Diary of a New England Thanksgiving

28 Nov

2011 was the first year that I cooked an entire Thanksgiving, soup to tart. For the last couple of years, I had been preparing side dishes and desserts, and my mother would contribute the protein (a.k.a. the main event), along with candied sweet potatoes and some other enticing accompaniment like corn bread stuffing with turkey sausage and dried cherries.

This Thanksgiving, I wasn’t traveling, but I was cooking in my new apartment in a new/old city. What was I going to do to make the holiday memorable? I decided I was going to try mostly new recipes, with a few old standbys thrown in. I also knew that I wasn’t going to cook turkey.

No turkey, you say? (I know, blasphemer!) Yep, I went cold turkey on turkey a few years ago after deciding that well, I just don’t find it that exciting. This is partly due to the fact that my father regularly cooked turkeys for Sunday dinner, so it really wasn’t a seasonal treat like pumpkins or cranberry for me. I also couldn’t stomach the idea of turkey after the past month of my internship. Click here and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. There was a whole lotta turkey going on in the test kitchen.

So what turned out to be my protein of choice? Beef brisket was a great candidate for several reasons. First, I had found a rather alluring recipe for brisket in The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. (I even showed the recipe to my mom, master of brisket, and she’d given it her thumbs up.) Second, I was only making dinner for four people. A four-pound brisket seemed entirely proportional and plentiful for my purposes, and wouldn’t tie up the oven for the entire day. Third, brisket was something I didn’t eat often and therefore it would be a special treat. I loved eating my mom’s growing up (she never fixed it quite the same, but it was always tender, moist and flavorful). I’d probably only made brisket on my own once, and not according to mom’s recipes because she never had one written down to give me.

Flat Cut Brisket (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

So now that I had placed my bets with brisket, I needed a plan of action. I was only cooking for four people (3 1/2 if you consider the diminutive nature of my mother-in-law, who also happens to be the spitting image of cookbook author Dorie Greenspan), but that is no excuse to take the holiday preparations casually. I wanted people to have options after all, and of course, LEFTOVERS! Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without leftovers.

To pull everything off, on top of juggling work and my internship project, I resorted to making a production schedule or a prep list. What follows is an illustrated diary of my T-day endeavors and their end result.

Day One (Sunday): Shrub

I was starting off early, so I could afford to ease my way into cooking. I commenced with cranberry lime shrub, a recipe that I found in Fine Cooking. I confess, I had never heard of a shrub. But the idea of making a special holiday cocktail was appealing, and this looked easy enough. From what I discovered, a shrub is a colonial era drink syrup made with berries, vinegar, sugar, and water. You can spike or keep it virginal. I planned to combine my shrub of choice with seltzer, as I already had plans for wine and hard ciders on the menu.

Cranberry Shrub in the Works (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

Making a shrub is fun and anything with cranberries is a gorgeous color. I just combined the cranberries, some champagne vinegar, water, and sugar and lime peel and let those berries pop and begin to disintegrate. The mixture then went into my blender and was strained. Mine had a very frothy light pink foam on top, which I ended up just stripping away before using.

Shrub Before Blending and Straining (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

Day Two (Monday): Chutney and Tart Dough

What can I say, I love my cranberries! In addition to the shrub, I was planning on making Joanne Chang’s Cranberry, Ginger Orange Chutney (a hit at the dinner table last year), as well as a Cranberry Lime Curd Tart. I almost single-handedly cleaned out the Wegman’s cranberry display between these three projects!

The chutney included a generous amount of minced ginger, as well as two navel oranges (segments and some juice). I didn’t want to break down the cranberries too much because this time, I wanted texture.

Cranberry Chutney (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

I used my standby sweet tart dough, from Desserts by Pierre Hermé. It is kind of difficult to roll out (I take frequent breaks to chill it while rolling it out and freeze it prior to baking), but it doesn’t shrink like flaky tart dough and takes well to refrigeration and syrupy ingredients (like cranberries). I love the way the butter and confectioner’s sugar look when they are processed together. This recipe makes a ton of tart dough, but I always like to have back-ups for the freezer for later.

Butter and Confectioner’s Sugar, Yum! (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

Day Three (Tuesday): Simmer that Soup and Poach the Pears

Because I’m utterly in love with The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, and the Sweet Potato Apple Ginger soup that I tried from it a few weeks ago, I decided to reprise it for the holiday.

Image: Johnisha M. Levi

I loved that this soup didn’t require heavy whipping cream (or any dairy at all) to achieve a complex and rich flavor. It was perfect for lactose-intolerant me and my health-conscious brood. And the vegetables (sweet potatoes, baby cut carrots) are so lovely as they are made ready for roasting (I slathered mine with some special Blood Orange flavored olive oil for extra flavor).

Baby Cut Carrots, Sweet Potatoes and Apple (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

In addition to my tart, I also wanted a lighter dessert option. While at Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton the previous week, I sampled their Cranberry Apple wine. My husband and I agreed that with it would be perfect for poaching some pears. I doctored the wine with some cinnamon sticks, cloves, Blueberry Bliss tea and sugar. The pears came out a delicate blush color. Once I finished poaching the pear halves and stored them in some of the cooled syrup, I added some local honey and reduced the poaching liquid to a ruby red syrup.

Wine and Tea Poached Pears (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

Day Four (Wednesday): Complete the Tart, Salt the Meat, Mix the Rolls

Today was a critical day and would involve some of the more serious of the dinner tasks. There is nothing better than homemade bread, so I knew I wanted to bake some dinner rolls. Peter Reinhart’s sweet and slightly buttery dinner rolls (you can use either sugar or honey; I used the latter to good effect this year) from Artisan Breads Every Day were just the thing to soak up some of those brisket juices or to eat alongside soup. I mixed the dough, kneaded and rounded it and popped it in the fridge so that it could undergo cold fermentation (better for flavor development and also convenient for planning and make ahead purposes).

Mixing the dough was a cinch, but next I had to turn to the lime curd for my tart. My flavor profile for the tart was based on a bon appétit recipe, although I ended up using different recipes for both the curd and the tart dough. The curd had to cool and firm before I could use it to fill the tart. In addition to the lime juice, all curd calls for is sugar, egg yolks and butter. The rest is all in the whipping over a double boiler (and being watchful that you don’t curdle the eggs). When the curd is sufficiently thick, take it off, cover and refrigerate.

Next, I baked my tart shell and gingerly removed it from the tart pan until later that night when I was ready to fill it. Bon Appétit’s cranberry five spice topping (slightly thickened with cornstarch) was next on the list. As the tart’s topper, it also had to cool before I could compose the dessert.

While waiting for my dessert components, I went ahead and seasoned my brisket (salt, pepper, and cinnamon).

Turning back to the tart, I combined melted white chocolate with sour cream and vanilla–the cream tempered the sweetness of the former nicely. I froze until set, then scooped in lime curd and refrigerated. Right before bed, I topped with the cranberry layer, covered the tart and refrigerated. Time for bed!

Cranberry Lime Curd Tart (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

T-Minus Zero/Thanksgiving: Braise the Brisket, Bake the Bread, Roast the Brussels

Thanksgiving day was for the Bs: brisket, bread, and Brussels. The brisket just required patience, as it braised in a mixture of hard cider, apples, onions, jalapeno and its own juices. When it came out of the dutch oven, it was tender, not toothsome.

While the brisket braised, I took my bread dough out, shaped into rolls and left them to their second rise. These were egg-washed and popped in the oven for about 15 minutes. Some I sprinkled with sesame seeds and poppy seeds; the rest I left plain.

Dinner Rolls (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

Last, but not least were the Brussels sprouts. I didn’t want these to have to be reheated, and they had to roast at a high temperature, so it made sense to make them  right before the brisket was served. My husband handled the Cook’s Illustrated recipe like a pro and they came out nicely caramelized with a hint of lemon and butter.

Dinner is Served (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

To start the evening off right, I served shrub and wine, and re-purposed some of the cranberry chutney and the poached pears to serve with maple smoked Vermont raw cheddar, and Stonewall Kitchen’s Maine Maple Champagne Mustard and onion garlic pretzels. Including the bar selections, it was truly a New England Thanksgiving in the heart of Brookline!

Pre-Dinner Nibbles and Dessert (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

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