September 20, 2019

The Quintessential Make-Ahead Dessert for Our Favorite American Holiday

We still haven’t caught our collective breaths in the aftermath of the horror in Pittsburgh, the heartbreaking shooting in Thousand Oaks, the approaching caravan of desperate refugees, the fallout from the midterms and the devastating fires in the most beautiful state in our republic, but open one eye to the calendar and gasp, because the holiday of gratitude is upon us. I’ve no clue what kind of sadistic time warp took hold and vanquished the months of September and October, but now, after all this, triggered and broken in spirit, we are expected to cook and plan to be thankful for all our blessings? Well, yes — most definitely yes. 

American Jews celebrate Thanksgiving almost without exception as it brings together the very Jewish concepts of gratitude, hope and community. I can’t think of a better time, given the current climate of sorrow and stress, to take a breather in the form of a long weekend. Cooking is an incredible stress buster — you can’t worry and fret too much when you are caught up in the concentration required to put together a big meal. 

As a chef in an American embassy overseas, I feel a responsibility to make sure that our diplomats and Marines get a taste of all their favorites. I change some side dishes each year but what I’ve noticed is that Thanksgiving is the “comfort food” holiday, and what’s comforting to most of us is familiarity. Although I know some families that keep some beautiful traditions that don’t involve turkey, stuffing and copious amounts of gravy, they are few and far between. My experience working at a foreign outpost feeding Americans is that while I can add some new dishes to the standards, I cannot subtract any traditional favorites. The good news is that I’ve found that this is just as comforting to the cook as it is to the diners. 

Most years, I cook eight 22-pound turkeys, 60 pounds of stuffing, 50 pounds of mashed potatoes, 30 pounds of sweet potato casserole, 30 pounds of green bean-mushroom casserole, 50 pounds of macaroni and cheese, 3 gallons of gravy, 2 pounds of cranberry sauce as well as hundreds of pies and biscuits. And because I’m Jewish, I still ask the other chefs, “Do you think we’ll have enough food?”

“Of all the pies I bake for my customers, it’s apple pie that practically carries with it a money-back guarantee to bring people to tears of joy.”

My Thanksgiving cooking prep schedule from last year is available online at It has never failed me despite the fact that I have and a fully functional working restaurant kitchen humming in the foreground. 

I’d also like to pass along my foolproof all-American apple pie recipe, as high on the comfort food factor scale as any dessert recipe could be. Of all the pies I bake for my customers, not only on Thanksgiving but throughout the year, it’s apple pie that practically carries with it a money-back guarantee to bring people to tears of joy. Not only is it comforting in its rustic simplicity, its nostalgia-inducing aroma works wonders to spread good vibes to anyone who enters your home. Even better, it’s so easy to put together in advance and freeze unbaked. Then all you must do is bake it from frozen on the morning of Thanksgiving and let it sit on your counter welcoming all who enter with the incomparable aroma of apples, cinnamon and nutmeg. Serve this beauty, still warm, with a jug of caramel alongside and watch as even non-dessert eaters accept a piece gratefully. 

Because gratitude is such a profound component of happiness, tuning in to appreciation while drinking wine, watching a game and eating comfort food is so essential right now. Even though November sneaked up on us — I can’t help but thinking that this year, Thanksgiving is coming just in the nick of time.

Perfectly Flakey Pie Crust (makes 1 double crust pie or 2 single crust pies)
2 cups plus 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup neutral tasting vegetable oil
4 tablespoons ice water

In a bowl, combine flour and salt. Add in oil and stir with a fork until most of the flour is absorbed. Add ice water and stir just until the dough forms but do not overmix or the crust will be tough.

Divide dough in half and, using a rolling pin, roll out each half between 2 pieces of wax paper. Roll out dough into a circle that is approximately 2 inches larger than a 9-inch pie pan, using the pan as a guide. Lay dough on pie pan, tucking excess dough under itself making it even on all sides. Keeping the rolled-out top dough between the wax paper, place bottom and top dough in refrigerator while you make the filling. 

Apple Pie Filling
8 large Granny Smith Apples (or other baking apples), peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick (approximately 7 cups)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon margarine (or butter)
1 egg white
1 tablespoon sanding sugar for sprinkling on top (optional)
Preheat oven to 425 F. 

Peel, core and slice apples in 1/4-inch slices. In a large bowl, add remaining ingredients except the butter and egg white, and toss to combine. Remove pie shell from refrigerator and pour apple mixture into shell. Place margarine on top.

Brush crust of pie shell with egg white. Gently peel back wax paper from other pie dough and lay it on top of the apples, trying to leave the same amount of surplus on all sides, and then tuck the edges of the top dough under while pressing to seal top and bottom crusts. Either crimp edges together or use the tines of a fork to seal the edges.

With a sharp knife, cut 4 slits in a sunburst pattern all around the top of the dough to release steam. Brush top crust with egg white and sprinkle with sanding sugar.

If baking pie immediately, place sheet pan on bottom rack to catch drippings, and bake pie 15 minutes at 425 degrees and then 50 minutes at 325 degrees. If the edge of the pie starts to become too brown, place a piece of foil loosely on the top to shield it from over browning. 

If freezing pie, wrap very well in plastic wrap or foil and place in freezer. To cook from frozen, preheat oven to 425 degrees with a sheet pan on the bottom rack (to catch the juices from the apples as the pie bakes). Place pie on sheet pan for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake for approximately 65 more minutes or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the pie goes in easily and juices are bubbling. 

Let pie cool for at least 2 hours before cutting into it. Serves 10.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.