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Nathan Wood: Finishing touches and true meaning of the Thanksgiving meal, part five

Illustration by Amy Mackens
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By Nathan Wood, Daily Food Columnist
Published November 21, 2012

Though praising and bashing the eats in Ann Arbor is my customary modus operandi, I’m shifting course a bit this time around in honor of Turkey Day. Join me as I mix together a few family favorites, a blue ribbon culinary technique or two and some real-deal tips and tricks that — served with a pinch of sarcasm — will have you cooking up the perfect Thanksgiving dinner in no time. In this last installment of my Thanksgiving series, we’re putting the finishing touches on our spread so that Thanksgiving 2012 will be one to remember.

One of my fondest Thanksgiving memories as a child is making homemade butter with my grandma. Of course, she had a million other (probably more pressing) things to do in order to get turkey dinner on the table, but she somehow always managed to pause for a few minutes to help me whip cream into butter. And unlike back in the day, when a butter churn was necessary, it really does only take a few minutes.

Homemade Butter Ingredients:

2 16-ounce cartons (2 pints) heavy cream
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Directions:

Pour your heavy cream into an electric mixer or food processor and beat on high speed until the mixture curdles and turns pale yellow. There should also be a fair amount of separated milky stuff in the bottom of the bowl. These curdles will soon be our butter and this milky stuff is buttermilk! The whole process takes approximately 10 minutes.

Using a mesh strainer and some pressure from your palms, separate the buttermilk from the butter solids. Form the butter solids into a ball and dry on paper towel. Knead in the salt and serve chilled, if desired.

And what could be easier to make from scratch than butter? Whipped cream! Plus, since Uncle Jimmy is responsible for bringing the pies this year, those sure-to-be Meijer Bakery specials could use a handcrafted touch.

Homemade Whipped Cream Ingredients:

1 16-ounce carton (1 pint) heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ cup confectioner’s (“powdered”) sugar

Directions:

Pop the beaters and bowl of your electric mixer into the freezer for 10 minutes. Upon removing them, immediately add all ingredients to the bowl and begin whipping at high speed. Continue until stiff peaks form, meaning that when you hold the beaters upside down, the whipped cream doesn’t fall over like the top of a soft-serve ice cream cone, but instead stands resolutely. Don’t overbeat, lest you want little butter chunks in your whipped cream.

But no matter how delicious your whipped cream is, there are always those family members who are going to want to top their pies with ice cream (guilty). If you’re feeling really adventurous, keep with the theme and try making your own. I just saw a recipe for Brown Sugar-Bourbon Ice Cream in Bon Appétit’s October issue that I plan on making to serve with my pecan pie this Thanksgiving, though vanilla bean would also be a delicious addition to all sorts of after-dinner treats. But if you’re looking to save time by going store-bought, Häagen-Dazs offers the best alternative.

To wash down those pies and our handcrafted toppings, keep it simple by offering only regular and decaffeinated coffees. Teas, cappuccinos, flavored creamers and dessert wines are all totally unnecessary. In the same vein, limit dinner drink offerings to wine, iced water, milk and sparkling grape juice for the kiddies (St. Julian’s Sparkling Red is as good as it gets). Soda, lemonade, iced tea and other artificially sweetened beverages are classless when served at the table. Leave ’em for the other 364 days of the year.

So with our desserts and drinks all wrapped up, the turkey we prepared and roasted last week and the delicious sides we’ve been making this week, our Thanksgiving spread is nearing completion. (I mean, there is always the cranberry relish and buttered corn, but since I don’t particularly enjoy either of these things, I’ve purposefully decided to overlook them.) Shift the responsibility of everything beyond these turkey dinner mainstays to your guests: One can bring the green bean casserole, one the fruity salad, one the Brussels sprouts, one the mac and cheese, etc.

And don’t forget to incorporate family classics. In my family, this means Great-Grandma Buit’s dinner rolls, Grandma Bowen’s famous broccoli salad with raisins and bacon and Waldorf salad à la Grandma “Duper” (the unfortunate nickname my creative mind assigned her and Gramps when I was a kid … long story).

Because that’s all that really matters anyway, isn’t it? Delicious food is definitely a plus, but the Thanksgiving memories you’ll cherish for the rest of your life are eating Waldorf salad with Grandpa and Grandma Duper, laughing with Uncle Jimmy about his Meijer pies, remembering Great-Grandma Buit over her dinner rolls, peeling potatoes with Cousin Natalie (“Bratalie”) and taking time to make homemade butter with Grandma Bowen.

I think of Marcie’s words in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”: “Thanksgiving is more than eating … We should just be thankful for being together.” Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


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