“And so, Thanksgiving.
It's the most amazing holiday.
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Just think about it – it's a miracle that once a year so many millions of Americans sit down to exactly the same meal as one another, exactly the same meal they grew up eating, and exactly the same meal they ate a year earlier.
The turkey. The sweet potatoes. The stuffing. The pumpkin pie. Is there anything else we all can agree so vehemently about? I don't think so.” ~ Nora Ephron
For the past 15 years or so, my parents have traveled to Austin to spend Thanksgiving week with my brother and sister-in-law. Leaving me, a holiday nomad of sorts. A twist of fate that's turned out to be a blessing in disguise
As friends and neighbors have taken me in over the years, it's been fun to be a part of their family's holiday traditions. I've played board games, watched A Christmas Story, taken road trips, and walked home amidst snowflakes with
left-overs in hand.
I remember one year in particular — an invitation from the cutest couple, who'd just moved in next door. In their 20s and newly married, it was the first Thanksgiving in their very own house, and they'd decided to host.
Turns out she was from the south, so the site of a big welcoming table was in their blood. From one end of the house to the other stretched a table made of saw horses and sheets of plywood, painted with coat after coat of glossy white paint (the color of best intentions)
As I wandered about, I met the funniest mix people, and after a while, completely gave up on putting them all together. There was her father, who'd brought his girlfriend. His father, who'd also brought his girlfriend. A college professor who'd brought his boyfriend. And a friend from China who “didn't really care about Thanksgiving.”
Sure, yes, perfect, come anyway
Turns out no invitation was off-limits. Thanksgiving nomads, welcome. Kids and puppies, welcome. Ex-husbands, estranged children, welcome. Thanksgiving is all about reconciliation, right?
I've thought about them over the years and wondered if maybe they weren't onto something
Early on in every relationship, shouldn't it include a big Thanksgiving? If you're truly going to test the waters of combining families, you almost have to resort to something elaborate and over-the-top. Something that will challenge everyone's patience, and prove you've got a decent shot at spending the rest of your lives together (in-laws included)
(ps: They did an incredible job pulling it off! And never attempted it again)
There were other Thanksgiving invitations, some from cooks who liked to show off in the kitchen. The thing they dreaded worse than death? People who insisted upon helping(!)
“There isn't much to do.”
“Everything's under control” (clearly both were so very far from the truth)
They bit their tongue at Cousin Sue's onion dicing and tolerated Aunt Betty peeling the potatoes. As prep neared the end, they'd quietly (or not) shoo everyone out, properly re-securing the borders of their culinary domain
I especially loved invitations when the menu was a collaboration. Doesn't every family have an expert when it comes to oyster stuffing, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie? Let them do what they do best
Then there was the question of meat. A brined and browned Butterball for the traditionalists. Progressives served prime rib for the carnivores, and something vegetable heavy for the vegetarians
And just like every family has their own style of cooking the meal, they also have their own style when it comes to (how do I say)
taking the edge off during the holidays
A friend's ex always left a case of wine on her front porch. Filled with bottles she knew would be terribly nice. Some Barolo of considerable age, vintage Champagne, and a few she couldn't even pronounce.
Another friend stocked up on dark chocolate. When the day began feeling a tad bit too much, she indulged with a square
Not to mention a couple of Thanksgivings that included shadowy deliveries from the likes of an Uncle Pete. A very specific herbal tonic that might even be questionable in some states. His mother was coming after all, and while she wasn't technically feeling stressed, she might become so at the drop of a hat, and could really stand
No matter where I've found myself at Thanksgiving, there will always come a time when someone will stand, pick up the carving knife, and announce
It's in those moments that I think back the big shiny white table, surrounded by the clinking of silverware and passing of plates. While the cook seemed to appreciate the silence (it meant everyone was enjoying their food), that afternoon, if you listened closely, you could also hear
Certainly everyone was together, but there were far too many people for anyone to feel close, and in the end, nobody seemed quite sure what to say to one another. At a table simply too big for any one person to lead the conversation.
Looking back, I'm thankful for all of these big Thanksgivings I've been invited to over the years, mostly because they've shown me how appreciative I am for the small ones of today. They've made me realize that there's never a perfect place for everybody to be comfortable and happy. No matter the best of intentions, nor the many coats of glossy white paint
I ran into the hostess at the park a couple of months back. We laughed at the memories and talked about our plans for the holidays. She told me they'd eventually bought a real table and still invite people over now and then. The parties are much smaller, and the guest lists aren't nearly as long. The menu is far simpler, and the stakes aren't nearly as high
“Yet another thing to be thankful for.”
“Yes, yes, indeed.”
I fell in love with sweet potato pie that fateful Thanksgiving day. Having grown up in the south, she wouldn't have dreamt of celebrating a holiday without it. For those of us who aren't familiar, it's tempting to see it as a mere replacement for pumpkin. Trust me on this ..
sweet potato pie is a thing unto itself
Here's the skinny. Pumpkin doesn't have much in the way of flavor, so it needs to be spiced fifteen ways from Sunday, for it to taste like much at all. Cooked pumpkin can also be watery and bland, so whether your purée is homemade or store-bought, it really only perks up with the additions of sugar and fat. The poor pie is left with a dense and custardy texture
But sweet potatoes? Once roasted, they're deliciously rich, creamy and flavorful. They can be easily served with only a pinch of salt. A simplicity that's reflected in more traditional recipes, which involved little more than milk, eggs, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Turns out brown sugar is a purely modern twist: Nineteenth-century recipes called for white sugar if they called for any at all. ( More often than not, the sweet potatoes spoke for themselves)
In the case of sweet potato pie, there's a lot to be said for simplicity. Allowing a few thoughtfully chosen ingredients to work together in concert, without any stray chords to distract from their harmony.
When made according to bare-bones nineteenth-century recipes, sweet potato pie comes together in one perfect note: bright and clean. That very lightness is what makes it the perfect ending to a big meal
Certainly, my reverence for time-honored recipes runs dee, but it doesn't mean I'll always take the old-fashioned approach. Here, the filling is made from sweet and tender roasted sweet potatoes. The crust is incredible, filled with chocolate wafer cookies and black sesame seeds.
It's such a fun and delicious alternative to the more traditional pumpkin pie.
** Note: Prepare yourself for a bit of multi-tasking. The sweet potatoes are roasted while the crust is being made. You may feel like the recipe has a few extra steps, but it's more than worth the effort
~ Adapted from Bon Appetit
Sweet Potato-Miso Pie with Chocolate-Sesame Crust
- Chocolate-Sesame Crust
- 6 Tbsp butter, unsalted
- ¼ cup light brown sugar, packed
- ⅓ cup black sesame seeds
- 5 oz chocolate wafer cookies, broken into small pieces
- Pinch of fine grain sea salt
- Sweet Potato-Miso Filling
- 2 small sweet potatoes (~ 1 pound)
- ½ cup light brown sugar, packed
- 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
- 2 Tbsp white miso
- 2 egg yolks (large or X-large)
- 1 egg (large or X-large)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving
- Chocolate-Sesame Crust
- In a small saucepan over low heat, add the butter and brown sugar, stirring to dissolve the sugar until the butter has melted.
- Meanwhile, grind the sesame seeds in a spice mill or with mortar and pestle
- Pulse the cookies in a food processor until finely ground
- Pour butter mixture into the food processor; add the sea salt and ground sesame seeds. Pulse to combine.
- Using a measuring cup, press cookie mixture firmly onto bottom and up the sides of a 9" pie pan. Freeze until very cold (~ 20–25 minutes)
- Preheat oven to 350° F
- Bake the crust until firm and slightly darkened in color (~ 15–18 minutes). If crust slides down sides, gently press it back up.
- Let cool.
- ** Do Ahead: The crust can be made 1 day ahead. Store tightly wrapped at room temperature
- Sweet Potato-Miso Filling
- Preheat oven to 350° F
- Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into smaller pieces. Place them on a lined baking sheet and roast until tender (~ 35 - 40 minutes). Let cool.
- Pulse in a food processor until very smooth (you should have ~ 1 cup)
- Whisk brown sugar, butter, and miso in a medium bowl until smooth.
- Add egg yolks and egg and whisk just enough to incorporate.
- Whisk in sweet potato purée, then cream.
- Reduce oven temperature to 300° F
- Pour the filling into the crust.
- Bake pie, rotating halfway through, until the filling is set (it will still wobble slightly in the very center), 50–60 minutes.
- Transfer to a wire rack and let the pie cool before slicing about 2 hours.
- Serve pie topped with whipped cream or scoops of vanilla ice cream.