I have a friend whose ancestors came off the Mayflower. Literally. Understandably, Thanksgiving is the one holiday when she goes all out, even more so than Christmas. For me, it has been an acquired taste – my ancestors might have dabbled in pagan feasts in Roman times but they most definitely were nowhere near Plymouth Rock.
My very first Thanksgiving was a sad affair at a friend’s house who had collected a few strays: I knew nothing about stuffing (which why on earth is served on the side but called stuffing?), sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie, and brought some inappropriate potato concoction. That was the year I also learnt about Black Friday, wandering around the parking lot of a mall on the Friday after Thanksgiving, mesmerized by how many people were shopping. But time went by and I learnt the rules of the game: cook a turkey as best you can, make sure there are some cranberries, yams, pecan and pumpkin pies and avoid shopping at all costs. Football I also never mastered so I usually opt for an afternoon walk with the dogs or a family movie.
I have come to love the spirit of giving thanks for blessings that do not include Pilgrims but have more to do with the joys of everyday life. I love that no pro-forma gifts exchange hands: just a lot of food and navigating family relations as best we can, focussing on the good.
Pumpkin and pecan pies I have never grown to like, with the former still registering as too weird for my taste buds and the latter just too sweet – but to maintain traditions I keep experimenting every year with variations I might like better, such as adding chocolate and whisky to the pecans, or making it with maple syrup instead of cloying corn. As much as I have reshuffled the pumpkin, I just can’t bring myself to appreciate it.
So this year I veered into a slightly different direction: a variation of a David Tanis cranberry crostata (I liked the idea of an Italian riff and making my own jam); pecan pie made with the very English Lyle syrup instead of corn and I jettisoned the pumpkin pie for an easy apple tarte tatin. I basically invited the French, the Italians and the English to my American table – it seems only fitting in these times of immigration debate.
Tarte Tatin is easy and fast to make but many cooks are put off by the thought of making caramel – I understand. I could sit here and give you tips for a perfect caramel but, instead, I recently came across a recipe that skips the caramel altogether but not the deliciousness. I tried it and it came together so fast and so beautifully, I thought I would share it with you and keep on with the apple theme that sofagirl started. The only downside to the recipe is that, visually, it lacks the shine of proper caramel but the flavour makes up for it.
As I sit down to a (hopefully not dry) turkey and give thanks for the bounty of family, friends, love and strength that life has seen fit to send my way, I hope all of you here in the States are able to do the same. To readers everywhere else, there is never a bad day to stop for a moment and make an inventory of all that is good in our lives.
RECIPE (originally published in the NYT – this is slightly modified according to my experience)
7 tart apples
5 T/65 g butter, softened
2/3 C/135 g brown sugar
1 sheet of store-bought puff pastry (preferably all butter), defrosted
- Slice the bottoms off the apples to create a flat base. Peel the apples and quarter them. Remove the seeds and core with a paring knife. Place in a bowl and let them sit in the refrigerator a few hours (and up to three days) to release their juices.
- Using your hands, spread the butter over the bottom of a 10” ovenproof skillet. Sprinkle the sugar on top.
- Arrange the quartered apples in concentric circles, standing up on their flat bottoms.
- Trim the puff pastry to the skillet size and cover the apples with it, fitting it snugly around them.
- Place the skillet on the stove over medium heat and cook until you can see the juices bubbling. Cook about 10 minutes longer to let the sugar caramelize.
- Remove from stove and put the skillet in a 375F/200C oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until the puff pastry is golden.
Let sit for 5 minutes before inverting the tarte. Serve immediately (with vanilla ice-cream if you wish). If not serving immediately, leave tarte in the skillet, reheat for 15 minutes before serving.