Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving Postmortem

So The Gameplan(Part I, Part II) worked very well overall, but there were a few bumps in the road (and typos that I'll fix shortly). I'll go over each item in turn, first up:

High Roast Butterflied Turkey
The turkey (left) came out the best it ever has... some of that is probably just the fact that I have much more cooking experience these days, but I also think putting the temperature probe into the breast from the direction of the neck, and close to the bone, helped a lot, as I was much more confident in the turkey's temperature than when I go straight in... but that's a pretty minor point, I'd imagine. I think the dark meat ended up a little under done, though I'm not entirely sure... but the temp readings were more in the low 170's (instead of 175) when I pulled it out. I was more concerned about the best meat being "perfect" than the quality of the dark meat, but in retrospect I should have probably stuck it back in for another 5 to 10 minutes... even though nobody eats the dark meat. The breast meat was perfectly done, however, and super moist so maybe I shouldn't second guess myself too much.

Butterflying the turkey was strangely easy this year... not sure why that was... maybe just because, by now, since butterfly/high roast is my favorite thing to do to poultry, I've cut the backbones out of 6-10 birds? Don't know, but I sliced that bad boy out pretty quickly. I was a little over zealous in trimming down the skin around the neck, which, as you can see from the picture, left part of the breast exposed to high heat... but the meat underneath was perfectly fine.

For the brine, instead of doing two gallons into my 12 quart stockpot, where adding the turkey causes a ton of water to splosh out, I tried starting with a gallon and adding brine one quart at a time... not worth it. It ended up being 1 and 3/4 gallons, and the hassle of measuring out the brine in 4 cup measurements (and doing the math to figure out how many tablespoons of sugar/salt it's supposed to be) was too great to be worth saving a tablespoon of sugar and salt.

Overall, I can't complain about how this turned out... my best effort to date, but still plenty of room for improvement.

Cornbread and Sausage Dressing
My eternal issue with this item is my inability to find an unseasoned plain fresh pork sausage... it seems like all anybody wants is fancy spiced ones. I didn't ask at the butcher counter this year, though I didn't see any on display, and last time I did they looked at me funny. It seems like I should be able to find something like boudin, even up here in New England, but maybe it's out there and I just haven't looked hard enough. Anyway, it's a relatively minor issue, but it bugs me.

My biggest problem was accidentally doubling my finely diced celery... whoops! Honestly, it was so finely diced that I couldn't really detect the effect, but it was still a bit galling when I realized. (Honey, why did I need so much more celery to make 3 cups than they said? Because you only wanted 1 1/2 cups. Doh.)

The only other issue was that it burned a bit on the edges and bottom, which has never happened before. Not a big deal, since there was plenty of stuffing, so I could just leave that in the pan... but I'm not sure why it happened. Did I not spray enough of the cooking spray? Was it the accursed celery? Hmmmm.

Turkey Gravy
My Le Creuset dutch oven was definitely the right call here. I was somewhat worried that things wouldn't brown well with less surface area, but since I was stirring every 10 minutes, it didn't seem to be a problem... it took maybe 50-60 minutes instead of 40-50 to get things well browned, but that's probably not outside the general recipe margin of error. It also seemed to make more sense not to transfer the stock and parts to a separate saucepan after deglazing, when I could just do the deglazing and subsequent simmering in the same pot.

The flavor was fantastic, but I had trouble with the roux for the third straight year. It got clumpy, which I think means I needed more fat, but I wasn't quick enough on the uptake to realize that at the time. I need more study on that one, but I think the fact that I was using turkey fat congealed from the stock, as opposed to butter or something, was the big wild card. It wasn't exactly clear where fat ended and stock began, so the 4 tablespoons I added were probably significantly less than that in actual fat content. I should have kept putting in more until it smoothed out, I guess... or just done it with butter? Something to think on and research.

Another issue was that I kept reheating it, thus causing more thickening... I need to be a little less OCD about that, and wait until the last minute... plus I should reserve some stock to thin it out a bit if I over do it.

At some point I'd like to make some killer gravy.

Pumpkin Pie
This started as a fiasco, but ended in DELICIOUS. You can see my first (partially eaten) attempt to make a "blind bake pie shell" to the left. It actually tasted really good, but had obviously fallen to the point of comical uselessness. To be honest, I have to (partially) blame the author of the Cook's Illustrated pumpkin pie recipe here, as they provided virtually no direction on what you were trying to accomplish and what you were looking for in the various stages of the blind bake. The recipe just calls for putting in some foil with some weights and cooking it for 15 minutes... with no indication that you are trying to get it to set, and should not remove the weights unless that is so. Obviously, the assumption is that you know how to blind bake a pie shell, but I'm not really sure how good of an assumption that is for most cooks. How often do people cook pies? Even Anna, who loves baking, and has blind baked her fair share of shells, was unfamiliar with using pie weights(she pokes holes with a fork), so didn't know what we were supposed to be looking for. Anyway, despite being more than a little despondent at my first attempt, we had already made the filling at this point (which is a pretty huge PITA, but oh so tasty) so Anna suggested refrigerating the filling and retrying the pie shell in the morning, now that we knew we removed the weights way too early (it was almost midnight on Wednesday at this point). Thus I made another batch of dough and let it refrigerate overnight.

One of the advantages of waiting until the next day was that I could look at the New Best Recipe description of blind baked pie shells to fill in the gaps left by the magazine recipe. As a general rule, despite the fact that they're all from the same people, the recipes from the cookbook are almost 100% foolproof while the magazine ones and ancillary books are much more hit and miss... so I should have checked there first and compared the two crusts, but live and learn. Anyway, I ended up doing a combo of the two... basically following the trusted NBR, but going with a vodka/water combo instead of just water. I'll change the recipe I posted to reflect this differing methodology shortly... but in short, after being rolled out and fluted, it spent longer in the 'fridge and a bit in the freezer, and instead of just doing 15 minutes with the weights, I did more like 25, and I made extra super sure the pie was set before I removed the weights.

I had to reheat the filling before baking the pie in toto... but just using a very low heat worked fine, and the crust didn't get mushy at all. Now, after slightly trashing the author of the Cook's recipe for their lack of direction on the pie shell, I do have to say the filling was ridiculously awesome... and using an instant read thermometer to get the pie temperature, before letting residual heat finish the cooking as the pie cooled, resulted in the best pumpkin pie I've ever had. Pushing the simmered filling through a fine mesh strainer took like 30 minutes, but it seriously had a super silky texture... not grainy at all. In addition, having it still "wobbly in the middle" (though not after it cools) made me realize that most of the pumpkin pies I've had have been overdone and curdled.

So in summary, it was really really good, and I learned something about making pies because of the earlier setback... so no harm done... though Anna rolled both shells out, so I still have no skill in that arena (frankly shaping dough intimidates me - even when we do pizzas I make her do it).

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So that's it. Another holiday passed... as I mentioned above, I'm going to go back and correct some typos and change the pumpkin pie recipe to reflect the pie shell I ended up making... but for the most part, it's time to go back to terrorists in India and Obama's foreign policy team. *sigh*