Ask Special Sauce: Kenji and Stella Answer Your Holiday Questions

This year, my wife and I managed to get through Thanksgiving without any major mishaps or blow-ups. That domestic and culinary tranquility was thanks (at least in part) to the answers Kenji and Stella gave on our special episode of “Ask Special Sauce.” This week, “Ask Special Sauce” returns with even more reassuring answers to an impressive array of holiday cooking questions posed by serious eaters all over the US and Canada.

We got straightforward inquiries, like how to navigate holiday baking when you’re avoiding gluten, dairy, and refined sugars or what’s the best way to crisp up sweet potatoes. But we also helped untangle some tricky family traditions. Listener Heather North came to us for advice, explaining, “My in-laws grew up using primarily box desserts, jello, cream cheese, Cool Whip, that sort of thing. And they continued those traditions.” Heather explained that every year she offers to make pastries or bake a pie, but her in-laws always request things like “that yellow salad with the pretzels or pudding pie….Something I don’t consider baking.” Her question? “How do I, without offending them, merge what they consider desserts with what I would consider more traditional baking?” As always, Stella came to the rescue.

Meanwhile, Kenji tackled a question from Brad. “I’m looking to update a family favorite recipe, a fixture at our table has always been broccoli rice casserole. And since taking over primary cooking responsibilities, I just haven’t had the gumption to make it. And I think that’s because of what goes into it….It’s four main ingredients, right?…Minute rice, a bag of frozen broccoli, a big old jar Cheez Whiz, and crumbled saltines on top.…That’s it. Sometimes a diced onion would go in. Sometimes we’d use jalapeño Cheese Whiz instead of the normal stuff for extra zing.” Without a trace of snobbery, Kenji helped Brad out.

We had a blast helping these serious eaters answer these holiday cooking and baking questions, and my guess is you’ll enjoy listening to this episode just as much. On behalf of Stella, Kenji, and me, we want to wish you all happy holidays. May each of you find yourself surrounded by seriously delicious food and people you love.


EL: Welcome, Serious Eaters, to a special holiday edition of Call Special Sauce. Serious Eaters from all over the country, all over the world for that matter, have sent us holiday-related questions that they would like us to answer. What we’re really trying to do here is take the stress and the worry out of your holidays.

EL: Anyway, here to do the answering and provide the stress reduction are two Serious Eaters who know a thing or two about cooking and baking, Kenji Lopez-Alt, our Chief Culinary Consultant and the bestselling author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, and Stella Parks our resident pastry wizard and another New York Times bestselling author of BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.

EL: Welcome to our special holiday episode of Call Special Sauce, Stella.

Stella Parks: Thanks for having me.

EL: Are you kidding, man? How could it be a Call Special Sauce without Stella Parks and Kenji?

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: Hey, Ed. How’s it going?

EL: Great. All right. I think we’ve got Dr. Chelsea Drda on the line, do we not, Chelsea?

Chelsea Drda: Yes. Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

EL: It’s so good to talk to you. And where are you calling from?

CD: Atlanta, Georgia.

EL: Atlanta, Georgia. Excellent. We have Stella from Lexington, Kentucky, talking to Dr. Chelsea Drda of Atlanta, Georgia. I like that.

SP: Hey, Chelsea.

CD: Hi, Stella.

EL: What’s your question, Chelsea?

CD: One of the things that I hear from patients a lot is how to navigate holiday baking, especially in regard to pastry when they’re avoiding things, especially gluten, but also dairy and refined sugars. And I was just wondering if you guys had any tips or tricks or hacks about that.

SP: Well, for the gluten question, I can answer that one pretty easily. In my cookbook, BraveTart, 80% of the recipes are gluten-free, either they’re gluten-free by nature or they include a custom, tested, separate gluten-free adaptation for them. So I’ve got a lot of resources there for people who are doing gluten-free baking for the holidays, including pie crust, including all of my cakes and virtually all of my cookies. So it’s not like I’ve got one gluten-free cookie and fudge. There’s a lot to choose from. And we have several gluten-free recipes on Serious Eats, also. We have our gluten-free pie crust, which is from my book also, and a gluten-free angel food cake.

SP: On the dairy front, in most cases, especially when you’re dealing with liquid dairies, like the milk or something in a recipe, in cakes, a lot of time the dairy is just serving as a hydration. It’s furnishing a little bit of lactose to help with browning, but it’s pretty easy to swap in. If you’ve got a cake and it calls for two cups of milk, you can use two cups of your favorite non-dairy milk, no problem.

EL: Almond milk, nut milk, whatever.

SP: Yeah, absolutely, whatever. You might see a little less browning ultimately, but if you like the flavor of that milk, it’s going to perform fine in the cake or whatever you’re baking.

SP: We have a lot of vegan recipes on Serious Eats, vegan desserts, and I’ve been working to build out our vegan dessert content. So that non-dairy aspect, a lot of those recipes are crossovers. We’ve got different fats that we work with, a lot of coconut oil. I work with a lot of coconut oil when I’m doing vegan desserts, so that can kind of be a helpful swap, or at least a way to build out a dairy-free recipe is to start with a vegan one. Maybe you say, “Okay, I’m not going to go through this egg replacement part because that’s not what I’m looking for,” but it can give you some ideas on how to work around butter in a recipe.

CD: I am so thankful. That is an amazing resource. I’m so glad that you put this out there for people to take advantage of.

EL: That is awesome. Chelsea, you’re in good shape, and your patients will be rewarded with Stella’s wisdom.

CD: Yeah. Thank you guys so much. Have a great day.

EL: Thank you for calling, Chelsea.

JKLA: I love how all of Stella’s answers boil down to, basically, “Hey, I wrote this in my book. Just look it up in there.”

SP: I literally don’t know anything else. That’s it.

EL: We’re back with another caller, Brady Vickers. Are you in the house, man?

Brady Vickers: Yep.

EL: Where are you calling from, Brady?

BV: I’m calling from North Dakota.

EL: North Dakota.

BV: That’s for sure.

EL: Where you need a lot of warm food for the holidays.

BV: Well, along those lines, because it requires a lot of food, I was wondering if there are any mise tips or restaurant tricks for holding food, but keeping quality high.

EL: Kenji, this seems like in your wheelhouse.

JKLA: So if you’re serving a big dinner party or a big Thanksgiving meal, how do you serve all of your food at the same time with a normal-sized kitchen?

BV: Right.

JKLA: The first step in good mise en place whether you’re at a restaurant or at home… mise en place is the stuff you have ready before you serve is it takes place before you even get in the kitchen. So it’s all in the planning. So when I’m planning my restaurant menu, one of the big important considerations to take into account is how many dishes come from each station. So we know what are various heat sources in the kitchen are and what we have to do is make sure that the menu reflects a balance between those various heat sources so that the guy doing the fryer doesn’t get every single dish or the guy doing the grill doesn’t get every single dish so that everything got distributes evenly.

JKLA: And I think about my home kitchen at the holidays sort of the same way. So I think about the various heat sources I have. So I have an oven with a couple of racks. I’ve got a stove top with a few burners. I’ve got a toaster oven and I’ve got a microwave and if I really want to get crazy, I’ve got a grill and stuff. But usually I think about those four heat sources. Maybe I’ll pull out the slow cooker too or the pressure cooker. And so when I’m planning my dishes I think about all right, well what dish is going to require? Which piece of equipment? And if it looks like there’s a ton of things that need the oven all of the last minute, well then I better start thinking about how I can edit that so that I can take something that doesn’t need the oven.

JKLA: A lot of times it’s a question of changing formats. So your mashed potatoes for instance if you’re just doing straight up mashed potatoes, there are a number of easy ways to reheat them. So I find that the microwave is actually probably the most effective way to reheat, mashed potatoes. You microwave it at one minute intervals and stir it out a little bit extra liquid in there and it comes out fine. Sous Vide also works. You can vacuum seal your mashed potatoes in a Cryovac bag or in a Ziploc bag and then you can reheat it

BV: Mm-hmm.

JKLA: In a water bath the next day. Or if you find out that you have oven space free and originally you need and you need more stove top space, then you can transfer that mashed potatoes to a casserole and use a mashed potato casserole recipe. So, it’s really what I think about is like, all right, what are the types of things we need? All right, so first of all, what are the things that we definitely need the turkey, my family always needs stuffing in a casserole dish. We want a green bean casserole, etc. What you think about the things that you can’t give up and make sure and dedicate equipment to those first and then think about it, sort of all the gaps you need to fill and sort of the style, the type of dishing.

JKLA: We need a vegetable side. Does it have to be stove top? Can it be oven? Can it be fried? There’s various ways you can do a vegetable side. So try and fill… I’m trying to think about what equipment you have free. That way you sort of balance out your entire meal and of course there’s still going to be a little bit of scrambling because just heating up all those things in the last minute is going to be a pain. But if you’re not sort of struggling for oven space or stove top space and you have everything planned out in advance, that’s really sort of the best advantage that you can give yourself. And that’s true, I think no matter the size of your gathering,

BV: I haven’t thought about sending it by station. That’s a great idea.

EL: All right, Brady, do you feel better? That’s all I want to know.

BV: Yes.

EL: Great. Well thanks for calling and have a great holiday.

BV: All right. You too. Thank you so much.

EL: Hello, Ryan Farrell. Are you a serious eater? That’s my first question. I hope the answer is yes. That’s a rhetorical question. So Ryan, where are you calling from?

Ryan Farrell: I’m calling from Chicago.

EL: Chicago. Excellent. What’s your question?

RF: So I wanted to know how to get some crispy oven roasted sweet potatoes.

JKLA: First of all. Hello. Hello Ryan. So as far as crispy oven roasted sweet potato go… So I’m going to react to you. Please don’t take this personally because this is actually… This is something that… So this question specifically, how do you take a roasted potato recipe and translate it to sweet potato? I get this all the time. Every time I post a crispy potato recipe, the question is how do you do with sweet potatoes? And my answer to it is, sweet potatoes are not potatoes. I think the greatest disservice whoever named sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes, it’s been a huge disservice in because people, Oh, there’s potato in the name so I can just do the same thing I do to a potato to a sweet potato and get good results and you can’t, they behave very differently.

JKLA: Sweet potatoes are much lower in starch, higher in sugar, and so they don’t crisp up naturally on their own. So the method that I use for regular potatoes is what I do is I take my regular potatoes and I boil them in water with a little bit of baking soda. And that helps the exterior of the potato breakdown, the pectin on the exterior, the potato breaks down and then you drain them and you toss those potatoes with them fat. So that starchy sort of slurry that’s on the surface combines with the fat and coats the potatoes. And that’s actually the part that ends up crisping up. So in order to get sweet potato crispy, what I do is I start similarly, I take a regular potato, cut it into chunks and I boil it and I essentially make mashed potato, like really thin mashed potatoes.

JKLA: So you take one of those potatoes, boil it with a little alkaline water until it completely falls apart, drain that potato. And I would say it’s probably about one small regular potato for every two or three large sweet potatoes. I’m not sure by weight, but probably about 1 to 10 weight ratio of regular potato, sweet potato. Boil the heck out of that regular potato with the peel off and then take the starch from it. Whisk it up with some of the cooking water and some fat. It could be melted butter, it could be olive oil, canola oil, whatever fat you want, and then toss your sweet potatoes in that before roasting them and so what you end up doing is you get that regular potato starch that’s going to give you that crispy coating on them and then you get the tender sweet, sweet potato underneath.

JKLA: It’s similar to how you would make a sweet potato fry where you would want to add some sort of extra starch to it to build up that crispy coating because there’s regulatory potato on it’s own does not have that quality. Now, of course this means that the one hole I find people falling into a lot is thinking, all right, how can I take a regular potato recipe and translate the sweet potato much easier as to actually take sweet potato and recipes and translate them to other vegetables. Sweet potato behaves more similar to similarly to a squash or carrot than it does to a potato. So once you have a recipe for sweet potato that works… So say you use this crispy roasted sweet potato recipe, you can do the same thing to get sort of crispy roasted squash, crispy roasted carrots, any sort of sort of dense, sweet vegetable like that. So yeah, I hope that answers your question.

RF: Yes.

EL: Ryan. I know Kenji and Stella have both have strong feelings on this and there is an answer, right? Are sweet potatoes and yams, the same thing.

JKLA: Are sweet potatoes and yams. Well, it depends where you are. The nomenclature just changes around the world. So I think if you’re asking a a botanist or somebody who studies vegetables for living, they will tell you that a sweet potato and a yam are different things, but we use the word… Languages for communicating and in the U S we use the word yam to refer to these orange sweet potatoes and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. As long as you know who you’re talking to and what your audience is, it’s fine to call things by their common name as opposed to they’re technically accurate name.

EL: Stella.

SP: I’m just… I’m sitting here reeling from this revelation that Kenji has just given us about how to roast up these sweet potatoes. I’m just like, damn, this is pure gold.

EL: So I think that’s Stella’s way of saying that you are in good shape, Ryan. I hope you feeling good about it.

RF: All right, cool. I’ll give it a try.

JKLA: All right.

EL: All right man. Thanks for calling. So, Stella, we have some break news, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. Breaking in, breaking in. We’re breaking in, we just got a call from Vicky Wasik at Serious Eats World Headquarters-

SP: Oh no.

EL: And she wants to know when to take the things that you put in the oven before you left out.

SP: When they’re bone dry. Yes. I had to dash out in a hurry and I had some meringue’s in the oven and I left Vicky in charge of them. I think that they were done at the exact moment that I walked into the studio. They’re probably ready to come on now. It’s my first time making them in this particular oven, so there’s always like an a… And these meringues don’t mind if they get over baked, so anywho please pass on to Vicky that they’re probably ready to come out. Just smash a meringue between her fingers and if it seems wet or gooey in the slightest, let it keep going.

EL: There you go.

SP: Wow. That was a real service for me. Thank you.

EL: Nate Parker’s on the line. What’s up, Nate? Where are you calling from?

Nate Parker: I’m calling from a Washington DC.

EL: Wow. Have you recovered from the Washington National’s parade?

NP: It’s been a nonstop party.

EL: Excellent. What’s your question, Nate?

NP: So I’m looking to update a family favorite recipe, a fixture at our table has always been broccoli rice casserole. And since taking over primary cooking responsibilities, I just haven’t had the gumption to make it. And I think that’s because of what goes into it.

JKLA: What goes into it?

EL: It’s a little scary.

NP: Well it’s four main ingredients, right? It’s instant rice, minute rice, a bag of frozen broccoli, a big old jar cheese whiz and crumbled saltines on top. And so you mix it all together and put it in the oven for however long, I don’t think that probably matters as much. And there we go. That’s it. Sometimes a diced onion would go in, sometimes we’d use jalapeno cheese whiz instead of the normal stuff for extra zing, but that’s pretty much it.

JKLA: The saltines get mixed in through the whole casserole or the saltines are on top?

NP: It’s crumbled on top there.

JKLA: The saltines are like a crunchy crumb topping.

NP: But they absorb moisture. So they don’t end up being crunchy in any.

JKLA: So they’re not crunchy?

NP: No. No.

JKLA: All right. I mean presumably they want to be crunchy. Presumably they’d be better if they were crunchy?

NP: I think so for some contrast.

EL: Wait, if they’re on top, Nate, aren’t they crunchy?

NP: They are for awhile, but it all kind of just blends into a homogenous goop.

EL: Got it.

JKLA: Got it. Okay. So here would be my suggestion. I have several suggestions. So basically just upgrade every ingredient. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with minute rice, especially in this context, but you’d probably do better with, I think a more flavorful rice. Maybe a wild rice or something or whole grain rice with an unsheltered rice. What do they call that? The brown rice? Brown rice, that’s what they call it. Right? Wild rice or brown rice giving it a little bit more flavor and then cooking that separately. Nice and nice and fluffy and dry. And then instead of frozen broccoli florets, I would move to real broccoli. What I would do is I would trim the broccoli and then just blanch it in salted water for about a minute, just to basically sort of set the color and get it started cooking.

JKLA: So, but still sort of stay sort of bright green and crunchy. And then I would combine that with a homemade cheese sauce, which I think you could go a couple of directions. If you look at our… We have a couple of Mac and cheese recipes on the site. Daniel Gritzer has one I think that uses sodium citrate, which is an emulsifying sauce a salt that gets your really smooth cheese sauce. That’s one way to go. The other way is just to sort of classic Bechamel style cheese sauce. Make a roux with butter and flour, add a little bit of milk and then stir in your cheese afterwards at the end. I think either one of those routes would give you a better result than cheese whiz. If you’d like to sort of zestiness of cheese whiz, you can always doctor it up with hot sauce and mustard or use a really nice sharp cheese.

JKLA: But yeah, I would upgrade to a real cheese sauce and then finally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using saltines on top if you want to get them really nice and crunchy. I think the trick there would be to toast them separately. So what I would do is I would take your saltines and either with your hands or in a food processor really roughly crumble them up with some… A little bit of melted butter or oil so that they get a little bit of oil on them so they aren’t just dry.

JKLA: And then either toast them separately. I’m in a pan in the oven and then just sprinkle them on top at the end. Or I think you should be able to maintain a nice Christmas if you bake the casserole without the saltines and then add it for the last 10 minutes or so. But I think just the basic concept like broccoli, rice and cheese and a crunchy top sounds great. I think it’s just a question of upgrading each one of those individual ingredients.

EL: You didn’t suggest, by the way, organic cheese whiz which probably wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

JKLA: Do they make organic cheese whiz?

EL: I don’t even know, but I just to throw that in. But in a way you sort of are Stella-fying Nate Parker’s family recipe, right? Making it, you’re making a little… You’re making it better without making it too chefy.

JKLA: Yeah, you’re just you’re sticking a tie and putting a nice hat on it.

EL: Yeah.

SP: I can say from experience that Daniel Gritzer’s macaroni and cheese with the sodium citrate is ridiculously good. It is so good. And my mother-in-law makes a really similar broccoli casserole for Thanksgiving, which I love and is perfect. And I wouldn’t change a thing about it because it’s just… Where I grew up, what my family history is, it’s just what I need. It’s what I love. But I can say that that Daniels Mac and cheese cheese sauce for that is very similar to the texture that of the cheese sauce within the broccoli casserole. So I feel like that would be a strong contender.

EL: What’s sodium citrate?

JKLA: It’s an emulsifying salt. So basically all it does as a mixture that the cheese doesn’t clump up. It’s a salt.

EL: Got it.

SP: It makes the cheese so, so, so silky. Like that’s Slippy silkiness that you kind of think of with a process cheese. So yeah, it can be a little bit hard to find. You on order it online and plan ahead for sure.

JKLA: Yeah, you can get it on Amazon or there’s a site called Modernist Pantry. Yeah, you can easily get it online though.

EL: Yeah. So, Nate, this sounds really good. Can I come to your Thanksgiving?

NP: All of you are always welcome.

EL: Okay. Cause there’s, but there’s three of us. I can’t leave my wife and son behind.

NP: There’s room for everybody. I mean someone might have to sit at the kid’s table.

EL: All right, it’s a deal. Thanks for calling Nate. Have a great holiday man.

NP: Hey, thank you. Appreciate the time.

JKLA: Bye bye.

EL: So Kenji, I know you had a hard out cause you have a very important meeting. Not that there could be anything more important than answering our listeners’ questions but thanks for taking the time. Stella, you can stick around for a little bit longer cause we have a few more questions.

SP: I’m here all day man.

EL: And have a great holiday man.

JKLA: All right you too.

EL: Give your daughter Alicia the sweetest, most wonderful… Now she’s a little older than two, right?

JKLA: She’ll be three in February. Yeah.

EL: That’s great. All right.

SP: Bye Kenji.

JKLA: All right, bye bye Stella. Bye Ed.

EL: Heather North, are you in the house?

Heather North: I am.

SP: It’s so good to hear from you. Where are you calling from?

HN: I am calling from Denver, Colorado.

EL: Denver, Colorado. Man, we have a truly national and international following, don’t we stella?

SP: I love Colorado.

EL: So you have a question for Stella?

HN: I do. My in-laws grew up using primarily box desserts, jello cream cheese, cool whip, that sort of thing. And they continued those traditions. Every year I offered to make something baked pastry pie or whatever and every year it’s, well why don’t you make that yellow salad with the pretzels or pudding pie.

HN: Something else that doesn’t involve what I consider baking. And my question is how do I, without offending them, merge what they consider desserts with what I would consider more traditional baking.

EL: So before still answer that question, I have a question for you, which is have you considered family swapping?

HN: Family swapping?

EL: Family swapping, like go into somebody else’s house.

SP: Ed she can’t put the her family on eBay, she’s got them. This is her family.

EL: Okay.

HN: It’s my In-laws and I don’t want to offend them. I truly don’t.

SP: Ultimately I feel like this isn’t even a baking question. That’s kind of more of a psychology question. I think it’s really important to say that the holidays are for everybody. That it’s not just about you meeting their needs. Where have they been saying, our daughter in-law really loves these made from scratch desserts and what can we do to accommodate her? It sounds like you’re the one who’s doing all the heavy lifting in terms of emotional accommodation of your family. And honestly what I would say to do is tell them you’re going to make dessert. Like, “Hey, I’m going to bring a dessert this year”. You’re not asking them what can you bring? You’re not asking them what they would like you to bring. You’re just saying I’m going to bring a dessert.

SP: And in that case it’s… I grew up in the South and there’s very certain pinkies out traditions that you have. But if someone shows up to your house with a gift that they brought, you can’t just be like, Oh well this isn’t what I want. The etiquette of a host is to receive a gift. But if as long as you’re asking, they’re well within their boundaries to tell you what they actually think, right? So you’re like, what do you want for Thanksgiving? Well, they’re going to tell you what they want, which is these traditional items. So I think you should give yourself permission to enjoy the holidays the way you want to enjoy it, and to make the thing that you want to make. And to know that it doesn’t have to be an element that is contorted to their desires.

SP: And I think that giving yourself permission to do that is a perfectly sane and healthy rational thing to do. And it’s also natural that you want to accommodate them, that you want to have something that everyone can agree on or whatever. And I think that’s fair. So I think first of all, you need to decide do you want to make that accommodation or do you just want them make them dessert you’ve been wanting to make. The thing that you’ve really been looking forward to trying and sharing, and that’s a separate issue than if they specifically came to you and said, “Hey Heather, can you make the world famous pretzel salad or whatever”, which is a different question. Then you have to decide, do I want to honor this request that they’ve given me? But I’ll give yourself permission to make exactly what you want to make because it’s your holiday too.

SP: And if their entire Christmas is ruined because you brought a homemade layer cake or something, then there’s kind of some bigger issues that might need to be investigated. It’s not just a comfort thing. They haven’t even thought about what else they might want, but anyhow.

EL: What’s that cliche Stella about asking for permission or-

SP: Yeah it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. So anyhow, I think you should make whatever you want to make, but if you do have an inclination that you’re like, okay, I want to make a nod to something that they like. I think there’s lots of little ways to kind of upgrade an item to make it more made from scratch and Kenji was teasing me earlier for referencing my book a lot, but my entire book is BraveTart is based on taking desserts that are back of the box recipes and upgrading them a little bit. So there’s probably a lot of iconic American desserts that resonate with everyone within those pages. If you just flip through for inspiration or if you don’t have a copy, certainly your library has one, it doesn’t have to be a holiday last minute purchase. But there’s ways to make little nods. My family has a dish that’s always on the holiday table.

SP: It’s called green salad. It’s not solid at all. It’s dessert. It’s like green jello and pineapple and cream cheese and dream whip. And toasted pecans and there’s some other things and it’s just a sweet little jello square kind of thing. But I feel like I can make some things similar to that if I took my lemon meringue pie recipe and made it with limes and whipped that with cream cheese or something like that. Could be a good basis to do a homemade version that’s a nod to the thing and that’s fine. But ultimately, Heather, I feel like you need to follow your heart and have the holidays of your dream.

EL: So do you think that you’re going to be able to follow through on Stella’s advice or do you think that world war three might break out in the family?

HN: I don’t think so, but first let me say, I do have your book and my wife absolutely loves the old school McDonald’s Apple pie things. Absolutely. So that was a great find in your book. And the only thing I’ve ever suggested to the in-laws is… I’m from the South as well, a sweet potato pie. And they were horrified that you would actually do something with sweet potatoes other than marshmallows and candy pecans. I may spring that on them or I may bring something else and put it alongside and we’ll ease them into this. But yes.

SP: Yeah. Well well along those lines that you mention it, I have done the marshmallows from my book for sweet potato casserole before and it’s really good. It’s super tasty. You can’t broil them as long. They don’t have as much power as a commercial bag of marshmallows but so they toast a lot faster. But they’re super, super nice and sweet potato casserole cause I’m into that.

EL: Stella, do you have recipe for jello shots that might really ease every morning at the family-

SP: My mom and dad and brother were just getting a big conversation about jello shots the other night. I was so confused. One last concept. This is actually a recipe that didn’t make it into the book is you could make my sweetened condensed milk from the book. You can make my homemade Graham crackers from the book. And with those two items in hand, you could even make some homemade toffee. The English toffee recipe from the book you are armed and dangerous to make a homemade seven layer bar or a Dolly bar or a magic bar. They’re kind of called something different everywhere. But you can make a completely homemade version just using one-to-one swaps for the classic ingredients in that.

HN: Yeah. Awesome. I appreciate you for taking my question.

EL: I’m happy we could make your day.

SP: Thanks for calling.

HN: Thank you so much.

EL: Hello Heidi Exline, am I pronouncing your name correctly?

Heidi Exline: Yep, that’s right.

EL: And where are you from Heidi? You have a nine one seven number. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re from New York.

HE: Well, not originally, but I’m basically been here forever.

EL: God, you’ve been here forever. That’s a long time.

HE: Feels like it.

EL: Sound like in New Yorker for sure. What’s your question?

HE: Well, I wrote in… Because I’ve been having… I’ve been making pies for a long time since I was a kid actually. And it wasn’t until fairly recently, I started blind baking my pies, certain pies and I tried to make a custard pie last Easter and this has happened a couple times where I blind baked across and I think I’m doing everything right. And then I opened the oven up, I don’t know, maybe 10 or 15 minutes later. And the thing has shrunk down into the pie, into the pan and super disappointed as you can imagine. So that was my question. Why is that happening and what can I do about that?

SP: Yeah, thanks for calling Heidi. That’s a great question. And it’s one that I hear from a lot of people in serious eats who struggle with, so you’re not alone in this. This is not some, unique failing your experiences. It’s a common issue I would say. So first of all, in any kind of situation I said will depend on the recipe and whose recipe you’re using. I have a certain style that I like to use and work with. And so the things that might be helpful for my recipe aren’t necessarily helpful for all recipes. So there’s definitely some cases where there’s a case by case advice that I would give. But broadly speaking when it comes to any pie dough shrinking is a sign that either there’s too much gluten development in the dough or the gluten that has been developed hasn’t been given a chance to relax sufficiently.

SP: And that’s the first major potential issue. And with that I would say that the underlying causes would either be an all purpose flour that’s too high in protein and there are a lot, there’s no standard of all purpose flour, so it’s not the same from back to bag. And I think that’s a really common thing that people think is just like, Oh let’s just be called for all purpose flour. And that’s what I use. But there are some brands of all purpose flour that have protein as low as 9% and use a coronation method for bleaching, which makes them way more similar to a cake flour in terms of strength and behavior. And then there’s some all purpose flowers out there that have a protein content that’s close to 12% which makes it more a bread flour.

SP: So you’ve got a huge window of of different styles. So it’s entirely possible that the brand of flour that you’ve stuck with is a little too high in protein for pie. And so kind of an easy check would be to check the nutrition facts on the side of the label. And I like to see about three grams of protein per serving. And if you’re dealing with a flower that has four grams of protein per serving, there’s a strong chance that it is going to be developing more gluten than you want to see in a pastry like pie dough. So checking your flower type is a first number one red flag and then to also make sure the dough is being relaxed properly, at least in my recipe, once the pie dough has been rolled out and put into the pan, it has to chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours before anything can be done to it.

SP: And we see a lot of readers in serious eats who don’t really notice that part of the step. They’re like, Oh, you know, I put it in the pan just like you said and blah blah blah. And then it’s like, granted our recipes are very information dense, so it’s… There’s a lot of a lot of stuff to digest there, but it does need to chill two hours before it’s blind baked. So that’s like addressing the kind of the gluten development and relaxation issues. Another potential cause of shrinking is if the oven temperature is too high. And this will vary depending on the recipe you’re using. A lot of recipes, advocate blind baking at 400 or 450 have different… Buy and bake it for 450 this many minutes and reduce the oven temperature to whatever. I think for any recipe we’ll benefit from blind baking at just three 50 low and slow cause high heat causes things to shrink it’s just this blast of intensity that the dough kind of recoils from.

SP: So kind of taking a slower steady approach blind baking it for longer at a slightly lower temperature, definitely recommend 350 as a good, even blind bake temperature. And then finally is to make sure you’re sufficiently weighting the pie. Sometimes a pie dough isn’t necessarily shrinking so much as it’s slumping or sliding back into the pan. And there’s kind of this misunderstanding about pie weights sometimes that you just throw in a couple in at the bottom. But with your pie weights they can only work by physically holding up the dose.

SP: So the pie weight should come to the very top edge of the cross if not slightly taller. So that’s a lot. And so some people just throw a handful of beans or a handful of pennies or a handful of ceramic pie weights or a cup of sugar and whatever. I say fill it all the way up. If not having it being heaping full that way the weight is physically capable of acting as a barrier to prevent the crust from shrinking or sliding. And I don’t know necessarily that any of those concepts have addressed what may be happening with you and I’m happy to hear back from you a little wiggle room to see if any of that rings a bell.

HE: Okay. I’m taking notes. This is super helpful. I just wanted to ask you in terms of chilling to go in the pie pan, so I’m supposed to chill it after I roll it out, right? And in addition to chilling it in the pie pan? Or no, just chilling and pie pan.

SP: It depends. Are you working with my recipe or a different recipe? Which is fine. There’s no judgment. I’m just saying I want to tailor my advice.

EL: We’re not going to hang up on you. Although we might. I don’t know.

HE: A different recipe.

SP: Okay. The way I structure it in my recipe is that I have you make the dough, divide it and then roll it out and put it in the pan, just get it all over with at once. Because what happens is when you make the pie dough and you put it in the refrigerator during this time period that it’s in the refrigerator, the dough relaxes and that means the gluten is no longer as uptight. It’s not as inclined to shrinking. But then when you take the dough back out of the refrigerator and you roll it out, you have reactivated the gluten, you’ve awoken it from it’s slumber. So after you roll it out, it needs to be chilled again and how much it needs to be chilled.

SP: Is going to really vary with the recipe because if a recipe doesn’t have a lot of ingredients to counteract the gluten, if it’s a leaner recipe without as much butter or if it was a dough that was made with a higher protein flour, all purpose flour, one of the ones that’s going towards the bread flour end of the spectrum in terms of it’s strength, it may need to chill for longer.

SP: So I would say if you’re dividing the dough and making the dough in advance and then going to roll it again, I would let it rest for at least an hour before blind baking and I go for two hours with my recipe, but that’s also because I’m making and rolling all in one push because I don’t want to have to clean up my counter twice. I just want to get it all over with in one go.

HE: Okay, that makes sense.

EL: I think you’re golden, Heidi. I mean there’s a little pun there cause the crush should be golden, right?

SP: Ideally. Ideally.

EL: All right. Have a great holiday, Heidi. Thanks for calling.

HE: Thanks so much.

SP: Thank you.

HE: You’re welcome. Bye.

EL: Stella Parks, man. That was awesome.

SP: Wow. So much baking advice.

EL: Such a little time.

SP: So little time.

EL: Well, I think we’ve really helped a lot of people. I really do.

SP: I hope so.

EL: No, no, you really have a lovely way about you to impart wisdom in a very, very nonaggressive way.

SP: If there’s one thing I pride on, it’s nonaggression.

EL: That’s right. Anyway, Stella. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I hope everything works out for your holidays this year.

SP: It’s going to be great. We’ve got a good change energy in the air.

EL: So now it’s time for me to give thanks. First I’d like to thank the Serious Eats community for sending us their questions. I hope we’ve succeeded in reducing your holiday related stress and Stella and Kenji, thank you both for participating in our little holiday stress reduction exercises on Call Special Sauce. I’m also thankful for everyone who helps make Special Sauce, a joy to create. Our producer, Grace Chen, producer Marty Goldensohn and everyone here at the Radio Arts Foundation studios and CDM studios and City Vox. I want to wish everyone the happiest of holidays filled with lots of seriously delicious food and drink and the sounds of friends and family enjoying each other’s company. So long Serious Eaters, we’ll see you next time.