We hosted Thanksgiving for the first time, and everything turned out beautifully.
While menu planning, I spent quite a bit of time trying to identify things that could be completed or gotten pretty far along ahead of Thanksgiving day. My guests were coming from out of town and thus weren’t bringing anything, so we had to handle everything. I actually think that was ideal for a first Thanksgiving, as it helped me think about how to time the meal and plan for sides that could reheat easily. I also didn’t have to worry about sorting in other people’s things on the fly at the very end, which is when I did briefly get into my “I’m so focused I can’t tell you how to help me” mode.
The thing that really helped the most, though, was the spreadsheet I made where I planned out several elements of the meal:
- The cookware, servingware, and serving utensil for each dish
- Make ahead/prep ahead lists, including estimated prep time (which helped when my original plan for make ahead was derailed by getting sick)
- A quick oven schedule with temperatures
- A very detailed schedule for the big day that included things like the time for each dish to go on and off the heat, estimated prep and finishing times, a main cook and a sous chef for each, and some miscellaneous notes. This included everything down to setting the table and getting dinner drinks for everyone. I also added a column to make sure I had enough oven space and burners to finish the sides and gravy once the turkey came out.
I found this very helpful because it enabled me to work backwards from mealtime and figure out how to make it all work. My Mom thought this was hilariously on-brand, but I really do think some kind of written plan is in order for this meal, especially if you’re serving more than a couple of people and/or making more than just a couple of sides.
When I was making the menu I spent quite a bit of time looking at recipes from Cook’s Illustrated / America’s Test Kitchen. These are all available online, but are likely paywalled unless you have an online subscription, which I recommend.
- I got the turkey from Open Book Farm, and then followed Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe for Roasted Brined Turkey. I did the short brine and added a handful of fresh herbs (thyme, sage, rosemary), some black pepper, and a couple of cracked cloves of garlic. I did the upside down roasting step (to rotate our 12 pound bird, I had D insert the ends of two wooden spoons into the cavity, one from each side. He lifted it slightly off the rack and I rotated it around the handles using a clean kitchen towel) which I think might be tricky with a larger bird. I could not have been happier with how juicy and deliciously seasoned that bird was. And the leftovers are not dried out!
- I wanted to make sure the the mashed potatoes were creamy and smooth vs stiff and gluey. I did some research and wound up following another Cook’s Illustrated recipe, Master Recipe for Mashed Potatoes. The main trick seems to be that you add the butter first, as that coats the potatoes and they don’t absorb as much of the cream/milk. I did also boil them whole, since I wanted to use my food mill. That didn’t work as well as I thought – my food mill totally shredded the peels on the yukon golds I used. I was not serving people who would be into having lots of peel in their mashed, so after my Mom and I picked out most of the bits from the first few potatoes to go through the food mill, I started quartering them, letting them cool just enough to handle, and then slipping the peel off before tossing them into the food mill. That worked fairly well. They were delicious and are softening back up nicely in the microwave.
- Turns out I didn’t have my Mom’s stuffing recipe, but I found something similar from Cook’s Illustrated. This Rustic Bread Stuffing with Cranberries and Walnuts was made a little extra rustic by using whole wheat baguettes, which brought in some additional nuttiness that I quite liked. It also made a TON of stuffing. This could be because we didn’t remove as much crust froth bread as the recipe calls for, not sure. I think if you have baguettes that are soft enough that you don’t have to remove much of it, you could get away with less bread – I’d tear it directly into the baking dish to get the right volume. Very tasty but (obviously) a very dry stuffing so may not be to your taste. Also next time I might throw in more cranberries and walnuts, they all but disappeared.
- Gravy didn’t work out quite as planned. I made a half batch of Cook’s Illustrated’s Our Favorite Gravy, which should have served 6-8 but left me with exactly 1 cup of finished gravy. I may have reduced it a little too much, but that was definitely not enough. We supplemented with some last minute jarred stuff from the grocery store. In the end the 1 cup was enough for dinner, but there wouldn’t have been any for leftovers. It was good but beware the yield.
- I had two kinds of cranberry sauce. The kind from the can (which I don’t think got touched at dinner, much to my delight) and Simple Orange-Cranberry Sauce from Just Add Sauce, which was bright and light.
- For veggie sides, I made Hashed Brussels Sprouts with Lemon from the NY Times, a small batch of a variation on roasted carrots from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and balsamic glazed acorn squash wedges that were a mashup of two recipes, one from Cook’s Country and the other from Just Add Sauce. We also had steam-in-bag corn. The Brussels sprouts are a snap, especially since I have a food processor for the shredding, and they bring a nice lightness to the plate. The carrots were good but in the end it turned out I only made them for two of us, so that wasn’t great planning. The squash was pretty good, but I reduced the balsamic glaze too much and had trouble coating them. Texture wise they’re not holding up great as leftovers, they’re getting a bit stringy. I think I’ll approach veggies differently next time, especially if I’m cooking for my family and doing all the sides myself.
- Last but not least, my husband made two Smitten Kitchen pies. The Even More Perfect Apple Pie, which I wanted the moment I saw the recipe earlier in the fall, and her Pecan Pie, which he made for I think the third year running. That one went first and I think we might have to make another one soon as two slices was not enough.