Thanksgiving Through My Crystal Ball and Chocolate Glazed Walnut Cake
The countdown to Thanksgiving has begun. Here’s a preview of what’s in store as we prepare to host our 13th annual family celebration.
I’ll kick off the week with a fit of denial. Even though the calendar indicates that Thanksgiving is late this year, and as of today Christmas is only a month away, I’ll spend a large part of today questioning how the holiday has snuck up on me once again.
Over breakfast we’ll review the Thanksgiving Day seating chart. The challenge of squeezing twenty plus people into our ten person dining room is akin to a blivot (That word spent several years at the top of my favorite word list. It has since been replaced by ubiquitous. These sorts of digressions are exactly why I will be in the weeds on Wednesday.) But for two engineers who enjoy problem solving, figuring out how to weave the big and small people in our life around a communal table can be, well, fun. Except when it’s not fun, and we disagree on what constitutes adequate personal dining space. You would think that we’d have it down to a science by now, but every year is different. Last year Kalina was in a high-chair and this year she’ll be in a big girl chair. It goes like that.
Tonight, I’ll finalize the menu, while Greg puts the extra leaves in the two dining tables and test drives our seating arrangement, moving like Goldilocks from chair to chair and flailing his arms. He claims he’s simulating the diner’s experience, but unless we’ll all be tossing 14-inch rounds of pizza dough it looks a tad excessive. If I’m smart, I’ll keep that bit to myself while he works.
The menu for the most food-centric, tradition rich holiday could write itself, if I’d let it. But when Thanksgiving is still four days away, and I naively believe that time is infinite, I like to add a few new sides to the already full buffet. That kind of experimentation is how we discovered that our family loves Brussels sprouts. Now, five years later, they’re a staple. I’ll run my menu ideas past Greg, who somehow manages to forget that I love this stuff, and will say something like, “Don’t overdo it.” Or, “Just keep it as simple as you can.” I always overdo it. And there is nothing simple about cooking for 24 people. Besides, when you order three turkeys (two for the deep fryer and one for the oven), you’ve already closed the door on simple. So why hasn’t he learned to indulge me and say something like, “Wow, those maple glazed turnips sound delicious. You should try them.” And why haven’t I learned to stop asking for his advice on the menu?
Before bed tonight, I’ll sit down at the computer and make new turkey day playlists, a mellow one for dinner and an amped up one for the afterhours clean up. I’ll download the new Daughtry album and then start clicking my way to other songs wishing all the while that those New Direction songs weren’t so darn catchy. Greg will call me to bed again, and again and eventually drift off. I’ll make it to bed at last then have trouble falling asleep myself with all the music playing in my head.
Tomorrow I’ll grocery shop. On the way home from the produce market the car will be pulled to Marshall’s like a moth to a flame ostensibly for something necessary, like, well, I can’t think of anything right now, but by tomorrow I’ll have something in mind. I will slip into that store like Alice down the rabbit hole, emerging an hour later with a bag full of things that doesn’t include what I went there for. Then it’s home to make pie crust, bake bread for stuffing, make and freeze dinner rolls, and clean the house, in between writing proposals and answering emails for work. I’ll also squeeze in a workout, not in anticipation of the feasting but to quiet my mind.
We’ll go to yoga before the sun is up on Wednesday though I will likely have been lying awake in bed long before the 5:15am alarm sounded. It will be one of those classes where the stillness pains me. I’ll lie on my mat and twitch just thinking about everything that has to come together in the coming 36 hours. The new living room curtain rods will arrive that afternoon. If I were a sane woman, I’d stow them in the basement and swap them out on Sunday when the house is ours again and quiet. Instead, I’ll pull out the ladder and rush to get them in place before Greg gets home with our turkeys even though I already know that the house will be so full, no one is likely to notice. This mild obsession could spark an argument with Greg who will ask a simple, logical question while I teeter precariously on the ladder, “Have you made the pies yet?” By Wednesday, time is no longer infinite and there is a manic edge to my movements through the house. If pressed Greg would admit this is not what he loves most about me.
In an ironic twist, the same man who insists I keep it simple and stay off of ladders in favor of pie baking will ask me if I have time to give him a long overdue haircut. Cut to the scene in The Exorcist where the possessed little girl’s eyes roll back in her head. There will be no masking my disbelief.
Later that day my two nieces will arrive on the train from Joliet. This tradition, now in its fifth year, is one I relish. Admittedly, when the girls were young, they were less help, though still fun. Now that they are solidly in their teen years, it’s like sharing the kitchen with girlfriends (minus the wine drinking). Bailey, the youngest, comes with a plan for a new dessert for us to try. They are never simple, but making the time to turn a cupcake into a turkey is something I’m happy to do even if it means we have to scratch that new turnip recipe.
Larry, the dad I adopted when mine was taken from me too soon in college, will come barreling in later that night. He’ll be exhausted and in desperate need of a break from his life in Pittsburgh. He will take up residence in the middle of our living room floor for the next three days. My maternal instinct will kick in, and I’ll try to restore him over the course of his stay, except for the hours immediately preceding the feast when everyone is on their own while I focus on the mission.
In between welcoming guests, there will be baking: a rich and creamy pumpkin pie, a pumpkin roll, a chocolate glazed walnut cake, a cranberry walnut tart, something triple chocolately that we can use as a birthday cake for my sister-in-law Karole, and whatever Bailey has dreamed up. The cranberry sauce will be checked off the list too if the curtain rods don’t consume me and the ladder doesn’t tip.
Game day starts too early. I’ll likely wake to fresh dreams of screaming turkeys roasted with their feathers on or some other Freudian nonsense. By 7am I’ll be elbow deep bringing together the stuffing in a soup pot. My full cup of coffee will be ice cold by the time I get a second sip. Greg’s family will begin trickling in around noon. I’ll mix up a batch of cranberry sangria to share with my mother-in-law, who’s a big fan of my bartending skills. From there the day that I’ve been preparing for all week will pass by in a flash of forkfuls and sound bites.
Three turkeys two ways. “Grandma’s pulling all the skin off the turkey again.” Sweet potato casserole with brown sugar and pecans. “Grandma, it’s me, Bobbi, Greg’s wife.” Maple Dijon Braised Brussels Sprouts with sprouts from Erik and Karole’s garden. “Who is Greg?” Kristy’s Roasted Butternut Squash with Gorgonzola. “Has anyone seen Lucy?” Mom’s Broccoli and Cheese Casserole (gulp, yes the one with Velveeta, but hey it’s once a year). “Where should we set up the karaoke machine?” Sausage and Mushroom Stuffing. “What time are Bill and Lori getting here?” Jean’s Corn Bread. “Go Steelers!” Parker House Rolls. And don’t forget the gravy.
Around nine I’ll mix up three bourbon and Cokes, one for me, one for Greg, and one for his brother Bill who, like Greg, can make me laugh until it hurts. It will be the first drink I finish all day. My other glasses are half full and scattered throughout the house in the exact spots where I left them when the oven timer chimed. The first of the family starts to pack up for the night, over-tired little kids, missed bedtimes, and the like tugging them home. I’ll get a touch of the blues that the party is winding down when I’m finally ready to relax.
Alone again in our kitchen with the clean up play list doing its part to keep us awake, Greg and I will scour a few more pans and start the list of what we’ll do differently the following year. Shortly after midnight we’ll crawl into bed exhausted, the last round of dishes whirring their way to clean in the dishwasher. Greg will wrap his arms around me and tell me thank you, something he hasn’t always done. I’ll thank him for thanking me, because I never take it for granted. My last thought will be of my breakfast the next morning: a cup of hot coffee in the quiet kitchen with a slice of Greg’s mom’s apple pie drenched with warm milk, the way my mom used to eat it the morning after Thanksgiving. I’ll fall asleep fast, and that night my dreams will be sweet.
Chocolate Glazed Flourless Walnut Date Cake
oil or butter for the pan
3 cups walnut halves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
finely grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3/4 cup chopped pitted dates
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon honey
1/3 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped, for topping
- Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch-round cake pan and line with parchment paper. (You can also use a deep tart pan with a removable bottom.)
- Put the walnuts, cinnamon, and sugar in a food processor; pulse until finely ground.
- Whisk the eggs, orange zest, vanilla, and salt in a small bowl until frothy. Fold in the dates, then fold in the ground walnut mixture. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick comes out clean, 22 to 25 minutes. Let cool, then run a knife along the sides and invert the cake onto a platter.
- Make the glaze: Combine the chocolate, butter, and honey in a heat-safe bowl. Microwave or heat over a stove-top double boiler until the butter and chocolate melt. Whisk until smooth. Cool slightly, and then pour over the cake. Top with toasted walnuts.