Tick Tock to Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  This year my sister and her husband will be joining us for the first time in probably a couple of decades! They live in a galaxy far, far away known as Bedford.  With a melange of animals over the years to care for, to include two horses, both of them getting away for the holiday was impossible.  It fills me with joy that they will be here.

Maple Pecan Chocolate Tart Topography
To give them a chance to get on the road at a decent hour, we will do a 2 pm-ish dinner--sometimes things don't come together as planned, and the time can move--though generally in just one direction:  later.  I did have a dinner once where I had to ask everyone to come early as the turkey cooked far faster.  People should wait for food, not the other way around.  My guests have always been forgiving.  They have always received a great bounty for my tardiness.

As my daughter and her husband will be involved in the care and feeding of his family who has experienced some tumult, they will not be joining us.  It is the first TG in her life that we've not been together.  However, her providing a central place for that family to come together will be healing for them. I'm glad my daughter and SIL are stepping up for that.  Nevertheless, we will have 10, possibly 11 at the table.  That is a good sized gathering.

Eating earlier has another advantage:  It will also give me some downtime before tumbling into bed.  I've been cooking Thanksgiving since 1987 (I might be off a year). Bringing both sides of our family together was an answer to not having to eat two TG dinners. I had one year off when my daughter hosted us a couple of years ago.  That was quite nice.  But she has limited space, and anything over 6 is a problem.  I have 25 dinners under my belt.  And each year it gets a little harder as I get older.

In the next few weeks, I'll get my dinner logistics in order. What that really means is that I must conduct my EPA cleanup (no small task in our universe) earlier in the week to focus on the dinner prep and execution as well as don my casting director hat to determine who will be in the TG dinner production.  This cast has stalwarts, called upon time and time again, supporting members who are on rotation, and those that are cast once and then cast out (sometimes with impunity).   Of course I could ask folks to bring a dish to ease the preparations, but I've resisted such temptations. I'm not willing to have walk-on appearances.  Plus, my preference is to have my stuff and have others enjoy the meal with the only obligation of showing up on time.

The centerpiece of dinner is a brined, perfectly roasted Turkey paired with ham.  If you are new to Thanksgiving, visit Alton Brown's featured prep in the 2003 Bon Appetit.  You can find it here. If you don't have a digital thermometer that snakes through the oven, get one.  It is indispensable for any meal that you are cooking, but most particularly for THIS meal.  No one wants a turkey cooked too long or not enough.  And what accompanies turkey better than ham?  We love both and fix both.  Looking for a foolproof way to fix country ham?  Go to Jack Bett's blog here.

Outside of EPA clean up, "logistics" truly must begin with the taming of my magpie eye when it comes to desserts and side dishes.  There are two factors that complicate dinner preparation:  (1) number of desserts/sides; (2) complexity of desserts and sides.  Side dishes are the true bane as few can be 'held' with good results prior to serving.  Different cooking times and temperatures can be a problem.  Desserts, can always be prepared ahead, but they can be fussy and demanding, but the end result can be sublime.

Side dishes are similar:  regulars, rotating and dismissed.  Nevertheless, it is too easy to find intriguing ways to serve autumn's bounty.  Having a side dish number budget makes much sense.  Otherwise, the prep and execution will tax the cook's energy.  Besides, too many competing tastes are just that...too many.  Further, cutting down on the number but increasing complexity is akin to shooting one's self in the foot.  Moderation in all things during this immoderate eating experience.

Bon Appetit (BA)  is a magazine that I have subscribed to for as long as I have been making Thanksgiving (TG).  The BA TG issue is one that I relish. This year the suggestion is to try one new dish each Thanksgiving.  This 'new dish' suggestion has always been my  mantra for me; most of my dishes, techniques were inspired, instructed by those issues. Over the years, the new dishes have become staples.  Those staples have become so beloved that casting them out would be like banishing a family member from the table.

Scalloped oysters is a favorite that I have been making, but sometimes I think that spending $25 on a side dish is just too much. When I don't have it, it is asked about, and its loss is mourned.  Would I substitute my homemade cranberry sauce for a chutney?  A resounding no!  But the potatoes come in different guises:  garlic mashed, potato and turnip gratins and the like.  Sweet potatoes don't make it except in a pie.  Brussels sprouts have a number of incarnations.  The most recent, a Brussels sprouts hash that is so divine and beloved, that it is a staple.  It blends wonderfully with all of the other dishes.  My cranberry sauce is a staple...you can find my recipe for that here

So if one is not going to vote a dish off the island, then one has to expand the population.  That is side dish creep. Okay, there may be room for just one more.  But it has to be very seductive.

I hear of folks baking pie after pie.  Why one would have pumpkin and sweet potato, I do not know.  To my tasted they are nearly indistinguishable.  In my view, too many desserts spoil the meal--and make it hard to serve. After the big meal, guests should not have to make too many hard decisions. I limit desserts to two, and they are very different to accommodate different tastes.  Lately it has been a chocolate pecan pie and a sweet potato mascarpone pie (a Frankenpie from a combination of a pumpkin and a sweet potato recipe) .   I have two desserts.  My guest typically have a bit of both.  Here's a rundown of a few desserts over these past 25 years:

  • Maple Pecan Chocolate Tart:  This is my go-to dessert staple.  Click here for recipe. Served at 75% of past TG dinners.  Plain pecan pie is too sweet for my taste.  I have had made a walnut tart as well.  I like tarts, though tart dough can be a bit finicky.
  • Cheesecakes:  Meh....despite seasonal ingredients (pumpkin, etc), it just doesn't seem to be the right dessert for my tastes after dinner.
  • Bread Puddings:  Feel like a sugared up also-ran after dressing.  Not quite the right counterpoint for ending the meal.  
  • Frozen Pumpkin Mousse:  A lovely counterpoint:  cold, light, sweet, beautiful.  I've made this a couple of times.  It is in the rotation, but has not been picked in a while.
  • Pumpkin Pie:  I'm unclear if I have ever made pumpkin pie. 
  • Sweet Potato Pie:  I co-opted a Pumpkin Pie recipe with mascarpone cream cheese, and it is divine.  Beautiful flaky crust, light, and not too sweet.  I've been making this for the last three years, and guests love it. 
  • Lemon Tart:  A lemon tart is a nice ending for a TG meal.

I'm always looking for other cast members, and this year, I am eying for this year a BA dessert:  apple gallette.  I think that I'll make some salted caramel to go with this. And, just maybe, I will also have two other desserts.  Three desserts is definitely a departure from the norm.

Regardless of the fuss that I make above, the central idea of Thanksgiving is to give thanks for the large and small blessings in our lives.  Preparing and sharing a meal (simple or complicated) with the people we love and care about unifies and strengthens our ties to each other. 


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