Joanne Chang's advice for the sweetest holiday ever.
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There’s a lot to love about Thanksgiving, but few things prompt our salivating adoration like dessert. Your turkey might be dry, the stuffing over-seasoned, but Thanksgiving sweets are your cinnamon-scented redemption, that sugary last course that tempts us to multiple servings against our better instincts.
Unless you mess up the baking, that is.
Last Thanksgiving, we sat down with James Beard Award-winning chef, cookbook author, and Flour Bakery owner Joanne Chang to talk turkey about the ins and outs of baking. The self-professed butter enthusiast knows what she’s talking about—Flour’s Thanksgiving menu includes six mouthwatering dessert options, plus a variety of sweet morning treats.
Lucky for us, in addition to her holiday menu Chang also whipped up a list of the top five most common baking mistakes people make at Thanksgiving—and how to avoid them.
Chang acknowledges how tempting it is to ignore that first line of the recipe, but she assures us that it could be a big, big mistake to skip preheating your oven.
“As your oven is coming up to temp,” she explains, “your batter is slowly melting instead of baking.”
If that doesn’t convince you, there's more. “There are a lot of chemical reactions that happen at about 300°F to 350°F, especially in baking with leaveners,” she tells us. “If you put something in the oven and it’s not hot enough, the leaveners don’t work, so you don’t get all of the oomph you need from baking soda or baking powder.”
Your results, she says, may be too tough, dense, or rubbery—and all because you were too impatient to wait 10 minutes for your oven to reach the target temperature.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again—this time with an expert pastry chef backing us up: It’s important to calibrate your oven.
You might set your oven to 350°F, explains Chang, but it could be running too hot or too cold. That can cause just as much havoc as neglecting to properly preheat the oven.
The solution is simple: First, purchase an oven thermometer. “Put the thermometer in the oven,” Chang recommends. “If you notice the oven temperature is not matching the oven dial, then you know your oven is not calibrated.”
At that point, she says, there are a few possibilities. “You can get a repair person to come in and fix it for you, or—even easier—just look at the differential and increase or decrease your oven temp.”
Even if you've calibrated your oven, Chang warns that many recipes are written for the author’s specific oven.
“You should use your eye,” she recommends. “Use the time that’s suggested in the recipe as a guideline. It’s not law. You should pull things earlier if they look like they’re already baked, and you should keep them in the oven longer if they still need more time.”
A good pie is the perfect marriage of filling and crust. If you ace the filling but miss on the crust, the whole pie suffers. And if you don’t bake your crust for long enough, you could end up with a gummy, doughy crust—not exactly ideal.
“Your oven helps the flour and sugar caramelize,” Chang explains. “So you want to make sure of what that heat does.”
If the top of your crust has started browning, you’ll want to make sure the bottom of the crust has also baked thoroughly before snagging it from the oven.
Joanne also cautions against filling most pies before baking the crust. “If you put filling into a raw pie crust and then put that into the oven, the part that is not exposed to the oven—basically the part that’s touching the filling—will never actually cook because it’s being insulated by the filling.”
Flaky pie crusts can seem like an unsolvable puzzle to us amateurs. That’s why we were excited when Chang gave us a pro tip for getting bakery-style results: Don't overwork the dough!
To get a flaky crust, she explains, you need to respect the butter. “As you’re rolling out the dough, the butter will start to roll out into flat sheets. That’s what you want, because when it goes into the oven, the butter will turn to steam, and that’s what gives your pie crust that flaky texture.”
Chang is the first to admit, with a laugh, that recognizing that sweet spot where the butter is perfectly incorporated takes a lot of practice. Still, she offers some clues, describing an ideal dough that has both grape-sized pieces of butter and enough butter mixed into the flour that it clumps together when you press it together in your hand.
“When both of those things happen simultaneously,” she says, “then that’s about the right place for it to be before you add the liquid.”
Butter plays a key role in cake and cookie batters, as well, but the concern here is that you might be skimping on the mixing, rather than overdoing it.
“When you’re mixing butter and sugar together in cookie and cake batters,” Chang tell us, “the sugar is actually aerating the butter, and the butter becomes light and fluffy.”
This causes air pockets to form, giving your cakes and cookies a nice crumb. So if your baked goods are turning out too dense and heavy, undermixing could be to blame.
But even if your results aren't perfect, that's okay.
“The most important part of Thanksgiving is just remembering you’re cooking for family and friends,” Chang says. “So don’t get too stressed out. Don’t have it be something that you think has to be perfect.”
She smiles earnestly, speaking above the din of her crowded bakery, a mound of flawless cookies, pastries, and cakes just visible through the long line of customers waiting their turn at the counter.
“I’ve gone to a million Thanksgiving dinners that absolutely haven’t been perfect, but have been the best time I’ve ever had and the best Thanksgivings I’ve ever had... so make sure you enjoy it.”