The first victim of your basic Thanksgiving Day-only cooking skills is your pride. Cooking is easy, with practice, and once a year does not constitute practice. I know how to cook now, but that wasn’t always the case; I was once this victim. Once I realized that meals are not always exclusively cooked for you (thanks mom and dad!), I decided that I was going to contribute to Thanksgiving dinner, consistently. And like anyone else who feels invulnerable and is unafraid of failure, I quickly waded in over my head and chose baking as my new province. Dinner breads. Rolls and roll-type comestibles. Not the centerpiece, and not even a side, really. But I grew up Southern/suburban, and the ultimate delivery mechanism for gravy was not the taters or even the turkey, but the rolls. Rolls were unsung requisites, a load-bearing structure to the meal. So I would not be attracting too much attention to myself by choosing them, while at the same time I would carrying the entire T-Day dinner on my back. A perfect place to be, pride says.
Unfortunately, baking is hard.
It’s not insurmountable. All kinds of people can do it. But it is a steep learning curve. There is an astonishing array of variables that you don’t have to take into account when you, say, fry an egg — what kind of flour? what’s my altitude? how accurate is my oven? what the hell does “proofing” mean? And that’s assuming you are cooking in a “kitchen.” I’ve lived in New York City full-time since the mid-90s, and, like I said, I am come from the suburbs, so I know what a real kitchen looks like. It has counters, and appliances. Useless appliances. Vast acreage of counter space, a multiplicity of foosball tables’ worth of counter space. And tables! Like, one for eating on, and one for just stacking stuff on. And I was looking at cooking on a hot plate in a closet and an Easy Bake oven on a cardboard box in the bathroom. But it was just cooking, so how hard could it be?
From then going forward, I’ve made dinner rolls for at least ten separate Thanksgivings. They didn’t suck, this decade of dinner rolls, but each batch was a failure in its own way. The one time at the function with the Judge, with the oysters and Prosecco, when I nailed the buttery toothiness, but was working with less than happy yeast. At the mother-in-law’s, when they were billowy but sawdusty. The North Fork getaway, when the rolls were rationed, since the yield was a fraction of what I was led to believe. And last year, when the decision to let them un-rise in the trunk of a car while being transported was a not good decision. Good for anecdotes, at least, but ultimately my career of dinner roll-making has been marked by one or two rolls per event that I’d let someone that knows how to cook eat. I never caught any actual flak — “Oh, they’re fine.” — but I knew. I knew because I ate them. And the little frozen balls of dough you buy at the store, and then bake? I couldn’t beat them. The food you make with your own hands is sometimes like the little clay ashtray you made your parents when you were in kindergarten — of course it’s beautiful, our idiot kid made it! I am sick of being the idiot kid.
This year I’m changing tack. I’ll continue working on the dinner rolls, but on my own time. This year I’ll make something I know how to make: biscuits. I have extensive experience with biscuits, because I have extensive experience with sausage gravy, and sausage gravy is never served without biscuits. Biscuits are non-traditional, outside the ken of the archetypical T-Day, but they fit. They will be fresh, they will be delicious and I will nail them. I will be the Hero of the Beach. They are bready and they will soak up the gravy as good as the Parker House or the Hot Cross. They travel, and they keep. And in the spirit of surrender, not only am I going to make the biscuits, but I am going to make them the way I am comfortable making them — by using a certain pre-mixed baking product that is pretty ubiquitous.
Now I know how to make scratch biscuits, and it’s not really that hard, but you know what? I’ve only done that three or four times, and the end result is nearly indistinguishable. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to wait until Wednesday, T minus one, and instead of dashing around the grocery to pick up the baking soda and the lard and the baking powder and should I use cake yeast this year? I am going to leisurely buy exactly two items: Ubiquitous Pre-Mixed Baking Product and milk. And the next day, I’m gonna eyeball the entire process, and save myself the stack of measuring cups in the sink. Big old bowl, generous heap of UPMBP and then enough milk so that the consistency is pliable but a little bit stretchy. Then I’m gonna throw that lump on a board and roll it out and flip it around and generally look busy, and when I’m done it’s gonna be a little bit thicker than you’d want, about an inch, maybe more. Then I’m gonna cut that sheet of dough into roughly round shapes and throw them on a sheet, and then repeat the process with the scraps. And then 450 degrees and ten or so minutes. Maybe a little brushed butter at the end. Yahtzee.
Yes, I am cheating, but I’m not going to feel bad about it. If I go in for the frozen dinner rolls, which are actually quite delicious, and then said that I made them myself, that I would feel bad about. But my biscuits will be made with my own hands. In fact, each biscuit will have all sorts of my hands all over it. I will have made the living hell out of those biscuits. And I won’t feel any worse about the UPMBP than I would over the cheap ass flour I would’ve bought, and the who-knows-how-old baking soda in my fridge. Will I admit to it? Well, I’d rather not, but I guess I’m going to have to. And when the locavore stuffing gets passed around, with the Prospect Park-foraged mushrooms, I’ll enjoy that too, and only smirk to myself a little.
Earlier I said that I know how to cook, and you know what they say: anyone who brags about prowess in the kitchen or in the sack probably has none. So I may well be that guy. But my biscuits are not bad, so my pride can take it.
Brent Cox is a professional chef writer in Brooklyn.
Illustration by Susie Cagle.