Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving at Chez Coco

I’ll start with Wednesday night. Thanksgiving eve. My plan was to spend the night at my friend Michael’s apartment so that I could get up the next morning and make monkey bread. You may know it as pull-apart bread. It seemed like the perfect, decadent, overly sweet goodness to have for breakfast on the morning of a holiday – a holiday that is all about eating. Well, not really all about eating, I mean it’s about being thankful and taking the time to acknowledge what you’re thankful for, but then it’s about eating.

So, with work over for the day by 8:30pm, I took my list out of my backpack and headed to Food Emporium. It was crowded, but not as crowded as I expected it to be on the eve of Thanksgiving. I don't really shop for groceries at Food Emporium any more since I moved from Manhattan to Astoria Therefore my lack of knowledge of the store’s layout became apparent when it came to finding the necessities on my list that happen to be non-necessities in my everyday life. Some things I knew exactly where to find, but I had to search for vinegar and oil and Hershey’s cocoa. Then there was the matter of the buttermilk and the Karo syrup. The buttermilk was an ingredient in my red velvet cake recipe and the Karo syrup was needed for the butter cream frosting. So I'm standing in front of the milk products and all I'm seeing is Lite Buttermilk with 1/3 less fat or some amount of less fat. I was thinking to myself, this is red velvet cake; it's decadent and deserving of all the fat that buttermilk has to offer. I did make a quick phone call to my friend Neal, from whom I had gotten the recipe, to ask about the "less fat" buttermilk. There was no answer so I just made the decision myself. I didn’t buy it. Now on to the Karo syrup. I needed Light Karo syrup. I found the aisle with the cake mixes, flour, sugar, spices, syrup etc. This is where the crowd was. Seriously, one just had to park a buggy and walk because there were so many people in that aisle looking for baking soda, sugar and spices etc. that walking was nearly impossible. I found the cinnamon, baking soda, flour and sugar that I needed. I was happily surprised to find the syrup also on that aisle. Unfortunately all they had was Lite Karo syrup. Really, I thought, only Lite Karo syrup? Had the pecan pie lovers hoarded all of the Light Karo? First the buttermilk now the syrup! I'm all about the healthy eating, but some things just beg for the full-fat, full-bodied ingredients. Frustrated I exited the aisle and found myself standing in front of a Thanksgiving staples end cap. There on the second shelf was one bottle of Light Karo syrup. It was slightly to front of the shelf as if to say, "Here I am Michael; I've been waiting for you."

I boarded the R train to Queens with three bags full of ingredients. I still had to go to my apartment, repack the supplies into my Urban Luggage bag (green is the way), pack pajamas and clothes for the next day then walk to Michael's house. It was a time consuming amount of things to do, but I was working at warp speed. I might have been dillying a little, but I was not dallying at all.

I got home and filled my Gladware with the measured amounts of flour, sugar and cinnamon that I would need to prepare the next day's sweet delights. I thought it would be better to compartmentalize and consolidate than to take the full bags of flour and sugar. There was no need to carry the extra weight to Michael's and I was ahead of the game for measuring out the dry goods the next day.

I managed to get out my door slightly before 10pm. It’s a 20-minute walk to Michael's. Even with the extra weight I was anticipating a 10:30pm arrival. I was prepared for a long evening as he thought it best that I bake the cake that night. I had to stop at the grocery store on the way to his house and buy the buttermilk. Imagine the look on my face when all I found at C Town was the same 1/3 less fat buttermilk I had not purchased at Food Emporium. I just thought screw it! I'm not going to another grocery store for a little more fat. I didn’t mention that I also needed to buy some vanilla extract. I purposefully didn’t buy it at Food Emporium, as I knew I had a bottle at my house. Much to my surprise I found my vanilla extract had dried up. I had only had it 5 years. Who knew? Obviously, not this guy.

I did arrive at Michael's around 10:30pm. It wasn't before, but it was shortly after. It was cold that night, but with the coat and the scarf and the walking and the extra baggage, I was sweating by the time I got there. I was so glad to shed my coat and top-layer shirt.

Michael had spent the day preparing everything he needed to in order to make Thanksgiving Day as smooth as possible. We weren't planning to eat until 7pm with a guest arrival time at 5pm. That meant the turkey didn't have to be put in the oven until 2pm. You know what that meant for me? I didn't have to make the cake that night. I uncorked a bottle of wine, threw on my pj's and parked myself on the sofa to watch Modern Family and let the wine relax my tension away.

Thanksgiving Day morning I was up by 8:30am. I went to the kitchen to start making the monkey bread. First thing on the agenda – preheat the oven to 350°. Then I started cutting the first of three tubes of 10 Pillsbury® buttermilk biscuits into quarters. After the first tube was quartered, I sprayed Pam®, with flour for baking, into my bundt pan and then started shaking the biscuit pieces in the sugar/cinnamon mixture I had prepared the night before. I couldn’t help but feel like the little girl in the commercial for Shake ‘N Bake; “It’s Shake ‘N Bake, and I helped.” With my southern roots, I had no problem sounding just as southern as she did, probably even more as I tend to find humor in an over-exaggerated southern accent. Skip to all three tubes quartered, shaken and waiting patiently in the bundt pan for a caramel brown sauce to smother them with sugary goodness. I just had to make it – two sticks of real butter, ½ cup of brown sugar and ½ cup of the remaining sugar/cinnamon mixture heated over low heat until bubbling brown. I poured it over the biscuit pieces and placed the pan into the over. Only 30 minutes to go until breakfast sweet enough to rot your teeth would be ready.

How to pass the time? Watch the parade.

Yes, it was time for a Thanksgiving Day tradition – the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. I’ve watched it for more than 20 years. I can remember times at my parents’ house watching it while sitting in the living room floor cutting up apples or grapes or bananas for mom’s fruit salad. I also have the best memory of all. It involves my mom, sister and packages of craisins flying through the air.

In November of 1997, my mom and sister came to NYC for the first time. I had moved here in May of that year so it was my first Thanksgiving in NYC and the perfect excuse for their visit. It was only natural that we go to the parade. We arrived on the parade route about 6:30am that morning. We already had to fight for a place to see. We ended up on the corner of Broadway and 34th, right where the parade made it’s finally turn after stopping in Herald Square. We were blocked part of the time by a woman in a red hat. I can’t tell you how happy we all three were when she left. The funniest memory of that day comes at my mom’s expense. There were people walking the parade route that year throwing airplane snack size packages of craisins. Well, wouldn’t you know one of them would have to hit mom, square in the face. We still laugh about it to this day. We also wondered that year about the people dressed as a clown or slice of pizza or piece of cake. We imagined what it must have been like to tell their family that they were going to be in the parade dressed as a slice of pizza or wedge of cheese. On Thanksgiving morning 2010 while talking to my mom, I told her what I was in the parade this year. I used the most downtrodden voice I could when I told her I was carrying a pumpkin and waving. My sister was a slice of pizza and my nephew Dylan, not even a thought in our heads in 1997, was craisins. Yes, the craisins live on! Mom had yet to decide what she was in the 2010 parade when we spoke that morning.

The timer went off alerting us that the monkey bread had spent the required time in the over and was now ready for us to behold it in all it brown, glistening, ooey-gooey glory. I dumped it onto a cake platter and removed the bundt pan. It was beautiful and it was ooey-gooey. I’m not sure if I had never made it with real butter before or what the difference was, but the coating looked like caramel and as it cooled while running down the side, it just froze mid drip. It was amazing; so rich, so warm, so sweet. Add the cup of coffee I was enjoying along with the parade and you’ve got a Thanksgiving Day morning that got off to the right start.

When the parade ended at noon, I had two hours, in which to make my first-ever red velvet cake from scratch, before Michael had to put the turkey in the oven to bake. I found myself in the kitchen staring at the ingredients. I was intimidated. I don’t know why. I think I’ve always thought red velvet cake was difficult to make and that everything had to be done perfectly or it would be ruined. I decided the best thing for me to do was to jump in and get started. I must admit that I was shocked at how much oil went into the batter of this cake – 1¼ cup. I just let myself be in the moment. I’d wanted to make this cake for about 5 years and I was finally doing it. One thing I had to remember is that it should be fun. I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Failure is not an option. I wanted the cake to be amazing and was freaking myself out about it. Honestly, it’s just ingredients, blended together, placed in a pan and baked. It’s not like I was removing someone’s liver.

Because I made the monkey bread that morning, and it required a bundt pan, I decided, at Michael’s suggestion, to make the red velvet cake in the bundt pan. It was a beautiful, shimmering shade of red. I must confess that I licked the beaters. Is there anything better than licking the beaters? Only eating the cake, in my opinion. Anyway, the batter tasted amazing. I could only hope the finished product tasted as good. On that thought it occurred to me that unless I burned the cake, it had to taste good. It could only taste like the baked version of the wet batter I had licked off of those beaters. Relax Michael, I had to tell myself.

Once it was in the oven, the hardest part was over. I poured myself a glass of wine. It was noon! The smell of cake filled the air as I waited for the timer to beep and alert me to check the progress. Back to the intimidation. I found myself whispering as I opened the oven door to look at it. What was this a soufflé? No! It was merely a cake. Intimidation be gone. It was baking and it was fine. It took longer because of the thickness of the cake due to the bundt pan, but I checked it every five minutes for about 50 minutes and when it was done, the toothpick was clean.

Twenty minutes into the cooling time of the cake I started making the frosting. I like butter cream frosting for red velvet cake. It’s much richer and more elegant on such a gorgeous cake than the easier, and in my opinion, cheaper, cream cheese frosting. I will admit that I was a bit confused by the fact that the frosting recipe I was using did not call for butter. Call me crazy, but I would think butter cream frosting would have butter in it. I got the recipe from a reliable source and chose to not question it any further and just combine the ingredients of the recipe and hope for the best.

I learned two things about frosting. I had no idea what “soft ball stage” was. Michael had to Google it. Turns out that sugar syrup dropped into cold water will form a soft, flexible ball. That’s the first thing I learned, as I had to cook the sugar concoction until it did that. The second thing I learned was that I had merely made white icing. It was perfect for drizzling over my red velvet cake, but it tasted like marshmallow cream and hardened as it cooled. My mom is sending me her butter cream recipe for next time.

The drizzled cake reminded me of a candy cane. There was nothing wrong with the frosting either. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it worked. The cake was very moist and the crunchy texture of the hardened icing was a nice compliment.

I can actually say I was proud of myself for both of my sweet creations on Thanksgiving Day. I’m thankful that I didn’t burn either one. I’m thankful that I tried something new.

The friends arrived at Michael’s apartment; the wine flowed, the food was eaten, laughs were laughed over dinner and during games of Celebrity and Apples to Apples. Michael’s table was gorgeous. It was his grandmother’s. He also has her china. He wanted to host Thanksgiving dinner at his house this year to use the china and the table that had once belonged to such an important person in his life. I know about that importance in my own life. I think she would have been proud. The day was lovely and joyful. The only thing missing was Tynan, who thankfully joined us twice that day via Skype.

While I’m being thankful I want to take the opportunity to say that it is a wonderful thing to have people in this world that you can be with on special holidays when you can’t be with your family. Those people become your family. For much of my life, being a theatre performer, I wasn’t home for Thanksgiving Day. Now, working in an NYC theatre box office, our business not only don’t close for holidays, we add more performances during the week. So I am thankful to have people to laugh with, eat with, share with, cry with and drink wine with.

I am truly blessed everyday of my life. I have a wonderful family, beautiful friends, good health, a great job, an amazing home and a red velvet cake recipe that will now become part of my baking repertoire.

Thanksgiving at Chez Coco