Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cake Puffs



"Do you know if you can cook cake mix in the takoyaki pan?" my daughter Christina asked me.  I said, "I don't know, so why don't you look into it?"

I thought she would promptly forget about it the next day.  But she didn't.

While she mixed the cake mix, I found myself digging out the takoyaki pan, which I hadn't used for years.  It was given to me by the Inadas, my husband's boss way back when, when they moved back to Japan.  Can it be that this was twenty years ago already?  I don't know how I got so old.

In Japan, a takoyaki pan is used to make little savory balls filled with octopus.  Street food along with yakisoba (fried noodles) and ramen, takoyaki used to hit the spot after a long night out at the bars with my friends.  I can still remember the smell of sizzling batter and the sweet-salty smell of okonomiyaki sauce that hit me when I emerged from the subway station near my apartment -- ahh, good times. A few years later, the Inadas taught me how to make takoyaki using this very pan.

Beautiful takoyaki picture from here
Of course, some enterprising individual repurposed the takoyaki pan in the U.S. and made it into the Pancake Puff Pan (As seen on TV!  Only $19.95! Order yours today!).  This is probably where Christina got the idea years ago as a small child being seduced by toy, cereal, and of course, the Pancake Puff Pan commercials.

She used to point at the tv and say "I want that!"  But that's another story.

Our takoyaki pan is "old school," made of cast iron and very well-seasoned.  I imagine that it was passed from one transplanted Japanese family to the next, as one family was transferred back home and a new one came in, finally to be passed on to me.  The handle fell off, so my husband drilled a hole into a piece of scrap wood and shoved it onto the pan.  It's bulky, but it definitely works, as long as you don't set it on fire while cooking.




We preheated the pan, brushed each mold with oil, and then did a couple test balls.  As with pancakes, it takes a few test runs until the pan reaches the right temperature.  Also, it doesn't hurt to practice the technique through cooking a few test balls -- how much batter to put in (2/3rd of the ways up), how high the heat should be (medium-low), when to start trying to turn the ball, and how to flip it the most neatly, with a deft turn of the wrist.



It's about 3 minutes before you start trying to detach the balls from the sides, using a little metal pick, but your eyes work best here.  Like pancakes the batter will start to look cooked and dried on the edges and the top will start to form the slightest of skins.  When it gets near that point, you start using your pick to pull the ball away from the edges.  When it's able to move, you flip it over and let it cook until it's cooked through and is browned, another minute or two.  Depending on your heat source, the balls will cook at different rates.  In our case, the middle ones cooked a lot faster than the edges.

Cooking the puffs takes patience.  Try to flip them too soon and the pick will tear the edges and the batter, if it's not cooked enough, will ooze out when you try to flip them.  If you wait just long enough, however, flipping is a breeze.  Cooking a whole cake mix also equals a LOT of batches, so patience is a virtue.


Christina kept hugging me and saying, "Thank you, Mommy, for helping me" and "Isn't this a nice thing to do together?"  If I had gone away, she would have gotten bored to tears.  But we finished all the cake batter working together, and she had plenty of cake puffs to take to school the next day for a school party.


Half of the balls she drizzled with chocolate.  She melted chocolate chips in the microwave in 15 second intervals, stirring in between, until the chocolate melted, added oil until the chocolate was thin enough to drizzle, and then dipped a fork in the chocolate mixture and drizzled away.  It was fun to flick the fork and let the chocolate strands fly from the fork and land on the balls in abstract patterns.

The other half she kept plain and simple.  Yummy both ways.  But boy, do I have a craving for takoyaki now!

P.S.  Fellow blogger and Kulinarya Cooking Club member Jacqui wrote me and let me know that these are like Danish ebelskivers, which she has written about here.  Tiny Urban Kitchen writes about the similarities between the two dishes on her blog.  Williams-Sonoma sells an ebelskiver pan. I'm glad I learned something new today.  Thanks, Jacqui!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Leftover Maven: Pot Roast




Here's what I heard in my house tonight:

[Pop! goes the lid  as Lizzy opens the rice cooker to get rice.]

Christina (the 12 yr. old gourmand) : Lizzy.  You have to fluff the rice.

[Lizzy grabs the paddle, shoves it into the rice and starts stirring clockwise with a heavy hand.]

Christina: Lizzy!  You're smushing the rice!  Stop!

Lizzy (the 14 yr. old distracted teenager): What am I supposed to do?

Christina: [taking the paddle and gently turning the grains] Lizzy, what do you think of when you think of fluffing?  Putting air into things or stirring?

Lizzy: Stirring! [petulantly]

Then they both started laughing.

It could have easily ended with exasperated sighs, and "you are so annoying," but luckily, we have a sense of humor over our OCD tendencies with rice.

The kids were getting rice to eat with leftover roast beef that I had transformed into pot roast.

Why would I not take a perfectly good roast beef and serve that for dinner again?

There are two reasons:
  1. my family doesn't eat leftovers (blame my husband), and
  2. I bought the wrong cut of beef.
For all the cooking I have done, I can count on one hand the times I have made roast beef.  Asian food is usually stove-top food, so using the oven is not my first inclination.

I was at the grocery store, however, and roast beef seemed like a good idea for a wintry Sunday.  My hand hovered over the "roasts" and came upon a bottom round roast.  I brought it home, let it get to room temperature, seasoned it with Penzey's prime rib rub, and cooked it in a preheated, 350-degree oven until 120 degrees.  Then I let it rest, tented with foil, for about 20 minutes while I made gravy from the drippings.

After I sliced it and tasted it, a bit of cooking advice tickled my brain.  I called my mother-in-law, and my suspicions were confirmed.  Joyce said, "Yes, top round roast is better for roast beef.  You usually use bottom round for pot roast."

I don't know how many times Joyce has told me this ... probably all four times I have made roast beef.

Don't get me wrong.  The bottom round roast beef wasn't bad.  Just a little chewy.

The next night I cut up the remaining roast beef into big chunks, threw it in the pressure cooker with the leftover gravy, some additional wine and beef broth, celery, and carrots and pressure-cooked it for 40 minutes until tender.  There you go ... pot roast.

Which was better -- the bottom round as roast beef or as pot roast?  Lizzy says the roast beef.  Christina says the pot roast.

I say I like chuck roast better for pot roast.




Sunday, December 12, 2010

Butter Pecan Thumbprints with Lemon Curd Filling



I am not a baker, but I'm usually up for the challenge of baking 5 dozen cookies for my friend Julia's annual cookie swap.

With all those cookie recipes out there, choosing just one can be quite a challenge.  When in doubt, follow the money.

Winning the $1,000 grand prize of Cook's Country's annual cookie challenge was a Lemon Hazelnut Thumbprint Cookie.  Decision made.

Off I went to Trader Joe's, which has the cheapest and nicest nut selection around, for hazelnuts and lemon curd.

Have you ever made lemon or lime curd, by the way?  I read the recipe some time ago and my heart just about stopped beating from seeing how much egg yolk and butter was in curd.  Now I buy it under the same rationale as I buy ice cream: if you knew what was in it, you'd never eat it, but if you buy it, you can live happily (if not healthily) in ignorant bliss.

There must be some hazelnut shortage due to overenthusiastic bakers, because Trader Joe's was cleaned out -- had been cleaned out in over a week in fact -- and the guys there didn't know when the next shipment would arrive.  "We keep putting the order in," said Dave with a sigh, "but we just don't know ..."

I bought pecans instead.  Why sweat the small stuff?

Tripling the recipe, I ground the pecans and flour in the food processor and did the rest in the Kitchenaid mixer.  My daughter Christina and I rolled and rolled and rolled the cookie balls and in no time we had a bunch of little cookie balls to smush down.

Our first batch was a little messy.  We tried the back of a measuring spoon to imprint the cookies, but since it was a dull plastic instead of metal, the dough stuck (if you have fancy metal measuring spoons, you should be fine using the tsp. measure).  We tried the end of a small pestle from our mortar and pestle, but that was a no go.  Finally, I went into the cupboard and grabbed the top off the sesame oil, washed it, and rubbed it in butter - perfect.



After Batch 1 produced some misshapen cookies -- I mentioned I'm not a baker, right? -- we got our technique down.  We rolled the balls, lined them neatly on the cookie sheets, and used the sesame oil top. I found that pressing down on the cookie first with my thumb and then with the top to make the cookies uniform worked the best. We then threw them in the freezer for 20 minutes to become firm, so they wouldn't spread out too much.  Batch 2 was the best-looking batch.



With Batch 3, I tried to put the balls in the fridge to harden up first and then imprint.  That didn't work so well, as when we pushed down on them, they cracked on the edges.

The cookies go in twice -- first to prebake and then a second time after the filling is added until they are barely browned.  The filling bubbles and becomes more transparent, like stained glass.

Perfect or not so perfect, the cookies still tasted great -- nutty and tart.  As my daughter Lizzy's friend Amanda said, "They're addictive."

We did test some with Nutella as a filling (we didn't cook the Nutella, but added to the fully baked cookie after it came out of the oven), and those were yummy too.  For a Nutella thumbprint recipe, check this out.  It looks scrumptious, but probably not a good one for a cookie swap as the Nutella is soft.


Butter Pecan Thumbprints with Lemon Curd Filling
(based on Cook's Country's December 2010 Issue Lemon Hazelnut Thumbprint Cookies)

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup toasted pecans (replacing the original hazelnuts)
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg yolk
3/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
Lemon curd (about 1/4 cup) - I used Trader Joe's brand
Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Process flour, hazelnuts, and salt in a food processor until finely ground.

Cream together the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and mix until incorporated.

Reduce the speed and gradually add the flour mixture, until just incorporated.

Take dough in tablespoon-sized portions and roll into 1-inch balls and place on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone mats, about an inch apart. Gently push the center of each ball down, creating an indentation, either with your thumb and/or the back of a rounded measuring teaspoon. (I used a small cap, because I don't have the right kind of measuring spoon.)

Bake the cookies until just set, about 10 min, turning them 1/2 way during pre-baking process.

Remove the cookies form the oven and gently reinforce the indentation with a teaspoon. Fill the cookies with 1/2-1 tsp of lemon curd each. Bake again, 8-10 min, turning 1/2 way through baking, until barely browned on the edges.

Let cook 5 minutes on the sheet and then move to a wire rack to cool completely.  Dust lightly with powdered sugar. [Note: if you're going to serve this the next day or later on, dust before serving.]

Enjoy.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

REWIND: Cookie Swap

It's that time of year again, so I thought I'd share some cookie recipes from last year's cookie swap. Happy Baking!



I know the holiday vacation is just around the corner when I find myself in front of Julia's fireplace, laughing with my female colleagues at the annual "Ladies' Auxiliary" Cookie Swap.

Julia, who's been a guest blogger here, is a super woman. She's a top producer at work. Her kids are smart and nice. She manages to cook for her family every night. And she's kind enough to invite her co-workers over every year to share some good cheer at her lovely 18th century home.

She sends out an invitation with this type of picture to get us in the mood to put our aprons on:

Can you tell Julia teaches anthropology and about the cultures of LONG AGO?

Despite the lack of lipstick and perfect hair, we come from work with our cookies in boxes, Ziploc bags, aluminum containers, and trays. Some of us have our kids in tow. Others bring appetizers, like Ruth's mexi-dip (my favorite!) or Kelly's baked brie, to join the spiral ham and lentil-chestnut dip at Julia's dining room table.

While we gather in the living or dining room, the cookies hang out in the kitchen, a merry crew of balls, filled tarts, sharply cut shapes and gentle mounds. Studded with nuts or candies, flavored with chocolate or rum, the cookies are as diverse as the cooks who made them.

What a lovely tray of cookies we all can bring home, along with fond memories of our annual get togethers at Chez Julia's.



Cookie Swap 2009

Below are the cookies that my friends brought to the swap. I'll be posting the recipes over the next few days. Enjoy!

Ninette's Chocolate Almond Toffee Bark


Sheena's Scottish Shortbread




Elizabeth's Granny's Sugar Cookies



Kate's Ginger Snaps



Elaine's Buckeye Balls



Zoe's Bisquick Sugar Cookies



Nancy's Fudge



Ruth's Florentine Cookies



Kelly's Pignoli Cookies



Julia's Andes Thin Mints Pillow Cookies


Tish's Peanut Butter Blossoms



Desiree's Pecan Tarts

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pam Anderson's Cassoulet-Style Italian Sausages and White Beans



The Fates brought me to Pam Anderson, cookbook author and person extraordinaire.  Thank you, Fates.

It started a few months ago when calamity struck Erika of Ivory Hut, a fellow food blogger and member of Kulinarya, a group focused on Filipino cooking.  Erika's house burned down to the ground; in an instant, her home and all her family's belongings were gone in smoke and ash.

My eyes still tear up thinking about it.

I found out through other Kulinarya food bloggers that threemanycooks.com had set up a donation site.  I went to the site to donate and saw that threemanycooks is the trio of Pam Anderson and her daughters.


I've known Pam Anderson through her writing for almost twenty years.  As a fledging foodie in my twenties, I subscribed to Cook's Magazine and then to the launch of the new Cook's Illustrated Magazine and then the new Fine Cooking Magazine. A loyal reader, I've noticed, noted, and respected Pam's work.

Not only was I deeply moved by her and her daughters' efforts to help Erika -- they raised $10,000 -- I was thrilled to find Pam online.  It was like finding on old friend.

Then a month ago, my school's Parents' Association asked me to do a presentation on cookbooks at the local Barnes & Noble as part of a fundraiser.

When I went to the Barnes & Noble to meet with Sally to go over my cookbook selections, I picked my favorites like Thomas Keller's Bouchon and Ad Hoc at Home, David Chang's Momofuku (which I actually don't own but have read (hint, hint, family, Christmas gift alert!)), and Andy Pforzheimer's Barcelona Cookbook, which features recipes from the outstanding Barcelona Wine Bar restaurants.  I also wanted to feature some food blogger cookbooks, so I asked Sally to order copies of Jaden Hair's Steamy Kitchen Cookbook, Ree Drummond's Pioneer Woman Cooks, and Bakerella's Cake Pops.

As we stood lingering by the cookbook promotions table near the front of the store, Sally picked up Perfect One-Dish Dinners and said, "Have you seen Pam Anderson's new cookbook?  She's lives locally."

Pan Anderson lives nearby?  Serendipity.  And yes, I wanted to feature Perfect One-Dish Dinners.



A couple days later, my friend Julia Facebooked me with a message: "Hey--speaker next Tuesday at the library, Perfect One-Dish Dinners. I just registered. Thought I'd check to see if you were interested. The reviews are really good."

At the library, I finally got to meet Pam.  Sitting back with glasses of wine and tasting her delicious sausage and white bean casserole from her book, Julia and I listened to Pam's down-to-earth and genuine approach to food.  Her sentiments deeply resonated with me, and again, I had that feeling of listening to a dear friend.

She said her books reflect the journey of her life, as does my blog.  She said entertaining shouldn't be hard and that it's not really about the food, but about bringing people together.  Ain't that the truth. She said people confessed to her they were intimidated when she was coming over for dinner; she confessed to us, how do they think she feels when they come over her house? I know the feeling, and I'm not even a cookbook author -- just a hack who other people now think is some amazing cook.  She said she focused one of her cookbooks on losing weight, because she realized she was using food for other reasons. I can relate to that big time.

This woman is real. Don't you love Pam Anderson, too?

After her talk, I told her I was featuring her cookbook and would she come sign some of her cookbooks?  Although she didn't know me or know my cause, she didn't hesitate to say yes.

And then she went to the bookstore the next day and signed 20 cookbooks.

At the book fair, I spoke to a lot of people about Pam's cookbook.  I will tell you what I told them:

Perfect One Dish Dinners is a must buy.  The recipes are easy, accessible and elegant at the same time.  For entertaining, any of these dishes and their suggested appetizers and desserts are a snap.  Pam's techniques are foolproof.  For all these reasons, you should buy her book.  But what's important to me and why I bought her book is that she's a nice person.  Knowing that, I know her recipes are infused with her generous and kind spirit.  That's the best ingredient of all.

When I got home, I made her cassoulet, adding in some fennel since I had some in the fridge.  It took about 5 minutes to put the ingredients in the pan, and about 55 minutes to cook unattended. A neat trick Pam employed to brown the sausages in the oven was to put the roasting pan on the lowest rack.  Worked like a charm.  A wonderful and easy supper for any night.  Also a great dish to do for a tree-trimming or other party.

To see Jaden Hair's post on TLC regarding Pam, who she fondly called her "virtual kitchen mentor," and featuring this recipe and others, go here.


 Cassoulet-Style Italian Sausages and White Beans
Perfect One Dish Dinners by Pamela Anderson

Serves 8

If there’s time, sprinkle buttered bread crumbs over each plated portion for a nice touch. Heat a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Toss 2 cups fresh bread crumbs (made in the food processor from a good European-style loaf) with 2 tablespoons melted butter and a light sprinkling of salt. Add the crumbs to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Stored in the refrigerator and warmed on the stovetop or in the microwave, this dish means instant dinner later in the week.

2½ pounds sweet Italian sausage links
3 pints cherry tomatoes
1 medium-large onion, cut into 1½-inch chunks
4 large garlic cloves, sliced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons dried thyme
3 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cans (about 16 ounces each) white beans, undrained

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 425 degrees.

Mix sausages, tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, thyme, bay leaves, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper in a large heavy roasting pan. Set pan in oven and roast until sausages are brown and tomatoes have reduced to a thick sauce, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven, stir in beans, and continue to cook until casserole has heated through, about 10 minutes longer. Serve.

Drink: An earthy, full-flavored Languedoc or Grenache

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010: It's All About the Filipino Mocha Cake



We're a little photo crazy on my side of the family, particularly when we're all together.  We don't get to see each other that often, so Thanksgiving is a photo clickfest.

My sister runs around with her camera like a paparazza. Here she is taking a picture of my dad carving the turkey.


My sister kept saying, "You'll be glad later that I took so many pictures!" My Uncle P. kept joking, "Oh, we'll see these pictures on the Facebook."

My sister posts tons of pictures on Facebook.

My mom says, "What's the Facebook?"

Even though my mom doesn't know exactly what Facebook is, that didn't stop her from using her camera/video camera that she just bought on the Home Shopping Network.  She says it's high quality.  Do you think she means number of pixels or zoom strength?

No way. My fashionista mother means that when it's closed it looks like a quilted purse, and when she's at the Filipino parties she constantly attends, no one will know it's an electronic device.


We took a gazillion pictures of the flower arrangements my sister and brother made from odds and ends they found in the yard.  It's slim pickings when it comes to decorations in my house.  Decorations are not my thing.  But when you have talented siblings who can make something out of nothing, who needs stuff from the craft store?




(See that's my mom's camera on the counter ... looks like a purse, doesn't it?)

Then there are the photos of the non-cooks engaged in non-cooking pursuits ...


playing basketball...


strumming on the guitar...



snoozing.

 And of course, photos of the turkeys.


Anthropologists might look at this picture 100 years from now and assume the woman decked out in the silk dress and big jewelry brined those bad boys, threw them into hot oil and fried them until they were crisp and juicy. But they would be wrong.

For the record, I did the brining and my husband, with the help of my brother-in-law, got the fry job done.


That's me at the stove trying to save the leek and sour cream mashed potatoes which were as lumpy as a gravel road.  That's what you get when you have an Asian girl make the mashed potatoes.

I tried to cook the halved potatoes first in the slow cooker for four hours.  They were still hard, so then I boiled them in water for another 20 minutes and then tried to mash them.  Too hard. I tried ricing them, but it didn't work.  Too hard.  How potatoes could be hard after cooking for hours is beyond me.  Note to self: cut the potatoes in smaller pieces and forget the slow cooker.


Here's my Irish-American husband trying to fix the potatoes.

His genes didn't give him a pass either.  They were still lumpy.

But you know what?  No one said a word.  God forbid if I had made soggy rice, but the potatoes?  Whatever.

Here's my dad slicing the turkey.  He's a surgeon, so you can imagine why we all defer this job to him.


So the turkey wouldn't be lonely, we took lots more photos of other food...


... like the roasted cauliflower and fennel cazuela, adapted from the Barcelona Cookbook, a favorite cookbook of mine,


and my brother's cornbread, sausage, and cranberry stuffing (here's a link to my recipe which doesn't have cranberries but easily could).  Rounding out the menu were shredded brussel sprouts with candied walnuts, gravy, my sister's cranberry relish, and of course, (non-soggy) white rice.

You would think by this time we'd be eating, but no, someone was still shooting photos of being at the table, like this:


or this...



Out of all the pictures we took on Thanksgiving, what was the most photographed?  You guessed it ...



... the Filipino mocha cake.  Forget turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, veggies, or the apple, pumple (pumpkin-apple), and pecan pies.  If we had the mocha cake, we'd be all set.

Mocha cake is awesome.  A chiffon cake infused with coffee flavor, it's light and springy.  Like other Asian cakes, it's not too sweet. And the buttercream frosting is the perfect finish.

My mom brings two cakes with her across multiple state lines, so Thanksgiving will be true Thanksgiving.  The cake is made by Tita Marge -- she's not my aunt, but Filipino kids call everyone "Aunt" or "Uncle."  Tita Marge makes Filipino food to order, which is right up my mom's alley since she doesn't cook.  I begged and pleaded Tita Marge to give me the recipe at my parents' 50th anniversary party.  You would have thought I was asking for her ATM pin number.

One day, I'll have to figure out how to make this cake, but maybe not.  Waiting to eat this cake once or twice a year is part of what makes it special.

Whether you are photo hounds or not, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Menu

Lunch
Italian Wedding Soup
Gorgonzola Salad

Dinner
Deep Fried Turkey
Leek and sour cream mashed potatoes
Shredded brussel sprouts with candied walnuts
Roasted cauliflower and fennel cazuela
Cornbread Sausage Stuffing
White Rice
Cranberry Relish
Gravy

Pumple, Apple, and Pecan Pies
Filipino Mocha Cake

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rewind: Thanksgiving 2009

It's the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and I'm beginning to think through what my menu will be this year. How nice is it to have a blog to see what I made last year. I include my post below, in case it will help you plan your Thanksgiving menu.

I know for sure that this year we'll go back to frying two turkeys. Fried turkey is the best. My brother Ed is going to make cranberry stuffing and an apple pie. Sister Marichelle is making her cranberry-pineapple relish and bringing pies. My mom is bringing two Filipino mocha cakes (to die for!) and other Filipino treats. Uncle Pros will come with Chinese duck and roast chicken, Chinese puto, and who knows what else.

Now I just need to decide what I will do. Do you have your menu set?


"The Love of a Family is Life's Greatest Blessing"

I have the privilege of hosting Thanksgiving every year. My parents fly in and stay with us during the week. My siblings come in with their families, and my Uncle Pros and his family come. We don't see each other that much, maybe a couple times a year, so it's a real treat to get together.

We fall into our roles. I shop and cook most of the meal. My brother Ed sets the table. My Auntie Nanette always jumps in to wash dishes during the cooking process -- there are always lots of dishes! My mom supervises. My husband and the guys fry the turkeys. My dad always carves.

Then there's the series of horrible jokes from my Dad and Uncle Pros, running political commentary, story after story of our childhood, my nephew Christian who makes us laugh til we cry, and arguing about passages in the Bible. There's a lot of laughing and some yelling.

You know. Family.

This year was a little different, because my sister and family couldn't come (sad), but my older brother and his family came for the first time (happy!).




Brother Ed went about his task of setting the table, not easy in this decoration-less house. Edward always makes the table beautiful, making use of what the trees and bushes have to offer outside.


Turkey, Turkey, Turkey, Turkey So Fine

Then there's the turkey. As long as I've hosted, we've fried the turkeys. Fried turkey is the best! But this year, my husband was ready for a break, so we did something radical -- we roasted it.





The last time I tried to roast a turkey, it was disastrous. I called my Irish-American mother-in-law in a panic ... where to stick the thermometer? She tried to tell us, but we obviously couldn't follow directions. We took the turkey out, thinking it was cooked. It wasn't.

Ick.

Luckily, we had fried a turkey -- the fried turkey was supposed to be the experimental turkey that year -- so we ate that.

This year, I had the opposite problem. I bought a 20-pounder, and I brined it as usual. I highly recommend brining. I was gleeful, thinking I was going to smoke this big boy over hickory wood on my new obsession, the Big Green Egg.

Alas, it and the roasting pan didn't fit into the Egg.

Plan B was to cook it on the Weber Grill. I figured it would take about 6 hours, so I started the turkey in the oven, using Anne Burrell's roasted turkey recipe. Anne's recipe is delicious, by the way, and the apple cider in her recipe and cooking the turkey at high heat for the first hour made the bird burnished and browned.

Four hours in, I pulled the turkey out and put it on the preheated grill, so I could use my oven for other things. Even though the turkey had one of those popping button things to tell you when it was ready, we decided to stick a thermometer in to check it. My brother actually knew how to use the thermometer on a turkey.

Uh oh.

It registered 170F in the breast. It was done, two hours ahead of schedule. Actually over done. And the popping button thing was still unpopped.

Luckily the brine saved the turkey. It was moist and flavorful if not the juiciest turkey in the world.

Then again, it's hard to beat the juiciness of a fried turkey.

Intermezzo

Since we were planning to serve dinner around 6 pm, we had some light lunch fare.

The Italian Wedding Soup was a big hit, such a big hit that I don't have a picture. Italian Wedding Soup is a soup with little meatballs floating merrily in chicken broth, with some kind of green vegetable (I used spinach, but kale and escarole are also used) and sometimes shredded egg.

My mother made this soup the first time she cooked the Thanksgiving meal, when I was in college. We were all pretty sure she was going to mess up Thanksgiving -- I mean, a woman you have never seen cook your whole life is going to cook the biggest meal of the year? -- but that's another story.

It was also good fortune that I made Italian Wedding Soup as my sister-in-law Tina, who is Italian-American, shared with me that her mom makes the soup every year for Thanksgiving.

I also made a Butternut Squash Soup served with pepitas, for the vegetable lovers among us.



In addition to the soups and refreshing clusters of grapes, clementines, and cherries, we had a tray of salami, prosciutto di parma, provolone cheese, and sliced tomatoes lightly dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, served with freshly sliced Tuscan bread. I made the mistake of asking the Italian deli man if I could try samples of the domestic prosciutto ($10/lb.) and the Parma ham ($22/lb.)

Duh. As if there was even going to be a contest.

Finishing up the lineup was an offering of triple creme brie cheese, strawberry rhubarb jam, candied walnuts, and water crackers.

Ah man. Were these good. The creaminess of the cheese, the sweet-tart flavor of the jam, and the crunch of the nuts and crispness of the crackers were irresistible.

I wish I had taken pictures of this lovely spread -- the deep and vibrant red palate of the jam, grapes, cherries, and tomatoes; the pop of orange from the clementines; the creamy whites of the cheeses, bread and crackers, the sugary brown of the walnuts, and the rosy prosciutto and salami. Pretty and a delicious preface to the main event.

Dinner

I was perfectly on time most of the day. Until the turkey decided to be done two hours early.

Let's say the turkey got a good rest as I finished the rest of the meal, with the help of my sister-in-law who took over the salad, and my older brother who volunteered to make the gravy.

I threw a melange of cubed sweet potatoes, celeriac, carrots, acorn squash, and parsnips which I had tossed in olive oil, shallots, thyme, and salt and pepper to roast at 425F in the oven.

I quickly assembled the stuffing -- cubed Tuscan bread and crumbled cornbread, chicken broth, and a saute of onions, celery, apples, butter, and herbs -- and threw that in another oven.

I boiled the potatoes which Sergio had peeled and cut earlier in the day, and Tina helped mash them while I added a puree of leeks, chicken broth and butter I had made the day before, sour cream, and milk.

While my dad carved the turkey, I quickly made a sauce of shallots, white wine, orange juice, and chicken broth and tossed in haricots verts which I had blanched earlier in the day, to warm through and finish cooking.

Time for Dinner!





Salad of Goat Cheese, Candied Walnuts, Roasted Beets, Arugula & Mesclun with Balsamic Vinaigrette (pictured above in the far left).

Brined, Herbed and Roasted Turkey with Apple Cider Gravy


Stuffing with Cornbread, Sausage, and Apples


Mashed Potatoes with Sour Cream and Leeks and Apple Cider Gravy




White Rice, of course.


Sauteed Haricots Verts with Orange Sauce


Not pictured but still yummy:

Cranberry-orange-maple sauce
Roasted root vegetables

Desserts

The best thing about dessert is I didn't make any!

We had:

Filipino cashew boats, courtesy of my mom who brought them with her



Pumpkin pie and apple pie, courtesty of my older brother
Pecan pie and apple crumble pie, courtesy of my work
Ricotta cheesecake and carrot cake, courtesy of my aunt and uncle

Final Thoughts

While this post is mostly about food -- this is a food blog, after all -- Thanksgiving isn't really about the food. It's about taking the time to reflect about all that we have -- family, friends, a roof over our heads, food to eat, gifts of our hearts and hands to share -- and to open our eyes and take in the great beauty that quietly surrounds us and that we sometimes take for granted. How lucky we are.

Happy Thanksgiving.