Fanciful Feast: Creating Edible Intrigue at the Holiday Table


“What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” 
― Vincent van Gogh

As a lover of social theory, I'm aware our holiday dishes satiate our uniquely-modern primal longings for ritual, tradition & aspiration, but as an avid dinner party host, I bow to the stress-free assurance that taste-wise, they work. 

Unlike every other dinner, Thanksgiving comes with a (mostly) century-old, fail-safe menu guaranteed to make the miscellany of distant relatives, stray neighbours & urbane sophisticates content. Roll out the roasted birds, the spiced squash pies & it's bon appėtit. 

I don't like to tamper with this.... except.... I do.

It's less about impressing than the sheer fun of trying new material on such a captive out-of-town audience. Yet in my years of experimentation, I've realized that the feast, part prayer, part gluttony, held in the name of blessings and abundance -- really begs for surprise to make good on its purpose. 

A new taste memory is a gift. It's a specific item to put on that tally of blessings. A souvenir spoon, conveying morsels to reminisce about a few Wysocki calendars hence.


               Cousins, to Me:

               "Remember that Thanksgiving when you made that carrot pie?"


It marks the year. Leaves a signature.

Edibility is really an elective detail, name cards made from clear, popcorn-filled, plastic-cups, into pilgrim hats (true story) count too. What really matters in purposefully creating a holiday watermark is engaging people in an unexpected way. A gesture that gets people curious.... enough to ask the question “Now, what is this? What happened here?”

That's why using old Thanksgiving stalwarts in new contexts is where I've most-often hit the mark. People love the astonishment of finding savoury spices & root vegetables (provided it works!) in dessert.

Other attention grabbers: re-imagined fixtures (like melting the pecan pie down & using it as a sauce) and delicious far-improved versions of, say, what we’ve passed in the bread basket & absent-mindedly noshed on for years.

Wonderfully, this past Thursday's experiments revealed a few finds that will join Ina Garten's crisp n' salty Roasted Brussels Sprouts & the aforementioned Carrot Pie (a Nebraskan pie-baker's speciality) in future holiday reprisals.

Fusing east & west via the White House, my take on this Garam Masala Pumpkin Tart,*+ which has a jaunty Indian spice lemon filling, received plenty of attention & a recipe request.

The ever-relevant & oh-so-smart Deb of the Smitten Kitchen is responsible for several sensational new additions. Her take on the Americana-staple Parker House Rolls* (once enjoyed by Oliver Wendell Holmes) and her innovative Cranberry Pie** served with Pecan Praline Sauce*** (wowza -- no one is forgetting this combo!) were both unexpected & stellar. All three will be reappearing on my Christmas menu to delight a different crowd.

"Palate cleansers" don't get attention at Thanksgiving like they do in pre-fixe restaurants or did when celery was still aspirational, but a guest brought a zingy mint & celery chopped Armenian salad to our feast, and the contrast of those enlivening Eurasian flavours was such a refreshing complement to the stodge of everything else, I'm already planning to harness those herbs & crunch & tang in whatever salad I make next year.

If you're still looking for inspiration, a lack of time and sous chefs means no promises about what I wanted to have a crack at, but I suspect genius lurking in a riff on this creamy winter squash made with raisins, sage & silken tofu (so, so, brilliant) and have a hunch wildly memorable status awaits roasted vegetable drizzled in a pungent sage vinaigrette.

May your own holiday feasting be memorable! Enjoy!!

Recipe Notes:

+ Garam Masala Pumpkin Tart

  • Tart vs. Pie: I made this a pie & basically used this pie crust recipe. 
  • Tofu Substitution: Yes, I subbed approx 6.8 ounces of tofu for the eggs & blended the pumpkin with the tofu in the blender till smooth.  
  • Half & Half Substitution: I subbed 1 cup soy milk for the 1 cup half & half -- for a sturdier filling I might take that down to 3/4 cups... it totally set up, but came out just a touch on the creamy side.
  • Garam Masala: The taste of your pie is going to depend heavily on the *kind* of garam masala you use. If it smells too savoury, curry-ish to you, you may want to mix in some extra cinnamon. 
  • Lemon: I only used the zest of one lemon, and personally, would use the juice of 1/2 a lemon next time -- but then again, people seemed to love it. So add lemon to taste.
  • Age: We're down to the last slice or two, but after a few days in, I *swear* this tastes much more developed and divine... next time, I'd make the filling a few days ahead to let the flavours marinate & meld.

* Parker House Dinner Rolls

  • Pretzel It: I did not "pretzel" these her rolls, merely skipped the "finish" step altogether.
  • Milk: I subbed soy milk. 
  • Water Temp for Yeast: My hands must be colder than hers, as when my water was the temp when I "didn't notice the difference" when I stuck my finger in, I added the yeast and nothing happened... no bubbling, nada. So I warmed it up about 4/7/8 seconds in the microwave and voila.

** Cranberry Pie

  • Filling Sugar Amount: I only used a scant cup of sugar -- but I like things tart.
  • Adding the Sugar for the Filling: Best to add the sugar *after* your cranberries have begun to cook down, otherwise, there's a chance it will stick to the bottom of the pot.
  • Topping:  We didn't bother grinding the oats for the streusel. Also, we had about 2/3 cup extra. 
  • Topping Extra: We served this pie alongside the Praline Pecan Sauce (see below)... not necessary, but it made it pretty tasty.

*** Pecan Praline Sauce

  • Heavy Cream: I subbed soy milk for the heavy cream.
  • We served this sauce as a potential accompaniment for all our pies... apple, pumpkin, cranberry... I think it was the ideal compromise since we didn't have a pecan pie!