While I’m never one to rush things this time of year, in staring at my little desk calendar this morning, it’s become clear that Thanksgiving is on the horizon. This year, we’re hosting Sam’s family again for what will be the second time, and I’m not going to lie: I don’t feel any more organized or together after Round 1. Last year there was a lot of turkey talk and I panicked (in hindsight, irrationally so), admitted I had no clue what I was doing, and delegated the bird to Sam who really waited until the eleventh hour (i.e. Wednesday) to buy the turkey and we ended up having a roulade situation instead of a traditional roasted bird, which was all fine and good. I made pie and cranberries and mashed potatoes. I recall making a chicory salad but no one seems to remember it, so it clearly didn’t make that big of an impression. Sam’s sister Christa brought her famous stuffed mushrooms and his nephew, Kevin, brought wine. People were happy, so I was happy.
But it does seem that, regardless if you’ve been hosting for two years or twenty, there’s this constant impetus to regroup and reimagine and somehow do it all better each year. And on one hand, I get that: all the food magazines come, each claiming to have the end all and be all in revamped stuffing or the newest trick to mashed potatoes and it’s all … a little exhausting, isn’t it? What I crave isn’t so much the newest, edgiest stuffing but more the gold standards that we pull out every year. Our family’s classics. We don’t have those yet, but we’re working on it. If it were up to Sam, this simple fruit crisp would be a candidate for sure, and if you’re someone who trembles at the thought of homemade pie, this is a stellar way to make life a little simpler this year.
Fruit crisps and crumbles are great because they’re rustic and forgiving and relatively hard to truly mess up. I used to make a Pear and Cranberry Pie in my early days at Marge, when I’d bake in the wee hours of the morning and sell slices at the farmers market in San Francisco. I often had a slice, sometimes still warm, for breakfast in that period of time after I’d set up the booth but before any customers would arrive. Because our market was in a particularly foggy neighborhood that rarely saw sun, the mornings were really cold and damp: I’d layer up and do a lot of pacing and had a little camp heater at my feet. Pie and coffee always helped. So this crisp is inspired by that pie and my fond memories of those days, and the filling is virtually the same. I mixed up the crumble topping by adding Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat flour, marzipan and sliced almonds to make it a bit more special, a bit less everyday. It’s still as simple as can be to pull together, but feels holiday-worthy. I realize not everyone loves marzipan and the camp seems to be pretty strongly divided, but if you’re in the Pro Camp as we happen to be, I think you’ll be quite fond of this dessert.
I plan to post a few simple holiday recipes this month that I hope you may find inspiring, or may help you round out a holiday meal this season. In truth, I’m doing this a bit selfishly as I’m trying out a few dishes before the holiday myself to see if they’re good candidates for our ‘do again’ list — no crazy four-layer pies or revolutionary ways to do cranberry sauce, but just great, simple classics with perhaps a bit of a twist that I hope you’ll love. We’ll start here, with dessert. Always a solid place to start. Cook’s Note: When shopping for marzipan, if you can find almond paste it’s virtually the same thing, but even better — it’s more difficult to find, so I wrote marzipan into the recipe, but in general, almond paste has less sugar and more ground almonds. Either one will be fine in this recipe.
I generally use either Anjou or Bartlett pears (or a mix of both) for baking as they still hold their shape for the most part and don’t become too mushy. While I love this crisp in the fall, I think it’d be great with berries, too — just keep the proportions of fruit the same and feel free to experiment.
Preheat the oven to 375 F and position a rack in the center of the oven.
Place a 2-quart baking dish (or a 9-inch pie pan or 10-inch tart or quiche pan) and place on a rimmed baking sheet.
Make the filling: In a medium bowl, toss together the pears, cranberries, lemon juice, brown sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, cloves and salt.
Make the topping: In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the almond paste, flour, brown sugar, salt, and butter until the mixture begins to clump together, about 30 pulses (or just let it run continuously until mixture clumps, 20 seconds or so). Scrape into a small mixing bowl, add the sliced almonds and stir to combine. Mixture will be super clumpy.
Scrape the fruit filling into the pan and scatter the topping on top. Bake for 45-50 min, or until the fruit is bubbling up around the edges just a bit and the topping is golden brown. The crumble is best eaten soon after baking but will keep at room temperature just fine for 1-2 days or refrigerated for up to 3 days.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.