Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year, although you probably wouldn’t know it if you were around me the weeks and hours leading up to it. It admittedly stresses me out. It’s all self-inflicted, though, so don’t feel too sorry for me. I know you weren’t anyway.
Frank and I probably cook the same 6-10 meals every month over and over again, and he does a lot of that cooking. I like to cook, but with work and kids and all the stuff that has to be accomplished between 5:45 p.m. and 9 p.m., whipping up a gourmet meal is not high on the priority list. If I do something special it is saved for the weekend, and even then it probably isn’t too snazzy.
But come Thanksgiving and Christmas, I start to believe I am the bastard child of John Besh and the Barefoot Contessa. Forgive me for putting the mental image of my “creation” in your head, as I am aware it is not really that pleasant. And don’t worry, Jeffrey and Mrs. Besh are totally OK with them getting it on for these purposes.
Frank would prefer if I were no culinary power couple’s fake bastard child, but just Giada. But I don’t think that has anything to do with Ms. De Laurentiis’ cooking. Hmph! (I hear she’s back on the market, honey, but I’ll cut you with one of her overpriced knives — available at Target — if you get any ideas.)
Sorry this is starting to get a bit creepy and weird.
Anyway, weeks out, I start searching and clipping for my Thanksgiving recipes, which always end up being super complicated and ones that should absolutely require practice or a trial run before offering to bring it to the big family gathering without knowing if I could actually pull it off. And needless to say, that trial run never occurs.
One year I decided I was going to make my great grandmother’s coconut cake, which was always described as being quite challenging in the family lore. And boy was it. There were tears and more tears as I tried to finish it and make it perfect, as my mother-in-law started calling to see if we had left yet — you know, as all mothers on the planet do on holidays. It’s in the mom manual.
This culinary challenge was early on in my marriage to Frank and I really didn’t know his family all that well. Let’s just say I found out as a family they aren’t the biggest fans of coconut confections, but bless their hearts, at least they tried to get a few bites down. Lesson learned: know your audience. #FAIL
Another year I attempted to make my grandmother’s caramel cake for Frank’s family gathering. There are so few ingredients in the icing — sugar, butter, milk, salt — it sounds so easy, but let me tell you, getting the right consistency on this stuff and not burning it requires a Ph.D. in molecular chemistry. Help me, Alton Brown!
But I did know that going in. In fact, the absolute favorite caramel cake my grandmother ever made, she accidentally burnt the icing just a touch. It ended up making a hard candy shell around the cake, but it was great. My uncle and I just kept going by and breaking pieces of the icing off, leaving the cake behind looking naked, sad and embarrassed. Grams was not pleased.
Anyway, I screwed up the first batch of her icing completely. The second I thought was salvageable, but as I started to spread it on the cakes it turned into cement (or is it concrete? Actually I think it’s concrete. Cement is the equivalent to flour, concrete is the mixture. My husband used to peddle this stuff in a former life and interchanging those two words incorrectly is a pet peeve of his. I hope that scrawny little Giada knows the difference!).
Anyway, the concrete caramel icing was so thick and hard, it actually bonded to the cakes like super glue and when I tried to spread it more, it just tore them apart. I had to start from scratch and we were already late.
Each time the phone rang, I said, while crying and acting like a crazy person, “Just tell them to start without us! We will be there when we get there.” I ended up using an “easy icing” version where you just dump confectioner’s sugar in at the end. We arrived before we were cut out of the will (I think), but the cake just wasn’t what I had envisioned in my romantic dreams of our family Thanksgiving dinner.
I felt like a cheat and a failure. Grams was certainly shaking her head in Heaven and my imaginary culinary parents would have disowned me if I weren’t already their discarded love child. (Help me, Papa John — you know the one I’m talking about, not the monobrowed pizza peddler.)
I really don’t know why I torture myself and my mother-in-law’s phone-dialing finger like this every year. It’s just that my mom and grandmother always put a lot of time, thought and effort into holiday meals and carrying on that tradition makes me feel closer to them, especially now that they are gone. I love using my mother’s handwritten recipes, where she always calls butter oleo and literally had listed in the ingredients of the aforementioned caramel icing recipe: “a few grains of salt.” Really Mom, what’s the point?
This year, I am taking it easy though, I swear. I’m just making one of my mom’s easy Clarke County casserole classics, which of course involves two of the three of the county’s holy trinity, sour cream and mayonnaise. (The third is cream cheese, in case you were wondering.) Ritz crackers and shredded cheddar are also involved. (Don’t you judge me and my real momma, Ina!)
I am also going to do something sweet. I have two recipes printed out so far. The first is from the New York Times’ cooking website and involves a double boiler and says it tastes so good it could be served at “Payard,” which I am sure is some pretentious bakery in New York. (I’m sure Ina thinks her confections are better than theirs. Trust me, you just can’t make her happy.)
The other has “easy” in the title and calls for a box of Betty Crocker’s super moist deluxe devil’s food cake mix.
I’m probably going with the latter. Probably.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Here’s hoping your Thanksgiving is perfect, even if the food is not.