New England’s Queen Of Thanksgiving Pies
By. David Abel for The Boston Globe, read the full story on Boston.com.
CONCORD – Many of them arrive at the old farm stand before the sun comes up. Others remain until after midnight, their aprons smeared in flour and their oven mitts singed from flames.
Over the past few days, they have performed with the precision of a finely tuned orchestra, taking turns laboring over the flakiness of crusts, the crispness of apples, and the crumbliness of their toppings.
It’s a service crucial to ending Thanksgiving the right way, and working with vats of cleaved apples, pumpkin, and raspberries, their work won’t be done until they complete 3,000 homemade pies – everything from apple cranberry to Kentucky bourbon pecan to mince.
That’s a record number of pies Verrill Farm will send out its doors by the time the long line of customers has dwindled to its last harried holiday cooks, which should be sometime tonight about 7. People began ordering their pies in mid October, and dozens more pleaded their case – unsuccessfully – after the deadline passed on Saturday.
If Christmas has its elves in the North Pole feverishly preparing the goods, Thanksgiving finds the likes of Karen Ashman and her many fellow cooks giving it their all in the pristine kitchens of the newly reopened Verrill Farm, which burned to the ground in a fire last year.
“This is our biggest week of the year,’’ said Steve Verrill, whose parents started farming here in 1918 and last year took out a $2 million loan to cover the costs of rebuilding. “We have to give it our all.’’
In the crucible that is their kitchen, the round-the-clock operation that kicked in earlier this week begins with something called a vertical cutting machine – a giant Cuisinart – which converts a mix of flour, sugar, butter, and more than a pinch of salt and water into blobs of dough.
Afterward, the bakers carve the dough into 8-ounce mounds, which they cart to another machine called a hydraulic pie press. The large device smashes the dough in a mold until it forms a perfect crust.
The bakers chill the crust in a refrigerator for an hour and then freeze them, a process that began two weeks ago to prepare for the Thanksgiving rush. When they’re ready, they place four pie shells on baking sheets and ferry them to the pie-making stations.
It’s there where Ashman and her crew do their magic. To make apple pie, they use large metal bowls to mix 5 cups of cleaved Cortland apples shipped from a farm in Sterling with cups of nutmeg, flour, butter, and a combination of white and brown sugar. They crown it with a special crumble topping.
“When you walk in here, it smells like Thanksgiving,’’ Ashman said. “We like it that way.’’
The heaping mass of gooey goodness is then ready for one of Verrill’s new convection ovens, which bakers set at 325 degrees and leave in for an hour. They can cook 120 pies in an hour, and by early yesterday afternoon, they had already baked 400 pies.
How do they know when the pies are ready?
“Everyone has a special way of telling,’’ said Sara Cohen, another baker, while laboring over cheesecakes. “I test mine with a knife, which I don’t want to be clean, because that would mean it’s overdone. I also don’t want it to be wet, which would mean it’s undercooked. I want the knife to have little bits of wet batter stuck to it. Then I know it’s done.’’
When that happens, this time of year, they don’t last long.
In addition to 700 quarts of gravy, 230 pints of cranberry sauce and herb stuffing, and 144 quarts of butternut puree, among other things, Verrill had already had orders for 1,800 pies yesterday.
The rest of them – apple and pumpkin make up about half of their orders – are sold in a tent outside the stand.
Yesterday, as long lines queued behind their registers, they had trouble keeping their shelves stocked.
Despite the recession, Steve Verrill said business has been up as much as 15 percent since before the fire.
As he surveyed his operation in its full glory, which included his daughter supervising the aromatic minuet, he smiled.
“It’s a good time of year,’’ he said.