A Thanksgiving Dinner That Longs for France 

Recipes for a small but still lavish holiday meal.

Between 2008, when I moved with my family to Lyon, and 2013, when we moved back to New York, we celebrated Thanksgiving with a loose confederation of American acquaintances. Many were there because they had fallen in love with a French partner and settled in the city. Some had married people of other nationalities. For us, the city was an appealing mix of what seemed like everyone from everywhere, and no Thanksgiving ever felt simply American, except, possibly, the one we hosted. I had to order a bird well in advance (the French rarely eat turkey in November) and planned an unapologetically kitschy menu, including classics from childhood: marshmallows on sweet potatoes, canned cranberry sauce (which our son Frederick decided was the best food he had tasted in his life), and pumpkin pie made with Carnation condensed milk, bought at the nearby “American” bagel store (where you also found Coke in a bottle, Froot Loops, and Welch’s grape jelly). The pie troubled our French friends: a sweet tart confected from a savory ingredient? They were also uncomfortable with so much cinnamon, a spice that they mysteriously loathed to the point (in one case) of gagging. For many years, our son George didn’t understand why you would add cinnamon to anything.

Our other Thanksgivings never took place on the actual day (Thanksgiving, obviously, is not a French holiday, and on the Thursday in question people work). Our friends Victor (American) and Sylvie (French) hosted one on a Saturday night, buffet style, where French was the principal language spoken. My wife’s friend Bridget hosted another where she provided the turkey and asked guests to provide everything else. The evening was relaxed—no stress about traditions or obligatory dishes or family members in a low-blood sugar moment (although Frederick was disappointed not to have any jellied cranberry)—and featured some extravagant displays of exceptional French cooking. I have trouble remembering the exact dishes, though, because there was also an abundance of fine Beaujolais. (We drove to the dinner; we returned by public transport.) For my part, I arrived with three dishes instead of one, including pumpkin pie made with a butter pastry, a Port sauce for the turkey, and ingredients for whipping up buttery mashed potatoes in the style of the late, great chef Joël Robuchon. My wife has ridiculed me to this day—was I trying to show off? But I had got excited by what France had taught me about cooking, and by the challenge of applying it to traditional American fare. (And I was probably showing off.)

The menu for this year’s Thanksgiving is one I could imagine making if we were in France now, hosting friends. It is also informed by a longing to be there among them. Since leaving Lyon, we have returned to visit every year. This year we didn’t. Also, after we returned to the United States my mother died, and, for my sister and me, her death has changed how we observe Thanksgiving. Always a family holiday, at least theoretically, it is now a family extravaganza, celebrated with as many family members as possible, and with exuberant quantities of food and wine and game-playing and outright jubilation, as if to shout down our buried feelings of sorrow. This year, we, like many others, won’t be seeing those relatives. The menu I’ve devised is a lot for a family of four, and it is lavish (it includes a truffle!), because we’re celebrating nonetheless, and maybe, too, because we want to keep busy and make a lot of noise so that we don’t notice all the people who are not with us. I’ve made food for six, though, just in case a pair of cousins happen, against all odds, to drop by.

French Thanksgiving Dinner

Serves 6, with leftovers

Menu
  • Cranberry Sauce with Banyuls
  • Quince Sauce with Quince Nectar and Calvados
  • Turkey Legs Braised in Red Wine
  • Roasted Turkey Breast with Madeira Sauce and Mushroom-Truffle Stuffing
  • Purée de Pommes de Terre, à la the Late Chef Joël Robuchon
  • Sautéed Fennel with Orange Glaze
  • Brussels Sprouts with Poitrine
  • Pumpkin Pie

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry and quince sauces.
Quince with calvados (left) and cranberry sauce with Banyuls.

Cranberry is one of the great American flavors, and the sauce made from it is perfect with turkey. But it is also perfect with just about anything else you will cook this winter, including scallops, pork roast, even omelets. If kept from being too sweet (there is a tendency in most recipes to counter the fruit’s sharp, sour bite with an excess of sugar), the sauce has a brightness and a zing that are like nothing else you will find easily on a winter plate. It is also naturally gelatinous and surprisingly full in the mouth. It is just an outright happy sauce. Make it in abundance. Make it for now and later and for February. You can store it in containers in the freezer.

The French touch: a bottle of Banyuls and a fresh vanilla pod. Banyuls is one of the several fortified sweet wines that you find in southeastern France. The alcohol is high at 16.5 per cent, it costs fifteen to twenty dollars a bottle, and, like the cranberry, it has bright, zingy flavors. (The cook also found it to be a perfectly sound refreshment while finishing the turkey.) Vanilla is one of the fundamentals of the French palate, and not only in pastry; perhaps only the shallot is more pervasive.

Ingredients
  • 1 lb. fresh cranberries
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, whole
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • ½ cup or more Banyuls wine
Directions

1. Wash cranberries and toss with sugar. Add to a saucepan.

2. Split vanilla bean lengthwise (try to split only the top half, leaving the bottom half intact), scrape out the seeds, and add them to the saucepan. Toss the pod in as well. (Retrieve it later and either put it to a second application or dry it out and keep it in a jar with sugar.)

3. Grind a generous amount of black pepper into the saucepan. Add wine, set heat to high, and bring to a boil. Stir once and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes, uncovered, stir again, then add lid. Turn off heat. Check after 10 minutes, stir, taste (More sugar? A splash of wine? Black pepper?), and let cool. [ . . . ]

Continue at The Atlantic: A Thanksgiving Dinner That Longs for France | The New Yorker

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