I know what it’s like to carry three dozen cupcakes on mass transit, and what happens when you pack a homemade pie into a carry-on bag for a multiple-hour bus trip. I’ll cut the suspense and tell you now: Neither story ends in catastrophe, but they surely were recipes for disaster.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. As bakers across the country dust off their rolling pins with holiday travel less than a week away, it’s possible to bake a dessert that makes it safely onto the table with proper planning and the right recipe.
The first step toward low-stress Thanksgiving baking success is selecting a dessert style that, once prepared, can be carried in your vehicle of choice with ease. No one wants to be navigating across town, much less across a few states, with a Pinterest-worthy layer cake riding in the passenger seat and wobbling precariously. Or in my case, spending six-plus hours on the aforementioned bus with a mincemeat pie that I assembled and froze for the trip up to Syracuse to see my folks. I thought I was being clever riding with a frozen pie, but I ended up with the dessert defrosting in the carrying bag on the floor of the extremely warm and very crowded bus — not ideal (but in the end once baked, the pie tasted great).
Good-for-travel desserts include fruit pies, dessert bars, cookies, unfrosted cakes, and bread pudding. Avoid items such as custard pies, which need constant refrigeration, and frosted layer cakes that require special packaging in order to survive travel. No one has time for that during the holidays!
Be sure to select a recipe that fits into your schedule. You should be able to actively work on a recipe 30-60 minutes in one to two blocks of time. Inactive time (i.e., time spent chilling, resting, or baking) can be longer, and often is a boon to the harried dessert maker if it’s 24 hours or more because this means you can break the work of a recipe up over a couple of days.
And don’t forget to stay seasonal. In other words, don’t offer to bake blueberry pie for Thanksgiving. This is easy enough to follow for two reasons: 1) most markets and grocery store chains will not have such out-of-season ingredients available, and if they do, it will be costly and the quality suspect; and 2) if you’re not bringing something containing apples, cranberries, nuts, pumpkins, and/or spices to the Thanksgiving table, you’re going to get the hairy eyeball from your Uncle Jim.
So with all of that in mind, I crafted three seasonal, straightforward recipes that can travel well, whether you’re going down the street or bundling into your car for a lengthy drive. But, because almost everyone has their own recipe (or can Google it) for the Thanksgiving classics — like apple and sweet potato pies, cobblers galore, and pumpkin cheesecake — I went a step further and came up with some new twists on seasonal ingredients and styles.
The cranberry apple ginger slab pie takes the flavors from the cranberry jelly bowl and warms them up with fresh cranberries, spices, and crunchy Granny Smith apples. The added benefit of this kind of pie is that the crust to filling ratio is higher, for all those piecrust fans.
The sweet potato mini Bundt cakes with caramel drizzle give a nod to the classic flavors found in sweet potato pound cake and pecan pie. The mini Bundt molds do all the heavy lifting, especially if you have pans that offer a variety of Bundt shapes such as spirals, blossoms and cathedrals. The visual impact is immediate, then followed by the warm flavors of maple, caramel, sweet potato, and spices when your tablemates take their first bites.
And finally, the persimmon chai bread pudding brings a touch of the exotic to the meal, marrying the delicate sweetness of the in-season persimmons with the Indian spices found in chai. Better yet, bread pudding is the kind of dish you can make when time is short: essentially combine the ingredients, rest for 30 minutes, bake and go! Once at your destination, you can serve it straight from the baking pan, or place back in the oven to warm up it slightly.
No matter whether you’re on deck for baking dessert for your mother-in-law’s holiday meal or making the long trek to friends’ or family’s home this Thanksgiving, you can still contribute dessert with ease, and a touch of style.
Cranberry Apple Ginger Slab Pie
Pie is a classic holiday dessert item, but if you’re baking for a large group, it can be taxing to make multiple pies. The slab pie offers the ability to make a single large pie that travels well, takes roughly the same amount of time to bake that standard 9-inch pies do, and it looks impressive (always a plus for the holiday table).
For the pie dough:
5 cups flour
4 teaspoons sugar
1¼ teaspoon salt
1 pound (4 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes (keep in freezer until ready to use)
⅔ cup vodka (or use equal amount of ice water)
For the filling:
4½ cups whole, fresh cranberries
6¾ cups (6 medium) Granny Smith apples, peeled, sliced into ¼-inch slices and halved
1½ cups sugar
1⅛ cups light brown sugar
Zest and juice of 2 oranges
2¼ teaspoons ground ginger
¾ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Pulse together flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Blend in butter by dropping a cube at a time into the food processor, just until most of mixture resembles coarse meal with some roughly pea-size butter lumps. Drizzle ⅔ cup vodka over the mixture and pulse a few times until incorporated. Squeeze a small handful of dough: If it doesn’t hold together, add more vodka 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing until just incorporated, then test again. Do not overwork dough, or pastry will be tough.
Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. With heel of your hand, smear the dough once or twice in a forward motion to help distribute fat. Gather dough together, with a pastry scraper if you have one, and press into a ball. Divide in half and form into 2 discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and chill until firm, at least 1 hour, or up to 2 days.
For the filling, combine all ingredients except the cornstarch in a large dutch oven over medium heat. Simmer the mixture until the cranberries burst and the apples soften, at least 15-20 minutes. Once the fruit has released most of its juice, add the cornstarch and stir to combine. Cook for 2-5 minutes more, until the liquids have thickened. Remove from the heat and cool fully before assembling the pie. If not assembling the pie the same day, the filling can be kept in the fridge for 1-2 days.
When ready to assemble and bake the slab pie, heat the oven to 375°F and position an oven rack in the center. Remove 1 disc of dough from the refrigerator and unwrap in preparation of shaping the bottom crust. It might be a bit too firm at first; if so, give it 5-10 minutes in the open air. While waiting, grease your 10-inch by 15-inch jelly roll pan with either shortening or butter. Using your rolling pin, evenly roll the dough out to form a 17-inch by 12-inch rectangle (or the closest approximation). Do not trim the overhang, except to even it out. Patch up any cracks with extra dough. Place the jelly roll pan with bottom crust in the fridge to chill for at least 30 minutes.
Add the filling, spreading out as evenly as possible. Do not mound up the fruit overfill — if you have extra filling, set it aside for another use. Chill while rolling out the top crust.
Remove the second disc from the fridge and roll the dough out to form a 17-inch by 12-inch rectangle (or the closest approximation). Drape it over the filling, then pinch the two crusts gently to seal, fluting if desired. Cut steam vents throughout the top of the pie.
Brush the crust with cream and bake for 45 minutes. Then turn the oven up to 425°F to help make the crust a nice golden brown, and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, checking the pie every 5 minutes or so. Cool on a cooling rack for at least 30-45 minutes before serving. To transport, wrap the cooled slab pie tightly with a couple layers of plastic wrap. Eat within 2 days of baking.
Makes 20 2½-inch X 4-inch servings
Sweet Potato Pecan Mini Bundt Cakes with Caramel Drizzle
These mini Bundt cakes pack a lot of flavor into a small dessert, and look fantastic on the Thanksgiving table. If you want this to be a slightly larger dessert, pair with a scoop of vanilla or butter pecan ice cream.
For the Bundt cakes:
1 pound of sweet potatoes
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1¾ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon maple syrup
¼ cup chopped pecans
For the caramel drizzle
½ cup sugar
¼ cup water
½ heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla
At least two hours before you bake the mini Bundt cakes, heat the oven to 325°F and position the racks toward the center. Bake the sweet potatoes for 45-60 minutes. When ready, the potatoes should be soft and the skin slightly shriveled. Cool for 15 minutes, then skin the potatoes. Place the potatoes in a food processor and process until smooth. Let cool for at least an hour before adding to cake batter. Measure out 1¼ cups of mashed sweet potatoes for the cakes and use the remaining for something else.
For the mini Bundt cakes, increase the heat of the oven to 350°F. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl; whisk to combine and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter until fluffy. Add both the white and brown sugar and beat for an additional 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well to incorporate. On low speed, add the mashed sweet potatoes, about ¼ cup at a time. Mix until incorporated.
In a measuring cup, combine milk, maple syrup and vanilla extract. On low speed, add the flour mixture and milk alternately, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Add the pecans and mix just to combine. Divide the batter between the mini Bundt molds, sprayed with non-stick spray, and bake for 18-20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack completely.
For the caramel drizzle, stir together granulated sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium high heat and cook without stirring until mixture turns a deep amber color. Remove from heat and slowly add in cream until very smooth. Add the vanilla and salt and stir until fully combined. Let caramel cool for about 20 minutes, until it is just barely warm and still pourable. Put into a serving container until ready to serve the cakes.
Once the mini Bundt cakes are cool, place into an air-tight container until ready to serve. Both the cakes and the caramel drizzle can be made 2 days in advance. To serve, place the cake on a plate and drizzle with caramel.
Makes 16 mini Bundt cakes
Persimmon Chai Bread Pudding
Bread pudding is such a cozy dessert that can be adapted myriad ways for the different seasons. The flavors of persimmon and chai tea go well together, with the soft sweetness of the fruit being balanced by the spices in the tea.
16 ounces Italian or French Bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cup chai tea concentrate
3 Hachiya persimmons (yields 1½ cups puree)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger
Heat the oven to 325°F and position the racks toward the center. Using cooking spray, lightly grease a 9-inch X 13-inch baking pan.
Make sure the persimmons are especially ripe. They should yield when you squeeze them, and not be hard. Slice them in half and use a spoon to scoop out the fruit. Puree the persimmon flesh with the lemon juice until smooth.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs thoroughly. Add the heavy cream, whole milk, chai concentrate, persimmon puree, sugar, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and ginger, whisking to combine. Add the bread to the custard, stirring so that all pieces are covered. Cover the bowl and set aside for 30-45 minutes.
Once the custard finishes its rest, pour it into the prepared baking pan, distributing the bread as evenly as possible. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the bread pudding is fragrant and pulling away from the edges of the pan. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before serving, or if making ahead, cool completely, cover and chill until ready to serve. Then warm up the bread pudding in an oven set at 350°F for 10-15 minutes.
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski