Happy Thanksgiving!

When I reflect on this epochal year in my life, it’s too easy to concentrate on the parts of it that have been painful, uncomfortable, overwhelming. And while I know that there is a “time to mourn and a time to dance,” there are so many things that I am thankful for this year; I’m thankful for the grace of enduring friendships, for precious time with my family, a new nephew and brother-in-law. I’m grateful for the stability of employment and healthy babies born to friends, for dear friends beating cancer, for adventure, for a sense of humor, for not going through this year alone, for love.

We’re celebrating the holiday in the South this year at my in-laws. We drove down through nine states and the remnants of a beautiful East Coast Autumn in time for my mom’s birthday, a couple of my youngest sister’s senior year events, had a hilarious evening with friends at our favorite pub in Atlanta. We have eaten a little more BBQ than I care to admit. We’ve been having weather that is warm enough to allow us to sit outside with a fire and play guitar. We’ve had time to connect with friends that usually get squeezed by the holiday rush. It’s been nice.

I’m grateful to have been cooked for a good bit on this trip. In contrast to last Thanksgiving where my brother and I did an Amazing Race-meets-Top Chef Lightening Round style turkey dinner between his kitchen and our hotel at the beach in La Jolla, the only thing I really cooked this Thanksgiving dinner was a rather homely but delicious pecan tart. The recipe comes a little late for all of your Thanksgiving dinners, but it’s also eminently suitable for Christmas dinner, or Thursday night supper for that matter.

Pecan Tart

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into squares

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup corn syrup

6 ounces pecans, toasted and broken up into large pieces

1 recipe of Cream Cheese Tart Pastry

With the oven rack in the middle of the oven, par-bake the pie crust at 325 degrees.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a heat-proof bowl over simmering water. Remove from heat. Mix in sugar and salt until all of the butter is absorbed. Beat in eggs, then syrup. Return bowl to hot water; stir until mixture is shiny and hot, about 130 degrees. Remove from heat; stir in pecans.

As soon as the pie crust comes out of the oven, reduce the heat to 275 degrees. Pour pecan mixture into hot pie shell. Bake until the center feels soft-set, like gelatin, when gently pressed, 35-40 minutes. Transfer to cooling rack and let it cool completely.

The tart shell is the same one used for the lemon tart in “Sweetart” except that I omit the pistachios.

Cream Cheese Pastry

Makes 1 9-inch pie or tart crust

1 1/4 cups all- purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

Lightly grease your baking tin. Whisk flour, sugar, and salt together.

Beat butter and cream cheese together with your electric mixer at medium-high speed until completely homogenous, about 2 minutes. Add flour, sugar, and salt and mix on medium low until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Increase mixer speed and beat until dough forms large clumps and pulls away from the bowl.

Form into a disk and press into the pie tin with your fingers, working out from the center and up the sides until the dough is evenly distributed.

Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 325 for 35- 40 minutes for a fully baked crust or 20-25 minutes for a partially baked crust.

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Cauliflower mac and cheese

The more perceptive reader may have concluded rightly that I am a fan of cheese. In fact, while we were in the Netherlands and Belgium, it wasn’t the chocolate shops that I wandered blissfully through, eyes alight, heartbeat elevated! The scope and variety of cheese was a revelation- aged Gouda, epoisse, geitenkass both young and old- and I happily tasted my way through.

While a simple homemade macaroni and cheese is bliss, this is a recipe that makes it into a little more of a rounded one-dish meal. I recommend a snowy night, a fire in the fireplace, and a bottle of dry white wine to go with.

1 head cauliflower

2-3 slices of bacon cut into ¼ inch strips

2 tablespoons flour

¼ cup Marsala wine

½ teaspoon salt, plus salt to cooking water

1 ½ to 2 cups milk

4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese and Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

6 ounces of macaroni, penne, or whatever tube pasta you like.

Preheat the oven to 350°

Fill a big pot with salted water and get it boiling over high heat.

Break the cauliflower into florets. Add it all at once to the fiercely boiling water and then bring the water back up to temperature. Cook the cauliflower for about 1 minute, just until it is still a bit crisp. Drain it into a colander very thoroughly. Remember, water has no flavor, so you don’t want the cauliflower to water down the sauce. Leave it in the colander to finish draining while you busy yourself with the rest of the dish.

Alternatively, the cauliflower can be broken up and roasted in the oven for about 20 minutes. This takes longer, but has the benefit of concentrating, intensifying, and sweetening the cauliflower’s flavor.

In a heavy saucepan or large skillet, cook the bacon until it is crisp and browned. Then remove it from the pan and drain it on a paper towel.  Leave about 1-½ tablespoons of bacon fat in the skillet and sprinkle the flour into the pan, stirring to form a roux. Cook, steadily stirring, over medium heat until the flour becomes fragrant and golden brown. Pour in the Marsala wine and stir it into the roux. It should foam up and hiss and sizzle; reduce until almost all the liquid is evaporated and the flavor is concentrated.  Slowly whisk in the milk, stirring to remove any lumps. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.  By this, I mean that your spoon should have a coating of sauce that does not immediately fill in the track left when you run your finger across it.  Taste for salt. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated cheese.

Cook the pasta to slightly underdone in salted water. Drain it thoroughly. Add the cauliflower and bacon to the pasta and stir them together. Pour the cheese sauce over and mix gently, until all of the pasta and cauliflower is enveloped in the creamy, cheesy sauce.   Bake in a buttered ovenproof dish at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes until the sauce is bubbly throughout. I use a dish with low sides to up the crusty golden brown top to creamy luscious interior ratio. Grate a little bit of cheese over the top and return to the oven until the top is melted and golden.

Please don’t feel bound by my cheese recommendations- I recommended a couple of readily available favorites. Fontina, or Gruyère melt beautifully and are full of flavor. My only caution is that milder cheeses such as Monterey jack, Colby, or mild cheddar may not offer enough to give the sauce the flavor desired.

Soup of the day- Kabocha Pumpkin Soup

Rifling through the freezer today, I found a couple of Ziploc bags of kabocha pumpkin that I had roasted and pureed. Kabocha is a little gnarly green pumpkin with very sweet slightly grainy flesh. It’s flavor is intensified by roasting and I like to keep some cooked in the freezer for risotto, soup, or quick bread.

Tonight, I’m making a very traditionally and simply seasoned pumpkin soup.

Kabocha Pumpkin Soup

Tools you’ll need

Knife

Cutting board

Soup pot- about 3 quarts

Spoon or spatula to stir

Immersion blender or regular blender

Ingredients

2 cups roasted kabocha

1 stalk of celery minced

½ yellow onion, minced

1 shallot, minced

6 dried sage leaves, chopped or ground

Dash of cayenne

1 tablespoon of butter and a splash of olive oil

Chicken stock- I used about 2 cups

Cream or half and half- I used about 4 tablespoons

Salt

Technique-

Start by mincing all of the aromatic vegetables, celery, onion, and shallot; meanwhile, melt the butter and olive oil in the soup pot. Add all of the minced vegetables and the chopped or ground sage, a dash of cayenne, and a nice pinch of salt and sweat it slowly over low heat until everything is soft. Add the pumpkin and about half of the chicken stock. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes to infuse the flavor of the aromatics into the pumpkin and stock. Check the consistency and add enough of the additional stock to make a fairly loose mixture; add the cream of half and half. Using an immersion blender or regular blender, process the soup until it is very smooth. Check the seasoning for salt.

A bowl of this rich saffron-colored sweet and savory soup is incredibly satisfying with a little Brie grilled cheese alongside. We had licked-clean bowls at our house.