Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Thanksgiving is a holiday that I’ve tended to be a guest for, rather than the chief cook and hostess. In addition to my many other blessings, I’m always grateful that I don’t have to be in charge of getting the turkey just right: done, but not dry. For the last couple of years, a local friend (and fellow American) has generously included my family in their family’s feast. I bring a dish or two, usually a dessert within my cooking comfort zone. But other than these Thanksgivings, I can’t recall any but the ones spent at my parents’ home. Did I roast a turkey during the years we lived in Trinidad? Strangely, my mind is a complete blank. The childhood rituals are the ones that stick in my memory.
When I was a child, we always celebrated the holiday with my three grandparents – who liked to eat at around 1 pm or 2 pm. My mother had to get up early to wrestle with the turkey, always hoping that it had thawed completely. My paternal grandmother was in charge of the cornbread dressing and the giblet gravy, and I usually helped cut up the fruit (apples, oranges, pineapples, grapes, bananas and maraschino cherries) for the obligatory fruit salad, but everything else fell to my mother’s competent hands.
These were the important elements for me: turkey, rolls and pumpkin pie. I didn’t like cranberry sauce or sweet potatoes until I was an adult, and I can still do without them. I was fairly neutral about the dressing; which was never called stuffing, as we didn’t put it inside the bird. We always had green vegetables, too, and mashed potatoes – but that was everyday stuff. I did like the relish tray, which was carrot sticks, sweet gherkins, black olives and celery stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts. But the essential foods, the ones that I really looked forward to, were the soft buttery rolls that my mother made from scratch, a piece of spicy pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a turkey sandwich (made with a homemade roll) for left-overs.
My grandfather had what was called a “sweet tooth,” and he liked to have his dessert as soon as the plates were cleared. We always had pumpkin pie and fruit salad, and usually an angel food cake for one of my grandmothers. There was almost always a pecan pie. When I was a child, we had Italian Cream Cake and sometimes a mincemeat pie. In order to take best advantage of this selection, it really was preferable to go for a long walk after the turkey dinner . . . and then have a dessert course. Of course, in those days, we had all day to eat. The only other obligation was the Aggie/Longhorn football game* - a ritual known to Texans, if not anyone else. The day would start off cold and hollow-stomached, and end up warm, cozy and completely satiated.
Without extended family, without my native home, without the day off, without football even, I do sometimes wonder if there is any reason to keep celebrating this most American of all holidays. And yet, I can’t give up this beloved ritual.
This year, as a grateful Thanksgiving guest, I’m bringing pecan tassies to the communal table. Tassies are a Southern specialty – and basically they are a miniature pecan pie, with a unique cream cheese/butter crust. As far as I’m concerned, they solve the pecan or pumpkin pie debate. Pecan pie is so rich and stickily sweet that you probably aren’t going to have stomach room for both . . . but a tassie is practically bite-sized. If you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, these are also great for Christmas – or any other occasion, actually.
8 ounces butter
8 ounces cream cheese
a dash of salt
2 1/4 cup flour
Using a mixer or food processor, blend together the butter and cream cheese. Then add the flour and salt, and mix until thoroughly blended. Form the dough into a ball and refrigerate until chilled -- at least half an hour.
When the dough is ready, grease two large mini muffin (or small tart) pans.
Take a small ball of dough and press it into each tin -- making sure that it adequately covers the sides and bottom of the tin without being too thick. (This isn't difficult, but it's a bit fiddly and takes a while. If you have a competent child, get him or her to help.)
When you have completed this process, add the pecan filling.
2 large eggs, lightly beaten,
1/2 ounce of melted butter
12 ounces of light brown sugar, packed
8 ounces of chopped pecans (or walnuts)
Mix together the eggs, butter and sugar with a strong metal whisk. Then add chopped nuts, and stir until evenly incorporated.
Fill the individual uncooked pastry tarts with this mixture, just below the top. Don't get them too full, or they will overflow when they cook.
Bake in a pre-heated 375F/180C oven for approximately 15 minutes. My tarts actually took 18 minutes, but start checking at 15. They should be lightly golden brown.
If stored in a tin, with waxed paper, they will keep well for several days . . . assuming they don't get gobbled up.