Shire's father died when she was 15, but she still makes the cranberry jelly that he'd adapted from a recipe in an old Fannie Farmer cookbook. This is cranberry jelly as God intended it to be and to taste it is to realize how far all those others have fallen (even if they do look cute right out of the can). It sets with a deceptively delicate jiggle that gives no hint to its deep flavor or its warm clove-and-cinnamon spice, one of those dishes that is almost impossible to stop eating.
It's incredibly easy to make too — you just boil cranberries with a packet of sweet spices until the berries soften and thicken and then strain the mixture, add sugar and cook it briefly again.
Even today, Shire says, "I have to have that flavor. I can't go through that day without having certain flavors in my mouth because it wouldn't be Thanksgiving." And helping out in the kitchen will be Shire's 14 1/2 -year-old son, Alex. "He's going to be a cook, you know," Shire says. "I'm absolutely sure of it."
The vegetable sides
At his 55th birthday party last year, cooked by such chefs as Keller and Le Bernardin's Eric Ripert (and attended by others, including Boulud and Pierre Gagnaire), Michel Richard, whose jolly demeanor masks a deeply competitive nature, blew everyone away with a postmodern rendition of ratatouille: each vegetable reduced to its flavor essence, set into a firm but soft jelly and presented in a sculptural mix of cubes the size of playing dice.
Richard, chef at Citronelle in Washington, D.C., is one of the country's most creative and playful chefs, even when it comes to the Thanksgiving vegetable course — something usually tacked on as an afterthought.
Thanksgiving, as it turns out, is Richard's favorite holiday. It's the most French after all — centered around the table, he explains. "Thanksgiving I love," he says, "because I don't have to worry about buying gifts; I don't need to go to Mass; I don't need to do anything but sit down at the table at 4 o'clock with my family and my friends and eat good food, drink good wine and then go outside and drink Armagnac and smoke cigars."
While the deconstructed ratatouille may be a bit extreme for a family dinner, Richard did come up with two winners. In his stuffed Savoy cabbage, the whole leaves — pale green and silken after long, gentle cooking — are wrapped around duxelles, sautéed chopped mushrooms given an extra layer of nutty complexity by a hint of curry powder.
And it would be almost impossible not to love the very Franco-American combination of long-cooked earthy Southern collard greens and the meaty green lentils from Le Puy, France. The way these seemingly unrelated ingredients play off each other is astonishing (and delicious).
For his Thanksgiving at home, Richard's turkey will be a simple roast bird, albeit with a French twist: a stuffing made with chestnuts and boudin blanc. "My wife used to accept a very thick French accent, but now it's only a little French accent," he says. "My family likes a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but there is still a mixture of the two countries."
Sherry Yard's Thanksgivings growing up in Brooklyn sound a little like "I Love Lucy." First of all, her mother didn't cook. Her dad did, but he had unconventional notions of what to serve. For Thanksgiving, she remembers, "he'd set up a gas barbecue out in the backyard and go out in the cold and do steaks or kielbasa sausage, anything but turkey."
Then there was the famous episode with the creamed corn. "My mother never opened the cans and emptied them into a pot; she just put them on a baking sheet and stuck it in the oven," she says. One Thanksgiving, disaster struck: "The oven blew up and we had creamed corn everywhere. It's just lucky nobody got hit by the can."
So it's no surprise that Yard's notions of a perfect Thanksgiving dessert are out of the ordinary. If she could have it her way, she'd eat chocolate cream pie, or cookies. She does love pumpkin, but, of course, has very definite opinions about how it should be treated. "A lot of Thanksgiving food tends to be a little bit on the sweet side already, so I don't like to make anything too sweet," she says. "And I like to use brown sugar, or honey, because they don't have the same monotone sweetness that sugar does."
In fact, her pumpkin dessert is a showstopper, kind of a pumpkin pie topped with a surprise. But it's not really a pie; it's a layered torte, built in a springform pan on top of a pastry crust. Pumpkin custard comes next, then a layer of whipped cream enriched with crème fraîche and flavored maple sugar, and for the crowning glory, a caramely pumpkin chiboust — like a cold soufflé. The chiboust, which has a slightly bitter note on its own, sets off the sweet pumpkin custard beautifully.
It may be a bit of a project, but actually it's not as complicated as it seems (you can even make it a day or two ahead, when things are a little calmer). And the results are well worth the effort.