Savory Sweet Potato Side

Finally, I’m writing a Thanksgiving post. I spend so much time thinking about what I’ll be serving for Thanksgiving, that one would expect me to spend a little more time actually writing about it. Sadly, however, as soon as Thanksgiving prep begins, I’m forced to push most other thoughts and projects out of my head. The pinnacle of all food holidays, Thanksgiving is a time of very high expectations for those of us whose passion is cooking, so once mid-November arrives, I’m all in.

An important part of Thanksgiving lies in the memories it evokes. This makes it nearly impossible to alter the menu; we all have sentimental affinities for at least one of the staple Thanksgiving dishes, whether it be the stuffing, the green beans, or the sweet potato casserole. So, due to the fact that so many Americans are loyal to its marshmallowy cousin, I’m a bit hesitant to recommend the substitution of a savory sweet potato dish. But then again, I can’t be the only one who finds the traditional Thanksgiving sweet potato dish to be too sweet for its own good. Sweet potatoes already contain enough natural sweetness as is; a little savoriness is just the edge they need.

Like most people, I’ve always had one oven. At Thanksgiving, then, I’ve always had to prepare all side dishes either the day before, on the stove top, or last minute after the turkey comes out off the oven. But it is with great enthusiasm that I can now say I have a second oven. It’s in my basement, which is fitting because when I was younger, most of my Italian relatives had second kitchens in their basements so that their principal kitchens wouldn’t get dirty. I gave up on having a pristine kitchen long ago; as I like to say, I cook far too much to keep clean (in actuality, I just don’t like cleaning). But for busy times of the year such as Thanksgiving, the second oven proves to be very useful. I also get to feel like my great aunts, which is a great feeling because although I remember them being quite old, I mostly remember them being very happy, very Italian, and very loving… and who doesn’t want to feel more like that? But I digress. If you only have one oven at Thanksgiving, I recommend making this dish ahead of time, then reheating it just before serving. Read more.

Chocolate Babka

Chocolate babka: the stuff that dreams are made of. At least my dreams. Even if the last stray slice gets stale after hanging around for too long, it toasts beautifully and morphs into a warm, oozy, slightly crunchy piece of wonder. Babka toasted on a panini may be my favorite way of eating babka. When I first began baking babkas a few years ago, I loved them. But I also sensed that there was room for improvement, and consequently immersed myself in a baking frenzy from which I have only recently drawn back. I’m indebted to all my friends and family who have eaten one or another version on my journey towards this recipe: the babka of my aforementioned dreams.

My main sticking point with babka is that it can run a bit dry. Pouring a simple sugar syrup onto the finished and still hot babka helps eliminate at least some of this dryness. Poking holes in the dough helps distribute the syrup; but because it is a yeast dough, the syrup nonetheless tends to collect in some areas more than others. I love these unexpected moist pockets of sweet goodness, even if they were surrounded by much drier pockets. Still, I was not satisfied with the dry pockets, so I started playing around with a basic brioche dough recipe. I replaced some of the butter with oil, four tablespoons of traditional flour with potato flour, and even went so far as to incorporate tangzhong. During my prior experimentation with tangzhong in the recipes of other baked goods, I’d previously concluded that a shorter knead time improves the final product. But with brioche dough, unfortunately, a long knead is necessary for the full development of the gluten. To make tangzhong work in a brioche dough, I recommend a long knead before adding the tangzhong mixture, followed by a shorter final knead before resting the dough. All of this, you might be wondering, just to eliminate some dryness? For me, it’s worth it. Read more.

Soft Flour Tortillas

Any Mexican dinner (and almost any dinner, in fact) can be elevated with the addition of a fresh flour tortilla. Fajitas and tacos are the most usual applications of tortillas, but my favorite unusual application is to wrap one around a roasted vegetable pesto, a roasted vegetable, and a few slices of avocado. Even a plain tortilla hot off the skillet has even been known to make me swoon. I’ve also enjoyed them with reheated leftovers (it reinvents yesterday’s kale salad or stir fry).

In case you couldn’t already tell, I’m not a purist when it comes to tortillas or their ingredients. If I had been raised in a family that made and served tortillas, perhaps I would be opposed to tampering with that history—but I wasn’t. In fact, I never even tasted Mexican food until I was in high school, but even than I was eating hardshell Old El Paso tacos with ground beef at a friend’s house. Most of my exposure to “Mexican food” has been far from authentic. So, while I respect tortilla purists who are opposed to using baking powder in their tortillas, that respect is more cultural than practical (I believe tortillas rise better with baking powder). I really begin to step away from tradition with my inclusion of potato flour. This small addition makes for a softer and more pliable tortilla, which retains its pillowy texture regardless of overcooking (yes, I’ve done it… multitasking has often been my downfall). I find that the potato flour (and the baking powder) works a bit like an insurance policy against stiff, flat tortillas. Read more.

Marian Burros's Italian Plum Torte

There's something quite special about those foods that are only available for a short window of time each year.  Knowing that their appearance is short-lived makes me appreciate their reappearance all the more.  I loved eating these tiny plums by the handful when I was a kid, not yet aware of the season's brevity.  They'd appear on the kitchen counter, we'd eat them until they disappeared, but not once did we question the timing.  That's how I remember most of my younger summers.  I rarely thought about how long anything would last; usually I didn't even know what day of the week it was.  Summer felt like it stretched on forever, with not a single responsibility on the horizon.  I walked to the local pond every day to swim, played hide and seek every evening with the other neighborhood kids, played cards with my sister on rainy days, and went on an annual summer camping trip with my family. Read more.