I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not celebrate Thanksgiving. No turkey, no sweet potato casserole smothered under a mountain of marshmallows. No cornbread stuffing nor cranberry relish. No festive table heaving and groaning under an abundance of food. No traditional dishes, a holiday repertoire pulled out, no note cards flipped through searching for grandma’s recipe for this, mom’s recipe for that, dad’s special whatever. No. Thanksgiving. Dinner. None.
Mixed marriage does that to you. As does living in a foreign country, the country of your beloved spouse. French, American, lapsed Catholic, once-practicing Jew all with a bit of Italian thrown in. As each and every holiday rolls around, as the rest of the world as I know it begins planning for this celebration or that, as the festivities begin to unroll on one side of the ocean or the other, chez nous….in our home…negotiations begin.
Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Bastille Day, how does one celebrate these most national of holidays when not living in that nation? Valentine’s Day or Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day or any of these pseudo-holidays that in a moment of crazed consumption or idealized global sharing have been transported to my doorstep, are we required to join in the festivities just because the stores are bursting at the seems with decorations and gifts, music is oozing out of every boutique and friends are pulling out all the stops? Hanukkah or Christmas, Easter or Passover, even a lovely Shabbat dinner after a long, tiring week of work…. Sharing? Imposing? Teaching? Constraining? Negotiations can be long and difficult some years, other years the sons decide and some years, well, we are all carried away on a wave of holiday spirit and childlike excitement and simply do both. Or all. Holidays in our home are often a series of compromises, days and weeks of careful diplomacy and long discussions. One (me) is often confronted with burgeoning Scrooge-like tendencies, the moans and groans, the complaining and the disinterestedness in any and every approaching holiday. It is, after all, quite simply easier to ignore them completely, avoid any complexity in our already complex lives and celebrate not a one, just create our own happiness, enjoying festive meals, candlelight dinners, surprising the other with prettily-wrapped gifts on a whim with no calendar imposing, demanding, making those sentimental, emotional decisions for us.
Thanksgiving. I do believe that the last Thanksgiving meal I shared with family and friends was twenty-three years ago at my sister’s in Florida. JP and I had flown over, tiny, plump, happy baby in tow, and sat down with mother, brother, sister, grandma and great-aunt in that typical end-of-November Florida heat. Before that, well, memory fails me, but it must have been the year I was in college and drove up to New York to celebrate with my aunt, uncle and cousins. Or the year after, when Michael and I cooked together in our Brooklyn apartments, one up, one down. Well, as you can see, it has been many a long year since I ate turkey with stuffing.
Do I miss it? I am often asked if nostalgia tugs at my heartstrings, if I yearn for a good old fashioned holiday spread, to sit down with loved ones before a cornucopia of Autumn’s best and fill my plate with goodies. But how to enjoy the true meaning of a holiday when it has no meaning for others? When you are so separated in both time and space from the source and soul of the feast and the origins from which it was born, the reasons that made this day so special? How can one recount the tale of Pilgrims and Indians breaking bread together in peace and harmony to a roomful of skeptics?
Yet, through thick and thin, there are some things that remain constant in my life, some traditions that I hold on to dearly, recipes that I create and recreate over and over again in the best of culinary and family traditions. Come Autumn when pumpkins and cranberries make their graceful appearance, when apples and pears crisp and sweet are abundant, when woodsy, earthy, clumsy chestnuts and elegant, sophisticated figs tumble in, with oranges plump and juicy I can’t but thumb through my old, sticky, stained notebook full of hand-written recipes culled from years of baking and cooking with friends and family and return to our old favorites. And this is what I share over and over again with my loved ones as we create our own family traditions.
My Cranberry-Orange Bread is a must-go-to recipe every holiday any time of the year. Sacks of cranberries are stuffed into one freezer drawer, ready at the get-go for my favorite quick bread. Tangy, tart, ruby red berries paired with sweet oranges is heavenly and add to that the crunchy bite of walnuts or pecans it is utterly festive! I first made this traditional, Thanksgiving Day treat eons ago while still a young college student and have been making it ever since. This year, I have decided to make tiny individual cakes and top each with a crunchy sweet streusel redolent of cinnamon. And somehow, no matter where I am, no matter how far from my childhood home and my jumble of memories, this one bread never fails to fill me with nostalgia, sweet recollections of Thanksgivings past.
INDIVIDUAL CRANBERRY-ORANGE BREAD WITH PECANS & STREUSEL
1 orange, preferably untreated
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter, ideally at room temperature, cubed
1 large egg
1 cup (200 g) sugar
1 cup fresh cranberries, thawed if frozen (I used a container of 6.7 oz/200g), coarsely chopped
Heaping ½ cup (50 g) coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
2 cups (280 g) flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
3 Tbs flour
3 Tbs packed light or dark brown sugar
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 Tbs (30 g) unsalted butter
Prepare the Streusel Topping:
Place the flour, brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl and toss to combine. Add the butter, cut into cubes, and, using only your fingertips, rub the butter into the dry ingredients quickly until the mixture resembles coarse damp sand or crumbs with no large chunks of butter left. Chill in the refrigerator while you prepare the Cranberry-Orange Bread batter.
Prepare the Cranberry-Orange Bread:
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Butter 8 to 10 mini cake molds – or even cupcake or muffin molds - or one large loaf tin.
Coarsely chop the cranberries by whizzing them quickly in a small food processor, being careful not to overchop and turn into paste. Coarsely chop the nuts by hand.
Finely grate the zest of the orange.
Squeeze the orange juice into a glass measuring cup. Add enough boiling water to make ¾ cup (about 190 ml) liquid. Add the cubes of butter and stir quickly until the butter is melted.
Blend together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a small bowl and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg and the sugar until blended, thick and creamy. Whisk in the finely grated orange zest and then the orange liquid. Whisk in the dry ingredients until well blended then fold in the chopped cranberries and pecans or walnuts.
Spoon or ladle the batter into the mini/individual cake tins, dividing the batter evenly among 8 or 10 tins, not filling more than ¾ full. Sprinkle the Streusel Topping over the batter, breaking up any chunks as you divide it among the cakes.
Bake the individual cakes for about 30 minutes (the single loaf for up to one hour), until the Streusel Topping is set and golden and a tester inserted in the middle of one cake comes out damp but clean.
Cool the cakes on a cooling rack before sliding a knife around the edges to loosen and unmolding.