The Oscar for a starring role will go, of course, to the plump, juicy, golden brown turkey, sitting center stage on the Thanksgiving table.
Hours will be spent getting it ready for its grand entrance, and there’s no question the big, beautiful bird will take the prize.
But equally as prestigious is the award given for “Best Supporting Role,” and when it comes to Thanksgiving, the parade of side dishes is ultimately more interesting than the star.
Don’t misunderstand; I love roast turkey and am already looking forward to its performance, in about a week, but it’s the other actors in the drama of Thanksgiving that are currently the focus of attention.
One thing is certain, two contenders for the “Award Winning Side Dish” will be missing from our stage. One is the sweet-potato/gag-making mini-marshmallows dish, and the other is the green been/mushroom soup/canned onion rings casserole. Both are banned after years of second rate performances.
Not that sweet potatoes won’t be in the running; they will be, but in some other role. Green beans, however, are my least favorite vegetable, and since I’m the casting director this year, they will be replaced by some other lively green understudy, higher up on my list of possible participants. Mashed potatoes, giblet gravy, dressing, salad, cranberries, wine and dessert will all make their appearances, as they do every year, but it’s what they’ll be wearing and what role they’ll play this year that has everyone guessing right now.
Will Waldorf Salad arrive as usual, classy but too familiar and aging a bit, or will she be pushed aside by a young newcomer gathering a lot of attention — Baby Spinach With Apples, Cranberries and Dates? Pumpkin Pie will most certainly show up, wrapped no doubt in her ermine cape of whipped cream, but there’s a rumor that another contender for best dessert, a newcomer named Chocolate Espresso Pecan Pie, may also put in an appearance, and possibly even steal the show.
I’ve been told by a friend who will be in attendance, also to expect a mystery guest, and if past experiences with this friend are any indication, the guest will be a star, making final voting on “Best Side Dish” more interesting and more difficult.
I’ve seen Thanksgiving performed many, many times now, but it is never the same and never, ever without a surprise or two. When the curtain comes down and the stage is dark Thanksgiving night, we’ll know who took the award for “Best Supporting Side Dish.” I’ll keep you informed.
Everyone who reads this column regularly knows that cheesecake would almost always be my personal dessert of choice, and on Thanksgiving I always make a Pumpkin Cheesecake, except for the years when I decide instead to make Flaming Pumpkin Flan.
But two or three years ago, I was introduced to that upstart pecan pie I mentioned in the column, and it’s hard to resist the starlet temptation of this sensual delight. Don’t even mention the word calories, please. It’s Thanksgiving, after all. (Don’t let the length of the recipe daunt you; it’s really not that hard, and you can make it a day ahead.)
CHOCOLATE ESPRESSO PECAN PIE
For the Crust: 11/3 cups unbleached flour, plus a bit more for rolling out the crust
1 t. sugar
¼ t. kosher salt, plus another 1/8 (see instructions)
4 T. chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
4 T. vegetable shortening, chilled and cut into ½-inch pieces*
For the Filling: 3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
4 T. unsalted butter
4 large eggs
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup sugar
¼ t. kosher salt
2 T. instant espresso powder
2 T. coffee liqueur
1 T. brandy or Grand Marnier
2 cups lightly toasted, coarsely chopped pecans
½ cup more or less pecan halves (they need to be about perfect; no chips or pieces)
To make the crust: In a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar and salt just to blend, Add the butter and shortening and pulse several times, until mixture is like coarse cornmeal. Transfer mixture to a bowl. Using a fork, quickly toss and stir as you gradually add enough water (2-4 T.) so that the dough just begins to come together. It should clump together if lightly squeezed, but not feel wet or sticky. (As with all pie crust dough, it’s a “feel” thing.) Use your hands, gather the dough and form it into a ball, then flatten the ball into a disk and wrap in plastic. Chill for two hrs. or up to two days before rolling. (This dough can also be frozen for up to two months; thaw it overnight in the fridge before using.)
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let sit at room temp. for 15 min. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 13-inch round, 1/8-inch thick. Be sure to rotate the dough several times, re-flouring as necessary to prevent sticking. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie pan and trim the edges to a ½-inch overhang. Fold the overhang underneath to create a raised edge, then crimp or flute. Chill until the dough firms up, at least 45 min. in the fridge or 20 min. in the freezer.
Position rack in middle of oven and heat to
350 degrees. Line the pie shell with parchment and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake until edges of the crust are light golden brown, about 25-30 min. Carefully remove parchment and weights/beans and, if necessary, gently repair any cracks with a smear of the excess dough trimmed off when you made the pie shell. Transfer shell to a rack to cool.
Make filling: Melt the chocolate and butter in microwave or a small metal bowl set over barely simmering water; stir with rubber spatula until smooth. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, corn syrup, sugar and salt. Dissolve the espresso powder in 1 T. hot water and add to egg mixture, along with the coffee liqueur, brandy and melted chocolate mixture. Whisk to blend well.
Evenly spread the toasted pecan pieces in the pie shell. Make a decorative border arranging the pecan halves around the perimeter of the pie shell, on top of the pieces. (Keep the points of the pecan halves facing in and the backs just touching the crust.) Slowly — so you don’t mess up the pecan arrangement — pour the filling over the pecans until shell is ¾ full. Pour remaining filling into a measuring cup or small pitcher.
Transfer pie to oven and pour in the remaining filling. (The pecans will rise to the top as the pie bakes.)
Bake 45-55 min., or until filling puffs up, just starts to crack and appears fairly set. Transfer to a rack and allow to cool completely (at least 4 hrs.) before serving. (If the pie is cooled and refrigerated for several hours or overnight, it is at its best, with a small bit of whipped cream or coffee ice cream.) Serves 8-10.
*Put shortening in freezer for 15 min. or so before cutting into pieces and using; makes it easier.
Now, about the sweet potatoes; if kids are part of the scenario, you may have to do the candied sweet potato dish of choice, but I’d like to suggest that there also be a “for adults only” sweet potato dish, such as this one:
SMASHED SWEET POTATOES
About 4 lbs. sweet potatoes (get the red-skinned ones, often mistakenly labeled yams)
½ cup whipping cream
6 T. butter
¼ cup pure maple syrup
2 T. bourbon
1½ t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground allspice
¾ t. ground nutmeg
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
Place potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated
350-degree oven until tender (1-1½ hrs.) Cool slightly then scoop out flesh into a large bowl (discard skins). Mash potatoes until you have a coarse puree (a food processor will make them too fine).
Heat cream and butter in a small saucepan over low heat until butter melts, stirring occasionally. Gradually stir this into the smashed potatoes; add and stir in syrup, bourbon and spices. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle nuts over and serve, or make a day ahead, cover and chill, then rewarm in the microwave, sprinkle with nuts and serve. Serves 8-10.
We have a favorite and often-used corn casserole that has played a role in our family Thanksgiving history for many years; perhaps it’s time to let a newcomer take on the role this year. (Kids will like this one, and it’s easy.)
SWEET CORN PUDDING
4 cups frozen corn kernels (about 19 oz.), thawed
4 large eggs
1 cup whipping cream
½ cup milk
6 T. sugar
¼ cup butter, at room temp.
2 T. flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. salt (or to taste)
Butter an 8×8-inch glass baking dish. Blend all ingredients in a food processor until almost smooth, then pour batter into prepared dish. Bake pudding in a preheated 350-degree oven until brown and center is just set, about 45 min. Allow to cool 10 min. before serving. Serves 8.
Margaret Walton can be reached at email@example.com.