During a visit to the Pennsylvania Dutch country last month, I was reminded vividly of the great family dinners I used to enjoy as a child. The table was spread with a heavy white cloth on which were crowded large numbers of seemingly unrelated dishes -- creamed chicken, baked ham, pickled peppers, coleslaw, brownie cake, sweet-and-sour dill pickles, apple rings with beets.
That was just the beginning. And, never mind that the ham got involved with the spiced herring or the pickled peppers with the cracker pudding. We all ate what we liked, how we liked it best.
Thanksgiving should be just the same -- a chance for everyone to tuck into the favorites he or she misses the most during the year. Most important is a wide choice, and in this meal I've made some familiar, and some not so familiar, suggestions, all based on the country cooking of the Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch is really Deutsch, for the original settlers were German speaking).
A visit to a Dutch kitchen is a step into the past. Produce is seasonally grown, no strawberries in December. The first green peas of spring or apples in the fall are a genuine treat. Reflecting a prerefrigeration era, the larder is packed with jars of pickles and sauerkraut and strung with dried onions and fruits. Hams smoke in the shed and potatoes shelter in the cellar, away from the light of day.
The Thanksgiving table reflects this storehouse, with a variety of dishes to suit every taste. TIMETABLE
Up to 2 weeks ahead: Make pickled celery and store in refrigerator.
Up to 2 days ahead: Make cheese pastries and store in an airtight container. Make pastry dough for pies and chill.
Up to 1 day ahead: Make dressing for turkey and refrigerate it. Prepare sweet potatoes for glazing and refrigerate. Prepare creamed squash and keep in refrigerator.
Up to 8 hours ahead: Stuff turkey and truss. Cook fried onions and apple and keep at room temperature. Make cracker pudding and refrigerate. Bake pumpkin and shoofly pies and store in airtight containers.
4 1/2-5 hours ahead: Heat oven to 350 degrees; prepare turkey and put it to roast. Cook carrots with raisins. Make cranberry muffins and wrap in foil. Set the table.
Shortly before guests arrive: Warm the cheese pastries and arrange on a platter. Transfer pickled celery to a serving bowl; put pretzels in a bowl.
20 minutes before serving: Put sweet potatoes and squash in oven to heat.
15 minutes before serving: Take turkey from oven, transfer bird to a platter, cover loosely with foil and keep warm, lower oven temperature to 300 degrees. Make the gravy. Reheat fried onions with apples on top of stove. Warm cracker pudding and muffins in oven.
Just before serving: Decorate turkey with watercress or parsley. Sprinkle sweet potatoes with chopped parsley. Transfer fried onions with apples to serving dishes.
15 minutes before serving dessert: Warm pumpkin and shoofly pies in oven. Transfer ice cream to a serving dish.
When planning this menu I did not consider the cooking timetable, but it works out very well. Dressing and some of the vegetable dishes can be made the day before. A big assault is needed the morning of Thanksgiving to stuff the turkey, make the pudding, and bake the muffins and pies. For this I'd call for help, since after all it is a family celebration. Once those morning preparations are completed, for the cook all that remains is just before serving to make the gravy and reheat dishes that are already prepared -- half an hour or less with a willing assistant. CHEESE PASTRIES
(Makes about 60 pastries)
For best flavor, use a dry sharp cheddar in these pastries. 3 cups flour 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper Pinch of cayenne 1 cup shortening 1 cup cheddar cheese, grated 5-6 tablespoons cold water
FOR THE TOPPING: 1 egg beaten with 1 teaspoon salt (for glaze) 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated
Sift flour with salt, pepper and cayenne into a bowl. Add shortening and cut with a pastry cutter or two knives into very small pieces. Do not work shortening with your fingers or it will be sticky. Stir in the cheese with enough water to make a stiff dough. Knead very lightly until dough comes together. Wrap and chill at least an hour. Alternatively, make dough in a food processor.
Roll dough to a 16-inch square. Brush it with egg glaze and sprinkle with grated cheese. Cut dough into four lengthwise strips, then divide each strip into 1-inch fingers. Transfer fingers to baking sheets and chill thoroughly.
Bake pastries until golden brown, 12-15 minutes, in a 375-degree oven. Transfer them to a rack to cool. The pastries can be baked up to 48 hours ahead and kept in an airtight container, or they can be frozen.
TIP: You can cut this pastry into small disks; they are easier to stack and wrap for storage or freezing. PICKLED CELERY
(Makes 3 quarts pickles)
An interesting variation of the perennial sweet-sour dills. 3 large bunches celery Salt
FOR THE PICKLING LIQUID: 2 cups sugar 1 1/2 cups cider vinegar 1 1/2 cups water 1 tablespoon celery seed 1 tablespoon mustard seed 2-3 teaspoons dried hot red peppers
For pickling liquid: combine all ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to a boil and leave to infuse over low heat 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile wash celery and cut it into 1/2-by-3-inch sticks. In a large pan of salted water boil celery until partly cooked but still very firm, 4-5 minutes. Drain it. Bring pickling liquid back to a boil, add celery and simmer 2 minutes. Pack celery in jars, pour over liquid to cover and refrigerate at least 1 and up to 2 weeks. If storing pickles longer, pack them while still hot in sterilized jars and seal. For serving, drain celery to eat with the fingers. ROAST TURKEY WITH CREAM GRAVY (16 servings) Dressing (recipe follows) 16-pound turkey, with giblets 1 cup butter Salt and pepper 2 bunches watercress or parsley
FOR THE GRAVY: 3 cups turkey stock (made with giblets, 1 onion, 1 carrot and 1/2 teaspoon peppercorns) 4 tablespoons flour 1 cup whipping cream
Make dressing and cool thoroughly. Stuff body cavity of bird through vent end. Sew or skewer vent closed to keep dressing in place. Draw thighs close to body and tie string around knuckle joints and tail.
To stuff neck end, fill breast cavity, mounding it well. Fold skin over dressing and tuck it under wing tips. Sew up neck end of bird to keep dressing in place, or fasten with a skewer. Bird can be stuffed up to 4 hours ahead provided dressings have been thoroughly chilled.
To roast bird: Spread breast and legs of turkey with butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set bird, one leg downwards, in a large roasting pan and cover loosely with foil. Roast bird in a 350-degree oven, basting often, for 4-4 1/2 hours. After one hour turn bird onto the other leg, then onto its back after one hour longer. To test if bird is done, insert a skewer in thickest part of thigh; the juice that runs out should be clear and not pink. A meat thermometer should register 165 degrees.
Meanwhile make turkey stock: put all giblets except liver in a pan with sliced onion, carrot and peppercorns. (Liver is used in dressing.) Add 1 quart water and simmer 1 hour. Strain and measure 3 cups.
Transfer bird to a large platter, cover with foil and keep warm. For gravy, discard all but 3-4 tablespoons fat from the pan. Stir in flour and cook on top of stove, stirring constantly, until flour is browned. Stir in stock and bring to a boil. Simmer until gravy is thick enough to coat a spoon, about 5 minutes. Strain gravy into a saucepan and add cream. Bring to a boil and taste for seasoning.
Discard strings from turkey, decorate platter with bunches of watercress or parsley. Serve gravy separately.
TIP: Any extra stuffing can be baked in a shallow dish along with the turkey. DRIED APPLE, APRICOT AND PECAN DRESSING
(Makes 10 cups dressing for a 16-pound bird)
This dressing is good also with goose and duck. 3 cups dried apple rings 2 cup dried apricots 6 tablespoons butter 4 onions, finely chopped 2 cups pecans 3 cups fresh white bread crumbs 4 tablespoons parsley, chopped Salt and pepper
Put apple rings and apricots in a large bowl, pour over boiling water to generously cover and leave 15-20 minutes. Drain and coarsely chop fruit.
Melt butter in a small pan and saute' onion until soft but not brown. Add onion to fruit with pecans, bread crumbs, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Dressing can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead and kept covered in refrigerator. GLAZED SWEET POTATOES
For a richer flavor you may prefer yams, which are darker and less floury than sweet potatoes. 6-8 sweet potatoes, peeled Salt and pepper 1 tablespoon lemon juice 4 tablespoons honey 1/2 cup pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped 2 tablespoons butter plus extra for dish
Cook sweet potatoes in boiling salted water until tender, 20-25 minutes.
Drain potatoes, slice and arrange overlapping in a buttered baking dish. Spoon over the lemon juice and honey, sprinkle with nuts, salt and pepper and dot top with butter. Potatoes can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead and kept covered in refrigerator.
To finish: Bake potatoes in a 350-degree oven until very hot and lightly browned, 15-20 minutes. CREAMED SQUASH
(8 servings) Zucchini, yellow squash or pattypan squash can all be used. 2 pounds squash, trimmed and cut in 1-inch chunks 4 tablespoons butter plus extra for dish 4 tablespoons flour 1 cup milk 1 cup light cream Salt and pepper Grated nutmeg to taste 1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
Cook squash in a large pan of boiling water until tender but still firm, 5-7 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly.
In a saucepan melt butter, whisk in flour, and cook until foaming. Add milk and cream and bring to a boil, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg and simmer 2 minutes.
Spread squash in a shallow buttered baking dish and spoon the sauce over it. Squash can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead and kept covered in refrigerator.
To finish: Cook squash until very hot in a 350-degree oven, 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley just before serving. FRIED ONIONS AND APPLES WITH BACON
A delicious accompaniment to broiled meats as well as poultry. 4 firm apples 4 slices bacon, diced 1 teaspoon sugar 3 medium onions, peeled and cut in 1/4-inch slices Salt and pepper
Core unpeeled apples and cut in 1/2-inch slices. In a skillet fry bacon until crisp, remove with a slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels. Add apple rings to skillet, sprinkle with half the sugar, turn over and fry briskly until browned. Sprinkle with remaining sugar, turn and brown other side. Take out apples, add onions, salt and pepper to taste, and cook, stirring, until browned. Return bacon and apples to the pan and stir lightly to mix. Taste for seasoning.
Onions and apple can prepared up to 8 hours ahead and kept in a bowl at room temperature. Reheat mixture on top of the stove just before serving.
Tip: Leaving the peel on the apples increases their flavor and helps hold their shape. BETTY GROFF'S CRACKER PUDDING
(8 servings) 1 quart milk 2 eggs, separated 2/3 cup sugar 4 ounces saltine crackers 1 cup medium shredded coconut 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a large heavy saucepan scald the milk. Beat egg yolks and sugar until light, then stir in hot milk. Return mixture to the pan and crumble crackers on top. Bring back to a boil, stirring constantly. Add coconut and cook, stirring until mixture thickens and bubbles "like the Hot Springs of Arkansas," about 4-5 minutes.
Take from the heat and stir in vanilla. Stiffly whip egg whites and fold into pudding. It can be made up to 8 hours ahead and refrigerated. Before serving, let it come to room temperature, or warm it slightly in a low oven. Serve cool or warm. From "Country Goodness Cookbook," by Betty Groff, Doubleday 1981. CRANBERRY MUFFINS
(Makes 24 muffins)
For more tartness, reduce the sugar to 1/4 cup. 8 tablespoons butter, melted, plus extra for muffin cups 3 1/2 cups flour 1 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup sugar 4 teaspoons baking powder 4 eggs 1 1/2 cups milk 2 cups cranberries, coarsely chopped
Butter the muffin cups. Sift flour with salt, sugar and baking powder. In a separate bowl whisk eggs thoroughly with milk. Make a well in center of flour and add egg mixture with melted butter. Mix in flour lightly, stirring as little as possible; when flour is half mixed, add cranberries and continue mixing.
NOTE: If over-mixed, muffins will be tough.
Spoon batter into cups, filling them about 2/3 full. Bake muffins in a 400-degree oven until brown and they shrink slightly from sides of pan, 20-25 minutes. Muffins are best eaten at once, but they can be made a few hours ahead. Store them in foil and reheat them in the foil in a low oven just before serving. LATTICE PUMPKIN PIE
Pie pastry (recipe follows) 3-pound pumpkin 2 eggs, beaten to mix 3/4 cup dark brown sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon 2 teaspoons ground ginger 1 teaspoon ground cloves 1 1/4 cups light cream
Make pastry dough and chill 30 minutes. Roll out three quarters of dough, and line the pie pan, fluting the edges to make them higher. Chill 30 minutes.
To cook pumpkin: cut pumpkin into large cubes discarding rind and seeds. Boil flesh in a pan of water until very tender, 20-25 minutes. Drain pumpkin thoroughly. In a bowl, stir the pumpkin with a wooden spoon to make a pure'e. Measure two cups pure'e and reserve.
For filling: Beat together eggs, sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Stir in pumpkin, then the cream. Pour mixture into pie shell.
Bake pie in a 425-degree oven 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees until a knife inserted in center comes out clean, 45-50 minutes.
Roll out remaining dough and cut into long 1/2-inch strips. On a piece of buttered foil, weave a lattice, sealing together the strips where they cross with a little cold water. Trim the edges of the lattice to form an 8 1/2-inch circle. Chill 30 minutes. Bake at 425 degrees until crisp and pale brown. Let cool on the foil.
Carefully transfer lattice from foil to top of warm pie. Pie can be prepared up to 8 hours ahead. Store it in an airtight container. Before serving, warm pie in a low oven and serve it warm. SHOOFLY PIE A LA MODE
(8 servings, or 1 pie) Pie pastry (recipe follows) 2 teaspoons baking soda 3/4 cup hot water 3/4 cup dark or light molasses Vanilla ice cream (for serving)
FOR THE TOPPING: 3/4 cup butter 2 cups flour 1 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Make pastry dough and chill 30 minutes. Roll out dough, line pie pan, and chill. Place a baking sheet in a 375-degree oven to heat.
In a bowl stir soda into water until dissolved. Add molasses and stir until liquefied. For topping: In a bowl cut butter into flour with a pastry cutter or 2 knives to form fine crumbs. Stir in sugar and cinnamon.
Pour molasses mixture into pie shell and sprinkle crumbs on top. Bake pie in the 375-degree oven, setting pan on heated baking sheet, until set and very lightly browned, 35-45 minutes. Pie can be baked up to 8 hours ahead and stored in an airtight container. It can also be frozen. Warm it in a low oven just before serving. Serve vanilla ice cream separately.
TIP: If you find the taste of dark molasses too strong, use lighter molasses. PIE PASTRY
(Makes one 9-inch pie shell with lattice) 2 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup shortening 6-7 tablespoons water
Sift flour with salt into a bowl. Add shortening and cut with a pastry cutter or two knives into very small pieces. Do not work shortening with your fingers or it will be sticky. Stir in just enough water to make a stiff dough. Knead very lightly until dough comes together. Wrap and chill at least an hour. Alternately make dough in a food processor.