The orders for bread shaped like a turkey roll in year-round at Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, N.M., but they start coming in fast and earnest at the beginning of November.
In Thanksgiving parlance, the turkey is the showstopper. It comes out glistening and golden, a centerpiece of magnificence and meaning, its scent of browned skin and moist meat and herbs so powerful it fills the room with its presence. The almost-national bird. Even in a time of mixed message food culture, no other American holiday is suffused with the image of a single, shared dish.
These were the images and connotations Pratt Morales was trafficking in when he decided, 30 years ago, to try to make a full roasted turkey out of bread.
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“We started making it for vegetarians who wanted a centerpiece for Thanksgiving — and we still do — but now it’s become a great gift for local customers,” Morales said.
It wasn’t the first time Morales had tried to make something un-breadlike with yeasted dough. He’s done turreted castles, saguaro cactuses, horses with wagons trailed behind them. He’s sculpted dragons, roadrunners, doves in a nest, and once, bread-shaped cockroaches and mice for a pest control company. Cute parlor tricks, yes, but nothing like this. Turkey bread is a marriage of images: the staff of life and a sign of seasonal thankfulness all in one.
And so, after weeks of experimentation, turkey bread was born in a tiny family bakery in New Mexico.
Albuquerque’s oldest family-run bakery
It’s just before the lunch rush on a side street outside of Old Town in Albuquerque. The scent of yeast, sleeping loaves tinged with green chile peppers and warm cinnamon from just-baked wedding cookies seeps out of the constantly open door of a 1950s adobe ranch, home to Golden Crown Panaderia, the state’s oldest family-run bakery. Morales pulls chairs for customers while his son, Chris, kneads dough on a long table in the kitchen.
Forty years ago, Morales was a trained accountant just out of the National Guard when he decided to open a bake shop. He was raising his son by himself and needed an environment in which he could be a father and make a living at the same time.
“I can’t think of any better place to raise a son as a single dad than at a bakery,” Morales said. “There’s lots to do.”
Morales raised his son while he raised his business, and now he and Chris work side by side with a team of dedicated bakers. Together, the father-son team has weathered competition from industrial competitors by doing everything better. The bakery has made a name for itself with its authentic biscochito (a dry wedding cookie), hand-thrown pizza crusts and a wide variety of specialty breads.
“What we do is time consuming and difficult to do,” Morales said. “Nobody else knows how to do it.”
At Golden Crown, bread has never left its central role as the staff of life. But the Turkey Bread — oh, there is nothing like the turkey bread. The bakery will make around 500 turkey breads in the run-up to Thanksgiving, in three varieties costing between $35 and $50 — green chile, peasant dough and even a dark-legged and white breasted version combining whole wheat and Italian white bread.
The making of a Thanksgiving centerpiece
There are no YouTube videos of anyone at Golden Crown making the turkey bread, no morning talk shows in which Morales brings his firecracker wit and energy to a New York stage and audiences of millions (though he is often visited by the Food Network). And with good reason. Like all of the bakery’s recipes, the method and ingredients have been honed and shaped over many decades. It’s all secret — the thing that has helped the family enterprise to thrive in a climate in which the family bakery as an institution has waxed and waned. So to see it made, in person, is to marvel at the power of muscle memory. It is as if you are watching a gymnast perform a routine of magnetic precision, one practiced so often he could do it blindfolded.
At a long, waist-high wooden table, Morales gathers his ingredients and prepares his surface. This dough — an egg-based mixture dotted with slices of jalapenos — is already made. First, he pats the dough into an oblong shape the size of a loaf of bread. With a dough slicer, he cuts off two pieces that will become the legs. Then he cuts the breast, forming a backbone by making a small ridge. He slices two slots for the wings and scores the legs so they will look like feathers when baked. The dough will rise twice. He scoops it with his hands from all sides, tucks it in, like you might tuck in a child or, perhaps, yes, a turkey you are preparing for an oven roast.
Morales knows exactly how this dough will rise, exactly how it will brown, exactly the right temperature to get it to bake through without become too overdone in any one spot. A sprinkle of parsley on top, and the bird is ready for the oven, where it is baked at 400 degrees. When it comes out, it will be browned in all the right places, rendered in deep crusty browns.
“We always get the same response from people who buy it as a gift for Thanksgiving,” Morales said. “The host opens the door and they say: ‘You didn’t have to bring the turkey!’ ”
Main photo: Golden Crown Panaderia in Albuquerque, N.M., makes a golden turkey — out of bread. Credit: Golden Crown Panaderia