Last weekend, we tried something altogether new, and put a dinner party up for sale. We sold twelve tickets, filled twelve seats, and for one magical night, turned our cozy apartment into a warm and charming restaurant. It was a good bit of work – moving all the living room furniture into the bedrooms, setting up a collection of folding tables and chairs, sewing tablecloths from a mix and match of fall-colored fabrics, hanging glowing paper lanterns in wide arcs across the ceiling, pulling out every last piece of china, silver and glassware from the cupboards, borrowing extra wine glasses from our neighbors, arranging the perfect mix of dinner tunes, and filling the room with tiny jars of fresh cut flowers and dozens of twinkling candles. A bit more work than the average dinner party, to say the least. But every last ounce of extra effort was worth it! For this one special night, our newly transformed living room was as warm and lovely, as intimate and inviting, as any restaurant I’ve ever seen. And once it was filled with our guests – talking and laughing, sipping wine and munching on hors d’oeuvres – well, by then it was truly magnificent!
My friend Cary, my sous chef for the night, and a huge talent as both a cook and photographer, shot dozens of wonderful pictures of the lovely scene. And so, thanks to her, I’m able to share a touch of the magic from this special night, a night I’d loved to have shared with all of you.
I really do wish that all you readers could have been there with us. But I fret not, and neither should you – After such an incredibly fun and successful night, there are now sure to be many more Scrumptious Company home-restaurant events to come! So stay tuned…
It’s not like me to go on and on about anything but food. In fact, with a dinner party to throw every single week, I’ve hardly had the time, money or energy to spend on things like table settings, lighting, music and flowers. A rare exception, this singular event allowed me to relish in the decorating, get absorbed in the atmosphere, and celebrate the ambience.
But now, seriously, it’s time to talk food!
An Early Thanksgiving Feast. One that gave me the chance to personally cook my favorite annual meal. Back home in Toledo, Thanksgiving dinner is always my mom’s domain. And after years of fixing this incredible meal for a huge list of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, she’s such a pro at it – working so fast and seamlessly, with hardly any apparent effort – well, she’s so good, there’s never anything left for me to help with by the time we pull up the drive. Not that I’m complaining. My mom puts out such a fabulous holiday spread, I’d be foolish to intervene! But aside from giving me the opportunity to cook this once-a-year feast for myself, this early extra dinner also allows me to share with you my favorite holiday recipes, a couple weeks before you set out cook Thanksgiving feasts of your own. Some of the recipes are all-together classic and steeped in family tradition, while others are a little newish, with a bit of a twist. And all were huge successes. I hope you try some of them yourselves this year. I’d sincerely love it if you did! And I wish you all the happy success we shared this night.
I’ve never been one for nibbling, leading up to Thanksgiving supper. I like to save plenty of room for all the turkey and other fixings. But one can’t deny the handiness of hors d’oeuvres, for keeping the guests happy and satisfied, while putting the final touches on dinner. And so, I set out a simple-as-possible spread – a selection of cheeses, toasted crostini, sliced pears, clusters of grapes and bowls of sugar-spiced mixed nuts – just the thing to whet the palette while making the way for the main event.
Now onto the main course. And I suppose, the only place to start is with the turkey. This golden bird was everything a gobbler should be – with moist and tender meat, full turkey flavor, subtle hints of rosemary, thyme and sage in every bite, and crisp, crackly, butter-basted skin. An wow, wasn’t she a beauty!?
The most traditional of Thanksgiving sides? I’d have to say that’s stuffing. Classic as can be. Ironically though, stuffing is also the holiday side with the widest range of preparation possibilities. There are a hundred and one variations on the theme of stuffing – chestnut, cornbread, oyster, walnut, sausage, dried fruit, chicken liver – the diverse list goes on and on. But what’s the best of all these variations? Well, that depends on who you’re asking, and on what type of stuffing their mom has always made. Because it’s a universal truth that everyone’s favorite stuffing is their mother’s. My mom’s stuffing was always a pretty traditional interpretation of this most traditional dish – tender baked cubes of white bread steeped in rich chicken stock, with lots of onions, even more celery and handfuls of fresh, fragrant herbs. I’ve played around before with all the fancy alternatives, but to me, a simple herb stuffing will always be the best. And the recipe below is one of the best you’ll find for just that!
And while we’re on the subject of traditional sides, let’s talk about mashed potatoes. Again, this dish is one that can be interpreted a million different ways. But I thought I’d take the opportunity to share with you my favorite way of making basic mashed potatoes. The recipe below is for nothing fancy at all – just rich, buttery, creamy, fluffy, velvety, smooth mashed potatoes. Basic mashed potatoes. Utterly perfect basic mashed potatoes.
On my mom’s Thanksgiving buffet always sits a vibrant orange dish of velvety butternut squash puree. To twist this a little, I decided on a butternut soufflé. Light and impossibly airy, yet rich with the full, deep flavors of sweet roasted squash and nutty gruyere cheese. And while the flavor boasts all the singular deliciousness of butternut squash, it’s the texture that really sets this dish apart. So tender and fluffy, one can’t help but think of clouds, huge cumulus clouds at sunset, glowing a deep, vivid orange, with shadowy edges of gold.
Next on the menu, green beans. Fresh, bright green beans tender yet crisp, cooked in a flash, in a big pot of boiling water, then folded in a buttery sauce of sweet, caramelized shallots, with a dash of floral thyme and a crunchy bite of toasted slivered almonds. Needless to say, this is worlds away from the sad and mushy concoction of all-too-traditional green bean casserole.
I’m so excited to tell you about this caramelized tomato pudding. It’s an old family recipe, a dish that always finds a place on our holiday table. And it’s so completely delicious, I’m surprised it hasn’t yet found it’s way into every Turkey Day spread across the country. Once you try this sensational dish you’ll wonder why it’s not as classically Thanksgiving as mashed potatoes, stuffing or the turkey itself. A sticky pudding of nothing more than bread, butter, brown sugar and tomato puree, it’s simply superb. A beautiful shade of burnt red, it’s deeply savory at a just-right level of sweet, with a rich, complex taste, ironically not at all reminiscent of tomato. It’s tender and light, but chewy at its caramelized edges. One try and you’ll be hooked, just like every single guest at our dinner party.
We were never a cranberry sauce family. In fact, I don’t recall a single family holiday that ever sported this sweet red stuff. Because thanks to the tomato pudding, we have a sweet red stuff of our own. So we never really missed it. But still, in keeping with traditional tradition, I thought I might want to include some cranberry sauce tonight. And the recipe I tried was such a delicious success – and incredible mixture of plump, fresh cranberries and tart, chewy dried cherries, with warm tones of cinnamon and allspice, and just a hint of brown sugar sweetness - I can’t see myself not making it again and again in the Thanksgivings to come.
And finally, dessert. Or should I say, desserts. The first dessert, pumpkin cheesecake. This cake was incredibly creamy, utterly delicious, and near all-around perfect. Atop a crumbly graham cracker crust sits a smooth, cool custard of deep pumpkin flavor and warm spices. Better than pumpkin pie, and at the same time better than ordinary cheesecake. I’m making it again in two weeks, and bringing it with us to Toledo. And oh! I nearly forgot about the whipped cream. Brown-sugar bourbon whipped cream that is, with sour cream too. Thick and rich and intoxicating, it really is simply amazing, and a perfect top to this perfect cheesecake!
And just because one dessert selection is never enough for Thanksgiving… a dark chocolate tart with toasted almonds and candied orange. Intense, smooth chocolate ganache studded with crunchy bits of toasted almonds and tender, bright specks of candied orange peel, inside a thin, crisp chocolate crust. Extreme chocolate flavor, tempered by tart orange and subtly sweet almonds, and a big, cool dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream. With a hot cup of coffee, it’s nothing by pure bliss. Ah, what a lovely way to end a wonderful night!