Category: Thanksgiving


Cranberry Upside Down Cake!

Because I was teaching this semester, I wasn’t able to host Thanksgiving this year.  But I still wanted to make something to bring and share…but what?  I wanted something new, but something that would still fit with the Thanksgiving spirit.  Inspiration struck in the form of an email with the new seasonal menu for one of my favorite restaurants.  There, under the desserts, they were featuring a cranberry upside down cake.

I had never really thought of making an upside down cake before, much less one with cranberries.  I had always pictured upside down cakes with rings of pineapple, and they had never seemed particularly appealing to me.  But cranberries…cranberries had possibilities!

The first order of business was figuring out how to make the cranberries stick to the top of the cake.  Flat pineapple slices would sit on a cake fairly well, even with an imperfect “glue” but cranberries seemed problematic to me.  So I asked Google for some help and read through a bunch of different upside down cake recipes and learned that in almost all of them the “glue” is basically just a caramelized sugar and butter mixture that you pour in the bottom of your cake pan, and then press the fruit into before it hardens.  Seemed fairly easy to me!

Then there was the cake to figure out.  Most upside down cake recipes called for some variety of plain cake (white, pound, vanilla, etc) to support the fruit.  On the one hand this makes sense–you want the fruit to be the star of the dish.  But I wanted something different.  I wanted something more than just a blank slate with fruit on top–I wanted something that would work together with the cranberries and enhance them.

Answer?  Spice cake.  When I make cranberry sauce, I add a whole host of spices to the pot, so I figured the same idea would work for the cake.  But I needed somewhere to start.  Luckily, I came across Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for Spiced Applesauce Cake.  I wasn’t entirely sure it would work, because, never having made an upside down cake before, I wasn’t sure how stiff of a cake you would need to hold up the fruit.  (And never having made the applesauce cake before, I was also unsure how strong it would turn out to be.)  I also wanted more spices in the cake than that recipe calls for (because again, I put a LOT of spices in the pot when I make cranberry sauce) so I decided to wing it a bit, and just use the recipe as a guide.

In the end, the final product came together beautifully.  The cake was moist and well-spiced without being overpowering.  The cranberries stayed neatly in place in their single layer, their tartness marrying beautifully with the sweet, aromatic cake.  The one flaw was that in the attempt to not waste any cake batter, I overfilled the cake pan a bit and it overflowed.  Luckily I caught it before *too* much dripped down, and stuck a sheet pan on the rack below to keep it from getting on the heating element and burning.

Oops. Drippy.

Just out of the oven!

Success!

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

Cake Batter:

  • 2 c all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/8 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/8 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 c packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1.5 c unsweetened applesauce

Topping:

  • ~2c fresh cranberries (I used a little more than a package…basically you want enough to completely line the bottom of your pan in a single layer)
  • 3/4 stick unsalted butter
  • 3/4 c packed light brown sugar

Note: You can either make this cake in a 9′ cake pan or a 10′ cast iron skillet.  I made it in a cake pan, and had slightly too much cake batter.  It would most likely all fit in the skillet.  The advantage of using a cast iron skillet is that you can caramelize the butter and sugar right there, as opposed to needing to pour it from a saucepan into the cake pan.  On the other hand, using the cake pan, I was able to line the bottom with a disc of parchment paper, which made for easy extraction.  It’s up to you.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a small saucepan (or your cast iron skillet) melt the butter for the topping over medium heat, and then stir in the brown sugar.  Keep stirring constantly as it simmers for 4-5 minutes.  The color should darken some, but don’t let it burn!  Pour it into your parchment-lined cake pan if you’re using one, and then spread the cranberries over the top in a single layer, packing them in tightly.  (You could even arrange them in a pattern if you wanted to be fancy.)  Do not touch the sugar/butter mixture.  It will burn you.  Set the pan aside.

Whisk or sift together all of the dry ingredients in a small bowl.  Set aside.  Then, in a large bowl, beat together the brown sugar, vanilla extract, and softened butter–keep going until it’s light and fluffy.  (You’re going to want to use an electric mixer/stand mixer to do this unless you want a really good workout.  Because it takes a good 2-3 minutes on high to achieve proper fluffiness.)  Then beat in the eggs one at a time, and finally beat in the applesauce.  Then mix in the dry ingredients until just combined.  I did this by hand because my mixer doesn’t have a setting that’s low enough to avoid a flour explosion.

Pour the batter over the cranberries in the cake pan/skillet.  Even if you have a little batter left over, do not overfill your cake pan.  Bake the rest into a little spice muffin if you like.  Put the cake in the oven on the center rack, and put a sheet pan on the rack below (just in case you did overfill), and bake for 35-40 minutes until a toothpick in the center comes out clean *and* the center of the cake feels springy when you press on it gently (i.e. doesn’t feel like it’s a crust sitting on top of liquid).  Make sure you do both tests–toothpicks were coming out clean significantly before the center of the cake was fully set.

Cool the cake in the pan on top of a cooling rack for 15-30 minutes or until you can easily handle it with your bare hands.  (Even longer won’t hurt it.)  Gently run a knife around the edge of your cake to loosen it in the pan.  Then take your cake plate, put it upside down on the top of your cake, and flip.  The cake should slide easily out of the pan.  If you made it in a cake pan with parchment paper, gently peel off the circle of parchment.  Cool completely and enjoy.  Store leftovers in the refrigerator–it makes an excellent breakfast the next day!

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At long last, the Thanksgiving post has arrived!  Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays, but I’ve come to appreciate it exponentially more in recent years, partially because I’ve gotten more into cooking, but also because I spent three Thanksgivings in a row (2006-2008) outside the US.  In 2008 I did get to attend the US embassy potluck Thanksgiving, which was fabulous and full of delicious food, but now that I’m back in the US, I’m just so thankful (no cliche intended!) that I get to spend Thanksgiving with my family!

As has become the tradition recently, we had two Thanksgivings this year.  The first was at my parents’ house and had nearly 20 people in attendance (so many cousins!).  The second?  I hosted!  Since my fiance and I have a big table and a nicely functional kitchen (unlike the teeny kitchen we were working with in his apartment last year!) I thought it would be lots of fun to have both of our parents plus his sister and her husband over for Thanksgiving.

I had never made a turkey before.

I had never cooked that many dishes all at once before.

I am really bad at timing (as in getting all components of a meal to be done cooking at the same time.  This is why I usually cook one-dish meals.)

This had great potential for disaster.

In the end, mistakes were made, there were a few things that didn’t make it onto the table for various reasons, and the timing wasn’t perfect, but no one went home hungry, I didn’t light anything on fire, and nothing turned out to be completely inedible.  So I’d say it was a success! And now you can learn from everything I did wrong and do much better than I did the next time you host a major gathering!

Part 1: Overall Tips: Start in advance.  Way in advance.  Like…a month or two in advance even.  Your freezer is your friend for many things, from roast pumpkin and squash to cranberry sauce.  So don’t, for example, stress yourself out by trying to roast the pumpkins for pumpkin pie two days before Thanksgiving, because you will inevitably be stuck with a stubborn pumpkin that does NOT want to be cut open.  (More on that later).  Save yourself the headache, and roast your pumpkins in October, puree the flesh and then freeze it, leaving yourself free to make stress-free pumpkin pie from scratch.  Same for cranberry sauce–make it in early November and freeze it.  Applesauce too.  And if you happen to be making coconut butternut squash soup, freeze that too!

Just don’t freeze your mashed potatoes.  Those are better fresh.

Another tip: get a cooler to use as a temporary spare refrigerator.  It is likely while you’re in the process of preparing all these dishes, that you will run out of refrigerator space.  We were lucky that it was just barely cold enough to keep some things outside, but if you live in a warmer climate or the weather is unseasonably warm for late November, you will want a cooler with ice in it for overflow refrigeration.

Part 2: The Dishes I made a lot of food.  Too much, judging by how full my freezer still is.  But leftovers are good!  And I’m convinced that had we been able to use the bigger plates, people would have eaten more.  But more on the plates in a bit. So here’s what I made:

  • Turkey – I bought a 12lb organic bird.  I had wanted a 10lb turkey, but I didn’t know until it was too late that you can pre-order your turkey from the grocery store.  I bought it fresh, four days before Thanksgiving.  Its sell-by date was the day I bought it–I was a little concerned, but it was fine.  But I’d definitely say pre-order your turkey if at all possible.A note on turkeys–obviously not everyone can afford or even find organic turkeys.  So if you can’t, and if you don’t hunt your own wild turkeys (I certainly don’t!), then at least aim to get one that is a) under 14lbs or so (have you seen those 25lb turkeys?? They’re so breast-heavy they’d tip over!  Just get two if you need to feed more people) b) natural, as in it hasn’t been treated with all manner of antibiotics and chemicals, and hasn’t been injected with weird stuff and isn’t self basting.

    Once you’ve got your turkey, for the love of all that’s holy do not just set it in your refrigerator!!!  Put a large plate or platter under it at the very least, or better yet set it in the roasting pan.  It WILL leak.  You don’t want to know how long it took me to scrub out our fridge.

    If you’re going to brine your turkey, keep in mind that it takes quite a long time (8-16 hours), so plan accordingly.  I didn’t brine mine this year, but maybe next year!

    Assuming you’re doing what I did, on Thanksgiving morning, take your turkey out of the fridge and move it over to the sink.  It should be thawed by this point if it was frozen.  Make sure you’ve given yourself enough time!  You’ll want about 2 hours of prep time (this is generous, but you never know how long it’s going to take, especially if you’ve never done it before!) and you’ll want to make sure you have enough time to roast the bird.

    Turn on the cold water, and start washing your turkey, inside and out.  Make sure you take out the neck and giblets.  And please do us all a favor and throw the giblets away.  Unless you really like organ meat and know how to cook it, neither of which are true for me.  Just make sure you don’t do what I did and throw them in a pot to try and make some sort of stock.  You’ll just end up stinking up your entire house.  It’s *really* hard to get rid of that smell.Anyways, rinse your bird thoroughly, and check it for unplucked feathers.  It likely will have a few, and if it’s an organic bird, possibly more than a few.  You especially need to make sure to check the armpits and crevices by the legs.

    Once the turkey is all clean, pat it with some paper towel and set it in your roasting pan.  Now you’re ready to stuff/season/flavor/otherwise prepare the bird so that it comes out juicy and delicious!  This is where a recipe can definitely come in handy.  I used Jamie Oliver’s turkey recipe which was definitely a good choice.  The turkey came out moist and tender–it’s true what they say: bacon makes everything better!  I did find it rather difficult to get the pancetta wrapped rosemary skewers into the thigh, and I ended up only doing two per thigh unlike the 6 he recommends, but I found that by poking a hole with a knife, and then widening it with my finger, I could shove the pancetta in there first, and then pin it in place with the rosemary.  Just try not to make the hole too big–the skin needs to be mostly intact to keep the juices in.  The other key point of his recipe is to stuff the turkey breasts.  Even if you’re not making his exact recipe, you should totally do this!  It’s a little tricky to get your hand up in there, but that was the moistest, juiciest turkey breast I’ve ever had.

    His name was Mr. Turkey.  He was delicious.

  • Mashed potatoes – Not much to say here…mashed potatoes are tasty.  And easy.  Just keep an eye on them so they don’t boil over.
  • Mushroom gravy – Since my fiance is a vegetarian, I made mushroom gravy instead of gravy from the drippings.  It’s really easy to do, and plus you can do it earlier in the day so you won’t be scrambling to make gravy while your turkey is resting and your guest are arriving.  I’ll put the recipe down at the bottom of this post.
  • Stuffed onions – I decided that for the vegetarian stuffing, I would make Smitten Kitchen’s stuffed onions. The stuffing inside of these onions?  Delicious!  The onions?  A giant pain in the neck.  She’s right that a melon baller is definitely the appropriate tool for hollowing out an onion, but if you’re making 10-15 of these, unless you have onion goggles, your eyes will be burning for the rest of the day.  And you will stink like onions for quite some time thereafter.  Still determined to make them?  Hollow them out as much as you possibly can without punching a hole in the side–if you can get it down to one layer of onion?  Awesome.  And make sure you pre-roast the onions long enough before stuffing them.  I was a bit rushed for time, and I don’t think they went nearly long enough–and you really don’t want that raw onion flavor, especially if you, like me, were unsuccessful in scooping out all but one layer of onion.
  • Sausage stuffing – I made the stuffing from Jamie Oliver’s recipe, but sadly, this was one of the things that didn’t make it onto the table.  I had put the leftover stuffing that wasn’t in the turkey into a casserole dish and stuck it in the oven, but I don’t think the sausage managed to cook through.  It is currently in the freezer, waiting for me to toss it in a skillet to turn it into something else.
  • Green bean casserole – The stereotypical dish that can be made entirely from canned goods!  Blech!  Make it from scratch.  Blanch your fresh green beans for three minutes (less if they’re not very tough), toss them in a casserole dish with homemade cream of mushroom soup (I used Smitten Kitchen’s recipe) or just use some of your mushroom gravy, and top it either with panko breadcrumbs or make your own crunchy onions. But since crunchy onions roast at a much higher temperature than turkey and I only have one oven, alas, I had to forego the crunchy onions.
  • Sweet potato cranberry bake – My fiance got this recipe from a coworker and can I just say–yum!  Chunks of tender sweet potato (the real stuff!  the canned stuff is nasty!), tart bursts of juice from the fresh cranberries, and a crunchy, sweet oatmeal and brown sugar topping!
  • Kale and apple salad – Just what it sounds like, and with a lemon vinaigrette dressing and some walnuts on top.  You’ll want to blanch the kale a little bit to make it less tough, and you can do this ahead of time–just make sure you have an ice bath ready for it, because you don’t want mush!
  • Cranberry apple chutney – This is one of those things that is super easy to make but looks really impressive in the end.  All you really do is simmer fresh cranberries and a granny smith apple with some spices until the cranberries pop and the sauce thickens.  It’s good by itself, on a leftover turkey sandwich, or on crackers with a bit of goat cheese!in progress
  • Applesauce – If you, like me, bought an absurd number of apples at the farmer’s market, make applesauce!  I don’t bother peeling the apples–I just cube them and toss them in a pot with a little water (only enough to cover the bottom layer or so of apples), ground cinnamon and cloves, and a bit of allspice.  Cook it down until the apples are mushy, add a little brown sugar if it needs it, mash it all up, and there you go!
  • Coconut butternut squash soup – This time around I had a 6lb butternut squash.  It was absurdly huge.  But in fact, the ratio of 6lbs of butternut squash to two cans of coconut milk makes a delightfully textured soup that actually deserves to be called soup and not a puree.  Fresh grated ginger as opposed to ground also adds a nice dimension of flavor.
  • Pumpkin pie – Like I said above–if you’re going to roast your own pumpkins, do it in advance!  You don’t want to end up with a pumpkin like this throwing off your entire day:

    I do now have a lovely pair of pumpkin shell bowls!  The shell stayed super hard, even after roasting for 45 minutes!

In addition to all the dishes mentioned above, my fiance (the baker in this relationship!) baked three loaves of French bread and an apple pie.  Yum!

And now the recipe I promised you:

Mushroom Gravy

  • 2 handfuls crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 3tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2tbsp flour
  • 1c mushroom broth

Put a saucepan on the stove over medium heat and add 1tbsp of the butter.  Let it melt and start to sizzle a bit, and then add your mushrooms.  Cook them until they’re nicely browned and then remove them from the pan and set aside.  In the same pan, add your remaining two tablespoons of butter, and when it’s melted, add the flour.  Stir until it forms a thick paste, then add your mushroom broth.  Reduce heat and stir more or less constantly until your sauce starts to thicken.  Then  add the mushrooms back in, and cover it and keep it warm on the stove until you’re ready to use it, stirring occasionally.