Cooking with the Caspers

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The Caspers Host Thanksgiving Again

Before you hear about Thanksgiving 2018, there are some important details you need to know. Mrs. Casper's family Thanksgivings are just half of the Thanksgiving cheer her uncles celebrate. Everyone has their own schedules, so where last year was a cozy 14-top, this year, being the "on" year for Uncle Jay, was a bit larger at 21 or so people. Gram's house has held all of Mrs. Casper's maternal cousins before, but they all took up less space as kids, so it was Uncle Jay who suggested a return to past tradition.

 

What does this mean? It means Mrs. Casper's parents would be hosting at their house, but the Caspers would still bring the turkeys and a few sides. Best of both worlds, honestly. Mom is an experienced hostess (just ask Tonidale's, circa 1970s), and the Caspers could focus on the food without spending the time getting Gram's house company-ready.

Another new and exciting feature of Thanksgiving 2018? A VEGAN. Virtually unheard of in our family, Mrs. Casper's cousin Mike had recently made the plunge from vegetarian to vegan, and if there's anything the Caspers love, it's a cooking challenge. Fortunately, Mr. Casper's best man's wife is also a vegan, so they'd done research before on substitutions.

Flash back to the weekend before Thanksgiving. Mrs. Casper was on prep duty while Mr. Casper worked. The very first thing she made? A side normally brought by Aunt Judi (who would be in Florida for the holiday): cranberry relish. Of course, canned would also be served. The Caspers may be cooks, but they aren't monsters.

While the relish simmered away, Mrs. Casper set to a very careful task. Living with Gram has lots of perks, and using her mother's bowl for the relish was something Mrs. Casper was both thrilled to do and nervous about breaking. Worry not, the bowl made it safely through all of Thanksgiving 2018, and has earned its' place in future gatherings.

Beautiful things with family history, in the Caspers' opinion, should be shared and loved, not kept carefully tucked away and forgotten.

What else? Hmm...

 

5 loaves of bread, torn and placed in the oven to dry. 2 challah, 2 Italian, and one French loaf for vegan stuffing.

A brine solution, quite similar to last year's.

A giblet stock made in Mrs. Casper's birthday present, the almighty Instant Pot.

A vegan apple cinnamon cake that, tragically, became an apple cinnamon trifle when the cakes fell into many pieces after baking. This problem was caused by two main issues- vegan cake, with "eggs" of flaxseed, is a sticker and more dense cake than traditional cake, and, well, the Caspers were out of parchment paper.

And finally, a new ingredient was introduced: fire.

Fire roasted butternut squash, carefully tended by Mr. Casper, taken, aptly, from the cookbook Cooking with Fire, was roasted over the course of an hour until blackened and soft. After it cooled, the smoky sweet flesh of the squash was scooped out and blended with seasonings and olive oil. Chef Michael Symon's recipe calls for dairy, but Mrs. Casper's mom had plenty of dairy softening and caramelizing the sweet potatoes (or were they yams?), so this dish was shifted to the vegan side of the menu. A few kisses of the culinary torch, and the gorgeous smoky dish was ready to be served.

And now, time to talk turkey.

As was done last year, the turkeys were brined ahead of time in a cooler. This time, though, it was a full 2 days ahead. Wednesday afternoon, the birds were liberated from their salty bath, rinsed, dried, and skin-stuffed with a bacon-butter-herb mixture (one bird was more stuffed than the other as some people don't go nuts for bacon like the Caspers do) The outer skins of both birds were seasoned heavily, and the birds were left uncovered in their roasting pans in the fridge overnight. This technique enabled the skin to be very dry by the time it was time to roast, and did the trick in creating crispy skin.

However, if you've been paying close attention, you'll have noticed a mistake. Before we get to that, though, there was another problem. Even with neighbors' ovens offered up to supplement, there just was not room for the two birds, and so the Caspers tried something new.

The Caspers turned to man's best friend, bastion of burgers, smoky cooker of the stars, the grill. Though the day was touted as the coldest Thanksgiving in a century, Mr. Casper diligently got the grill up to 350° in the chilling winds, and the less bacon-y turkey went on with digital thermometer attached. Shockingly, the grill-bird was done in only a few hours, and was perfectly juicy after being rested an hour.

Once the grill bird was off, the thermometer went to check on the much-more-controlled-temp oven bird, which was already overcooked!

Now, the Caspers know, brining a bird can speed the cooking process. Then, it felt like a mystery of physics.

The overdone bird was also the quite bacon-y one, and this is where we realized our mistake. Yes, a turkey is a big bird that needs a lot of flavor. However, any chef will tell you, you can always add salt. Taking it away is another feat entirely. Where the grill bird, with more butter than bacon under the skin, was perfectly juicy, the oven bird was a salt bomb. Wet brine, a low-level dry brine, and then bacon had injected the poor bird with more salt than it needed, and so it became the leftover bird.

Fortunately, between the Caspers and the Hursens and the Zaharkos and the Daltons, there was more than enough food to give every one of the 21+ Thanksgiving eaters more than a full plate, with leftovers besides. Vegan cousin Mike was sent home with possibly more food than he could reasonably eat alone, especially thanks to the beautiful work of Gulzat Dalton, who took the "Could you make a vegan side?" request and truly ran with it. 

Next year (because, of course, the Caspers are already thinking about next year), maybe just a dry brine. Maybe less bacon. Maybe 30 people, maybe 10. And maybe, just maybe, the Caspers will get dinner done a little earlier, so they have time to take a breather and really enjoy the meal. The rookies continue to make mistakes, but give it 20 years, and it'll be a well-oiled machine.