Thanksgiving is two weeks away, but you're already hyperventilating, just thinking about everything you'll need to take care of to get your dinner to the table on time.
You think you're worried? Consider how much Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser has to do.
For a dinner for 10 people -- and he makes it all himself -- he'll be cooking a 25-pound turkey; corn bread stuffing with onions and green pepper; mashed potatoes with buttermilk and sour cream; an acorn squash casserole topped with walnuts, pecans and brown sugar; cranberry sauce; a salad; homemade bread; and gravy.
And seven desserts.
(That would be chocolate whipped cream roll, apricot mousse roll, raspberry cheesecake, berry shortcake, apple cake, cherry almond cake and chocolate mousse and vanilla Bavarian cream, which he combines in one dessert.)
And he doesn't start cooking until the night before. (His typical work day starts at 7 a.m. and ends late at night, after a job-related event or dinner. Last month he had only three nights off.)
But come 6 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving, he goes into action, and gets it all done for dinner at 5 p.m. the next day.
If you had a schedule like that, wouldn't you settle for just a couple of desserts? Or maybe you'd even buy one?
"I'm usually cooking three things at a time," he explains, as though that made it any easier. "And I'm very organized."
To put it all in context, Kaiser does cook the same menu every year, so no time is wasted figuring out what to do next. "I'm sort-of stuck in my ways and I don't have a lot of time to experiment," he says.
And he's prepared the same desserts over and over. He started making the cherry almond cake for his family when he was only 7 or 8 years old. "It's really simple," he says. "These cakes are so easy, they can't be messed up."
He proved that recently when he made both the cherry cake and apple cake in a single hour at the same time that he was being interviewed by the Food section. He'd already sliced the apples and drained the cherries before the interview. And he'd buttered two springform pans, surrounded each of them with aluminum foil (to avoid seepage) and set out his ingredients. Most people need to think about what they're doing when they cook or risk making mistakes. He didn't worry at all.
"Even people who can't cook can make this," he says, preheating the oven and getting out an old, food-stained three-by-five recipe card for his apple cake. "I've done them so often, I don't have to measure. And they're great for anyone who's afraid of pastry -- and I'm one of them."
He works through the steps of the two cakes with confidence, demonstrating the difference between the two batters, occasionally looking at his watch to check the timing. For the apple cake, he pats the dough into the sides of the pan. "You don't want it too thick to cut," he says. The cherry cake is faster to throw together. The only problem, he says, is making sure he can find a 14-ounce can of tart, red pitted cherries. His parents sent these down from New Rochelle, N.Y.
His dessert choices -- and particularly those two recipes -- emerge from the foods he grew up with ("My mother would always bake for company.") "In my family almond extract is like a religion," says Kaiser, whose parents were born in Germany. "It's a very Viennese/German thing, and a really smooth batter. I've tried it with other fruit, but it never works as well."
What with all the sweets, not to mention the turkey, stuffing and side dishes, Kaiser's meal, like many Thanksgiving dinners, isn't exactly low in calories. "Oh my god, the fat in this meal . . . " he says.
In fact, it's a rare indulgence for a man whose brother and sister are diabetics and who ordinarily eats with such great care that he even tries to have a salad before he heads out to the work-related dinners he attends at the Kennedy Center. "The [waiters] know how to give me small portions," he says. He exercises a lot too, starting the day at 5:30 in the morning on weekdays and 8 on weekends at a nearby gym where he runs on a treadmill six days a week, and lifts weights three days a week. "It's changed my life," he says. "I wish it opened earlier."
Like many families, Kaiser and his two siblings live in different cities. So they take turns visiting each other on holidays. He's claimed Thanksgiving since 1979, when he was living in Washington running his own management consulting firm. This year, he'll be host to his 81-year-old father and 75-year-old mother, and to seven friends. When he started cooking for Thanksgiving, initially the group at his table was small, and there were fewer desserts.
When he moved to New York, where he had senior management positions at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation, the Pierpont Morgan Library and the American Ballet Theatre, the guest list got larger, including two vegetarian friends who ate a meatless lasagna he squeezed into his cooking schedule. He made it all in a not-very-big galley kitchen. "I never found that made a difference," he says, "as long as I can have light and music."
His current kitchen in a downtown condo is filled with light from the balcony outside, and a small, slim stereo system on the wall provides the music. It's not an enormous kitchen, but it does have two electric wall ovens (one convection, one regular), a gas cooktop and an electric mixer he keeps busy.
He learned to cook first from his mother and paternal grandmother and then taught himself from books. He admits to a bad culinary year when he was a freshman at MIT and couldn't afford more than SpaghettiOs. With more years of experience behind him, he calls himself a simple chef but a pretty good cook and is particularly proud of his mushroom pie ("a great first course") and salmon mousse. He's experimented with making puff pastry and once, with a friend, even catered a wedding for 100 people, concentrating on classics like stuffed mushrooms, quiche and Swedish meatballs.
Not surprisingly for a man who's run the American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation, the Kansas City Ballet, the Royal Opera House in London and now the Kennedy Center, he's finicky about the drama of the moment when food is brought to the table. "For me that's important," he says. "I hate it when the [individual dishes in the] meal aren't ready at the same time. And it's not hard to do. A lot of it is choreography, having everything planned and doing it."
Achieving that gives him enormous pleasure. And, year after year, so does the ritual of cooking the entire Thanksgiving meal.
"What's true about Thanksgiving -- and the arts -- is the sense that things continue, things go on," he says. "When you have problems, the arts aren't frivolous. That's what I said to the staff when I reopened the Kennedy Center after 9/11. What we do isn't frivolous, and the role we play is important. The same is true for the ritual of the Thanksgiving meal. It provides inspiration and solace and comfort. For me, it's my favorite holiday."