I cooked Thanksgiving here again this year, and had some great successes by doing a few things a little differently: I mostly boned the turkey and roasted it flat, fiddled with the creamed onions, and figured out how to bake a custard pie without a soggy bottom crust (and perfected a buttermilk pie while I was at it). I just wanted to write up some notes for posterity.
Roasting a Spatchcocked Turkey
Spatchcocking, if you're not familiar with the term, is a way of preparing a bird – quail, chicken, turkey – for grilling or roasting by removing the backbone and flattening the bird. I went a step (or several) further by removing all of the interior bones and leaving only the leg, thigh, and wing bones. I've never done this before (although I've spatchcocked dozens of chickens), so it was a real challenge learning experience. It's a fussy process, but if you're comfortable with a boning knife, it's well worth the effort. For several reasons:
- When you take the bones out ahead of time, you can roast them to make stock for the gravy.
- A flattened bird takes up less space – both in the refrigerator and in the oven. I had a whole rack free to bake other things – in this case, the stuffing that wasn't in the bird and a corn pudding.
- A flattened bird cooks much faster and more evenly than one left whole. Mine was an 18-pounder, and it cooked in just over 2 1/2 hours. I have to admit it felt kind of weird waiting until 4:00 to put the bird in the oven when I planned to serve dinner at 7.
- That ‘cooks more evenly’ business means the breasts are moist and tender, because they don't dry out waiting for the thighs to cook through.
- A boneless bird is a breeze to carve, and there's no carcass to fuss over.
- The result is fantastically delicious.
I started the process on Monday evening, patiently and methodically working my way along the backbone, around the ribs to the breast blade and up into the thigh and wing joints. It took less than an hour. A more practiced butcher could probably do it in 20 minutes. The poor beast was left kind of floppy, but I just gathered it up and stuffed it into a large heavy plastic bag and back into the fridge. I also had an 11-lb. bird to break down (a freebie from TJ's workplace) – I carved off and froze the breasts and thigh meat and used the rest for stock.
All of the bones went into a roasting pan in the oven at 300°F for about 3 hours (until everything was nicely browned) then into a big stockpot with aromatics to simmer overnight. In the morning, I strained off 4 quarts of handsomely brown, rich turkey stock.
On Tuesday evening, I made a brine of 1 1/2 gallons water, 1 1/2 cups Diamond kosher salt, a small handful of black peppercorns, several crushed garlic gloves and juniper berries, 3 crumbled bay leaves, and 1/2 cup of maple syrup, all mixed up in a 5-gallon bucket. I plunged the turkey in, covered the bucket, and left it on the deck overnight (it was in the mid-30s out, a safe refrigeration temperature).
On Wednesday afternoon, I took the bird out of the brine, wiped off the spices, and laid it to rest on a rack in my largest roasting pan (still a bit snug), then tucked it into the fridge to dry. The photo here is the only one I took of the turkey, but it shows pretty well how I configured the bird in the pan – I actually cut off the wings and tucked them just under the breasts.
On Thursday at about 3:30, I turned the oven on to 425°F and pulled the bird out of the refrigerator. I worked my hand under the skin on both breasts and thighs and smeared in some softened butter, then tucked a sprig of thyme in each. Then I smeared the whole outside of the bird with butter and seasoned it with salt and pepper. I dumped about a cup of water into the pan and put it in the oven at 4:00 sharp.
I mentioned that I've never done turkey this way before – so I was a little hazy on the timing. Most of the recipes I found online for roasting a spatchcocked bird called for 425° or even 450° throughout roasting, and none were for nearly boneless birds. I've experimented with roasting chickens at high heat, and I've not been impressed with the results – the meat is firmer and drier than I care for. My standard method for roasting a chicken is to start it at 425° for 30 minutes, then drop the temperature to 350° until the bird is done. It's my contention that the lower heat allows the fat and connective tissue to melt into the meat – the result is always unfailingly succulent. And so I wanted to treat the turkey the same way. I extrapolated from all the information I could find, and settled on 2 1/2 hours.
I started checking the temperature at 1 1/2 hours, and the thickest part of the breast was just over 100°. At 2 1/2 hours, it was at 152° and the thighs were at 179°. I gave it another 10 minutes, then pulled it from the oven and removed the bird to a carving board and covered it loosely with foil. It sat for just about a half hour, while I made gravy and commanded my team for dish-finishing and buffet set-up. When everything else was ready to go, I carved – in about 5 minutes.
All of the meat was tender and flavorful, and not just moist but even richly fatty. Consensus is that this is a fine way to treat a bird. And nobody missed the ‘presentation’ phase of a whole browned turkey upon a platter.
Even Better Creamed Onions
My approach to creamed onions may already be familiar to you. This year I decided to slow-brown the onions in a large skillet on the stove. And I think this may be a better approach – the onions didn't get quite as dark, and the finished dish was a more appealing pale caramel color. The onions took about 45 minutes on medium-low to medium heat, cooked in butter rather than oil.
Defeating Soggy Pie Crusts
It's a pretty standard complaint, that the bottom crust of custard pies is often wan and soggy. I usually do what most recipes prescribe and partially bake the shell ahead of time. And that sort of works, but then the edges of the crust tend to get overcooked, even burned.
For my custard pies this year (sweet potato and buttermilk) I mixed up the fillings before I rolled out the crusts, and started the crusts – lined with foil and filled with dried beans – in a 400° oven. 15 minutes in, I removed the foil and beans and poured the fillings into the piping hot crusts, baked them for 10 minutes, then lowered the heat and finished them at 350°. The crusts were nicely browned and crisp.
I fell in love with buttermilk pie after making this recipe from Saveur magazine two years ago. But I've been bothered by the need to include sour cream to compensate for not using real buttermilk...since I use real buttermilk (most commercially available buttermilk is actually cultured skim milk and may contain a lot of unnecessary other stuff). So I poked around online and found a bunch of other recipes and played mix-and-match to come up with one I liked even better. The flavor is light, bright, and tangy – kind of like the lightest possible cheesecake.
I happen to make my own butter on a regular basis, so I always have buttermilk on hand. Real buttermilk is slowly becoming easier to find here in New England. In Maine and New Hampshire, many bigger grocery chains are carrying buttermilk from Kate's of Maine. In Vermont, I've seen buttermilk from Butterworks Farm at the Brattleboro Coop, so it's probably available at other coops around the state. Elsewhere in the country, it's worth doing a little research to see if you can find it (or try making your own!). If all else fails, I think you'd be just fine making this with the cultured skim milk kind.
For whatever reason, most pie recipes include a recipe for pie crust. This makes sense if it's a special crust – graham cracker or chocolate or something. But for a straight-up butter-and-flour pie crust, I think most experienced bakers have their own tried-and-true recipe. If you don't, any basic recipe for a single 9-inch crust will work for this
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp flour
1 tsp cardamom
pinch of salt
4 egg yolks
2 cups real buttermilk
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp vanilla extract (or the seeds scraped from one fresh vanilla bean)
grated zest of one lemon
1 9-inch unbaked pie shell
Heat the oven to 400°F.
Combine the dry ingredients in a small bowl and blend well with a small whisk.
In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks with about half a cup of the buttermilk and whisk vigorously to blend. Add the dry ingredients and whisk until well combined, then add the remaining ingredients and whisk until perfectly smooth. Set aside.
Line the pie shell with foil or parchment and fill with dried beans or other pie weights. Bake at 400° for 15 minutes, then remove the foil and weights and pour the filling into the piping hot crust. Bake for 10 minutes at 400°, then lower heat to 350° and continue baking until the center of the pie is just set (it should still quiver slightly when shaken) about another 35 minutes. Let cool completely on a rack before serving (the custard will still be very loose until it is completely cooled).