Thanksgiving in America: Indian Pudding

No discussion of Thanksgiving is complete without a nod to dessert. For me, the challenge is this: I have a family of pie-lovers, and I’m not one of them.

Luckily, we have a big extended-family meal with aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews and dogs (and let’s not talk about the fact that this is the first year when the next generation completely outnumbers the “grownups”, and the kids’ table was the hottest ticket in the house), and there is always pie.

None for me, thanks.  I celebrate Thanksgiving dessert by making one of my favorite fall dishes: Indian Pudding. Indian Pudding is another classic New England dish, this one made with cornmeal and molasses cooked into a custard. The fall flavors of cinnamon and ginger bring it together in a not-too-sweet dessert perfect for us non-pie people. I like to add a little cinnamon whipped cream just before serving.

The history of Indian Pudding and the recipe I use come straight from Yankee Magazine. It’s almost, alllllmost as good as the Indian Pudding at the Blue Benn diner in Bennington, Vermont. But they’re not much for sharing their recipes. Until I can talk them out of it, it’s the Yankee version for me. And while cornmeal and molasses are available year-round, there’s something about the homely appearance, rustic texture, and warm spices of Indian Pudding that beg to be served at Thanksgiving. (Though I might, under duress, confess to making it in the spring every once in a while.)

Cinnamon Whipped Cream

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup sugar (more or less–I like it on the sweet side)

1 tsp ground cinnamon

Whisk together until the cream thickens. I like it at the medium-peak stage for this, but like the sugar there’s not a right answer, only the one that you like best. Just be careful not to churn it into butter.

What I learned from this experience is that I’m a fan of the classic New England/Midwestern Thanksgiving fare. Which is pretty funny since my favorite foods are all firmly Tex-Mex and Southwestern. Tradition, it seems, counts for an awful lot this time of year.

Next week we’re back to our exploration of the 50 states, picking up where we left off: Massachusetts. My boys are looking forward to the clam chowder.

~Brooke

Thanksgiving in America: Sidelined

In my continuing quest to own my heresies, I confess: I don’t like turkey all that much.

There, I said it. I don’t love the turkey. But I do love the rest of Thanksgiving. You know: the family, the football, the wine. I once wrote an essay about being the anointed gravy-maker for the family, and how my best gravy is always the result of too much wine. Takes the pressure off, I suspect, and a relaxed gravy maker is a competent gravy maker. But when it comes to the meal itself, I adore the side dishes. I’ve already waxed poetic about my love for stuffing, so today let’s talk squash and corn.

What is it about the Thanksgiving table that requires both of these? Historically, they make sense. Acorn squash is what we consider a winter squash, meaning that although it grows alongside the summer squashes such as zucchini and the yellow kind, it is typically left to ripen until it develops a hard outer skin and full-sized seeds. It stores well, too, making it ideal for late fall meals. In other words, it’s a keeper. It grows easily and is documented as one of the foods that the Patuxet introduced to the Pilgrims. Corn, or Maize, similarly, was used extensively by the Iroquois, both as a food crop and (the husks) in buildings and other applications. In short, squash and corn are foods that would have been available at the earliest Thanksgivings, and as such they maintain a beloved place at the traditional celebration table.

How they’re served, on the other hand, has changed a little. Today’s recipes include a stuffed acorn squash that remains mostly true to its New England roots. It’s filled with apples, cranberries, and pecans (because we know I love the pecans), roasted with a bit of apple cider and finished with just a touch of elderberry balsamic vinegar. It sings of fall, and is substantial enough to serve as a main course if you’re having vegetarians for dinner–especially if you add some wild rice or mushrooms before baking.

The second recipe is for a Southwest-inspired chorizo-infused corn pudding. Admittedly, I had some chorizo left over from the stuffing–and if you work in a soup kitchen you learn quickly not to waste anything–just begging for inclusion. It pairs beautifully with the sweetness of the corn, and the corn flavor is enhanced by the smoky spiciness of the sausage. It’s like they were meant to be together.

Thanksgiving in America: We’re Stuffed

What happens when you make 4 kinds of Thanksgiving dressing at one time? A mess of epic proportions.

Correction. A tasty mess of epic proportions.

As promised, I made 4 different regional variations of my favorite Thanksgiving food: stuffing. Well, technically dressing, since I didn’t stuff it into anything, but served it alongside a roasted chicken. But you know what I mean. Four different kinds.

If you google “stuffing” the results are as many and varied as there are cooks, so for this project I had two basic rules: 1) it had to be a bread-based (rather than wild rice) dressing, and 2) despite the same core ingredients, each had to be substantially different from the others. In the end, I made two cornbread and two basic white bread versions. For the cornbread, I used this recipe from the NYT’s Melissa Clark. It is a damn fine cornbread all on its own, which is saying a lot given that, as a native Texan, I’m pretty picky about my cornbread. It’s sweeter than the typical southwest version so that makes me a bit of a heretic–a label I’m willing to own if it means I get to have it again. For the white bread stuffings, I used a sturdy Italian loaf from my local grocery store.

Note: The bread for stuffing needs to be a little on the stale side. Neither of mine were, so I cubed them, put them in the oven at 250º for 30 minutes then turned it off and let them sit in there overnight. The cornbread took a little longer, so be patient with the process if you’re drying your own (and it isn’t already stale).

After a lot of research (read: squinting at the screen, muttering “who the heck puts THAT in dressing”, and throwing darts at a map while blindfolded), I opted to do the following: A classic Midwestern dressing with celery, onions, and giblets (what are giblets, you ask? They’re the bits that come in the bag shoved into the cavity of your bird–heart, liver, other unmentionables); New England style with apples, cranberries and sage; Southern cornbread with oysters, and Southwestern with chorizo, peppers, and corn.

Note: I linked the recipes rather than make the world’s longest dressing post. That seemed a little excessive, even by Thanksgiving standards.

The crowd reaction was mixed.

Our hands-down favorite was the classic Midwestern. I suspect we liked it most simply because it is the classic version that the hubs and I grew up with and that the 12 year old has always had. It had the traditional (read:expected) blend of sage, rosemary, thyme and poultry flavor (thanks to those unmentionables) that tastes like tradition. It’s hard to go wrong with this one.

The New England, with the cranberries and apples, was a little sweet for our tastes. I suspect using it as an actual stuffing would give it some essential turkeyness and much-needed dimension. It’s worth a try if you’re just not into the traditional stuff but don’t want to get all crazy with the oysters or chorizo.

The Southwest was interesting. We agreed we liked it very much, just not for Thanksgiving. It reminded me, in a strangely Proustian fashion, of the tamale pie from Jane Brody’s Good Food Book–one of the first recipes I managed to make successfully about 20 years ago, and haven’t made in about 18 years. Unfortunately, instead of tasting like holiday dinner, it left me wanting to make tamale pie.

And finally, the Southern.  No.  Just, no. That said, it’s probably pretty damn good if you like canned oysters. If I hadn’t been so lazy and actually shucked some oysters for it, I suspect I’d have a different reaction. So here’s my warning: if you make oyster dressing, use the fresh ones.

Clockwise from top left: Southwest, Midwest, New England, South

Clockwise from top left: Southwest, Midwest, New England, South

A quick comment about the directions. Making stuffing is easy–just toss the ingredients together in a bowl with some stock, then stuff the turkey. If you’ve never stuffed a turkey, trust me when I say that it sounds more horrifying than it actually is.  Just make sure you get the stuffing into both the main and the neck cavities, and watch the temperature. The stuffing will take longer than the actual meat of the bird.

Next, we’re doing side-dishes. My favorite is green beans with pecans because, well, pecans. But I also have some beautiful acorn squash on the counter just begging to be baked with some apples and cranberries and a couple of other things that are worth considering for this year’s table.

See you soon

~Brooke

Thankgsiving in America: Clementine-Cranberry Quickbread

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It’s also, from a food perspective, one of the most polarizing.

Traditions are handed down through our families, from old recipes scribbled on the backs of index cards and by the oral histories of clever cooks and bakers. They are unique, celebratory, have mandatory components (Aunt Edna’s green bean casserole, anyone?) and often quite regional. For me, honoring Thanksgiving traditions is one of the most confusing things about growing up all over the place. Every year, it’s the same internal debate—do I use cornbread for my stuffing? Add oysters? Mushrooms? Chorizo? Maybe just make it easy on myself and use that bag of pre-seasoned breadcubes? Heck, first we have to decide whether it’s dressing or stuffing! My mother always called it dressing; I usually go with stuffing. Either way, it’s my favorite thing on the table.

I think it’s safe to say that there are no right answers. Not in my kitchen, at least. So for the next week, we’re going to look at a few regional variations on Thanksgiving dinner. We’ll start with the stuffing—as I type this, the bread is drying, the walnuts are toasting, and I’m still not sure about that cilantro thing they do in the southwest but we’ll see how it goes.

All that drying and toasting takes  a minute, and I’m ready to cook.  Right. Now. So let’s talk clementines.

One of the best parts of early November here in the northeast is the arrival of the clementines. They’re the first of the new citrus crop, and we pounce on them like the taste of nirvana that they are. They’re a little tart, a lot sweet, and great for the first round of seasonal baking. So to get us started, here’s a recipe for clementine-cranberry quickbread that tastes like sunshine (absent from my part of the world right now) and holidays all at once. The 12 year old demolished half of it before I could get a good picture.

Oh for Boxes Everywhere!

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Thanks for being patient! I’ll be back next week with a little bit about Thanksgiving foods and traditions in America.  Did you know that southerners demand macaroni and cheese? Or that New Englanders like oysters in their stuffing? True stories. We’ll talk about this and more.

See you soon!

Brooke