For most of my childhood, we spent Thanksgiving with my family in Arkansas. It was always a big, loud, boisterous gathering of family we didn’t see nearly enough. For many of these years, my brother and I were the oldest of the kids, so we got to sit at the grown-up table, which made us feel very special. After the meal, the men would go watch the ball game and the women would sit out on the sun porch, talking and gossiping and telling funny stories. It always made me feel sophisticated sitting out there, though I generally had no idea what anyone was talking about. I remember the food too, of course. We had all the standards, turkey and gravy, cornbread dressing with lots of seasoning that was always served cut in squares. We had green beans and a cranberry gelatin dish with pecans that I loved and haven’t had in years. And of course, sweet potato casserole with the jumbo marshmallows melted to a gooey, golden brown topping. As we all grew up, some married, some moved and time and tradition moved on, as they always do.
My immediate family spent a few years as Thanksgiving pilgrims ourselves, wandering in the wilderness looking for a new tradition. One year my parents and I went to Rome. One year the rest my family went to North Carolina but I had to work over the weekend. I ordered myself what proved to be a disappointing meal shipped in from a high-dollar gourmet shop in New York. The first year I was in my new kitchen and house, it was just me and my parents on Thanksgiving Day, and I was determined to use the fancy new convection feature on my oven to roast the turkey. But the durn thing just would not cook, and eventually my mom and I lost patience, cut off a few slices and put them in the microwave. My Dad had pancreatitis, and a last minute grocery run by a dear friend saved Thanksgiving when she dropped off a box cranberry flavored Jell-o, which is all he could eat anyway.
After these lost years, I claimed Thanksgiving for my own. After all, it made sense that I should get the food holiday. I love doing it at my house, serving from the kitchen, the dining room at capacity, the kids table set up in the living room. My nieces and nephew help make place cards and decorations. We’ve had additional guests over the years that added so much to the holiday.
I love cooking all the food for Thanksgiving. To be honest, I only let people bring other things to be polite. They really want to help me with all that work, but I love that work. It is the one week I get to spend uninterrupted in the kitchen, with an unassailable reason to do so. I do hate the dishes though…
The food is always the same, the standards the way I like them. Turkey wrapped in its bacon blanket, gravy, dressing with chestnuts and sausage, corn pudding, cranberry sauce (two types) and sweet potatoes. Every year I say “tell me know if you hate something, cause this it what you’re getting every year.” No one has said anything really. Yet.
The tough trick for me was sweet potatoes. Before I started making them, I had not discovered what a great and versatile little tuber they are. As far as I can remember, the only way I’d ever eaten them was in the casserole at Thanksgiving. And I was never eager to eat that. Maybe I thought orange was a weird color. I would always scoop some on my plate though, mainly to eat the marshmallows off the top. So when I launched myself into the Thanksgiving sweet potato endeavor, I came up with something different, and if I may say so, really good. I love this version of sweet potato casserole, and as I said, no one has complained yet, really. My mom asks every year if she can bring something…umm, maybe sweet potato casserole? I took the hint and frankly I have told her that I know she prefers her sweet potatoes to mine, but that’s just too bad. It’s my Thanksgiving and I like them!
Sweet Potato Casserole with Cider, Orange and Maple
I’ll be honest. I have made this dish for years by sight and taste, but I worked to develop this recipe with precise measurements. It feeds about six with all the other goodies on the buffet. If you have a larger crowd, double this recipe exactly or just use these ingredients to taste on the amount of potatoes you need.
2 ½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 4 medium)
½ gallon apple cider
½ cup (1 stick) of butter, room temperature
Zest and juice of one navel orange
1 cup light brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup maple syrup (preferably Grade B)
Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into medium chunks of roughly the same size. Place into a large pan and pour over the apple cider. Bring to a boil and cook until very tender, about 20 minutes. A knife inserted into a potato chunk should slide out easily – remember that these are going to be mashed. Drain the potatoes and discard the liquid. Return the potatoes to the pan and add the butter. Begin to mash the potatoes and butter together with a potato masher or a large wooden spoon. Grate over the orange zest, then squeeze in the juice. Mash a little more. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. Mash well. Add the maple syrup and continue mashing until you have a relatively smooth puree, with a few lumps is fine. Spread the sweet potatoes into an 8 by 8 inch square casserole, smoothing the top, and arrange the glazed pecans over the sweet potatoes (see recipe below).
This dish will keep tightly wrapped and refrigerated for one day.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Uncover the casserole and bake in the oven until warmed through, about 30 minutes.
2 cups pecan halves
1 cup light brown sugar
2 Tablespoons water
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon of kosher salt
Dash of cayenne pepper
Line a cookie sheet with non-stick foil or parchment paper sprayed with cooking spray. Toast the pecans in a large skillet over medium heat until they smell nutty. Remove from the skillet to a plate immediately. Wipe out the skillet to remove any bits of pecan. Place the brown sugar and water in the skillet and cook over medium heat until thickened. Stir in the cinnamon, salt and cayenne, then add the pecan halves and stir to coat. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the pecans are completely coated and there is very little glaze remaining in the skillet.
Turn the pecans out onto the prepared sheet. Use two forks to carefully separate the pecan halves and lay them out flat on the sheet. Leave to cool and for the glaze to harden.
The pecans can be prepared up to 4 days in advance and kept tightly wrapped in an airtight container.