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Preparing a Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey AND Snowy Day Treats

photo of turkey with words superimposed: Thanksgiving Dinner: How to Roast a Perfect Turkey and Other TipsIn Northern Virginia we are preparing for a maybe-it-will, maybe-it-won’t snow forecast just in time for Thanksgiving. So I figured it was a perfect time to share a few popular seasonal posts — my foolproof way to prepare a Thanksgiving turkey as well as some of our favorite snowy-day treats.

My family wishes yours a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Dinner: Roasting a Perfect Turkey and Other Tips

photo of turkey with words superimposed: Thanksgiving Dinner: How to Roast a Perfect Turkey and Other TipsI happened to be in the grocery section of Target the other night when a wild-eyed woman looked at me and said, “I don’t see the cabbage! Do you see any cabbage?”

Me, (bewildered as to why one would think Target would have cabbage): “Um, no. I guess they don’t carry any.”

Crazy lady: “How I got stuck with all the cooking and cleaning I don’t know. Dammit, I’m going to have to go to another store now to buy all this food.”

Suddenly it all became clear — she is a reluctant Thanksgiving hostess. Personally, I love cooking for Thanksgiving, but for many, it is a burdensome task. There are some who are afraid of cooking the big bird, or are overwhelmed by the timing of the many side dishes.

Do you find yourself in the same position as the poor lady I found muttering in the aisles? If so, fear not! This is really so much easier than you would think!

Roasting the Perfect Turkey

Let’s start with the star of the show — the turkey! I believe there are two keys to success here: starting with a good brand you trust and picking a cooking method you are comfortable with. I watch all those cooking shows and think, “Ooh, I’m going to try to brine my turkey this year!” But when it comes right down to it, I’ve honed my roasting to such perfection that I just can’t bear to mess with it. (Okay, one year I tried a turducken, and regretted it.) Everyone who has eaten a turkey I have cooked has said it is the juiciest, most tender, and flavorful turkey they ever had, and though I have cooked it, I almost feel like I can’t take credit because it is due to such a foolproof method that everyone else I have shared it with has been able to reproduce identical results.

I posted this method way back in 2008, so without further ado, here is my Foolproof Way to Roast a Turkey and in the same post is my mother’s wonderful homemade cornbread stuffing recipe. Here are a few small changes since then:

  • When I use my covered roaster in the oven, I don’t necessarily have to baste every 30 minutes. But some habits die hard. Note that it does cook faster in the covered roaster, so adjust your timing accordingly.
  • I have since bought an electric roaster, and I have been able to replicate this process in it (with the limitation of the size of bird that the electric roaster can handle). I really like to cook birds in the 22-24 pound range and I can barely close the cover on a 22-pound bird on my electric roaster. These directions are similar, but not identical to my process (again, I stuff my turkey.)
  • You may have noticed that a smart commenter on that post decided to cream together his spices with his butter instead of doing it in two steps; sometimes I now cream together my butter and poultry seasoning.
  • For the stuffing recipe, some years I “cheat” and buy the pre-chopped “stuffing mix” vegetables in the produce section that has onions, celery and usually some herbs in them. It still works and tastes yummy. I buy the largest bowl, estimate what I need for my recipe and then keep the rest to use for my turkey carcass soup!
  • For timing, use the directions that came with your turkey, they generally will give you guidelines for a stuffed and unstuffed turkey. But remember, since you started out with the higher temperature for the first 30 minutes, you turkey will usually cook faster. And remember, TEMPERATURE, not time, is the ruling guideline.

The Side Dishes

Ready for my dirty little secret? I’m actually not a huge turkey fan! I prefer it as a leftover, in things (sandwiches, soups, or cut up with a dip of mayo and mustard mixed together). So for me, the Thanksgiving dinner is really all about the sides. And I’m very much a traditionalist, I stick to pretty much the same recipes my family has eaten for decades. I keep clipping new recipes, saying I’ll try something new, and then when the big day comes, I go to the tried and true. Why? Because I love them! They bring back fond memories and connect me to times spent with families members who are no longer with us.

But in the kitchen, side dishes are what often trip up the reluctant Thanksgiving hostess. It can be challenging to get the timing right when there are multiple dishes with different temperatures and requiring different lengths of cooking time. Here are a few tips:

  • Cook things ahead of time and then reheat. Some ideal candidates for this are candied sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and green bean casserole.
  • Prep the night before. Chop and measure anything you can ahead of time and put into small, sealed containers. There is no reason you can’t go ahead and mix together dry ingredients for recipes and put them into a sealed container. If you are going to have to open cans of things, put those on the kitchen counter with the can opener next to them. Gather anything that needs to be gathered, make sure your workspace is clear, your dishwasher is empty, your sink is clean — you want to be ready to dive in and clean as you go!
  • Make adjustments. If the variance in temperature is not significant and the food is not too delicate, choose the higher temperature and adjust the timing accordingly. For example, I have two casseroles I cook together but they have temperatures that are 25 degrees apart. I use the higher temperature and then just cook the one that has the lower temperature on the recipe for a shorter time.
  • Use a different appliance. Most recipes can be adapted to use a different appliance. Cook your turkey in an electric roaster to free up the oven. Mashed potatoes can be made in a slow cooker (otherwise known by the brand name: CrockPot). Perhaps something can be made in a pressure cooker. I’ve been known to cook candied sweet potatoes on the stove and in the microwave.
  • Post your menu on the fridge with a cooking time table. If I don’t list out a menu for myself, I invariably forget something, even if it is something small, like putting out the black olives. Work backwards from your planned serving time and run through when everything needs to go in and out of the oven/stove/other appliance, what might be need to be reheated. Leave yourself some time for replating (moving things from their cooking vessel into your pretty serving dishes). Go ahead and set out all of pretty serving dishes WITH serving silverware out on your table or buffet ahead of time so it is all accounted for.

This year I am going to try one new side dish. Doesn’t this look yummy? It has been years since I have cooked turnips and that time I pickled them! At least I’m trying to break free from my this Thanksgiving and trying something new! I’m curious if JavaDad will give them a try!

Glazed Carrots and Turnips from FoodNetwork.com

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4-6 servings

Serving Size: Not listed, meant to be a side dish.

Calories per serving: 70

Fat per serving: 2 g (Saturated 1 g)

Glazed Carrots and Turnips from FoodNetwork.com

Copyright 2001 Television Food Network, G.P. All rights reserved. Relisted on caffeineandaprayer with permission courtesy of FoodNetwork.com. Image courtesy of FoodNetwork.com.

Ingredients

  •    3/4 pound turnips, cut into 1-inch pieces
  •    3/4 pound carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
  •    2 teaspoons unsalted butter
  •    1/2 teaspoon sugar
  •    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Put the vegetables in a skillet just large enough to hold them in a single layer.
  2. Add enough water so that it comes halfway up their sides along with the butter and sugar.
  3. Bring to a boil over high heat, then adjust the heat to maintain a simmer.
  4. Cover the vegetables with a round of parchment paper just large enough to fit the inside diameter of the pan, or with a lid set ajar.
  5. Simmer the vegetables until tender, about 8 to 10 minutes.
  6. Remove the cover and raise the heat to high.
  7. Toss the vegetables frequently in the pan, as the liquid evaporates to a shiny smooth glaze.
  8. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
  9. Link to original recipe: http://bit.ly/GlazedCarrots_Turnips

Notes

SERVES: 4 (SIDE); Calories: 70; Total Fat: 2 grams; Saturated Fat: 1 gram; Protein: 1 gram; Total carbohydrates: 12 grams; Sugar: 7 grams; Fiber: 3 grams; Cholesterol: 5 milligrams; Sodium: 219 milligrams

http://caffeineandaprayer.com/2013/11/26/thanksgiving-dinner/

My Pumpkin Pie Confession

I have made pumpkin pie many ways. I have made it from the famous Libby’s recipe. I have made it from my dear mother’s recipe (which uses bourbon!) I have made it using fresh pumpkin. I have even made a pumpkin flan. I have eaten many, many, many pumpkin pies in my life. And I have to tell you, one of the consistently best pumpkin pies comes from… Costco. There are times when the wisest hostess knows when to streamline (in business it is called “outsourcing”) and goes with the best. After all, I don’t make my own wine, do I? So for the past few years, I’ve stopped making my own pumpkin pies and have run by and picked up a pie. There is no shame in playing to your strengths (mine is making delicious turkey) and then taking a few shortcuts where the end result is going to be the same or better (my pumpkin pie is just fine, but why bother when Costco’s is a bit better? No more dashing up in the middle of dinner to pull a pie out of the oven! I’d love to hear what you do for your dessert!

Incidentally, you may be interested in this recent article by Forbes about why canned pumpkin produces superior pies.

Fun Food For the Kids

We’ve been making these Ritz Cracker Turkeys and Pilgrim Hat Cookies with the kids for years. I didn’t manage to get them made in time to send to school this year, but we’ll probably make them with visiting grandparents this Thanksgiving. It’s a fun way to keep the kids busy while Mom is in the kitchen. If you have trouble finding candy corn (it is often considered a Halloween candy — go figure!), check your drug store — for some reason they tend to keep it in stock for a longer period of time or even year-round, especially Walgreens.

The Most Important Tip: Go With the Flow

My top tip is this: Relax! Go with the flow! We’ve had all kinds of Thanksgivings… more formal ones with several family members and then a very memorable one that felt pretty disastrous as my husband was suffering from swine flu. Another year, I recall having to call the plumber when our garbage disposal backed up one Thanksgiving and washing some dishes in the bathroom sink while we waited. One year, the turkey we had ordered (as I like fresh turkeys of a large size) somehow never got ordered, and when my husband (then fiancé) went to pick it up, not only was it not there, there wasn’t a single fresh turkey to be had, only frozen. He was rushing to bring it home, got pulled over for speeding, then his car battery died. Imagine how mortified I was when my mother looked out the window and said, “There’s a police car in your driveway… and (JavaDad) is in the back of it!” They had given him (and the frozen turkey) a ride home. It is now just one of our many funny Thanksgiving stories… though it didn’t feel like it at the time! If you oven breaks, or you accidentally cook the bag of giblets, you won’t be the first hostess to have that happen. If you forget something, there is sure to be plenty of other food and drink on the table. If the house doesn’t look perfect, so be it. Step outside (or in your closet, garage or anywhere else) if you need a moment to yourself, and then remind yourself that it’s not about the food, and it’s not about being perfect. Thanksgiving is about being together, remembering our nation’s great history, and then counting our blessings and reminding ourselves how much we have to be thankful for.

One of the many things I am thankful for is YOU! Thank you for being a Caffeine and a Prayer reader! I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving! If you get a chance, I’d love for you to share a comment about your Thanksgiving traditions — whether it is food-related or something else!

 

Foolproof Way to Roast a Turkey (and Cornbread Stuffing, Too!)

This is not really a foodie blog, but apparently that is where my mind is at during the holidays!

When I made my first Thanksgiving turkey nearly 15 years ago, my mother sent me a sage, yet humorous email, with instructions.  I printed that email out and pulled it out year after year and managed to keep it despite moving cross-country twice since then.  I’ve also picked up a few tricks of my own along the way and have written them in the margins and finally got wise last year and wrote up my own version for future generations on our family blog (and also because I was terrified of losing all those precious notes!

So for anyone who may not have the benefit of such notes, I share with you, a time-tested way to roast a (usually extremely large) holiday turkey, complete with humorous asides and a to-die for cornbread stuffing recipe from my mother!

Turkey Prep (notes written for myself and future generations)

We buy a local brand of turkey, Shady Brook Farm, rather than Butterball and I think it makes a difference.  But my second choice would be a Butterball.  I prefer fresh to frozen.  If you have to buy frozen, remember to give it several days to thaw in the fridge.  If it is still not thawed, you will have to let it thawed in a bucket or sink filled with cold water and make sure the turkey is fully submerged.

I also prefer a covered roasting pan (you’ll need a really, really big one if you follow my tradition of cooking 20+ pound birds).

Ready… this is the part JavaDad and I always forget.  BEFORE YOU PREHEAT THE OVEN… remove the second rack and make sure to put the remaining one at the lowest level.  Should you forget to do this, say every year for 9 straight years, you can always put the rack out in the cold on the deck.

Oh yeah, now is a good time to make sure that your roasting pan is on the counter, ready for the big bird.  Not, say, down in the basement.

Preheat your oven to 500 degrees.  Nope, not a typo, you are going to cook it for 30 minutes at 500 degrees to give the bird a beautiful tan and seal the juices in.  It takes a while to get up that high, so turn that oven on now.

Always check the neck and chest cavities for a plastic bag with the gizzards and liver, and also for the neck itself.

Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water and put it in your rack.  Make sure you rinse out the sink and anything else you may have touched (faucet handles, etc.) and Clorox them as well afterward.

Stuff the turkey (some of your relatives are anti-stuffed turkey — they don’t realize that the turkey is merely a gigantic cooking/flavoring hole for the stuffing, why else would I cook a turkey?)  You need to not pack the stuffing very tightly, it needs to go in loosely.  I make sort of small loose balls to put it in.  Don’t forget you can put stuffing in the neck cavity as well.  You will remove the stuffing before carving the turkey — do not let stuffing sit in the turkey after it has been cooked!  And remember, your stuffed turkey will take longer to cook than a non-stuffed turkey.

Oh, and I leave the “pope’s nose” (fatty bit just under the chest cavity) on the turkey, but Grandma E always cut it off.  It adds good flavoring to the drippings.

After you’ve stuffed the turkey, rub some poultry seasoning all over the skin — everywhere.  Then rub softened butter all over the skin (I find it easier to do the poultry seasoning first, then the butter).  I tend to put a few bits of butter on the top of the exposed stuffing as well.

Pour some water (about 1/2 cup) into the bottom of the pan.  Don’t worry about any stuffing or butter that has dropped into the pan.

Put tin foil over the wing tips and ends of the drumsticks to protect them from burning.

Put the bird in the oven with no lid for 30 minutes at 500 degrees.  I put about half a stick of butter into a bowl and put that on top of the middle part of the stove so it softens during that 30 minutes of time.  When the time goes off, baste with the melted butter and also the pan drippings, then put the cover on, turn down the temperature to 350 degrees, and set timer for another 30 minutes, repeat butter softening trick.  I baste every 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending on how frantic the other food prep is).

Do not rely on the “pop-up” device in the turkey to tell you when the turkey is done.  Use a thermometer.  Or if something terrible has happened to your thermometer that year, you will know your turkey is done when the legs move freely at the joint and the juices run clear.  When using the roaster, my turkey usually cooks about an hour faster than the timetable says it should.  Make sure you check both the turkey itself and the stuffing when you use a thermometer.

Because you have browned and sealed the turkey at the beginning of the cooking, you will not have to worry about removing the lid/tin foil at the end of the process to get that golden color, so if you are looking at other cooking instructions, ignore that part.

The turkey carves better after it has been allowed to “rest” — I usually let JavaDad take the pictures when it is right out of the oven, then I have him make one cut at the breast to ensure the turkey is cooked through.  Then I put the lid back on and let it rest and stay warm while we put the casseroles in the oven.  (Note:  At this point I usually announce to everyone in the house that I am about to go into “crazy mode” because I am going to assemble 3-5 casseroles at once so I want no one walking into the kitchen or talking to me for the next 10 minutes, please because I am trying to keep measurements and times in my head and am criss-crossing the kitchen.  Regardless which side of the family is visiting, they will take this as their cue to come in and fix drinks at that exact time and ask me lots of questions.  Even JavaDad, who should know better because I have threatened his very life if he does that yet again this year.  If you ever figure out a better plan, let me know.  I still love them all – I just have never figured the mystery of this out.)    You can cook the squash, green beans, and sweet potatoes at the same time, even if the recipes contradict each other as to temperature.  I usually go with whatever is the highest temp and then reduce the cooking time for the other dishes accordingly.

Remember to remove that stuffing from both cavities!

By the way, it is apparently a weird Newby family tradition to ask each other what size bird you are cooking.  I didn’t realize other families didn’t do this until I got married and had married friends.  Keep up the tradition, for my sake.  : )

Grandma’s Cornbread Stuffing
You may want to make the cornbread the night before.

Cornbread
(Makes 7 cups, I usually double the recipe)

  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1.5 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 425F.  Sift dry ingredients together.  Combine with well-beaten eggs and milk.  Blend well.  Stir in butter.  Pour into well-buttered shallow baking pan.  Bake at 425F for 15-20 minutes.

Stuffing
(make twice the recipe, then stuff the turkey with as much as you can and bake the extra stuffing in a pan.  NEVER stuff a turkey and leave it to sit – stuff JUST BEFORE cooking and empty the stuffing from the turkey as soon as dinner is over.)

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery with leaves, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • dash black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons parsley
  • 5 cups cornbread crumbs
  • water to moisten the stuffing

Sautee vegetables in butter until tender, but not browned.  Combine seasonings and crumbs.  Toss with vegetable mixture until well mixed.  Add enough water to moisten crumbs.  When you have a separate pan of extra stuffing, make sure to add even more water to that batch b/c it will not benefit from the juices of the turkey.  Put some water in it at prep time, then sprinkle a little more just before it goes into the oven.

What’s YOUR favorite recipe for the holidays? Post it on your blog and link here or post your recipe in the comments section!