Thursday, 24 November 2011

Cooking the (Cultural History) Books - Thanksgiving

I exist due to the joint wonders of globalisation and grammar schools. Thanks to them, my father made his way from Leicester to Haverford, Pennsylvania and met my mother, who had just begun to despair of ever making her Mormon relatives stop asking her WHEN SHE WAS GOING TO FIND A NICE HUSBAND. I am, therefore, the unlikely product of the Midlands and the Midwest, the owner of two passports (useful) but someone whom neither the CIA nor MI5 will ever trust enough to hire (disappointing).

The unachievable ideal
I generally consider myself very culturally blessed. I am the inheritor of Doctor Who and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Dr. Seuss and queueing - and, most importantly, I get to celebrate all the great American festivals, which, because Americans LOVE ritual, happen roughly once every two weeks. Thanksgiving, though, is a particular favourite of mine. It's all the eating of Christmas with none of the gift stress, and it goes on for just long enough for you to end up feeling fond of your family rather than sour about them.

This year is my first Thanksgiving cooking solo, a momentous occasion in the life of any American. Granted, the part of my turkey is going to be played by a chicken (we will make it a turkey with the power of belief) and the sweet potatoes are going to be roasted rather than covered with marshmallows (because I am English enough to realise that some American traditions are disgusting), but the stuffing, at least, comes with true American pedigree. It is not, indeed, just any stuffing recipe, because I have been entrusted with Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey. This marvellous and venerable piece of family tradition calls for, among other things, 15 cents of sausage meat. Fifteen cents of sausage meat! It's like a little piece of economic history in my hands.

Cooking from a handed-down recipe is like cooking with your ancestors right there in the kitchen with you, poking the electric scales and making disparaging comments about the price of butter these days. The fact of a family recipe is often much more important than what it actually tastes like - we have one recipe, the gloriously over-titled 'Phyllis's Mom's Icebox Rolls', which is brought out every Christmas morning and makes five trays of rock-hard, over-sugared death buns that then sit in the freezer for the next five months. And yet there's something about the teeth-chipping head-rush they bring that's part of what makes Christmas in the Bird household so special. Or 'special'. Take your pick.

And so, in honour of Thanksgiving, I give you Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey, with added translations by my mother.
Grandma's Stuffing for Turkey
1 1/2 loaves of stale bread crumbs (ca. 1 lb)
The onion and celery being softened up
large onion fried in butter
Celery.  Use about the same amount as the onion and chop them up.  Fry them with the onions.
3 eggs
ca 1 Tbsp thyme
2 tsp sage
1 tsp parsley
15 cents worth of pork sausage (!)  I think this is about 1 pound.
(she says onion salt and celery salt, but I don't use these)
2 level tsp salt

Mix everything together except the eggs.  Pour boiling water over the mixture until it's moist.

When you're ready to cook the turkey, beat the eggs and add 2 level tsp baking powder.  Mix into the stuffing mixture and cook right away.

Too much sausage?
Crumbly bread
I particularly like the way the presence of baking powder is buried in the instructions, like some sort of condiment ninja. The mysterious 15 cents of sausage appears to equate to about eight to ten big sausages (and I suspect this may have been too many, it looked suspiciously meaty). Also, when you crumble up the bread you can use the crusts, though leave out the bits that have gone like masonry. But apart from that, I mixed it up, I stuffed it up the chicken and I cooked that chicken for two hours. And then I cooked the stuffing a bit more outside the chicken to make sure I didn't kill my guests. Done.

And talking about what it says on tins, my family's other great Thanksgiving classic, our pumpkin pie recipe, deserves a mention here too. English friends I feed it to often ask for the recipe, imagining, I think, something involving pre-dawn pumpkin gathering rituals and long hours boiling the gourds down to pulp afterwards.

Er. Not exactly.

What you do is:
1) source one tin of Libby's Pumpkin Pie Mix.
2) Follow the instructions on the back of it.
3) Pie.

The pastry and the pumpkin tin
You can, of course, fancy things up by making your own pastry - this time I used Dan Lepard's sweet pastry recipe. It turned out well, but one thing I will say is: do not be afraid if your pastry looks like goop before it goes in the fridge to chill. Have faith and it will come out perfectly pastry-like and firm.

Ready to blind-bake
Blind-bake said pastry at about 180 C for 10-15 minutes, until the bottom of the pie base is firm (pro tip: don't use red lentils like I did, they're too light and it won't have the proper effect), and then whack the filling ingredients into the bowl as follows (I'm copying from my trustly Libby's tin - obviously if you don't have Libby's and you do have time you can substitute your own handmade pumpkin paste - find a recipe for it anywhere on the interwebs):

Cheat's Pumpkin Pie

Filling goo in all its glory
2 eggs, lightly beaten
425 g Libby's pumpkin filling
6 oz sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 pint (284 ml) Carnation evaporated milk - this is about 2/3 of the tin you get in supermarkets.
Put it in your pastry case, put that in the oven at 170 C and cook for 40-50 minutes. Leave to cool and then serve with whipped cream. And then have a heart attack.
The finished pie.

So, happy Thanksgiving, Americans and those who love them! If you haven't eaten your body weight by the time the day's over then you haven't really been trying.

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