Good gravy! How to make the holidays easy as pie

aweigl@newsobserver.comNovember 12, 2013 

Thanksgiving forces me to face my two kitchen nemeses: pie dough and gravy.

I can make pie dough fine – anyone can when they use a food processor. But rolling it out without it sticking to my rolling pin, let alone trying to move it from the pastry cloth to the pie plate has reduced me to tears more times than I care to admit. That’s why I have always kept a stash of store-bought pie crusts in my freezer.

While I have made sausage gravy in the past, and even chocolate gravy on occasion, the thought of trying to make turkey gravy terrifies me. In 2005, I left my friends waiting almost an hour as I struggled to make gravy for a turkey dinner. The gravy kept veering from lumpy to brothy and back again. In the end, I reached for my backup: a jar of the store-bought stuff. That has been my go-to ever since.

Last week, I went into the kitchens of experienced home cooks to learn how to overcome these culinary hang-ups at long last.

What did I learn that I’ve been missing? Patience.

When I got to see these cooks in action, it was clear that I was trying to make things happen too fast. I was rushing instead of paying attention to what was happening in the skillet or under my rolling pin. Pie dough and gravy are persnickety. They don’t adapt to your schedule. You adapt to theirs or risk failure.

In response to a column about my culinary shortcomings, Glenda Gosztyla of Raleigh sent me an email as if she were my personal pie dough cheerleader. Her words of advice: Practice. Don’t give up. Get by yourself in the kitchen. Be in a good mood. If you do not feel good, do not start the pastry.

And so I spent a morning last week watching this pie dough guru work her magic. She took her time, cutting the shortening into the flour, fluffing it with a fork as she added ice-cold water, a few drops at a time. She knew from years of experience what the dough should look like at each step and waited patiently for it to happen.

We sat and drank coffee for 35 minutes while the dough chilled in the fridge and then chatted for 20 more as the dough sat on a pastry cloth on the table, shedding its chill. Gosztyla knew better than to rush that dough.

She rolled it out one stroke at a time, watching to make sure it didn’t stick, quick with a dusting of flour if it did. By the end of our almost two-hour lesson, she had created the ideal fluted pie crust ready for whatever filling she might decide to make for her husband that night.

Last week, I also accepted an invitation from Raleigh cooking instructor Sharon Morf to learn how to make gravy. I roasted a chicken the night before to produce drippings and fat for my lesson. Again, I found myself in the kitchen with a teacher who understood that you have to slow down to succeed.

Morf and I stood side-by-side each making gravy. I got to see how she stirred the flour into fat, creating a silky brown sauce, while mine quickly clumped. She eased my pan off the heat until my continued stirring made it look more like hers. With each addition – the drippings, wine, cream, sherry – Morf danced her skillet on and off the heat while constantly stirring, making sure her gravy didn’t clump, didn’t thicken too much. It was an exercise in being in the moment.

And then we tasted the gravy. I realized I had never had good gravy before. My mother had also always reached for the jarred kind. As a result, I never understood why people liked gravy or that most of the Thanksgiving meal (turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes) was just an excuse to consume gravy.

Late last week, when I got in the kitchen to try to replicate my lessons, I was rewarded with gravy I want to eat with a spoon and pie crust I want to eat all by itself.

Basic Pie Pastry (for a 9-inch pie plate) From Glenda Gosztyla of Raleigh. 1 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup fat such as lard or shortening, cold 3-4 tablespoons ice cold water 1 teaspoon cider vinegar

SIFT flour and salt together in a medium bowl.

CUT cold shortening into pieces about half the size of a lima bean and drop into the flour. Then use pastry cutter or a fork to mix flour and shortening together until the lumps are about the size of small green peas. Place bowl in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

COMBINE cold water and cider vinegar in a small bowl. Measure 1 tablespoon of the water and vinegar mixture with a spoon and sprinkle a small amount on top of the flour, tossing the flour with a fork until the flour is moistened. Continue adding the rest of the water until all of the flour is uniformly moistened. (You may not have to add all of the water.)

SQUEEZE some of the dough between your fingers. If it stays together and doesn’t crumble apart, do not add more water. If it feels dry and crumbles, add 1 teaspoon of water at a time (continue fluffing with a fork) until it is uniformly moist.

GATHER dough into a ball and gently press the dough between your fingers until it is smooth. Do not knead.

GENTLY flatten the dough into a 5- or 6-inch circle. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

REMOVE dough from refrigerator. Rub a small amount of flour onto the pastry cloth or work surface and let the dough sit for 10 to 15 minutes to warm up. If the pastry doesn’t roll out easily after that time, let sit for another 5 minutes and try again to roll (remember to roll from the center of crust to the outside to a 12-inch diameter). After you have completed rolling the crust out, roll the crust up onto the rolling pin.

POSITION the edge of the crust ½ inch to 1 inch over the side of the pie plate and unroll the crust loosely into the plate. Lift the edges of the crust and push downward to position the crust in the plate and gently press down on the bottom and the sides of the crust to smooth out any lines. Finish the edges as desired. Follow pie recipe for filling and baking.

Yield: 1 pie crust

Turkey Gravy I used the chicken fat that rises to the top when you refrigerate the drippings from a roasted chicken. From Sharon Morf of Raleigh. Pan juices from a roasted turkey 1 to 2 cups turkey or chicken broth 6 tablespoons fat, such as chicken fat or butter 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1 1/2 cups whipping cream 1/4 cup white wine 1 tablespoon sherry 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced

HEAT pan juices in a skillet and simmer for about 10 minutes. The juices will become more concentrated and should become darker in color. Add enough turkey or chicken broth to the pan juices to create 2 cups total. Keep warm in a saucepan over low heat.

MELT butter or fat in a 3-quart saucepan over low heat. While stirring with a whisk, slowly sprinkle flour over the fat to make a roux. When combined and thickened, increase heat to medium and slowly add warmed drippings and broth. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is smooth. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes. Taste to make sure the flour taste is gone. Otherwise, keep cooking while stirring for a few more minutes. Move skillet off the heat if the gravy clumps or bubbles too vigorously.

ONCE gravy has the taste you desire, add cream. Increase heat to medium high, stir constantly for 1 minute. Add wine, sherry, salt, pepper, paprika, nutmeg and parsley. Cook for an additional minute and then remove from heat to cool slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary.

Yield: About 3 1/2 cups

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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