Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

A cure for cooktongue

Pear Cream Cake 1

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.

Howes in the Hallway

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.)

Graham's Family Tree

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.

Pears for cream cake in pan

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.

Unsugared Pear Cream Cake

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.

Pear Cream Cake 2

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
Pinch salt
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.


Filed under Cakes, fruit, recipe

Many thanks

Bourbon Sweet Potato Crisp 1

Six years ago, Thanksgiving meant lying on a hotel room couch in Park City, Utah, wondering what was wrong. I couldn’t see how and why my body had morphed from strongstrongstrong to something I simply couldn’t recognize. Six years ago, I admitted to myself that I was sick. It took me months to admit the same thing to the people close to me.

Thanksgiving means a lot of things, in my heart: It means food, and family, and the eggnog we age in the garage for three weeks. It means balancing cooking and relaxing and drinking and eating – have to do them all in the right amounts, in the right order, you know. And increasingly, it means a small, soft moment or two, when I sit back and remember that there was a time when I didn’t have lupus, and didn’t wake up on the easy mornings – the ones with good, greasy joints – and feel thankful, just to be walking comfortably. Despite all the physical and emotional hubbub that surrounds an autoimmune disease, sometimes I feel almost a little lucky to have lupus. It’s made me much, much better at giving thanks.

This week, I’m mostly thankful for the people who make it easier to live with lupus: For Kelly, who carried my groceries – not because I can’t, but because some days, it’s easier if I don’t. For our nanny, who came on her day off and schlepped all the heavy, awkward stuff out of the car for me. For a guy like Joe, who carried my skis on Sunday without making me feel like a sissy. For my neighbor, who walked my dog last week without knowing she’d picked the day when it hurt just to hold the leash. For my doctors, who tell me that my recent flare (honestly, the worst it’s ever been) can probably be abated by stronger medications and a lot less breastfeeding. For my friends, who told me it was okay to be devastated, and encouraged me to embrace what amounts to a huge departure from how I planned to feed my child. For my husband, who never knew “in sickness and in health” (or our own equivalent) would be a phrase he’d have to visit so often. And for all the people who help and support me, every day, without making me feel in any way handicapped. (That is a very impressive thing, indeed.)

You’ll also be thankful for Sarah, who came over for a gabbing and pie crust-making session and ended up staying to peel the sweet potatoes for this little crisp. (The real one’s bigger, but I’m saving it for the holiday, so you just get a snapshot of the baby version.) It seemed like such a nothing thing to both of us, I’m sure, but I’d broken my most hand-friendly peeler, and getting the job done with the normal metal peeler was somehow overwhelming. She just sat down and got to work.

I meant to come here days ago, for advice on what became my Thanksgiving conundrum of the year. I’d hit upon the idea of a sweet potato crisp – something done before, surely, but nothing my own taste buds had run across – and couldn’t decide whether to serve it as part of the meal or as a dessert.

Then Thanksgiving came cartwheeling in, before I could get my game face on. (There are eight here already, with eight more coming soon.) That crisp? It’ll slide in right next to the turkey, I’ve decided, as a substitute for the gooey-topped version found on so many tables. We’ll pile it onto our plates, along with Erica’s biscuits and a cornbread stuffing I’ve yet to invent all the way.

And when the meal’s over, and my husband’s salty, well-worked hands dig into the pile of dishes, I know I’ll be thankful for the way my family’s worked together to put everything on the table. When the pies come out, I’ll find a spot on the floor, because goodness knows where the couch will be by then, and wonder if it’s possible to teach a child to be thankful, just to be alive.

Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving.

Bourbon Sweet Potato Crisp 3

Bourbon Sweet Potato Crisp (PDF)

The recipe below makes enough topping to cover the crisp if the sweet potatoes are snuggled into a 9” square baking pan. You can also put it in a taller dish (like a soufflé dish) and use less topping, decreasing the crunch-to-potato ratio, or spread the sweet potato mixture out in a 9” by 13” dish, so each bite has more topping.

TIME: 30 minutes, plus baking
MAKES: About 12 servings

For the potatoes:
5 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/2” cubes
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup bourbon, such as Maker’s Mark
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Salt (to taste)

For the crisp topping:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup old-fashioned oats
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch salt
3/4 stick unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

First, start the sweet potatoes: Place the potatoes in a large pot, and add cold water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook until very tender, about 20 minutes. Drain potatoes, return to the pot, and mash with the remaining potato ingredients. Puree in batches in a food processor until very smooth, and transfer to a 9” square (or similar) baking pan.

While the potatoes cook, mix the topping ingredients in a medium bowl until well blended. Scatter the topping over the potatoes and bake for about 30 minutes, until the topping has browned. Serve warm.

Note: Both the sweet potatoes and the crisp topping can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 3 days in advance. To serve, bake the sweet potatoes for 20 minutes, add the topping, and bake another 40 minutes.


Filed under lupus, recipe, side dish, vegetables

Bread not for Thanksgiving

Kabocha Cranberry bread 1

Thanksgiving, in my family, is like musical chairs. Every year part of the clan seems to migrate across the country, so choosing the most convenient place to gather is sort of a moot point. Sometime in the middle of each summer, someone announces they’ll be hosting in November. We all scramble to find seats on airplanes before things get too pricey. Invariably, someone can’t make it, but the excitement of bringing the same traditions to a new place each year makes up for the disappointment of one or two people not showing up every now and then.

In the last four years, we’ve been in San Francisco, New Orleans, Cape Cod, and Park City. This year, we’ll be in Boise, at my parents’ home. My mom has shifted into high cooking gear, baking the challah that will go into our stuffing, freezing pie crusts, shopping for the best cheese prices. . . and in Seattle, I’ve started in on accessories.

This year, my job is easy. I’m making a big lasagna for the night before, and bringing a couple quickbreads for the morning, plus the turkey stock left from. . . well, when, I’m not exactly sure. (But it’s homemade, and there’s no freezer burn involved, so it should work.)

A few weeks ago, I invested in another kabocha squash. It was one of those market moments I’d prefer to forget. I plunked a big orange orb down on the farmer’s scale. Seven dollars, please, he said. I sort of squeaked in protest, a high-pitched hee-haw that would have made any donkey mama proud. But I paid, because my sister was standing next to me and I wanted to set an example of spending good money on good food, grown by good people, and it was worth it.

The first half went into Pranee’s gaeng leang. I meant to make Matthew’s chicken-ified version of my stir-fried kabocha for dinner, but instead the squash just sat there for another week. Finally, when the insides threatened to dim their shade from a bright, fiery tangerine (dare I call it Firefox orange?) to something more like burnt sienna, I shoved it into the oven with bread on the brain.

kabocha for roasting

This kabocha, it thought outside the box. For some reason I couldn’t get it to sit upright; it was so top-heavy that it kept cartwheeling over onto its stem. Sure, I could have roasted it cut side-down (or up, for that matter), but it seemed happy hanging upside-down.

The point is, it doesn’t matter how you roast it. In fact, I roasted mine for the prescribed hour, heard the timer, and plum forgot to take it out of the oven. Fifteen minutes later, the smell of burning squash skin sent me screaming back into the kitchen. The squash was torched – skin and flesh, black as night. But I let it cool, and instead of throwing it away, decided to try to pick the burned part off. The entire exterior peeled off in two or three pieces, leaving me with just a bit over two cups of soft, sweet, squash, absent of any smokey or off flavor, for my quickbread. Perfect.

I mashed and stirred and melted and plopped, and half an hour later, slid two loaves of whole wheat kabocha-cranberry bread into the oven. Out came the ultimate Thanksgiving season bread: it was moist and tender but still robust enough for the toaster, bursting with tart cranberry flavor, buttery without being heavy, and not nearly as sweet (believe it or not) as your average pie-in-loaf-form pumpkin bread.

Only, my timing was off. See, we had people over for dinner that night, and though I’d finished making the bread well before they arrived, it sat on the counter cooling when they walked in. No human deserves to walk into a house that smells like pumpkin pie, eat salad and Thai food, and leave without anything pumpkiny – especially not one who’s just given birth. So off went half a loaf.

Then Jim left to stay with a colleague in Victoria, and it really didn’t make sense for him to arrive empty-handed, so another loaf accompanied him to SeaTac.

Which left me with half a loaf, which is now, obviously, gone. Which means that on Saturday, I need to buy another $7 squash. Dammit.

Kabocha Cranberry bread 3

Kabocha-Cranberry Bread (PDF)

Kabocha squash has a rich, yellowy flesh that mashes up soft and smooth (like canned pumpkin) when it’s cooked. To roast it, slice a kabocha roughly in half and remove the seeds. Roast on a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet (no need to oil it) at 400 degrees until the flesh is good and soft, about an hour. (Timing will depend on the size and age of the squash.) Let the squash cool, peel away the skin and any other tough pieces, and mash the squash like you would potatoes, until smooth.

If you can’t find kabocha squash, substitute a 15-ounce can of pumpkin. But if you’re using the real thing, don’t hesitate to roast the whole squash – you can always reheat the extra for dinner, served with a pat of butter and a drizzle of real maple syrup.

TIME: 30 minutes active time
MAKES: Two 8 1/2” x 4 1/2” loaves

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, plus more for pans
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons ground flaxseed meal (optional)
3 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
2 packed cups mashed kabocha squash (or one 15-ounce can pumpkin)
1 pint (2 heaping cups, or half a bag) fresh cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8 1/2” x 4 1/2” loaf pans, and set aside.

Melt the 2 sticks of butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and flaxseed meal in a mixing bowl, whisk to blend, and set aside.

In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the eggs and sugar on medium speed until quite light, about 2 minutes. Stir the buttermilk into the melted butter, then alternate adding the dry and wet ingredients to the sugar/egg mixture, mixing on low speed between each addition until the ingredients are incorporated. Add the squash, and mix until uniform in color. Stir in the cranberries.

Divide the batter evenly between the two loaf pans, and bake on the middle rack for one hour, or until the tops just begin to crack and a skewer inserted into the center of one loaf comes out clean. Let the bread cool for 10 minutes in pans, then transfer to racks to cool. Enjoy warm, or let cool to room temperature and wrap in foil to keep moist.

Kabocha Cranberry bread 4


Filed under bread, Breakfast, dessert, recipe