Thanksgiving in the UK

I’ve been doing Thanksgiving in the UK for years now. Partly it’s to indulge in my love of Americana, partly it’s to trial new dishes for Christmas, but mostly it’s to do a kind of Christmas with friends, which is not something that’s easy to do for a holiday that’s dominated by family. I like to call it Friendsgiving, and some people call it Friendmas, but either way, I can’t see how anyone wouldn’t want to get behind a day of fun, food and friends – no matter which side of the ocean you’re on!

I don’t have a lot of room for entertaining but I think that what’s part of the fun – a cobbled together table made partly of IKEA garden furniture, and mix and match plates; the Glitz design from Next and my Starburst set from Biba at House of Fraser… (I also picked up gold tumblers and cutlery from Next too!)

This year I used mini pumpkins left over from Halloween and used a gold Sharpie to initial the guests’ names on them – a last minute rush job, but it looks fairly decent considering I was in literal red alarm panic mode when I did it!

For my starter, this year I did a really simple cheese board. It’s so easy to throw together and gets everyone talking as they pass the crackers and talk about which cheese they like the best! I made chutney from The Spicery’s apple chutney recipe, and served Hotel Chocolat’s gorgeous new Christmas chutney too – it went down a treat!

I’m definitely picking another jar up for my Christmas cheeseboard! (Get yours here: mine was C/O Hotel Chocolat, usual RRP £5). Picking the cheeses was fun – you should get a mix of different textures and flavours, but always remember your audience. Experts say to select at least one from the four basic categories of blue, aged, firm and soft. I say, pick what you and your friends like – it’s easy to get bogged down in rules and forget the simple things!

I selected Cathedral City mature cheddar, Castello Danish Blue Extra Creamy Cheese, President Brie, Castello Pineapple Halo, white Stilton with apricots and Wensleydale with cranberries. The pineapple was an absolute winner served with crackers, and I also provided sundried tomatoes and olives.

I thought I was being a bit restrained with my main courses, but when I wrote it out it was obvious I was as crazy as ever. The day before I’d made Nigella’s ham in Coca Cola (forget the turkey – it’s not Thanksgiving or any kind of celebration in my house unless Nigella is involved somewhere) and started my dry-brined turkey. This was served with a cognac, cream and thyme gravy (and good old Sunday roast gravy too, which was far more popular!)

On the side was brown butter and pecan green beans, which was a massive hit and a new dish I will definitely be making again. I also made rosemary and orange cranberry sauce, cheddar cheese cornbread, creamed corn (if I don’t make this, I will be in real trouble with certain people!) apple, bacon and caramelised onion dressing (I think I’ll go back to Martha Stewart’s classic onion, sage and celery next time) roast potatoes, smoked garlic mashed potatoes, maple syrup and cracked black pepper carrots, and peas! And, my lovely foster-sister-cousin made mac and cheese!

Most of the recipes I make year after year come from two books – How To Cook A Turkey from Fine Cooking and Thanksgiving 101 by Rick Rodgers. I’ve got loads of Thanksgiving recipe books, but these two are the absolute best and I would recommend them to anyone!

Then, pumpkin pie, apple pie and chocolate cheesecake (all made by my lovely mum), followed by fireworks in the garden and roasted chestnuts and marshmallows around the fire. That’s because, unfettered by the American (and Canadian) constraints of time, I can have Thanksgiving whenever I like, and so I decided to have it on Bonfire Night in the U.K., to make a double whammy celebration!

I’d love to know your favourite Thanksgiving recipes and traditions – share them with me in the comments!


Make some Thanksgiving fondant pumpkins for your cakes this Turkey Day!

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I thought I’d bust out my fondant pumpkin tutorial from Halloween! These cute little pumpkins would look amazing on cupcakes.

Fondant pumpkins

Find out how to make them here!

Dishing the dirt on Thanksgiving 2008

I’ve already mentioned that I love Thanksgiving. It allows me to, without constraints of expectation, indulge in a huge amount of culinary exploration, cook scores of brand new dishes, obsess for days and days over what I’m going to cook, and buy loads of new cookbooks. Oh, and look at photos of Thanksgiving tables on Flickr for hours to figure out what everything’s supposed to look like. None of my friends or family really know what it’s all supposed to taste like, so whether it’s a disaster or a triumph, it’s going to get eaten just the same.

However, I do tend to get carried away.

This is blindingly obvious to you, I’m sure, having read the first paragraph. Gemma’s rule of cooking number one, is why cook one dish, when you can cook three? Last year, that was translated into Thanksgiving terms as, why only have roast potatoes, when you can have three kinds? Also, why have two side dishes, when you can have seven? And, why not do it all, barring the intervention of my sainted mother, pretty much by yourself?

My long suffering mother helped here with the cooking, and she laid the table and provided the house and kitchen that hosted these festivities, but when it comes to the kitchen, I’m a bit of a lone ranger. There’s no way I expect other people to have the same kind of dogged determination as I do when it comes to these epic feasts. Besides, life’s no fun unless you’re pitting your very being against the clock. If I ever thought anything to do with cooking was easy, my first instinct has always been to make it harder. More of everything! Double the quantities! Can we fit in another course?

So, mostly for the purposes of self-gratification, here’s my menu from Thanksgiving, 2008.

Thanksgiving Menu

Winter squash soup with prosciutto and sage
Seasonal pate and toast

Main Course
Savoury apple-onion turkey with
a selection of American apple-cider gravy or traditional English gravy

Potato Dishes
Traditional English roast potatoes
Classic Thanksgiving mashed potatoes
Thanksgiving sweet potatoes

Side Dishes
Mixed winter vegetables
Lemon-butter green bean casserole
Classic Thanksgiving corn pudding
Cheddar-scalloped baby onions
Thanksgiving dressing
Traditional English sage and onion stuffing
Homemade cranberry sauce

Pumpkin pie
Chunky peanut, chocolate and cinnamon cookies
Both served with cream and vanilla icecream

So, let’s break it down.

My soup starter came from Thanksgiving 101, by Rick Rodgers, page 21. It’s basically a creamy butternut squash soup with salty, savoury ribbons of pink Italian air-dried ham stirred in, and was really nice. I’d make it again for Thanksgiving, but like a lot of the things I eat for this stolen American holiday, I wouldn’t eat it any other time. The pate is a bit of a cop-out, shop-bought and served with toast, a bit of a concession to the fussy eaters in the family. As you can see from the rest of the menu, there’s a lot of that going on!

Savoury Apple-Onion Turkey, and the accompanying gravy, came from Betty Crocker’s Complete Thanksgiving Cookbook, page 20-1. I don’t remember this being amazing, but I think the gravy was a bit of a disaster. I’ve never made a gravy I’ve liked that wasn’t our family recipe. This is not the fault of other gravy, or particularly an indication of the greatness of our gravy. I just can’t get along with other gravies, or I completely have no clue how to make gravy ‘properly’. I’d love to make a gravy I liked, but if I want something to satisfy my gravy urge, I have to break out the roast juices, Bisto powder and Oxo cubes. For shame! Other people liked the apple cider gravy, but I could happily never have it again.

The roasties are self-explainatory, but the classic mashed potatoes are another Betty Crocker recipe, same book, page 71. However, since then, I have discovered the ultimate mashed potato recipe in Sheila Lukins’ bloody fantastic USA Cookbook. It’s called Garlicky Red-Jacket Mashed Potatoes, and it is the only mashed potato recipe I’ll ever bother with. It involves cider vinegar (ha ha, a use for that new bottle of Norman cider vinegar I brought back from my holiday), sour cream and red potatoes, and it’s glorious. Bless Sheila Lukins and her kick-ass cookery book. I’m slowly reading every single recipe in there like it’s my new religion, and I can also whole-heartedly recommend her awesome Tomato Balsamic Vinaigrette, which is so good I don’t mind how fiddly it is. Anyway. The sweet potatoes were actually slow cooked, another good old BC recipe (page 79 – I hope someone’s using these… who am I kidding?). I don’t think anyone ate them.

Mixed winter vegetables were my mum’s contribution, which I think were just boiled cauliflower and cabbage or something. Lemon-butter green bean casserole is a Nigella recipe, which has been on the table every year since I started my Thanksgiving tradition. It’s not really a proper green bean casserole as I understand it, but it’s basically lemon guts and juice, with copious amounts of butter, pepper and salt. Delicious. Also good whenever I get green beans, which isn’t often, but I do love them.

The corn pudding is another BC recipe (Classic Baked Corn Pudding, page 83). Really tasty, this is basically loads of milk, loads of eggs, loads of cheese, and obviously sweetcorn and breadcrumbs. It was tasty and heart-blocking. Totally unlike anything else I ever eat, and I might cook it again another year.

Cheddar-scalloped baby onions was equally artery-clogging and came from Thanksgiving 101 (page 81) and was a more elaborate version of Creamed Onions. As I said before, why make the simplest version of anything when you can complicate matters further, especially if that complication comes in the form of cheese?

The Thanksgiving Dressing I have no memory whatsoever of. The English version was Paxo. I love Paxo. Forget the poncy versions they come up with, sage and onion stuffing cannot be bettered. To try is an utterly pointless waste of time. Paxo rocks. For the cranberry sauce, again, a blank. It might very well have been the Fresh Cranberry-Orange Relish from Thanksgiving 101, page 94. But then again, maybe it wasn’t.

For my pumpkin pie, I procured a stupidly expensive can of Libby’s pumpkin puree, and followed the instructions on that. I read in Thanksgiving 101 that Libby’s reckon 55 million pies are made from that recipe every year, so who am I to argue in my pursuit of the real American experience?

Chunky peanut, chocolate and cinnamon cookies are courtesy of Martha Stewart via a Thanksgiving copy of Martha Stewart Living I picked up in New York a few years back. I feel like I have my Holy Trinity of Thanksgiving Gurus lined up here – Martha, Betty and Nigella. (Except, of course, that Betty isn’t actually a real person… Fictional gurus are still pretty kick ass, though.) The first chapter of Nigella’s Feast is the first time I’d ever read Thanksgiving recipes, which didn’t exactly kick-start my obsession, but it certainly added fuel to the fire. These cookies are great to have in the freezer, and wound up lasting me until the next year. Delicious! American cookie recipes always seem to yield about three dozen cookies, which is great if you want freezer fodder. If you didn’t freeze them all, though, how the hell would you get rid of them?

As a last minute, why have two puddings when you can have three kind of addition, I also made Dark Chocolate Cream Pie from Thanksgiving 101 (page 121), which went down very well indeed.

So, there’s the dirt on last year… I wonder what I’ll do this year?

The Elusive Thanksgiving Dinner

As a Brit with no real American friends – at least, not for years since I fell out of touch with various people – Thanksgiving holds a real fascination for me. Not only because it’s at the heart of the American experience, but also because it’s both every where and totally evasive at the same time. Thanksgiving episodes parade on the TV all the time, always with a great big dinner slap bang in the middle of it, but precious little is ever really said about what the heck everything is. It’s weirdly like a roast dinner, but weirdly not, and this difference has always fascinated me. I remember watching a Thanksgiving episode of Friends where all the characters gather together to recreate their favourite meal, for me, the best part of the episode was learning about what actually went into a Thanksgiving dinner. Even after all that, there’s still plenty that mystified me… what the heck are tater tots, etc.

Ever since I started being able to call the shots in the kitchen and spend my own money on food, every year I’ve led friends and family alike in a crazy crusade to recreate a proper American Thanksgiving. Every year everyone has to suffer through bizarre concoctions which are distinctly unfriendly to the English palette*. And every year I still feel like I haven’t quite got to the real American heart of Thanksgiving. But it’s around this time of year that I start thinking about it again, and get my books out in order to figure out what I’ll be serving up in November.

In reality, I think the part that’s missing is the fact that the dinner, divorced of the holiday, is really not the Thanksgiving experience, but I’ve never been one to turn down the opportunity to roast a big chunk of meat and have my friends around to eat, no matter what the circumstances.

* I fully appreciate that most Americans will want to lynch me for this sentence, but bless you, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top is pretty bizarre this side of the pond… And should you feel disgruntled, just think about our fondness for eating yeast extract on toast and you’ll understand where I’m coming from…