with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar.
• Flavor whipped cream to complement your dessert. Sweeten to taste with confectioners’ sugar and add a dash of ginger or cinnamon, 1 tablespoon rum or maple syrup, 1 teaspoon instant coffee or 1 teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest.