Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Beauty of the Feast: How to Cook Thanksgiving Dinner at Competition Level, even if you Burn Water!

Thanksgiving conjures up two thoughts for me: one of warm, fuzzy splendor and one of sheer panic. The first: a beautiful feast lovingly prepared and spread out on gorgeous, crisp linens, the turkey itself the regal, bronzed centerpiece of a relaxed and wonderful day spent with family and friends, while the aroma of perfectly spiced pumpkin pie floats through the house. It’s too idyllic for words, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Then, of course, the record scratches in the soundtrack of my mind and I quickly come crashing back to reality and remember what it’s really been like so many Thanksgivings before: Me, standing in the midst of chaos, panic-stricken, with giblet gravy splattered across my shirt, the smoke alarm going off, me trying to cook (or rather, trying not to burn) a picture-perfect meal for a house full of eager and hungry guests. All the while I’m fending off hyperventilation and a full-blown anxiety attack that leaves me teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown, wandering the streets, all wild-eyed and whacked, babbling incoherently about mashed potatoes gone horribly wrong! It’s enough to make me vow never to put myself through that again. I need a stiff drink just thinking about it!

But inevitably the next year rolls around, and like childbirth (so I’m told) I forget the agony of the past, telling myself it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember. After all, no one was hurt! And before I know it, I find myself pondering this year’s Thanksgiving menu once again. This time, however, unwilling to let history repeat itself, I’m applying an altogether different plan of attack.

Like so much in life, the key to a successful Turkey Day lies in planning ahead. So this year I’m starting early in both the planning and preparation. I'm not doing an entire turkey, instead, I'm sticking to the breast. It's everyone's favorite anyway. Then, on the day of, there is little more to do than roast the turkey breasts, light a few candles, and eat myself into a tryptophan-induced coma. My game plan is simple as long as I (and you) remember three things:

1) Choose a foolproof menu that can (mostly) be made ahead
2) Let go of impossible standards of perfection, and
3) Always remember, it’s not life or death so make it fun.


Cranberry Kir

Union Square Café Rosemary Cashews

Wild Mushroom & Barley Soup
Herb Stuffed Turkey Breasts with Pan Gravy

Savory Herb & Gruyere Strata

Vanilla-Scented Cranberry Sauce

Steam-Sautéed Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots

Yukon Gold & Sweet Potato Gratin

Pumpkin Gooey Butter Cake with Cinnamon Whipped Cream

A (Mostly) Do-Ahead Thanksgiving Day for Eight

Up to one week ahead:
Order the turkey breasts from the grocery store or butcher. Shop for nonperishable food items, beverages, and decorative elements like candles. Make rosemary cashews and store in an airtight container. Don't eat them all! Make iPod playlist for guests.

2 days ahead:
Pick up the turkey breasts and other groceries; make the soup and the cranberry sauce.

1 day ahead:
Caramelize shallots, wash and trim green beans, make Savory Herb & Gruyere Strata, Whip Cream, set table.
Thanksgiving morning: Choose a sassy outfit for yourself. Take a deep breath and relax. You can do it!

2 hours ahead:
Prepare, stuff, and roast turkey breasts. Bring cranberry sauce to room temperature.

1 1/2 hours ahead:
Make potato gratin; bake along with the strata while turkey breasts are resting.

30 minutes ahead:
Gently reheat soup.

15 minutes before guests arrive:
Turn on music, light the candles, pop the champagne cork, put out cashews, and steam sauté green beans.

The rest of the day:
Relax and give thanks.

Cranberry Kir

2 bottles good-quality champagne, well chilled
1 Bottle of pure cranberry juice Fresh cranberries for garnish

Fill a tall champagne flute 3/4 full with champagne. Top off with a splash of cranberry juice and garnish with cranberries. Cheers!

Union Square Café Rosemary Cashews

1 pound dry roasted whole cashews, unsalted
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread the cashews out on a sheet pan and toast them in the oven for about 6 minutes until they begin to smell nutty and take on a bit of color. Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the melted butter, salt, chopped rosemary, brown sugar, and cayenne pepper. Stir to combine. When the cashews come out of the oven toss them thoroughly with the butter mixture to coat. Serve warm.

Wild Mushroom & Barley Soup

Serves 8

2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
3½ cups hot tap water
¼ cup good olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 fresh bay leaf
1 pound crimini mushrooms, cleaned* and sliced
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1 quart beef stock
½ cup pearl barley
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped

In a medium bowl, soak porcini mushrooms in hot water for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large stock pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion, carrots, celery and bay leaf until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the crimini mushrooms and the thyme. Cook until the mushrooms soften and give off their liquid, about 5 or 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Fish the porcini mushrooms out of the soaking liquid with a slotted spoon and chop roughly. Strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve or a piece of cheesecloth to catch any grit that has collected on the bottom of the bowl. Add the soaking liquid to the pot along with the beef stock and barley. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a gentle simmer until the barley is tender, about 40 minutes. Stir in the parsley and serve immediately.

*Never run mushrooms under water. They’re like little sponges and will soak up all that liquid and become waterlogged. Simply wipe them with a damp cloth, or dust them off with a pastry brush.

Herb-Roasted Turkey Breasts with Pan Gravy

Serves 4

1 small onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 lemon, zested
12 fresh sage leaves
Large handful fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling pan
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
6 fresh bay leaves
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 boneless turkey breast halves, skin on (about 2 to 2½ pounds each)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 to 3 cups chicken stock
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Oil a roasting pan and set it aside. Put the onion and the lemon zest into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until fine. Add the sage, parsley, olive oil, and 1 teaspoon salt and pulse until it forms a coarse paste. Place 2 of the bay leaves and the butter into a small pan and heat over medium-low heat until the butter is bubbling. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Place the turkey breasts on a work surface. Carefully run your fingers between the skin and the flesh from one end, being careful not to pull it completely off, creating a pocket. Season the turkey breasts generously with salt and pepper. Stuff half of the herb paste under the skin of each breast, and spread it evenly under the skin. Transfer the breasts to the roasting pan, and slide 2 bay leaves underneath each one. (The heat of the pan will release the bay leaf oils and flavor the breast.) Using a pastry brush, baste the breasts with half of the bay butter. Place the turkey in the oven and roast for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, baste the turkey breasts with the remaining butter, and decrease the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Roast for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until cooked through, and a thermometer placed in the thickest part of the breast registers 160 degrees.

Remove turkey breasts from the oven, transfer to a platter, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes loosely tented under foil before carving. Meanwhile, to get on with the gravy, place the roasting pan over the burner on medium heat. Melt the butter and sprinkle the flour over the pan juices, and cook, stirring, for a few minutes to make a roux. Add the wine, and scrape the pan to lift the bits that are stuck to the bottom. Cook for a minute to burn off the alcohol, then, while stirring, pour in the chicken stock. Bring to a simmer, and stir until thickened. Season with salt and pepper and add the sage. Slice the turkey breast on the diagonal, and serve with warm gravy.

Savory Herb & Gruyere Strata

Serves 8

¼ cup unsalted butter, plus more for buttering pan
2 shallots, sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 large eggs
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
2½ cups Gruyere cheese (about 10 ounces)
2½ cups Swiss cheese (about 10 ounces)
¼ cup fresh chives, chopped
¼ cup fresh sage, chopped
¼ cup fresh marjoram, chopped
1 pound loaf of day old French bread, cut into ½-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Liberally butter a 7x11 inch glass baking dish and set aside. Saute shallots in butter until soft. Add wine and simmer for about 3 to 5 minutes to reduce the wine. Set aside.

Whisk eggs, cream, salt and pepper in a large bowl, add shallot wine mixture. Combine the cheese and herbs together. Add all but 1 cup cheese to the egg mixture then carefully fold in the bread pieces. Allow to stand a minimum of 1 hour in the refrigerator, or up to overnight.

Pour mixture into prepared pan and sprinkle with remaining cheese herb mixture. Bake bread pudding until golden and puffed, about 40 minutes. Cool 10 minutes.

Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin

Serves 4

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup whole milk (scant)
1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed
3/4 teaspoon. kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 pound Yukon gold potatoes
3/4 pound sweet potatoes or yams
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Liberally butter the bottom of a rectangular baking dish with half of the butter and set aside. Place a small saucepan with the milk, garlic, salt, pepper, and nutmeg over low heat while you set about peeling and slicing the potatoes. A mandoline is perfect for this, but I usually opt for a really sharp butcher knife, mostly because I'm too lazy to drag out and wash any extra equipment. Slice the potatoes about an eighth of an inch thick, discarding the smallest slices. Don't wash the potatoes after slicing them the surface starch is indispensable.

Evenly arrange the potatoes in the bottom of the baking pan, one overlapping row at a time. Layer the following row about a third of the way over the previous row. Alternate rows of sweet and Yukon gold potatoes. Continue until the baking pan is neatly paved. It should look something like a shingled rooftop.

Bring the milk to a boil, fish out the garlic clove, and pour the milk over the potatoes. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes until most of the milk has been absorbed. Meanwhile, set the cream over low heat and bring to a boil. Pour the cream over the semi-cooked potatoes and dot the entire surface with the remaining butter.

Continue to bake, uncovered, for another 20 to 25 minutes until the potatoes are golden brown and spotted with darker, crisp areas. The potatoes will be dotted with thickened cream, especially between the slices.Allow the gratin to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Vanilla- Scented Cranberry Sauce

Serves 8 to 10

2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
1 cup sugar, or to taste
2 whole vanilla beans, split lengthwise, seeds scraped out
2 (12 ounce) bags fresh cranberries

In a medium saucepan combine orange juice, sugar and vanilla beans, stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Add the cranberries and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer until berries pop, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Fish the vanilla bean out and scrape the seeds into the sauce and mix well. Discard the bean. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Steam Suateed Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots

Serves 8

3 tablespoons good olive oil
6 large shallots, peeled & thinly sliced
2 1/2 pounds fresh green beans, cleaned and trimmed
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

In medium skillet, heat oil over low heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes or until soft and deep golden brown. Don’t rush this part. It really does take about 15 minutes to develop the sugars and caramelize the shallots. Trust me, your patience will be rewarded. They key to success is low and slow.

Meanwhile, as the shallots are cooking away, get on with the green beans. In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the green beans and water. Cover saucepan with a tightly fitting lid and resist the urge to lift the lid and peek until steam begins to escape around the edges of the lid, about 5 minutes. Remove lid and sauté until beans are crisp-tender, about 2 more minutes. Remove from heat, drain and toss with the butter, caramelized shallots and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Pumpkin Gooey Butter Cake with Cinnamon Whipped Cream


1 package Butter Recipe Golden cake mix
1 large egg
8 tablespoons unslated butter, melted


1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 (15-ounce) can solid pack pumpkin
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1¾ cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg


2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon of cinnamon, or to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the cake mix, egg, and butter and mix well with an electric mixer. Pat the mixture into the bottom of a lightly greased 13 by 9-inch baking pan. To make the filling: In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and pumpkin until smooth. Add the eggs, vanilla, and butter, and beat together. Next, add the confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mix well. Spread pumpkin mixture over cake batter and bake for 40 to 50 minutes. Make sure not to overbake as the center should be a little gooey. Serve with fresh cinnamon whipped cream.

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