The Holiday Kitchen
I might almost say I spent the most memorable Thanksgiving of my life alone.
Just after spinal surgery, I could not afford—either physically or financially—to join my birth family in Philadelphia. This potentially dismal scenario turned into a wonderful solitary Thanksgiving. I experimented with my first and, to date, last attempt at clam chowder. Although I followed the instructions, my substandard clam-cleaning skills produced a chowder too reminiscent of the seaside. I cheerfully dumped the soup while drinking a bottle of Pennsylvania red wine. I ate my Cornish hen, an unworthy runt, and then accompanied my wine bottle to a TV viewing of “Lilies of the Field.” Next morning, I awoke with a lower lip dyed deep purple from the red wine.
I laugh when I remember this anecdote from my youth. It actually does, however, illustrate what I have learned over many years of celebrating holidays by cooking for others. Like many residents of McHenry County, I like to entertain at home. By all means, experiment; try new things. You will certainly fail at times or even often, but remember that those who succeed fail just as frequently or even more than those who do not succeed. Undeterred, the successful just keep on going. Enjoy the holiday, as well as your own company and that of others. Remember, that’s the whole point.
A Feast for All
Since that Thanksgiving 25 years ago, I have celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s by cooking and baking for myself and the people I love. Following both British and Italian traditions, I've made plum pudding, black fruitcake, white fruitcake, Scottish black bun and mincemeat, as well as panforte, pandoro, panettone and panpepati. Madeleines have I baked, as well as out-of-control Shrewsbury cakes that burst like lava across the cookie sheet. (A fascination with the ingredient rosewater had motivated me to pick this old recipe.)
I still experiment with unfamiliar recipes, but by now I have developed certain fixed holiday traditions. The country ham I order from Kentucky could make a lovely Christmas or New Year’s dinner. Not salt-cured, like the Smithfield or Red Eye country hams I bought and cooked 20 years ago, but sugar-cured and easier on the palate, the Kentucky country ham begins my menu. I used to serve it hot with Cumberland sauce or Julia Child’s port wine sauce, but I learned from James Beard to respect the affinity prunes have with pork, and I now bake a luscious and moist prune bread to serve with thin slices of room-temperature country ham. The sweetness of Auslese wine complements the ham’s saltiness.
We need time to recover from that first course, but the Italian roast turkey is worth any amount of waiting. Its cavity and the skin over its breast stuffed with chopped proscuitto or country ham, thyme, rosemary and garlic, its exterior massaged with olive oil, the turkey undergoes a ritual bath of white wine periodically during its roasting. Its bronzed skin would depress the most ardent user of tanning salons. Last year, my enthusiasm for clay cooking led me to purchase a turkey-sized Romertopf in which to cook my bird. The soaked clay ensures a beautifully moist breast in a fully cooked turkey.
We have eaten many different vegetables over the years with the turkey, but my guests always demand the ugly ducklings: parsnips and Brussels sprouts. Surprised by the wonderful flavor of properly cooked sprouts sauteed in butter with walnuts and by the nutty sweetness of pureed parsnips, we would feel bereft if these favorites did not appear on the table. We never eat them at any other time but expect them during the holidays as a sacred right.
Smoked salmon has characterized our more casual version of Christmas entertaining. I focus on people, not tasks, on Christmas, so I keep it simple. For several years, we have enjoyed a wonderful local product, the salmon smoked at All Seafood in Woodstock, and I bake a dillweed yeast bread to serve with the salmon, lemon slices, sweet onions and pepper. My dear friend Corneilia, who adores smoked fish, approves of this Christmas tradition, and she contributes a yummy kugel, a traditional Jewish sweet noodle pudding. Sometimes, I have offered what I think of as Ugly Cookies for dessert: redolent of spices, molasses, raisins and nuts, they bear the burden of their homeliness with the aid of a generous dollop of brandy in the batter. Corneilia, however, does not like spices, so I end up eating too many of them.
For New Year’s, we used to buy several good cheeses and wines, and then we would nibble like industrious wine-bibbing mice all day. Now, my husband cooks up a large quantity of Hoppin’ John, traditional fare for the New Year because the blackeyed peas symbolize the prosperity that the New Year will bring. This has not proven to be an unfailing incantation, but it is worth trying (or at least eating) in times of financial uncertainty, being as reliable as many other financial tips.
By New Year’s, we have brought out the black fruitcake I baked and embalmed in applejack-soaked cheesecloth and airtight containers a year before. I follow the recipe James Beard had from his English mother. My fruitcake club—at last count, about a dozen people—expects timely delivery of slices, which have inebriated a few devoted eaters. My husband reminds me from time to time that I did not know to shell its hazelnuts when first I made the fruitcake, but I manage to forget this, most of the time.