It is probably safe to say that most families have Thanksgiving Day traditions – traditions which may include parades, football games, family get-togethers, and (hopefully) dinner. My family has celebrated Thanksgiving in almost the same way every year since as far back as I can remember. We begin by watching a parade or two on television; work feverishly to get the turkey in the oven before the start of the Lions football game; and then relax and enjoy roast stuffed turkey with all the trimmings. We’ve made a few “adjustments” here and there, we’ve tried a few new recipes and cooking methods, but when we do someone at the table will invariably say, “That was good, but can we go back to the old way next year?” This blog is dedicated to “the old way,” or at least the old way as my family defines it.
Roast Stuffed Turkey
Pork Sausage Dressing
Turkey Pan Gravy
Candied Sweet Potatoes
Vegetables with Cheese Sauce
Cherry Cranberry Sauce
Parker House Rolls
I have already posted comments about some of the courses included in our Thanksgiving Dinner, so I will confine my comments here to the turkey, stuffing, gravy, and sweet potatoes – although I doubt I’ll be able to resist making a comment about the pumpkin pie recipe.
I found the original basis for our Roast Stuffed Turkey recipe in a Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book that belonged either to my mother or mother-in-law decades ago. Unfortunately, there is no publication date. My father used that BH&G recipe for every Thanksgiving turkey I can remember. When I began using it for my family I changed it slightly and increased the oven temperature from 325° F to 350° F, thus reducing the cooking time significantly. Either temperature works equally well, however.
As you know, roasting a turkey without completely dehydrating it can be a challenge. A turkey is perfectly cooked when the thigh and leg meat reach 170° F and the white meat reaches 160° F. Given its irregular shape, that is a near impossibility with a turkey, regardless of the cooking method. Add the stuffing, which also must reach 160°, and the task is even more challenging.
The most important thing to remember is that cooking a massive piece of meat like a 16 pound stuffed turkey requires an oven temperature that is sufficiently high to raise the temperature of the center of the meat to the desired end point before the outside layer of meat dries out (dehydrates). For a turkey, 300° is too low, and 375° is too high. The lower temperature takes too long, and the higher temperature cooks the outer meat layers too quickly. And yes, even at 325° or 350° some of the outer meat layers will exceed 170° before the center of the stuffing reaches 160°, but much of the moistness of the dark meat comes from collagen, not water; and the turkey’s skin actually serves to minimize water loss from the white meat (unless the temperature goes too high).
As you will see in the directions for Roast Stuffed Turkey, a fresh (never frozen) turkey is much preferred. You will find the fresh turkey to be much juicier because natural juices are retained during cooking more than the liquids invariably injected into frozen birds. Also, an aluminum foil “tent” is required for the first hours of cooking. The tent helps to ensure the breast meat does not over-brown. Most important, it is necessary to have the tip of a reliable meat thermometer placed as close to the center of the stuffing as possible. When the thermometer reads 160° F, the turkey is done! (It is always prudent to check a few more areas of the bird for cold spots, but if the thermometer was placed correctly, there should be no cold spots. Also, the back of the turkey may be undercooked somewhat, but there is very little meat there, so this should not be a concern. You can always use meat from this part of the turkey for another dish like Turkey Tetrazzini.)
After roasting, the turkey should be allow to rest (covered) for 20 to 30 minutes. This is the perfect time to prepare the gravy. Start by measuring the accumulated fat and then returning 4 or 5 tablespoons to the roasting pan along with an equal amount of flour. After the roux has cooked for a few minutes, use chicken stock (not water) to deglaze the pan and incorporate all the browned bits on the bottom of the roasting pan. Then I suggest transferring the gravy to a more convenient sauce pan and continue heating. When the gravy begins to simmer, add more stock until the sauce reaches the desired consistency.
The Pork Sausage Stuffing recipe is also originally a BH&G creation, dating back to the early nineteen fifties, although I made several changes many years ago. I remember helping my father slice and cube the bread until we had twenty or so heaping cups. He diced the onion and celery, while I browned the sausage. My son and daughter helped me years ago, and now my grandchildren do much of the “work.” Ah, tradition!
I’m reasonably certain my father created the recipe for Candied Sweet Potatoes. I’ve posted it completely unchanged from notes in his handwriting. My oldest granddaughter now prepares this one every year.
Speaking of grandchildren, Grandma Karen and I have four. One is approaching his first birthday, so his knife skills are understandably limited. The other three – now teenagers – typically take full charge of the Whipped Potatoes, Vegetables with Cheese Sauce (they typically choose broccoli or cauliflower), and the Parker House Rolls. I make the Cherry Cranberry Sauce days ahead with fresh cranberries and my treasured frozen Balaton tart cherries.
Which brings me to the Pumpkin Pie. This one has always been Grandma Karen’s responsibility. When I asked her for the recipe, she said, “I use the one on the Libby’s can!” Rather than making an extra trip to the grocery store, I Googled ‘Pumpkin Pie’. Amazingly, a picture of a can of Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin with the recipe popped up first. You will note that Libby’s gets full and proper credit on the Pumpkin Pie recipe page.
Hopefully, after wading through all of this, I have perhaps made you smile a bit, or helped you recall a family tradition of your own, or given you a new idea. Either way and as always, I thank you sincerely for your time.
Happy Thanksgiving and buon appetito.