Ramp up to Turkey Day

I woke to this early AM text:
I’m supposed to be brining the bird right now. Know what I’m doing? Playing solitaire on the computer! What’s wrong with me?

Apart from a good chuckle, that text reassured me (as I did its author), that I’m not the only one who bogs down in the hoopla of this holiday week. I’m not a runner, but if I were, on the day before Thanksgiving, I would be somewhere in the last miles of the Boston marathon, with the Newton Hills just ahead. Preparing for Thanksgiving always feels that way. The push always comes at the end.

First off, let me say, unequivocally, that Thanksgiving is a lovely, tradition rich holiday, with a more reasonable expectation level and a much shorter “to do” list than Christmas. But Thanksgiving dinner, though not difficult, isn’t my favorite meal to prepare. Theoretically, you can do the prep, bake the pies, and—assuming those TV cooks are correct—even mash the potatoes ahead of time (which I don’t). Still, a lot has to happen at the last minute if you want everything to be hot and on the table at the same time.

Before you commiserate too much, let me confess. First of all, I’m an only, and Hubby’s brothers and their families are at opposite ends of the East Coast. Our stepsons and their families are scattered, too. Our Thanksgiving Dinner is very small by most people’s standards. On occasion we do have an additional guest, but mostly, it’s my 95-year-old godmother and another relative who was widowed a few years ago. My kids tell me they like the fact that we always make sure these two have a place to go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That makes me smile.

Second, I’m very lucky to have a daughter who’s a trained chef, a son who’s a fine cook, and a Hubby whose mashed potatoes are always perfect. I happily cede control of the kitchen to them as necessary on Thanksgiving and other major holidays. (Note: I had to learn to do that!)

Third, I don’t gild the lily. Thanksgiving is an extremely heavy, carbohydrate-laden meal; I don’t see the need for appetizers, dinner rolls, additional sides, or extra fancy desserts.

Given that we have only one oven, it’s important to be organized and to do what I can ahead of time—the TV cooks are right about that. Last night I made the cranberry sauce and cooked and strained the butternut squash* for pie filling. I’ve made these from scratch for as long as I’ve had my own kitchen and don’t see any need to resort to canned. As you may have read in my last blog post, the applesauce is defrost in the fridge, as is the chicken stock for the stuffing.

Today I’ll make the apple and the squash pies and prepare the vegetables for the stuffing and relish tray. On Thanksgiving morning, my son, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, will put the stuffing together and my daughter will take charge of the turkey** that she’s brined in salt water and apple cider. She’s also made the turkey stock for the gravy. She’s been gardening the last several years and always provides the corn for the  corn pudding. There’s no green bean casserole on our table; our green vegetable is usually brussels sprouts,  served more or less au naturel. In the Italian tradition, the relish tray always includes fennel. I usually make the gravy. My son whips the cream from grass-fed cows at Apple Valley Creamery in Adams County, PA. It’s so thick you could almost whip it with a fork.

And, simple though it may be, that’s our dinner. Now that I’ve written it all down, it really doesn’t seem so daunting.

Whether you’re in the US celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, or you are elsewhere in the world, I wish you every blessing. We all have much to be thankful for, don’t we?

*Our preference over pumpkin.
**For the last few years, my daughter has bought us a beautiful heritage breed Naragansett turkey at Snouts and Sprouts in Chester County, PA. I can tell you that the flavor and texture bear no resemblance to a typical grocery store bird. If you have access to a farm that produces naturally raised birds, you should explore the option.

‘Scratch’ applesauce

It’s a great thing that so many young cooks are taking up the “fresh and from scratch” cause. Some of the best recipes and tips I’ve found in food blogs have come from folks with far less “kitchen history” than my own. All that being said, I can’t for the life of me understand why more home cooks don’t make their own applesauce. It takes far less time than baking a batch of cookies. With a good mix of fall apples, the flavor (and color) will be far superior to anything you’ll find on a supermarket shelf. Probably cheaper, too.

My mother always made her own applesauce. I’ve done the same. In fact, it was one of my babies’ first solids foods. I use only fall apples and never add sugar. Mix up your apples and Mother Nature will provide all the sweetness that you need.

If you’re expecting a “recipe,” forget it—I don’t have one. But I will share the method with you.

Go to your local orchard or farm market. Everything tastes better when it’s local. Read the “best use” labels on the available varieties. Look for a sweet/tart flavor and apples that are well suited to cooking. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. My mix this time included Braeburn, Gala, Stayman, Cortland, and Jonathan. I would have liked Pink Lady for the color, but none were available that day at the farm market. (Note that mixing it up works well for pie or crisp, too.)

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You need two pieces of kitchen equipment: a big kettle with a lid and a food mill. Mine is a Mouli, but that wonderful, old-fashioned kitchen staple, the Foley, works equally well. Note that with both blenders and food processors, it’s too easy to reduce the applesauce to mush. Unless you’re making baby food, I don’t recommend them.

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Wash the apples. I core them, too, but if you’re using a food mill, you really don’t have to. If you’ve managed to find apples grown organically or with minimal intervention, don’t peel them—the skin will provide color and added flavor. You can halve or quarter them or even leave them whole. The only effect that bigger pieces will have is to lengthen the cooking time.

Put the apples in the kettle with a few inches of water. The goal is to prevent scorching without making the consistency watery. Cover and cook on low to medium heat, watching them carefully and  stirring several times to assure that nothing sticks. As you stir, you will see the apples begin to soften. Cooking time will vary depending on how full the pot is and how big your pieces are, but don’t “stew” them to the point of mush—they should keep their shape. I cooked about eight good-size apples; the total cooking time was less than 20 minutes.

When they’re done, let them cool a bit. Put your food mill over a bowl large enough to perch it securely and begin feeding spoonfuls of apples through. As you turn the mill, it will press the sauce through and leave the skins. Clean the skins from the mill periodically if you’re doing a large batch. This takes ten minutes or less.

Applesauce freezes beautifully. If you make a large batch, plan to enjoy some immediately, then cool and pack the reminder into freezer containers. I filled a large one for a family dinner and several smaller ones that are just the right size for the two of us. I also add applesauce to the Thanksgiving table for guests who don’t like cranberry sauce. I make that from scratch, too, and for me, it may be the best part of the dinner.

Santa, if you’re listening, here’s suggestion number two: Yankee Magazine editor Amy Traverso’s  The Apple Lover’s Cookbook.

 

The baguette experiment

It’s fall, and I’m back to making bread. I know I’m like a repeating decimal when it comes to the joys of home-baked bread, but few activities in the kitchen give me as much pleasure. l love the pungent smell of yeasty dough bubbling under the light at the back of the stove as much as the aroma the whole house seems to take on when there’s a loaf in the oven.

Not that it isn’t a fun and wonderful appliance, but there’s never been a bread machine in my kitchen. My KitchenAid is well worn after 20 years, but the dough hook is like new. I’d much rather mix with a dough whisk and knead by hand. Getting your hands in a ball of bread dough is a one-of-a-kind experience… it starts out all warm and sticky, and then, as you work it, becomes as smooth and soft as that proverbial baby’s bottom.

I’m no expert, for sure… just a home cook and baker. My end product is never perfectly beautiful—I leave perfection to the professionals—but is always made with love and is usually pretty darn good. Making bread is an adventure, every time, and you’re never 100% certain of where you’ll end up. For as much as any method or recipe can be pronounced “tried and true,” there’s always the possibility that something—undetected moisture in the flour, yeast that has lost a bit of its punch, or, heaven forbid, baker’s error—will throw you off your game. Delightfully, the opposite is equally true:  sometimes your results far exceed your expectations. Hence, this post.

Asked to bring bread to a harvest party last month, I decided to make baguettes. This bold stroke was uncharacteristically risky on my part, but I’d just gotten back from our annual pilgrimage to the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Store in Norwich, Vermont, with a specially designed baguette pan and KAF French-Style Flour. To increase the yield for the party, as well as to experiment a bit, I made two batches of slow-rise dough, one using the recipe on the French-Style Flour package, and the second using a KAF recipe made entirely with all-purpose flour.

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The loaves made only with all-purpose flour. Note that they are puffier.

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The loaves made with the French Style Flour, which for me most approximated a true baguette.

I was absolutely thrilled with the results, and so were the guests. I couldn’t imagine that these crusty loaves, with a lovely open crumb,  were produced in my own kitchen, and with so little effort. Both recipes turned out well, but if I were forced to vote for one, it would be the baguettes made with the French-Style Flour; for me, they were un vrai petit gout de France. The only change I’d make next would be to slightly reduce the salt, which is simply a matter of personal taste. Most of the magic, however, was probably in that marvelous pan, which allows the heat to circulate all around the loaves.

So many things have made home bread baking easier these days. Specialty flours and better quality yeast (SAF is my go-to, always), baking stones and cloches, a myriad of well-researched techniques, and innovations like the KAF baguette pan— all of these have built my confidence and continue to improve my results. A failure once in a while—and we can all claim them—isn’t much of a loss. Just learn and move on…and if you have questions, call the KAF Baker’s Hotline. It’s a treasure.

By the way, KAF makes this same pan for Italian loaves. Santa, are you listening????