Posts Tagged holiday recipes

Inferiority

Life is easier now that we can bake cookies together.

Motherhood doesn’t come easily to me.

Don’t get me wrong, The Boy is thriving and I love him more than I ever dreamed possible, but parenting just isn’t a natural talent of mine.

Remember when you learned to play basketball for the first time, in gym class, and you slowly realized that some people just don’t have any hand-eye coordination?  It’s sort of like that.  When my friends hear my questions and concerns and frustrations about being a mom, they’re thinking, Why can’t she just put the ball in the basket?

An example:  When The Boy was but a wee thing — a month old, perhaps — my friends encouraged me to venture out.  Start small, they said.  Run a quick errand, or get a cup of coffee.  You’ll be surprised at how easy it is.

So I did.  I made sure he had a full belly, then put him in a fresh outfit.  Perhaps more noteworthy, I put me in a fresh outfit.  I packed an extra set of everything and set out for our two mile journey to the nearest coffee shop.

The drive was pleasant enough.  It was a sunny day, and when I looked back every five seconds, The Boy was oblivious, content.

My friends were right, I thought, it’s nice to be out.  We arrived uneventfully at the coffee shop.  I unclicked his bucket seat and carried him in.

It was about two o’clock on a weekday afternoon.  Aside from the baristas banging around behind the bar, it was quiet.  On a momentary break from life, the patrons were all quietly reading or pecking on a gadget or sipping coffee.  It was an oasis.  We had all escaped, including me.  I was out.

I walked to the counter, gently set the bucket on the floor, and dug around for my wallet.  That’s when the dream started to unravel.

Just as the barista asked what she could get for me, The Boy started to whimper.  Oh crap.  I reached out with my foot and tipped the round-bottomed bucket ever so slightly, to make it rock, and then quickly ordered a medium coffee to go.  Maybe if I acted like I knew what I was doing, it would all be okay.

For his part, The Boy was not amused.  The whimper quickly turned into a fuss.  My shoulders crept skyward, toward my earlobes.  Please tell me this isn’t happening.

The fuss turned into a cry, which quickly escalated into a howl.  I tossed some money on the counter, grabbed the coffee, and then turned and froze, staring down at my son.  How was I going to carry this heaping bucket-o-Boy and a cup of hot coffee at the same time?  And even if I could manage that, how was I going carry all that AND get my keys out AND unlock my door AND heave him back into the car?  I needed another arm.  (Octopus mamas must have it soooo easy.)

"Coffee shops aren't my thing. I'd rather hang in the kitchen."

The Boy kept howling, red now.  The bubble of our communal oasis had been burst — pillaged, sacked, plundered.  I could feel the intensely hot laser beams from everyone’s eyeballs, staring.  Now that I think about it, this explains why I broke out into a sweat.  Will someone please remind me why hot coffee was a good idea?

I had to get out of there.  I tucked the handle of the bucket into the crook of my strong arm and grabbed the coffee with the other hand.  I lurched like a zombie towards the door — bucket-toting arm lifted for leverage, coffee arm almost fully extended in anticipation of the now-certain spill, which would surely land directly on my infant son’s face and scald him beyond recognition.  Really?, I chided myself.  Hot coffee?

Outside, scorching tears of frustration, embarrassment and ineptitude sprang from my eyes as I ditched the cup in the garbage can and continued toward the car.  Once there, I looked him over.  His diaper was dry, his belly still full.  Nothing was poking or pulling or pinching him.  Why was he screaming?  Had I somehow dislocated his arm?  Were we being pursued by machete-wielding guerrillas, unbeknownst to me?  I looked around, just to be sure.

I eventually gave up, clicked his bucket back into the car, and drove home.  He screamed the whole way.  In fact, he screamed so loud and for so long, that he started to lose his voice.  (I challenge you to find that in a parenting book.)

Against my better judgment, I’m going to be perfectly honest with you and admit to something unflattering and quite uncourageous.  The thought that was going through my head as I pulled into the driveway was this:

I went and had a BABY and now I’m stuck in this HOUSE for the rest of my LIFE.

I’m about as extroverted as they come.  The thought of having to choose between staying home and breaking out in hives from the stress of “being out” was unbearable.  I felt as though I’d just heard my own death knell.

Things got better, of course.  The Boy grew and changed.  I grew and changed.  I went back to work, which helped.  He learned to crawl, then walk, then talk.  He’s no less demanding now, actually, but at least we understand each other.

Here’s another unflattering admission:  When I’m in quiet public places, like coffee shops and churches and movie theaters, and I hear a baby screaming, I secretly like it.  Even more so when it’s a mother, and she looks flustered, mopping her brow.  Isn’t that terrible?!

I’m not taking joy in their frustration, mind you; I’m just relishing the fact that I’m not alone.

Actually, I like to think of it this way: I’m curing myself of a quite-serious inferiority complex, one fussy baby at a time.

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In hindsight, a tiny coffee shop was not the greatest venue for a first adventure – I didn’t realize just how loud a baby could be in small quiet space.

My second mistake was actually ordering coffee.  What I should have done is ask for a cookie – a highly portable, room temperature, easily-scarfed-if-I-suddenly-have-to-carry-my-kid cookie.

The problem is, food at coffee shops is generally miserable.  So The Boy and I made cookies ourselves, which I adapted from the November issue of Food & Wine magazine.

Cranberry Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from Dried Cranberry and Chocolate Cookies, Food & Wine, November 2011

1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup quick-cooking oats (or regular rolled oats)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 large egg yolk, room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips


Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.  Cover the cranberries in hot water and let soak for at least 5 minutes, but not more than 10 minutes.  Drain the cranberries; set aside.


Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter and both sugars at medium speed until creamy, about 3-4 minutes. Add the egg followed by the egg yolk and vanilla, beating well between additions and scraping down the side of the bowl as necessary.  Add the flour mixture, chocolate chips and cranberries all at once and stir just until combined.


Spoon heaping teaspoons of the dough onto the baking sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until the cookies begin to brown at the edges. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets, then transfer them to a rack to cool completely.


Store in an airtight container.

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Three Phone Calls

I was in Galveston when I learned that Dad died.

I was having lunch at a restaurant with a big group of people, including my gracious hosts, when the phone rang.  It was a number I didn’t recognize, and not wanting to be rude, I let it go to voice mail.

Ten minutes later, the phone rang again as we were walking out.  This time, it was Matt.  I picked up.

“Are you in a place where you can talk?”

He had his serious, listen-to-me-carefully tone, which told me immediately that something was wrong.  It wasn’t The Boy, though — he was too composed for that.

“Yes,” I said.  Terse.  I know something’s up – out with it.

“I’m going to tell you exactly what I know, because the information I have isn’t very clear,” he said.

“Okay.  What’s wrong?”  Frustrated now, not with Matt, but with the situation.  Trying to control my voice.  Whatever this is, it isn’t his fault.

“I just talked to your brother.  I think your dad passed away.”

I’m walking as I hear this, trailing my hosts at a safe distance.  I stop.

“What?”

My eyes dart from left to right as my brain sifts this information.  I feel adrenaline wash over the lining of my gut like ice water. The coastal sunshine is suddenly intensely bright, the roar of the Gulf suddenly deafening.  Fight or flight.

“I can’t be sure.  Your uncle A.B. called Kirk, and Kirk called me.  All I know for certain is that there was an ambulance at your dad’s house.”

Left-right-left-right-left-right-left-right.

Andy is there, in the crowd with me.  He notices I’ve fallen behind.  I’m looking down, hiding from the blinding sun, but he sees my wild dilated eyes anyway.  Without looking, I reach for his hand.

“Hole up… ho-hole-hole up, guys,” he tells the others.  He stands there quietly, holding my hand. Watching my face.

“That was Matt,” I say, dazed.  “I think my dad died.”

Collectively, the group stands up taller, then steps in close.

“I’m okay to walk.  Let’s walk,” I say, meaning it.  Thankfully, they believe me.

“Andy, can you…?”

“Yes.  I’ll drive.”

**********************

A couple of weeks later, I scraped together all the emotional fortitude I had and made a phone call of my own.  I called Bob, who, to my knowledge, was the last person to see my dad alive.

Dad had been renovating his childhood home, which is a 100+ year old frame house that began its life as a one-room school.  It needed a lot of work, and being retired, Dad needed something to do.  It seemed right.

Bob was one of the contractors Dad had hired to help.  The day he died, Bob had come by the old house to discuss the project.  Bob pulled up in his truck, and Dad came out to say hello, and pretty soon they were standing around with their forearms dangling into the bed of the pickup, as men in these parts are wont to do.

Bob grew up nearby and knew the area well.  However, Bob was several years older than Dad, and despite the tiny size of the community, they’d never met until they started working together.  Standing around the truck that morning, they talked about old times, the history of the place, how much things had changed over the years.  Bob would tell me later that it was like they were reminiscing about a common history they didn’t have, as though they’d skipped the same rocks and picked the same cotton and swam in that old rice canal together as kids.

Bob had already completed the first phase of the project, which was to remove all the old existing insulation.  They discussed the next phase, whatever that was to be, and then Dad asked Bob how much he owed him for the work he’d already completed.  Bob told him the amount, Dad paid him, they exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then Bob left.

Some time later, maybe an hour, Dad called a second contractor named Luke.  Bob had recommended him to help Dad work on the windows in the old house.

While they were talking, Dad interrupted and told Luke that he would have to let him go, that he didn’t feel well.  Then Luke heard the phone fall, and the call dropped.

Luke could have done a lot of things at this point.  He could have shrugged and proceeded with his day.  Instead, he called Bob and told him what happened.

Bob was at another job site many miles away by this point, too far away to do anything.  Luckily, he remembered Dad telling him that he had a bad heart.

He called 911.

Dad was gone by the time they arrived.

**********************

Calling Bob wasn’t easy, but I wanted to thank him for all he’d done.  I told him about my long-standing fear of something happening to Dad while alone, that he wouldn’t be able to call for help, and that he would suffer.  Thanks to Bob, I have the peace of knowing that his last day was a good one, and that it had happened quickly.

What I didn’t expect was for him to thank me.

He was like an angel, Bob said.  When we met, I saw his peaceful, happy face and I knew he was a man of God.

I must say, this isn’t what one expects when one phones an insulation contractor.

The first time I ever came out to the house, I climbed a ladder to have a look around in the attic.  When I looked down, he was bracing the ladder for me.  I didn’t ask him to, and he didn’t say anything — he just did it.  That thought doesn’t occur to most people, but he honestly cared about making sure I didn’t fall.

He went on.

When he asked how much he owed me, I expected him to say that he’d pay me later, or to give me the old check’s-in-the-mail routine.  But he wanted me to have what I’d earned.  I told him not to worry about it, that we’d settle up when the project was over, but he insisted on paying me on the spot.

Then he told me about their visit that morning, and how he’d never felt such an instant connection to someone he’d only just met.  It was a strange feeling, he said, to develop such a close friendship so fast.

I decided to tell him a few things about Dad, about what it was like to be his kid.  How reassuring and laid back he was, how he never liked to be in a hurry.

That’s when he thanked me.

Honey, I know I’m giving you the last pieces to the puzzle for that day, but you’re giving me puzzle pieces, too.  You’re confirming that he was an angel to me.  Meeting him and then losing him so quickly changed my life.  I think about him every single day.

What can you say when you hear that from a stranger about your dead father?  I stopped trying not to cry.

“He was a great man,” I squeaked out.  “And I loved him very much.”

I know you did, honey.  I’m sure you miss him.  I know I do.

**********************

About a week later,I was starting to get concerned about not doing my “grief work” — that I was squirreling away all my anguish and sadness to deal with later, and that later might never come.  I didn’t want to be stuck in the fog forever.

That’s when the dream came.

In my dream, I’m in my car, waiting at a red light.  The phone rings.

It’s Dad.

Hi, Daddy, I answer.

“It’s me again, Margaret,”  he says, chuckling.  A reference to the old Ray Stevens song.

I smile.

How are you?, I ask.

“I’m doin’ okay.  How are you?”

I’m alright.  I’ve just been really busy.  (I’m probating your estate, I think to myself – a reality I haven’t yet accepted.)

“How’s The Boy?”

Up to his old tricks, I say.  Still getting in trouble at school for sassing his teacher.

He laughs, hard, then trails off.

The Boy and I stopped by your house yesterday, I say.  This is my way of bringing it up, the fact that he’s gone. He was never good about broaching subjects.

Another pause.

“You’ll be fine, sweetie.”

I know, Daddy.  But I miss you.

“I miss you, too.”

What do we do with all of your things?  Like Grandpa’s old tractor?

“Kirk knows.  Matt can help you.”

I’m crying silently, hoping he can’t hear.

What about the land, Daddy?

“I thought maybe you’d want to put a nursery or an orchard out there.”

And just like that, I’m lying in my bed, awake. Then the real tears come, to match the ones in my dream.  I don’t sob, I don’t sniff, I don’t even blink much.  I stare at the ceiling while my eyes leak.  My pillow is wet.

An orchard.

In my mind’s eye, I see neat rows of trees.  As I walk among them, the rows snap together, longitudinally and diagonally, like the crosses at Arlington National Cemetery.

An orchard?

I see the four of us: Mom, Dad, Kirk, and me, walking with buckets, picking fruit from trees at a farm.  A memory from childhood.  I suddenly remember how much both of them loved trees.

An orchard?

Another flashback:  I see two of my uncles, walking with my parents among the acreage that we called the backyard.  They are carrying branches and putty knives and little pots of goo.

I ask Daddy what they’re doing.  He tells me they are grafting branches from other trees onto ours.

What’s grafting?  I ask.

“It’s kind of like gluing,” he says.

But why?

“Uncle David’s branches have better pecans than ours.  Now our trees will grow his pecans.”

Tree surgery.  My seven year old brain found this odd.

An orchard.

 **********************

I doubt that I’ll become a farmer anytime soon, but if I were to plant an orchard, I would probably choose pecan trees.  And what better way to showcase pecans than classic pecan pie?

This is my grandmother’s recipe.  I like it because it’s not too sweet, like many pecan pies can be — you don’t have to fight your way through all the sugar to taste the fruit.  A dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream sets it off perfectly.

Grandma Peltier’s Pecan Pie

3 eggs, room temperature, slightly beaten
2/3 cup light Karo corn syrup
2/3 cup dark Karo corn syrup
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans
About 1 cup pecan halves
Unbaked pie shell
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Combine eggs, syrups, flour, sugar, butter, and vanilla. Whisk until well combined, or beat on low speed of an electric mixer for about two minutes. Stir in chopped pecans.

Pour the mixture into the unbaked pie shell. Place the pecan halves atop the filling decoratively. Bake at 375°F for 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and bake another 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature again to 325°F and bake until center looks done (not shaky), about another 25 minutes, for a total baking time of about 55 minutes.

Remove from oven and let cool before slicing, to allow the filling to set.  Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream — or if you’re feeling frisky, rum-brandy ice cream.

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Paradise

Don’t let that last post fool you.  I wrote most of it weeks ago, before my life changed.  Before Dad died.

In real time, I’m much more melancholy, as you might expect.  I vacillate between emotional devastation and numbing denial.  In fact, since the funeral, I’ve mostly been an automaton. A zombie. A shell of my usual self.

Apparently my mind wants no part of this whole grieving process, because I can’t string together a coherent thought for all the tea in China.  Call me, my brain said, when it’s over.  I can’t handle anymore.  I’ll be in Bora Bora.

The other day, I went into our guest bathroom without having any business there and randomly washed my hands.  Holding the towel, I asked my mirrored reflection why I had done so.  She didn’t have an answer.

Another time, while getting dressed, I packed a dopp kit for no reason.  Every item I used, I packed.  Shampoo, conditioner, comb, razor, toothbrush. All that.  When I was done, I zipped it up and carried it across the house.

The next morning, I couldn’t find anything.  I didn’t remember that I’d packed it all.  Matt saw my confusion and asked what was the matter.  I can’t find anything, I said, distressed.

“What anythings?”

My deodorant.  My face lotion.  My stuff.

His face softened.  He knew.

“I saw you packing it all yesterday.  I didn’t want to question you.”

I walked out to the garage, where the dopp kit was sitting, alone, in my car.  No suitcase. No clothes.  No real memory of putting it there.

Maybe my brain convinced the rest of me to make a run for Bora Bora.  Who knows.

Automaton.

Zombie.

That dopp kit thing happened two weeks ago.  Now…. now I don’t quite know what to do with myself.  I’m back at work, and everything is pretty much the same.  Except that nothing is the same, and it never will be again.

My good friend Jamie sent me a text.  It read: Paradise in the everyday.  You know that.

I knew, but I hadn’t been seeing it.  I didn’t have to look far.

 

“Mommy?”

Yes?

“I love you.”

Aw, I love you too, Sugar.

“I love you moah.”

Well, I love you all the way to the moon.

“And back.”

Paradise.  Every day.

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I liked how the combination looked on Eileen's pretty blue plate.

I’ve never been less interested in eating and more interested in cooking than I have been lately.  I wouldn’t have guessed that.  Honestly, it’s a little weird.

When Mom died, my primary concern was Dad.  What did he need?  How would we manage?  How could I help?  Cooking was not on my radar at all.

I didn’t think anything of it then, but that seems like a luxury now, to have him to be concerned about.

This time, it’s different.  Maybe cooking is a predictable, known thing for me in this strange post-parental world I now dwell in.  Maybe cooking connects me to the memories.  Maybe I don’t know what else to do with myself.

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Mom adored homemade ice cream.  Dad loved apple pie

Me, I can’t seem to leave well enough alone.  My favorite dish is the one I haven’t tried to make yet.

So it seemed natural to make a an apple galette instead of a perfectly good pie, and add booze to some perfectly wonderful ice cream.  What resulted seemed to me to represent the three of us on a plate. 

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A galette is essentially a free-form pie, without the pesky dish.  The flavor profile is very simple — just butter, sugar, and cinnamon — and the proportions of crust to filling much closer to 1:1 than with pie.  In my world, that’s a good thing.

Apple Galette

Adapted from Joy of Cooking

Pastry dough for 1 pie crust
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 tablespoons sugar, divided
2 large firm apples (I prefer Granny Smith), peeled, cored, and sliced very thinly
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven.  Preheat the oven to 425 F.

On a sheet of parchment paper, roll the crust out into a 12-inch round.  Brush the crust with a thin layer of melted butter, and reserve the rest.  Sprinkle the crust with one tablespoon of the sugar.

Transfer the paper with the dough to a baking sheet.  Layer the apples on the crust, leaving at least a 1-inch border around the edges.  If you’re feeling fancy, arrange the apples in a pretty overlapping designs; if you’re not, just kind of toss them in there.  Fold the dough border up over the apples, again making it as pretty as you please.

Combine the remaining three tablespoons of sugar with the cinnamon.  Drizzle all but about 2 teaspoons of the remaining butter over the apples, then sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Bake at 425 F until the pastry begins to brown, about 20 minutes.  Reduce the oven temperature to 350 F and bake until the pastry is crisped and golden brown, about another 20-30 minutes.

Remove from the oven to a rack.  Brush the apples with the remaining butter, and let cool.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

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The alcohol in this boozy ice cream keeps the texture very soft — it’s a perfect accompaniment to the slew of upcoming holiday desserts.  The addition of nutmeg gives it the flavor of egg nog; dial the amount up or down (or leave it out) to suit your tastes. You could also vary the spirits to mix things up a bit.

Rum-Brandy Ice Cream

I stashed some in my in-law's freezer.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma’s Thanksgiving

2 1/2 cups half-and-half
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
4 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dark rum
2 tablespoons brandy

In a heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the half-and-half and cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until tiny bubbles start to form around the edges and the mixture reaches a temperature of 170 F.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks until smooth. Add the sugar and nutmeg and whisk vigorously until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. When the cream mixture reaches 170 F, slowly pour it into the egg yolk mixture while whisking continuously.

Return the combined mixture to the pan over low heat. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon and reaches a temperature of 185 F. Do not bring the mixture to a boil.

Pour the mixture into a clean bowl and cool to room temperature. Stir in the vanilla. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate overnight, or for a minimum of 2 hours.

Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions until softly frozen. Add the rum and brandy and continue to churn until the ice cream freezes further. (Again, it will probably not freeze solid and remain very soft.) Transfer to an airtight storage container, cover, and freeze overnight before serving.

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(In Search Of) King Cake!

I have lived all of my years in the Lone Star State, save for three — and in those three short years, Louisiana stole a piece of my heart.

Right out of college, Matt took a job at a company called CAMECO in Thibodaux, Lousiana (which is now part of John Deere).  I still had a year to go at Southwestern University, and some day I’ll tell you the story of how we “met” (hardly the right word when you’ve known someone your entire life), fell in love, and eventually married — but for purposes of brevity, I’ll just say that I finished school, spent a year working in Houston, and then got hitched and moved to Louisiana.  We’d heard that living in the same state ups your odds of staying married, at least in the first year or two.  Not knowing any better, we were willing to try it.

People back home often asked me how I liked it “over there,” and my pat answer was that it was like living in an entirely different country.  How a place we share a state line with can be so different, I cannot say — but it’s true.  And I loved it.

Of course, one cannot comment on the peculiar culture of Louisiana without mentioning Mardi Gras — and as you’ve probably guessed by now, that’s exactly where I’m going.

It all begins with the three wise men — you know, the ones from the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel.  Every January 6th, the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord — that is, the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles.  I won’t go into the theological details, but let’s just agree that it’s a pretty big deal, and therefore, worthy of a party.

On the Church’s liturgical calendar, Christmas season technically begins on December 25 and runs through Epiphany, on January 6th — what we all simply know as the Twelve Days of Christmas.  Europeans traditionally celebrated Epiphany with huge Twelfth Night parish parties, which featured a king cake.  In honor of the three kings, or wise men, of the Epiphany story, hidden in the cake would be three beans or coins, and whomever found the prizes were crowned the kings and queens of the day.  While the royalty were being outfitted for their office, the Christmas tree was taken down and “plundered,” which means the ornaments were removed, the branches were stripped, and it was stored until Lent, when it was made into a processional cross.  Meanwhile, the kings and queens held court… which is to say, they partied till the break of dawn.  Cheap beads imported from China may or may not have been involved.

I'm ready for my close-up...

These days, Epiphany still marks the end of Christmas season, but it also signifies the beginning of Mardi Gras season.  Along the way, the beans and coins turned into ceramic charms, and then into plastic babies.  Parades were added.  Krewes were formed.  Inappropriate behavior and overindulgence ensued… but one thing still holds true: the king cake.

And that’s all very well and good, you see, but here’s the thing: in the entire time I lived in Louisiana, I met many an expert home cook.  But never, not once, did I have a homemade king cake.  They’re kind of like doughnuts, in the sense that everyone picks them up at a bakery or grocery store, and next to no one makes them at home.  Is it me, or is that odd for a confection with such a rich cultural heritage?

For years, I’ve been casually looking for a good king cake recipe, but never found one compelling enough to warrant an attempt.  Then recently, I made the acquaintance of Jim Gossen, a perfect Cajun gentleman that lives here in Houston, but grew up in Louisiana and still has a home on Grand Isle.  Certainly he’d have a recipe for king cake, right?

Right.  Jim very graciously shared with me that his family enjoys the French version in Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking: Gateau des Rois.  Of course!  The recipe I’d been searching for had been under my nose all along.  I eagerly consulted my 2003 anniversary edition of Mastering, and I’m ashamed to say, I couldn’t find it.  Before you suggest it, yes, I checked Volume II, too.  Either Julia can’t write an index, or I can’t read.  Maybe both.

Just as I finished turning every page of the desserts section of both volumes of Mastering, the universe reached out to me.  John Besh shared his king cake recipe via a link on Twitter, and when I clicked through, get this: it was this article by the Houston Chronicle‘s very own Greg Morago.  Sure, John is no Julia — no one is — but the recipe was from his beautiful My New Orleans cookbook, which is basically a love letter to Louisiana and its food culture.  So I had to try it.

As you can see, I went a little over the top with the tri-colored glazes and the beads, and Matt walked in just as I finished utterly destroying our kitchen.  But a funny thing happened when I cut him the first slice and handed him a fork.  He started talking about Louisiana.

While I did the dishes, he told me stories I hadn’t heard before, about his time there before I arrived.  He was a young engineer, still wet behind the ears and from out of state, much less out of town.

At the CAMECO offices, a lady named Pat traditionally brought the first king cake of the season, on January 6th.  Knowing that Matt didn’t know a king cake from his elbow, Pat stopped by his desk and told him to be sure and get a slice, which he did.  And sure enough, when he cut into the cake, he hit something rock hard.  Oh no, he thought.  What’s wrong with this cake?!

Immediately his co-workers started exclaiming, He got the baby!  Big Tex got the baby!  Hey Matt, that means you gotta bring a king cake tomorrow.

Great.  Not only was there a foreign mass in his slice of cake, which he would have to somehow politely ignore, but he had no idea why his colleagues were going on and on about a baby.  Or how he was going to produce a king cake on less than 24 hours’ notice.  Knowing him like I do, I’m sure Matt turned beet red while he tried to figure it out.  And having later gotten to know many of the folks that were in the room that day, I’m sure they lapped it up.

What an outstanding example of how food connects us to a time and place. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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p.s.  While I greatly enjoyed Mr. Besh’s king cake, I still want to try Julia Child’s recipe.  If any of you have time to point a dim-witted food blogger in the right direction on how to find it in a book she already owns, please let me know…

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Lagniappe: A Note From Tom

Remember Tom, from Williams-Sonoma?  He helped me breathe while resisting the urge to buy all those vintage culinary books at his store.

You might have thought I was exaggerating when I referred to him as The Most Helpful Sales Guy in the History of Retail.  Which would be understandable, really, because I have been known to embellish this thiiiis much (thumb and forefinger spaced exactly two microns apart) on occasion.  But not this time — I have proof.

I sent Tom a link to the post last week, and he wrote back with a very gracious note, along with three recipes that look amazing.  They were obviously meant to be shared:

Hi Laura:

Thank you for your kind words and great posting.

I have attached a few recipes that you and your readers might enjoy.  The Stuffed Pear Salad is from Cooking Light, I have made it so many times that I added the chart of how much for how many people.  The other two were my mother’s favorite things to make at Christmas time.

I wish you and all your loved ones a Blessed Christmas and all the best in 2011!

Tom

Was I right or was I right?  Talk about going above and beyond the call of duty.

Thanks, Tom — and all the best to you and yours as well!

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Stuffed Pear Salad
from Cooking Light, 1996
(I couldn’t get Tom’s very cool chart to display correctly in HTML. If you’re interested in scaling this up, email me at whitefluffyicing (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll zip you his original.)

½ cup nonfat ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons golden raisins
1 tablespoon honey
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 firm ripe red pears
½ teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups torn watercress or other lettuce
Piquant Dressing (recipe below)
1 ½ tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Combine first 4 ingredients in a small bowl, stirring well. Set aside.

Core pears; cut each in half lengthwise. Brush cut sides of pears with lemon juice.

Place ½ cup watercress on each individual salad plate. Place one pear half on watercress on each salad plate. Spoon ricotta cheese mixture evenly onto pear halves. Drizzle Piquant dressing over pears, and sprinkle with pine nuts. Serve immediately. Yields 4 servings.

Piquant Dressing
¼ cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, stirring well. Yields ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon.

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Apple Cranberry Pie

Pastry for 9-inch two-crust pie
3/4 cup brown sugar
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups peeled, sliced tart apples
2 cups Ocean Spray fresh or frozen cranberries (whole or chopped)
2 tablespoons butter or margarine

Preheat oven to 425ºF.

In a large bowl, combine sugars, flour and cinnamon. Add fruit, mix well, turn into pastry lined pan. Dot with butter. Cover and cut slits in top crust. Seal edges.

Bake 40 minutes or until golden brown.

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Cranberry Nut Loaf
“This was my mother’s favorite thing to bake for people or serve at Christmas every year.”

2 cups all-purpose sifted flour
1 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
½ teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup shortening
¾ cup orange juice
1 Tablespoon grated orange rind
2 eggs, well beaten
½ cup chopped nuts
1 cup fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, soda and salt. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Combine orange juice and grated rind with well beaten egg. Pour all at once into dry ingredients, mixing just enough to dampen. Carefully fold in chopped nuts and cranberries. Spoon into greased loaf pan (9x5x3″). Spread corners and sides slightly higher than center. Bake at 350°F for about 1 hour, until crust is golden brown and toothpick inserted comes out clean. Remove from pan. Cool. Store overnight for easy slicing.

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This Is It, Ya’ll

The last Bon Appétit cover of 2010 has arrived, and I can hardly believe it.  Where did the year go?

Remember what I said a few weeks ago about cake vs. pie?  A perfect case in point: this glitzy cake couldn’t be any further from a humble sweet potato pie if it tried.

At first glance, my reaction to the cover photo was: Lord have mercy on my soul. A three-dimensional chocolate bow will do that, or so I hear.

Then I looked at the recipe.  My first reaction there was: Whoa.  Two entire magazine pages for one single recipe.

And my second thought was: Lord have mercy on my soul.

Then I actually read the recipe, and it’s not nearly as crazy as it looks.  I felt even better when I read this issue’s letter from the editor, because there I learned that this is a recycled cover from 1984, and that it has been their most requested recipe for the 26 years since, “generating more mail over a longer period than any other recipe.”

This is good news, for two reasons: a) It must be a darn tasty cake, and b) It can’t be that hard.  (Famous last words, anyone?)

I have high hopes that this is the dessert I’ve waited all year for: challenging but doable, and impressive in both the looks and taste departments.  For the record, the turkey freaked me out waaaaay more than this.

p.s. Interesting to note that this recipe is not (yet?) available on the Bon Appétit website… any guesses as to why?  Because it’s also in the new BA Desserts cookbook?  Or perhaps the recipe developer didn’t give permission?

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Oh SNAP!

What do homemade gingersnaps have to do with the Houston Grand Opera?

It’s no secret that I’m a lover of Houston — I came out and told you so last summer.  And actually, I had this grand plan of writing a series of posts about my fair city, beginning with a discussion about how underrated Houston’s food scene is.  Well, procrastination is the thief of time, as they say, because Bryan Caswell beat me to it.

I certainly don’t mean to insinuate that Caswell and I are in the same league — being one of the best chefs in Houston, he has about ten thousand percent more street cred than me, and about a zillion times more reach (his editorial made the front page of cnn.com, after all).  But I’m also not about to try and write what he already said so elegantly, either.  If you haven’t read what he wrote, you should: check it out here.

So let’s agree that Houston has a fantastic dining landscape that next to no one knows about.  Done.

On to the next Thing I Love About Houston: its world-class arts scene.  That’s right: world class, baby!

Consider the following facts:

  • Houston is second only to New York City for the number of theater seats in a concentrated U.S. downtown area.
  • Houston is one of only five cities in the U.S. with permanent professional resident companies in all of the major performing arts disciplines of opera, ballet, symphony, and theater.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is Texas’ oldest and most prominent museum, and is the fourth largest art museum in the United States.
  • One of the most important private art collections in the world, the Menil Collection, is in Houston.
  • The only intact Byzantine frescoes in the Western hemisphere are housed in Houston’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel.
  • In 2008, Yahoo! Travel listed Houston’s Rothko Chapel as one of the top 10 U.S. places to see before you die. Rothko Chapel is also on National Geographic’s list of the world’s “most sacred places.”
  • The Houston Museum of Natural Science is the third most visited museum in the U.S., behind the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Crazy, right?  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I had to stop myself.  (For more, start here.)

Sometime around 2003, I decided to giddy-up and take advantage of all this stuff going on in my backyard.  I started visiting exhibit halls and attending museum events, and I was ever so lucky to cross paths with Stephanie right about then.  In addition to her sparkling personality, she also has a degree in art history, and to this day, I still somehow manage to persuade her to attend museum events with me.  Which would probably be no big deal, except that she has to answer all my neophyte questions. Questions like, Err, what’s with all the naked nymphs? Answer: These artists wanted to study the female body, and they couldn’t very well paint a naked lady, because then she would cease to be a lady, right?  Ohhhh, gotcha.  (wink, wink)

With my visual arts tutorial sufficiently underway, I turned my attention to the performing arts.  I decided to buy season tickets to the Alley Theatre one year, the Houston Ballet the next year, then the Houston Symphony.  The only trouble was, I didn’t have a “Stephanie” for any of those.  Ah, but that certainly didn’t keep me from dragging Matt along.  And when I’d wrung every drop of art appreciation out of him and hung him out to dry, I finished my tour by subbing in a rotation of buddies.  It was actually fun, all that artsy platonic same-sex serial dating.  But I digress…

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Hangover

There are many ways to cure a Thanksgiving food hangover.

Going to Vegas ain’t one of ‘em.

Matt and I slipped away on Friday for our very first trip without The Boy, and it wasn’t until we were on the plane that I allowed it to sink in.  I thought that surely a sudden pediatric fever, family emergency, or a phone call from a client would derail us.  (I wonder if the stress of these past few years will permanently leave me in “hope for the best, plan for the worst” mode.  Is that called growing up?  Is this what maturity is?  Lord, I hope not.)

Once we checked in, it took a few minutes for us to stop reaching for laptops that weren’t there.  After that, we blinked at each other for a while.  Then we let our hair down and hit the strip, and Stella got at least a little of her groove back.  I didn’t do too bad, either.

It was wonderful.

Thanksgiving was wonderful, too, actually.  Aunt Denise, our acclaimed holiday hostess, called a few weeks ago and asked, Would it be okay with ya’ll if we had crab stuffed flounder instead of turkey this year? I mean, is the Pope Catholic?  Is the sky blue?  Bring it ON, sister.  I mean, aunt.  Whoever you are.

We decided that if there was some form of pumpkin on the dessert table, we could still call it Thanksgiving.  In that same vein, I also felt compelled to check the cranberry box on the holiday form, somehow, some way.  My new Twitter buddy, Joel, suggested a cocktail, which would have solved all the world’s problems — except for the delicious fact that Aunt Denise was book-ending the flounder experience with sangria AND her famous egg nog (Hic.)

This dilemma persisted until Wednesday morning, when Dad and I were finalizing the set list for our day-o-cookery together.  The November issue of Bon Appétit was nearby, and after a few page flips, I had it: Cranberry Salsa with Cilantro and Chiles.  Dad tried to talk me out of it, which means he cocked an eyebrow, but I was not to be dissuaded.  I’d discover something fun or I’d go down in flames.  (Luckily, it was the former.)

So, cranberries and pumpkin safely revered, we settled on making a chicken and sausage gumbo to accompany the flounder.  Based on a recent comment from Cheerleader Lisa about how terrific a lightly spiced, gently cooked apple is, and how crusts and heavy sweeteners and ice cream can actually get in the way, I suggested that we make a simple crust-free apple crisp, lightly enhanced with a little ribbon cane syrup Dad brought back from the Heritage Syrup Festival in Henderson, Texas.  It would be a lighter option on the dessert menu.

Clockwise from top: pumpkin-ginger cheesecake with maple pecan glaze, triple chocolate mousse cake, and apple crisp. Pumpkin bread pudding was at the next stop...

Because Matt and I would be heading over to his family’s gathering afterward, and because my mama taught me to never show up anywhere empty-handed, and because Matt’s favorite food in the whole wide world is pumpkin bread, and because I’m generally a glutton for punishment, I added Bobby Flay’s Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Spicy Caramel Apple Sauce and Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise to the list.  Start the IV now, doc, because this story’s headed for a food coma ending…

But you know what?  Probably due to all the parental supervision, I didn’t overcook anything, I didn’t drop anything, and I didn’t leave any entire dishes behind(Psst. Dad, I’ll cook with you anytime.)

This means that during the meal, instead of stewing over whatever I’d forgotten/dropped/smashed/over(under)cooked, I was able to sit back and enjoy it more.  And here’s what I came up with: I have one heck of a terrific family.

I’m not going to go into every dish that was on the table, because we’d be here all day.  Suffice it to say that everything was terrific, and that if I spent the rest of my life on a treadmill, I wouldn’t burn it all off.  My Aunt Pam and Uncle David were there, and my cousin Jason joined us too, whom I haven’t seen in a million years.  And get this: Jason is a closet pastry chef.  He must be, because when I tasted his triple chocolate mousse cake, I couldn’t decide whether to weep or slap the table.  Dude, where’ve you BEEN?

Looking around the table, I realized how multi-talented everyone is.  First, everyone can cook.  Really cook.  Unk is essentially an artist, Dad and Matt seem to know how everything works (table discussion included the mechanics of milling sugar, which started when I asked why I can buy ribbon cane syrup but not just plain old sugarcane syrup…), Jason will forget more than I’ll ever know about website design (he sent me an email with a handful of tips a few months ago that I’m still digesting), and David, Pam, and Aunt Denise are wicked gardeners.

That’s not even close to being an exhaustive list of their talents.

So I sat there, looking down at my flight of desserts, coffee at the ready, listening to the conversation.

And for the first time in a while, I was grateful.  Bone deep, tear-flicking grateful.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding with Spicy Caramel Apple Sauce and Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise

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Lagniappe: Thanksgiving Roundup

We talked last year about how Thanksgiving is the equivalent of the Olympics for home cooks.

So, to all you Olympians out there:  How’s the training going?  You ready?

I know you know this, but there are only five days left.  So I thought I’d round up a few resources for you, in case you need a few tips.  I know I do.

First, Bon Appétit did a special pre-Thanksgiving edition of their “What People Are Cooking” column, featuring a full menu’s worth of Thanksgiving recipes that have been tested by bloggers like yours truly.  Check it out here.  And if you’re not following WFI on Twitter or Facebook, you might not realize my post from this week was chosen for the main dish!  It’s always very cool to get a nod like that, so thanks, Bon Appétit!

Second, the wildly popular Pioneer Woman (whom I’ve mentioned for her recreation of the petite vanilla scones at Starbucks) did a Thanksgiving “Throwdown” with Bobby Flay.  Not only that, but SHE challenged HIM.  That’s a Southern woman for ya!  Go Ree!  If you missed the episode, it’s worth watching: re-runs are happening now on the Food Channel.  I’m particularly interested in Flay’s brussel sprouts recipe, which includes pomegranates and vanilla-pecan butter.  HELL-oh.

Third, speaking of Pioneer Woman, she recently posted some great tips on how to avoid saltiness with a brined turkey.  My gravy last weekend was plenty salty, and I didn’t even brine my bird.  I initially attributed that to the salt-roasting technique, and theorized that even though I rinsed the turkey thoroughly, some of the salt must have remained in the cavity and wound up in the drippings.  Now I know that an additional contributing factor may have been the fact that I used a frozen bird.  Maybe next year I’ll roast a fresh turkey… wait, look at me, signing up for a second turkey!  WHO AM I?

Lastly, one of the many mistakes I made when cooking my turkey was not planning well enough.  I’m a pretty serious planner type, but I was completely zonked from a couple of stressful weeks at work, plus I had a houseguest.  Aside from carefully reading the recipes (!), I should have done what I do for parties, which is to start with the designated go-time and work backwards, sketching out the major milestones I’d need to accomplish to make it all work.  To that end, there are lots of online Thanksgiving guides to help you, like this one from Williams-Sonoma and this one from Bon Appétit.

May the force be with you!

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Bon Appétit Challenge: Salt Roasted Turkey and Rosemary Bread Stuffing

If you don’t mind, I’d like to begin by justifying my intimidation level for this little endeavor.

To psych myself up for attacking my first turkey, it seemed natural to consult my Williams-Sonoma Thanksgiving cookbook. Mistake Numero Uno, my friends. Here’s the intro to the chapter on main courses:

When cooking turkey, the centerpiece of every traditional Thanksgiving menu, achieving golden skin, juicy white meat, and well-cooked dark meat all at the same time qualifies as an art. The following recipes come to the aid of the cook, making cooking — and eating — the turkey the best thing that happens all day.

Really, Chuck (Williams)?  Really?  According to you, I’m supposed to artfully create the centerpiece of the most traditional of meals for my closest friends and family.  And not only that, it’s supposed to be the best thing that happens all day.  In my mind, this stops just shy of me wearing a dress and heels under my apron, with a ribbon in my hair.

And am I the only one that thinks the most superb turkey conceivable is a far cry from the best thing that ever happened to me?  Pass the pie, brother.

This is when the bellyaching commenced.  I don’t WANNA cook a turkey, I said, to no one in particular. Not even a Salt Roasted Turkey with Lemon and Oregano. Why did I DO this stupid challenge, anyway?, I asked.  What if I screw it up?, I whined.  Somebuddy call the wahhhhhh-mbulance.

And you know what the near-unanimous answer was to my dramatic neuroticisms?  You can’t screw it up!  It’ll be fine!  You’ll do great!  If I can do it, you can do it!

I almost started to believe them.  Almost.  And then Bon Appétit, the lovely, upstanding, respectable periodical that I’ve relied upon for years, ran a Thanksgiving bloopers contestShare your Thanksgiving disaster stories with us and you can win an All-Clad roasting pan and rack! It was like a car accident: I couldn’t help but look at the stories of gravy explosions and birds being dropped into sudsy dishwater.  Mistake Numero Dos, people.  Now I’m officially freaked out.  Freaked.  Out.

(On the other hand, my now-certain epic failure suddenly had an upside: an All-Clad roasting pan and rack!)

I pressed on.  For reasons still unknown, in true WFI fashion, I decided to attempt my inaugural bird on a weekend when Johanna was in town as our houseguest.  Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t really do houseguests.  It’s not for lack of want-to, you see, it’s just that I grew up with all my houseguest candidates living within a 30-mile radius.  So, like the turkey, it’s a lack of practice more than anything else.

Did I mention that I also invited a new friend, Diana, to join us?  Did I mention that she’s also a chef?  Mistake Numero Tres: setting myself up with undue pressure.  Pretty smooth, huh?

To the bird.  I expected BA to call for an insanely happy, free-range, never-been-injected-with-anything bird… but they didn’t.  So I grabbed a Butterball, the universal choice of the bourgeois, to really give the recipe a run for its money.  And Butterball has that hotline, after all, which may just come in handy.  We’ll see.

Fennel and speck for the stuffing.

I managed to thaw the thing adequately, which was a chief concern going in.  I also managed to do a good bit of the work in advance — namely, making the Ultimate Turkey Stock and cooking the stuffing ingredients the day before.  So far, so good.

And then Sunday came.  D-Day, if you will.

On the way home from church, I swung through the store for some side dish ingredients (fourth grocery trip of the weekend, but who’s counting?).  Wisely, I foresaw the possibility of huge timing issues on my part, and grabbed some nuts and cheese for my diners to nibble on.  I wasn’t sure how, but I felt certain I’d be keeping my guests waiting, and now at least they wouldn’t have growling tummies in the process.

It would turn out to be the best decision I made all day.

Upon returning home, I realized that despite reviewing the recipe – oh, I don’t know  — FOURTEEN times, I managed to misread the cooking time.  The recipe calls for roasting the bird in several 45 minute increments, and I glossed over a couple of those.  My ETA is now officially off by 1.5 hours.  Rookie mistake. (Cuatro, if you’re keeping score at home.)  Huge.

Ding dong.  Oh, Hi Diana!  Where’d I put those cashews?

So later… hours later!… there were 45 minutes left on the clock.  Time to insert the probe and start tracking internal temperatures.  Diana and I were chatting in the kitchen, and she commented on how well-browned and nice looking the bird already is.  Then I asked her to help me figure out where the “thickest part of the thigh” is, for thermometer placement, because the whole operation hinges on getting a good temperature read.  We’re aiming for a final temp of 165.

She poked with the probe.  175 degrees.  Wha?  Maybe she hit a bone?, I suggested.

She poked again.  178 degrees.  And again.  174 this time.

She checked the recipe, and looked at the oven.  Have you been roasting at 375 the whole time?, she asked.  My face fell — I immediately knew what the problem was.  I’d cooked the stuffing earlier at the prescribed temperature of 375, and was in such a hurry to get started on the bird (because of my colossal timing problem), I failed to knock down the temperature to 350.  I’d cooked it 25 degrees too hot the entire time.

I got insanely lucky: the turkey was fine.  By divine providence, my poor recipe reading was inadvertently offset by my lack of attention to detail, and cooking it at the wrong temperature actually fixed my timing problem.  (Not a strategy I would recommend, by the way.)

Not bad for a first timer.

So.  How’d it taste? Ummmm, like turkey.

Seriously, all that grinding and salting and rinsing and brushing did not conspire to create a life-changing dining experience.  The skin was beautiful and delicious, thanks to the lemon oil, but the meat itself tasted like… every other (good) turkey I’ve ever eaten.  I fully admit there’s a fair amount of bias here, since I’m not a huge meat eater.  And I also fully admit that I could be spoiled by all the good cooks in my family, and an amazing turkey seems like no big deal.  All that being said, I did achieve golden skin, juicy white meat, and well-cooked dark meat all at the same time… but I’m not sure it’s an art form when you accomplish something in spite of yourself.

The stuffing was tasty, my overcooking it a bit notwithstanding (what mistake number are we on?), but it was a little on the exotic side for several folks at the table.  If you’re looking to shake things up a bit, I would definitely recommend this recipe, as it has a lot of complex flavors that work pretty well together.  That being said, if you have a multi-generational recipe that you make every year, you might consider making it in addition to that, and not instead of.  Similar to my take on the pie issue: you’re messing with people’s holidays, and there’s a line.  You don’t want a revolt on your hands.

The Greek Inspired Fresh Oregano and Giblet Pan Gravy might actually have been my favorite of the four recipes involved: tons of flavor, and not much more work than “regular” gravy.  Although the speck was pretty good in that stuffing.  Tough call.

In total, I’d say that I’m really glad I faced my demons, but I’m also glad it’s over.  Like every home cook, I dream of one day hosting Thanksgiving dinners like the ones you see in catalog photo spreads… a huge table beautifully set for a dozen, all the picture-perfect food coming out of the kitchen at the same time, Norman Rockwell quietly sketching the scene from his corner perch.  I’ve got about twenty years before I can afford the set-up (that is, a house big enough to have a dining room big enough for a table big enough), and it’ll take me about that long to master cooking for that many people at once…

But I’ve taken the first step.

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