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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thanksgiving Desserts

Before the sun comes up on Thanksgiving day, my wife and I are hard at work in the kitchen. There's so much to do that we're busy all day long. When our family and friends arrive, there's a flurry of activity to greet everyone. Once everyone is settled at the dinner table, there are glasses raised to celebrate our being together and toasts to those who could not travel to our house that year or who have passed on. Then we eagerly eat.

The feast goes on for hours as we hungrily enjoy Thanksgiving favorites and talk about what's going on in our lives and the world. When we've eaten all we can, we take a break to clean the table. Then most of us go for a walk around the neighborhood.

We walk in the dark, enjoying the cool night air and the exercise of our limbs. Refreshed, we come back to the house, its bright lights and fireplace inviting us to come home. And when we do, we find that the table has been reset, new platters of food laid out. It's time for dessert.

For so many years, this is the moment when the true collaboration of the meal is in evidence. Cousin Ron has made homemade ice cream, topping sauces, and a cheese cake. Cousin Leslie brings a pumpkin pie. Our friend and neighbor, Lesli offers us a huge bowl of mixed berries. Sometimes there is simply more than we can eat, but we don't care.

Seeing all the chocolates, candies, pies, cookies, tarts, fresh fruit, cheeses, bread puddings, and cakes makes us feel good without eating a bite. Then we dig in, having small slices so we can taste what everyone has made. But even those samples add up, so within short order we need another bracing walk in the cold to revive us.

Here are two of our favorite recipes.

Karen's Favorite Pumpkin Bread

Yield: 6-8 servings
Time: 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients

3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups canned pumpkin
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil (safflower or canola)
4 eggs
1 cup chocolate chips

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Beat the eggs together with the sugar until light and fluffy. Mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Combine with the eggs and sugar. Add the pumpkin, vanilla, vegetable oil, eggs, and chocolate chips and mix well.

Carefully butter the inside of a bundt pan or 4 loaf pans. Pour in the batter, leaving 1/2" from the top. Bake for 1 hour for the large pan or 30-45 minutes for the loaf pans. Test with a tooth pick and let rest on a wire rack.

Serve at room temperature.

Banana Cake with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

Yield: 8-10 servings
Time: 90 minutes
Ingredients

4 ripe bananas
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sweet butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup half and half or 1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups white flour
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup raw walnuts
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Method

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and paint the inside of a 9 x 3 round cake pan, then put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. (The frozen butter prevents the batter from sticking to the pan.) On a cookie sheet bake the walnuts in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so; let cool, roughly chop, and set aside.

In a bowl mash the bananas with a fork, add the baking soda and vanilla. stir well and set aside. In a mixer use the whisk to cream together the softened butter and both sugars. Add the eggs, mashed bananas, half and half (or cream) and whisk until blended. Mix in the flour half a cup at a time, being careful not to over-beat. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Use a rubber spatula to blend in the walnuts and chocolate chips. Pour the batter into the buttered cake pan; it will only fill the pan half-way.

Bake the cake in a 350 oven for 60-70 minutes, turning the pan every 20 minutes so the cake cooks evenly. Test to see if the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer. If the top is browning too quickly, lightly lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. When the skewer comes out clean, take the cake out of the oven and place on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan, putting it back on the wire rack to finish cooling.

Just before serving, dust the top with powdered sugar and shaved chocolate. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thanksgiving Side Dishes

For my mother, Thanksgiving was the best day of the year. She enjoyed being surrounded by friends, family, and food. One day of the year when everyone was focused on being together and remembering how blessed we all are. She's been gone now for two years but this year, as we did last year, we'll toast her and remember how much she enjoyed Thanksgiving.

We all know that while turkey is the centerpiece of the meal, the side dishes and desserts reign supreme. Cranberry sauce, cornbread stuffing with sausages and dried apricots, mushroom and giblets gravy, salads, pickles, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, string beans, squash...and the desserts: pies, custards, cakes, fresh fruit, cheese... Thanksgiving celebrates an iconic moment of generosity from strangers at a moment of crisis. Given the difficulties the world is facing for the coming year, we can use Thanksgiving to share with one another our hopes for the future.

Everyone has their favorite side dishes for the holiday. They need to be flavorful and easy to make. Here are mine: Roasted Whole Tomatoes, Arugula Salad with Hazelnuts, Carrots, and Avocadoes, Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad, Blackened Peppers with Capers, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, and, my new favorite, Baked Sweet Potatoes with Sautéed Shallots, Garlic, and Mushrooms.

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Sautéed Shallots, Garlic, and Mushrooms

I prefer sweet potatoes that have a bright orange flesh. Find ones that are slender, appropriate as a single serving. For a dinner party, pick ones that are about the same size.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 2 1/2 hours

Ingredients

4 sweet potatoes, washed, skins on
2 teaspoons sweet butter
1 cup shallots, peeled, thinly sliced
1 cup brown or shiitake mushrooms, washed, dried, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves only, washed, finely chopped
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Cayenne (optional)

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap each sweet potato in tin foil, place in the oven, turn every 30 minutes. Depending on your oven and the size of the sweet potatoes, they can take anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours. When the sweet potatoes are soft to the touch, they are done.

While the sweet potatoes are in the oven, drizzle olive oil in a frying pan, season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and sauté the shallots, garlic, parsley, and mushrooms until lightly browned.

Remove and discard the tin foil. Take a sharp paring knife and slice each sweet potato open the long way. Using your fingers, push the sweet potato in from the ends so the cut section opens like a flower. Add 1/2 teaspoon of butter and a light dusting of cayenne (optional). Top with the shallot-mushroom sauté and serve.