I love Thanksgiving, when it’s in the kitchen, because it condenses all the ups and downs of cooking into just a few short hours. There’s the thrill of a big, brown bird, so heavy it takes two to baste. The disappointment of bland pureed meat from a too-boring pumpkin. The challenge of making whipped cream biscuits early in the morning with two crying babies, even when there are four hands. The carrots that sagged when I orphaned them on the stove for just a minute too long.
Gosh, that’s looking an awful lot like a meal I didn’t love.
I did, though. I loved it. It just took me three days.
Maybe I had a case of cooktongue. You know, cooktongue: the inevitable disease one acquires when cooking for too many people for too long. Serious side effects include food tasting terrible no matter the seasoning, boredom with dishes that usually excite, and difficulty chewing.
Our guests said dinner was good, but I thought they were just being nice. On Thursday, the only flavor I got was sawdust, ground to different consistencies and scattered around my plate. Before the pies came out, we wrapped a pretty platter of food up for E, who didn’t arrive until Friday. I was a bit wistful, shuffling it into the depths of the fridge, half hoping it would be forgotten. I hadn’t noticed the layers three different types of sausage created in the cornbread stuffing, or the hard cider in my sister’s first gravy, or the way a real, good ham coats the mouth with velvet.
What I did taste, while my cousin and my sister and I buzzed about on Thanksgiving day, was my family. I felt a laugh roll down my tongue and out into the air when I realized, after accusing them of gathering in the kitchen like a pack of rabid dogs, that a few of my female relatives had moved their semi-private conversation to the landing immediately outside the bathroom. (This is my family.)
I tasted Hong Kong, when my uncle described his meals at home there, and the sweet-and-sour fried eggplant he had at a guest house outside Beijing. I tasted the sweet potatoes, before feeding them to Graham, bourbon and all. I tasted the cold, wet air, as my cousin and I darted out the door for a massage, laughing, both of us having just found our children spots on the family baby-go-round. I tasted something between joy and happiness, peppered with satisfaction, each time a someone put a new handprint on Graham’s family tree. (Next, we’ll ask friends to add handprints in a different color.) And I tasted a little regret, for having committed to hosting Thanksgiving last year, when I didn’t know how I’d be feeling this year.
But for the most part, no, I did not taste the food in front of me.
Then Sunday afternoon, I woke up from a good, long nap, completely healed. E never got to her Thanksgiving plate, and when dinner rolled around, I put the entire thing in our new microwave. (We had a microwave before, but it lived, usually unplugged, in the basement. It’s a miracle, this thing, and much more useful living within arm’s reach of the refrigerator. Welcome to 1967, Jess.)
The kitchen itself is not anywhere close to healed, however. This morning, a glance up at the pot rack revealed my blue saucepan – the one we used to make a base for Friday’s turkey pot pie – clean inside but still dripping with gravy outside. There are little piles of flour in every countertop corner. Stray sprigs of thyme keep sticking to my socks. And inside the refrigerator – a fridge, I might add, that now has a broken drawer, a door handle that continually pops off, and a complaining freezer compressor – all balance has been erased.
It’s not that we have so much food left over – a roasting pan-sized pot pie does miracles for leftovers. (I insist you try it with bacon and Brussels sprouts next time. Really.)
It’s the dairy. It’s disturbing our refrigerator’s chi. At last count, I saw two quarts of heavy cream, one quart of half and half, one pint of half and half, a half gallon of eggnog, 2% milk, whole milk, whipped cream, and two half-used big containers of sour cream. That’s a lot of halves. In the produce department, we have half a head of kale, half a bag of cranberries, and a few onions. That’s it.
I have nothing against cream. (Clearly. If you’ve been here before, you know that.) I’m just afraid of wasting it.
So yesterday, at the risk of reinstating what my friend Kathy calls the Thanksgiving butter coma, I decided to make a cream cake.
I’d also filled a big bowl with crisp, fat red pears for the week. They’re just now finger-dentable. I thought of making pear clafoutis, but wanted something sliceable – something creamy and eggy, but not so dangerously (read: endlessly) spoonable. Something for snacking, but not a cake with bonafide crumb.
I cut the pears thin (no peeling required) and pinwheeled them into a springform pan. (Don’t panic. It turns out the pinwheel doesn’t matter, because the batter covers the pears almost entirely.) I whirled room temperature eggs and sugar together, spiked them with cream, and folded in just a bit of flour, for stability. As the cake baked it puffed – slowly at first, but eventually cracking in the center. It cooled quietly into a rich, custardy disc. Then it stood up and asked me to make another pot of coffee, STAT.
Standing alone in my kitchen, forking bites in between sips, it tasted like an overgrown pear-studded crepe, caught halfway between breakfast and dessert, three-quarters of the way from cake to clafoutis.
Thank you, family, for coming. But thank you for going, too. I do believe this cooktongue thing has cleared up.
Red Pear Cream Cake (PDF)
Caught between cake and clafoutis, this rich, custardy dessert is actually best for breakfast. Use pears that are just ripe enough to dent with your fingers near the top.
TIME: 20 minutes prep time
MAKES: 8 servings (or 2, if you’re me)
Butter, for greasing pan
2 large red pears (about 1 1/2 pounds), cored and sliced 1/4” thick (no need to peel)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Confectioners’ sugar (for dusting), optional
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Use the butter to generously grease a 9” springform pan. Place the pan on a baking sheet, and arrange the pears on the bottom of the pan, overlaying them or stacking them so they’re in a roughly even layer.
Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl and set aside.
In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs until blended on medium speed. Add the sugar in a slow, steady stream and mix until light, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the cream and vanilla, and mix again for 30 seconds or so. Sprinkle the dry ingredients on top, and mix by hand until just blended – the batter will be thinner than regular cake batter, and may have a few small lumps in it still.
Pour the batter over the pears, poking any stray fruit under the surface if it pops out. Bake 40 to 50 minutes on the middle rack, until set and puffed in the center and golden brown on top. (If the cake seems to be browning too quickly, place a baking sheet on a rack immediately above the cake for the remainder of the baking time.)
Let cool 10 minutes in the pan. Run a small knife around the edge of the cake, remove the outside ring of the springform pan, and let cool another 15 minutes or so before cutting and serving, dusted with confectioners’ sugar, if desired.