Monday, November 7, 2011

Thanksgiving Entertaining: Making A Healthy & Cherished Tradition

In the second of our Holiday Entertaining Series Collaborative posts between Rosanna’s Table & Family Eats, we look at the Tradition of Thanksgiving. Be sure to gather Thanksgiving ideas from Family Eats article, Planning for Success: Making the Thanksgiving Meal A Happy Tradition.

Every agrarian (or formerly agrarian) culture has some version of the celebration of the harvest, an important seasonal marker throughout the world.  American Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate the beginnings of the nation, but it’s also a time to be thankful for the bounty nature brings forth for our sustenance and enjoyment, to pay homage to the gradual passage from fall to winter.  It is also, perhaps most importantly, a time to share, to open our hearts, to be generous as well as thankful for the generosity of others.

For most Americans, Thanksgiving dinner is a tradition that lingers easily in the mind throughout the rest of the year.  Below are a few tips to help you make you meal memorable and delicious.

Treat The Turkey
Choose an organic local bird, preferably free-range.  The flavor will be more interesting than the usual frozen grocery-store varieties.  Make a paste of fresh herbs, olive oil, and garlic and rub it under the turkey’s skin the day before Thanksgiving, allowing it to marinate overnight in the refrigerator; this will make the meat succulent and juicy.

Select Your Sides
Take your cue from the delicious variety of fall vegetables available in your local market and roast them in the oven as the turkey cooks; with extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, and fresh rosemary and sage. 

No Thanksgiving meal is complete without the old favorite of mashed potatoes and homemade gravy.  But consider adding in something new.  Cook local squash instead of sweet potatoes, if you’d like a change of pace.  (See my recipe below).  Or add a dish to your Thanksgiving table that is distinctly yours; it could even be a food from another culture. Family Eats has some wonderful recipes for other side dishes that you’ll want to check out.

Keep It Fresh  
At Thanksgiving especially, I strive to make sure everything on the table is homemade and make a point of using only natural ingredients. No margarine, no cranberry sauce in a can, and no instant gravy. This meal is as much about the time, effort, and love it takes to prepare as it is about the actual eating of it.

Growing up, I remember my grandmother made every single Thanksgiving dish from scratch. If you don’t know where to start with from-scratch cooking, you don’t have to look much farther than two generations back. Refer to old family recipes from your grandparents’ generation, before ready-made, instant food became widely available. During that era, there was nothing but homemade.

A Thanksgiving made with fresh ingredients from nature instead of from a can make for a meal that has something special. The extra effort and mindful attention to detail set this dinner apart from the everyday meals. The long hours in the kitchen are something to take pride in and to cherish. Cooking, after all, is one of the most basic and intuitive expressions of love.

Invite Your Guests
Bringing together family is an important part of Thanksgiving.  Being around loved-ones is heart-warming and comforting.  Consider inviting someone to share your Thanksgiving who is alone and far from family.  Sharing the bounty of the season is the spirit in which the first Thanksgiving originated.

Set The Table
Decorate the table with something that comes from nature.  I like to use grapes and vines from our grape arbor.  The gorgeous green leaves that have changed colors are beautiful accents for a fall table.  I like to personalize the table with homemade place cards fashioned from heavy paper.  It not only adds warmth and texture to the table arrangement, but also make each guest feel important.  If you have a set of dishes you use as part of your family traditions, make sure to include them.  If you haven’t started a tradition, now is the time.  A few years back I created the Floriography Collection as a set I wanted to adorn my own Thanksgiving table, and it has become part of our family tradition.   

Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the holiday.  It’s very easy to get sidetracked and focused on what needs to be finished than the people you get to spend time with.  Let some of your focus be on connecting with others.  After all, these are the moments you will want to remember.

Rosanna’s Thanksgiving Squash
One of my favorite dishes from childhood was my mother’s roasted acorn squash.  The preparation was simple, but the flavors were complex and delicious.  The squash’s bare hint of sweetness and spice makes it a sophisticated but crowd-pleasing substitute for the traditional yams.

4 acorn squashes, halved, seeds removed
8 teaspoons unsalted butter
8 tablespoons brown sugar
Ground cinnamon

Preheat the over to 350 degrees.

Arrange the squash halves cut side up on baking sheets.  In each squash half place 1 teaspoon of the butter, 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar, and a dash of cinnamon.  Bake for about 1 hour, until the flesh of the squash is soft when pierced with a fork and the sides look slightly caved in.  Let the squash rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Caramel Cake

By Rosanna's eldest daughter, Alessandra Wollner

For my 13th birthday, my mother made an extraordinary cake. I can’t recall why she decided to make this particular cake for that particular birthday, but after she did, there was no going back. Since the advent of my thirteenth birthday, I’ve had a decade to explore the vast realm of birthday cake prospects. Despite the staggering array of options, I’ve stayed faithful to one cake. Without fail, I have demanded and enjoyed the same extraordinary cake on every birthday since my 13th.

What makes this cake special is the pitch perfect way in which the flavors harmonize with each other. The salty, sweet, buttery notes of the caramel frosting melt into the slightly savory, nutty essence of the cake crumb. My mother has awarded this cake with the highest accolade she bestows on food, calling it “Ambrosia of the Gods.” My great grandmother just called it Caramel Cake.

The cake itself is dense from the addition of ground walnuts. It tastes like fall; never mind that my birthday comes at the end of May. The frosting is what my friend Emilie calls “not allowed.” What she means to say is that this frosting is the most delicious and decadent frosting she has ever tasted. When people ask me what the frosting is made of, I tell them broccoli and flax seed. I tell them it’s definitely not made with butter, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, and heavy cream.

The recipe for Caramel Cake came from my great grandmother, Grandma Edwards. She died soon after my mother made Caramel Cake for the first time, and I never did ask Grandma Edwards where she got the recipe. All I know is that she grew up in Kansas, though her family had immigrated to Virginia a few generations before. We think the cake must have its origins in the South. When my mother went on a trip to Charlotte, NC, last summer she excitedly called me to report Caramel Cake sightings on restaurant menus and in bakery windows the city over.

Obviously, I’m not the only admirer Caramel Cake has seduced into its thrall. After my mother made it that first birthday, Grandma Edward’s Caramel Cake became legend among my friends. Throughout the year, my mother would be repeatedly begged to make the cake, though there was no birthday to celebrate. My friends never did get my mother to make the cake just for kicks. But, since moving away from home, whenever an important birthday arrives, I seize the opportunity to treat my friends to Grandma Edward’s Caramel Cake.

Each time I make the cake, I consult my mother’s book Coming Home for the recipe. Whenever I do this, I feel proud.

I feel proud because eating Caramel Cake creates what I call a Transcendent Food Moment. This is a cake so delicious that, after the first bite, it forces you stop talking. The deep and pervasive satisfaction that arises from eating Caramel Cake mirrors the deep satisfaction and pleasure I take from my relationship with the birthday celebrant, making Caramel Cake an ideal birthday gift.

I feel proud to make Caramel Cake because when I make it I know I’m following a recipe with a long and storied history. I am keeping alive a recipe alive that has, over the course of four generations, migrated from the American South to the Pacific Northwest, across the country to New England, and made its way back again to its current residence in Northern California. I carry Caramel Cake with me, and by doing so I carry on my family’s heritage as well.

When I make my great grandmother’s Caramel Cake, I proudly share a treasured family tradition. I’m proud because I know that to do so makes mother very, very happy.

Recipe for Caramel Cake
For the yellow cake layers
2 2/3 cups cake flour, plus more for pans
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup finely ground walnuts
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sifted sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup milk

For the brown-sugar frosting
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream, plus more if necessary
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners' sugar

Make the cake layers: Preheat the over to 350 degrees.  Butter 2 (8-inch) round cake pans and dust them with flour.  Grind 2 cups of walnuts in a food processor, or chop as finely as possible.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and ground walnuts together into a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft.  Continuing to beat, add the sugar slowly, then beat until the mixture is very light and fluffy.  Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition, then stir in the vanilla.  Add the flour mixture and stir to combine, then stir in the milk.

In a separate bowl, using a whisk or clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold them into the batter.  Divide between the prepared pans and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center come out clean.  Let cool in the pans on wire racks for 5 minutes, then invert the pans and remove the cakes.  Let cool completely.

Make the brown-sugar frosting: Combine the brown sugar, 1/2 cup cream, the butter, and the salt in a large saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture just comes to a boil.  Remove from the heat, transfer to a mixing bowl, and add the vanilla and confectioner's sugar.  Using an electric mixer, beat on high speed until smooth and creamy.  If the frosting is too dry, add a bit more cream.  It should be thick and easy to spread.

Assemble the cake: Put one cake layer on a cake stand and frost the top.  Add the second layer and frost the top and sides.  Serves 6 to 8.

For more delicious recipes like this one, check out my mother's book, Coming Home: A Seasonal Guide to Creating Family Traditions, where she has over 50 recipes divided by the four seasons, but perfect all year-round.