On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me...
Whoa, wait a minute! Thanksgiving is still nearly two weeks away, and we're already talking CHRISTMAS?
Nah, not really. I'm just getting you in counting mode. Because it's time to compose your Thanksgiving timeline: the baking countdown that will take you from "I haven't even thought about it" to "C'mon, everything's on the table – let's eat!"
Now, I realize this type of lockstep countdown isn't for everyone; and I'll address the needs of you freethinkers at the end of this post. In the meantime, all of you – free spirit and toe-the-line types alike – will enjoy our Guide to Thanksgiving Baking, your one-stop spot for recipes, tips, and Turkey Day inspiration.
But back to the countdown. For those who enjoy (NEED) a day-by-day guide – this is for you.
Two weeks before
Decide who's doing what
Your very first task is to decide just how much baking is on your plate – so to speak.
If you're hosting dinner, this is your decision to make. Want to hog all the fun stuff – the green bean casserole, cheesecake, and breakfast scones? Go for it.
If you're traveling to friends' or relatives', it's kinda up to them – although feel free to suggest (firmly) that you'd LOVE to make the pumpkin pie, or the dinner rolls, or whatever it is you truly love baking. Because if you don't volunteer your baking expertise, you're liable to end up with Mrs. Smith's and Brown 'n' Serve on the table – and wouldn't that be a pity!
Make a baking plan
If you're hosting the dinner, you may very well bake everything that needs baking. In which case, you need to decide on specific recipes: which pecan pie? Whose favorite roll recipe? Gather your recipes, check your pantry, and make a shopping list.
If you've been assigned a dish to bring to the feast, you still have options. Apple pie? Sure; great opportunity to leaf through your apple pie recipes and select a favorite. Dinner rolls? Well, there's Parker House, and potato, and honey wheat, and sourdough, and...
Plan (and prep) desserts beyond pie
Believe it or not, pie isn't everyone's favorite dessert. Kids in particular prefer smaller, sweeter treats – like cookies.
Make your favorite drop cookie dough now, and portion it into balls. Then freeze, bag, and stash back in the freezer. Pop a pan of frozen cookie dough balls into the oven during Thanksgiving dinner, and Bob's your uncle – oven-warm cookies on the dessert table!
Be prepared: guests from far away may very well arrive the night before, then get up Thursday morning looking for something a bit more festive than a bowl of cornflakes.
Scone dough of all kinds freezes beautifully; our cranberry-oat scones are a lovely way to start Turkey Day.
And how about cinnamon buns? Easy, when you start with the dough from our Never-Fail Biscuits, a ridiculously simple mixture of equal parts (by weight) self-rising flour and heavy cream. The resulting dough can become anything from the aforementioned cinnamon buns to cheese and sausage biscuits to scones. See all the details here: freeze & bake tips.
One week before
Make bread for your homemade stuffing
Stuffing doesn't have to start with a plastic bag of seasoned croutons. Make it yourself – and start with homemade bread.
Your goal is a firm, fairly close-grained white bread, and I have just the recipe: English Muffin Toasting Bread. Not only is it perfect for stuffing, it's a a super-easy no-knead loaf.
Either way, you want your bread to be somewhat stale before turning it into stuffing. Making it up to a week ahead is an easy way to reach that goal. If your weather is cool and dry, it should do fine, tightly wrapped, at room temperature. If you're at all worried about mold, though, store bread in the fridge.
Prep and freeze dinner rolls
How do you time your dinner roll prep so rolls are hot out of the oven when dinner's served? We've discovered a super-simple solution:
Make the dough up to 2 weeks ahead of time. DON'T LET IT RISE, even in the bowl. Immediately shape the dough into rolls; place them on a baking sheet, and freeze. Once frozen, bag them airtight, and return to the freezer.
When Thanksgiving morning rolls around, take the rolls out of the freezer, nestle them into a pan, and let them rise while the turkey roasts. Once the turkey comes out, pop the risen rolls into the oven and bake. Twenty-five minutes later – fresh, hot rolls! Find the details here: freeze and bake rolls.
Prep and freeze pie dough and/or fruit pies.
You don't want to bake them – just prep pies up to the point where you'd pop them into the oven. The day before you want to bake, thaw pies overnight in the fridge. Then bake as usual the next day. See the details here: freeze and bake fruit pies.
Pie dough can be prepared, patted into a disk, wrapped in plastic, and frozen. If you've got the freezer space, you can even roll it out ahead of time and layer rounds of rolled-out dough with parchment before wrapping in plastic or foil and freezing. Thaw in the fridge overnight before using.
OK, let's talk turkey: If you've purchased a frozen turkey, now may be the time to start thawing it in the fridge – see the end of this post for further information.
Monday: Take a deep breath — assess where you are
Figure out the "periphery" of Thanksgiving dinner. Think about the number of people, extra leaves for the dining room table, and chairs. Wash your big serving dishes – you know, the ones that hang out on the top shelf collecting dust all year. Take care of all the non-food chores you can ahead of time, so that the last few days before Thanksgiving are strictly about the food.
And when you're done with all that, go ahead and make your homemade cranberry sauce. C'mon, it's easy – especially if you have a bread machine with a jam cycle! See how it's done: Thanksgiving the easy way.
Tuesday: Thaw pies/dough; make pumpkin filling
If you've got pies or pie dough in the freezer, place them in the fridge Tuesday night to thaw overnight.
Wait a minute – shouldn't you wait until Wednesday night before thawing your pies or pastry?
Think about it. Do you really want to figure out how to get an hour's worth of pie-baking time into your oven schedule Thursday morning? No, you don't.
Pies baked on Wednesday will be perfectly fine on Thursday. Simply put them into the turned-off (but still warm) oven once everything else is finished. While you're eating dinner, pies will gradually warm up and be ready for showtime when dessert rolls around.
Pumpkin pie filling gets a certain edge, flavor-wise, if you make it a day ahead and let it "mellow" in the refrigerator overnight. Making chocolate cream pie? Its filling can easily be made ahead and chilled until its shell is baked. So make your pumpkin and chocolate cream fillings today, too, and stash them in the fridge.
Wednesday, part 1: Bake the pies
Whether you start from scratch, or with a pie you'd pulled from the freezer the day before, Wednesday is pie-baking day. Here are a couple of key tips:
• For pumpkin pie, place the baking sheet with the pie shell, UNFILLED, on the oven shelf; then pour in the filling. This prevents those inevitable spills that happen when you've squeezed every last drop of filling into a crust that's not quite tall enough, then try to move the pan from counter to oven.
Baked pies can be stored at room temperature. Custard-based pies, like pumpkin or chocolate cream, should be stored in the refrigerator, or in an iced cooler if fridge space is tight.
And while the pies are baking, here's a tip from my fellow blogger, Chef Susan Reid, who's prepared Thanksgiving dinner for hundreds of people over the course of her career: "Marshall serving dishes and utensils for Thursday, with sticky labels about what goes in which dish. Scrambling for those things while you have a house full of company is a complete pain…"
Wednesday, part 2: make the stuffing
Chop your stale bread into cubes early in the day; layer them on a baking sheet to dry out further. Then make your stuffing, put it into its baking dish, cover, and refrigerate, ready to bake the next day.
Hint: If you have a large enough toaster oven or countertop oven, now's the time to use it. The turkey will be hogging most of your regular oven for much of the time leading up to dinner, so use your "alternate" oven for dishes like stuffing, or for reheating rolls, if necessary. The microwave is perfect for reheating vegetable dishes.
Thanksgiving morning: Showtime!
Bake the breakfast scones or cinnamon buns just before putting the turkey in the oven.
Take the rolls out of the freezer, pan ’em, and let them thaw and rise for 4 to 6 hours, covered. When the turkey comes out of the oven, bake the rolls.
When the rolls come out of the oven, turn the oven off, and put the pies in the cooling oven to warm up while you eat dinner.
OK, I promised those of you averse to schedule-following that I'd offer a more loosey-goosey version of this timeline. Here 'tis; bookmark it for next Thanksgiving, OK?
Up to 8 weeks before Thanksgiving: Make and freeze fruit pies or pie dough.
Up to 4 weeks before: Make and freeze cookie, scone, and biscuit dough. Make and freeze bread for stuffing.
Up to 2 weeks before: Make, shape, and freeze unraised dinner roll dough.
One final note: Leave enough time to thaw your frozen turkey! You've been there, right? Thanksgiving morning dawns and uh-oh, who knew it would take SOOO long to thaw the gosh-darned turkey? A 20-pound turkey will take 5 days to thaw in the fridge. Serving a smaller bird? Count on one day thawing for every 4 pounds of turkey.