We had a different kind of Thanksgiving this year. We ran away from home to a tropical island for a few days. Instead of cooking up a storm, I was walking on the beach. Slicing pineapple instead of pureeing pumpkin. Applying sunscreen instead of whipped cream. Reading novels instead of consulting cookbooks. Stuffing my face instead of stuffing the turkey...
You get the idea.
And yes, I do know exactly how lucky I am, thank you very much. Licking my emotional wounds with mai tais is definitely not a bad way to go. But as pleasant and nice as this is, it's also strange and unsettling. It feels quite odd to be here.
That being said, the vacation was going beautifully until it came time to have Thanksgiving dinner. I'd booked a reservation days in advance at a posh restaurant overlooking the ocean that was known for its cuisine and impeccable service. The website promised "a traditional Thanksgiving option" as well as selections from their regular menu. I was excited. After all, if I was going to betray an entire lifetime of days-in-the-making, completely from scratch, gather-everyone-around-the-family-table Thanksgiving tradition, I figured I might as well do it in style.
I made my husband put on long pants. I made my daughter put on her plainest black T-Shirt. I made my son clean his shoes. I tried my best to comb out my hair so the imprint of the baseball cap wasn't so visible. I hustled them into the car and we headed out.
We pull up to the valet. The people in the car ahead of us got out and walked into the restaurant. In shorts, baseball caps and tennis shoes.
My husband: I knew I could have kept my shorts on.
My daughter: Are you sure this is a nice place? I mean, they have a valet and all, but that lady looks just like you did a few minutes ago, and she's coming here.
After a short wait, we are shown to our table, with a full view of the starlit sky and the glow of the lit tiki torches below. There are many well dressed people around us. I feel vindicated and content. Two musicians are playing Hawaiian-ized pop music on native instruments near the bar, which is crowded with patrons waiting for tables. The sounds mingle and drift our way, creating a relaxing background to the conversation. The restaurant has no walls, so the ocean breeze is wafting over us as the hostess hands out menus. As I'm reading, I'm filled with a growing sense of dread.
My son: What is WRONG with these people? This is the most unhelpful menu I have ever seen. Who writes this way in real life?
He reads aloud in a highly sarcastic voice:
Grilled Maui Cattle Grass Fed Filet. Kula Creamed Corn. House Whipped Potatoes. Local Beet-Tomato-Onion Chutney.
Me: If you don't like something, just have it on the side.
Him: It's not the things I don't like, it's the menu! I have NO idea from what they wrote there if I like the things or not. What's up with this! Can't they just say steak and mashed potatoes like normal people?
My daughter pipes up.
Her: Whoever heard of a Caesar Salad with croutons made out of fried green tomatoes? Croutons means bread. Tomatoes are red. This place is messed up.
My husband: Guys, Mom really wants to have a nice evening. Let's all try to find something we can eat here.
My son: OK, Dad. I'll do that. If you can tell me what cavatelli pasta is and why the asparagus has a first name, I will totally shut up.
Me: How about the fish and chips?
My daughter: Mom! It says "fish and chips" in [making the marks in the air for emphasis] quotation marks. It's actually fish and eggplant. Eggplant! And who puts corn in tartar sauce? The same people who think tomatoes are croutons, that's who.
The waiter arrives. My husband asks if he can recommend anything for not-so-adventurous eaters. He mentions the Harvest Plate* and gets nothing, then points out a mild fresh ono with macadamia nut crust. The stares are withering. He starts to look a little nervous.
My son (through gritted teeth): I''ll have the filet, please.
My daughter (falsely cheerful): I'll have the same. Well done. Like burnt.
Me: (still trying to salvage something here): I'll have the scallops.
My husband lets out a huge "hrrumph" and dramatically opens up his menu again.
Me: Oh gosh! Did you want the scallops? I thought you would be getting the rib eye! I'm so sorry!
Him: (sighing pointedly) Well, yes I did want the scallops, but I guess I'll be having the rib eye.
Me: (clapping a little with delight) Oh good! I wanted to try that.
The kids roll their eyes. My husband glares at me, then looks meaningfully at my daughter.
Him: And a Caesar salad to start.
The waiter: And how did you want that rib-eye cooked, sir?
Me: (without looking up from the menu) Medium.
There's a hush around the table, then everyone, including the waiter, bursts out laughing. I'm blinking in confusion for a minute, then I start giggling, too.
The tension we all felt at being far from home, in a place that feels not just odd but downright alien, particularly on this night, is gone. We talk and we bicker and we eat and we laugh some more. We tease each other and do trivia questions and split the scallops and the rib eye. We toast the occasion and plan our outing for tomorrow.
No one eats the beet stuff.
And we agree I will make a real Thanksgiving dinner when we get home. This whole thing is just a little too upside down for our taste.
Caramel Cranberry Upside Down Cake
I made this just before we left home as part of my "use up what's in the fridge so it doesn't go bad while we're away" program. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but in this case, vacation gets the credit. The cake is based on a pound cake recipe from Sunset Magazine, with all the buttery richness that implies, and the caramel cranberry layer is all me, baby. The mix of tart, sweet and salt is awesome, and the cake makes a great holiday dessert. Whether you're at home or not.
For the caramel cranberries:
1 1/4 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1/2 c. heavy cream
pinch of salt
1 pkg. fresh cranberries, cleaned and picked over to remove any not so great ones
For the cake:
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, softened
2 1/4 c. sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 c. buttermilk
2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. almond extract
grated zest of 1 orange
3 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
Butter a 10 inch round or square cake pan, and preheat the oven to 350. Note: Don't use a springform pan like I did. (see illustration on the right)
Combine butter, brown sugar and heavy cream in a medium saucepan, and cook over medium heat until butter is melted. Stir vigorously to combine, and keep stirring until sugar has dissolved and the mixture is a smooth caramel, about 2-3 minutes more. Remove from the heat. Add the salt and the cranberries, stir gently, and set aside.
Using an electric mixture, cream the butter and sugar together until light colored. It will still look sugary. Don't worry. Add the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each one. Mix together the buttermilk, vanilla, almond extract and orange zest in a small bowl or measuring cup. Set aside. Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt, and set aside. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter/sugar mixture. Blend. Add 1/2 of the buttermilk mixture. Blend. Add another 1/3 of the flour mixture. Blend. Add the rest of the buttermilk mixture. Blend. Finish with the last of the flour mixture.
Pour the cranberry caramel into the prepared pan. If you need to, tilt the pan or use a spatula to get the cranberries into a single uniform layer.
Gently pour or spoon the cake batter on top of the cranberries, trying not to disturb them. Bake for about an hour, or until the center of the cake springs back when touched lightly.
Allow to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake, then carefully invert onto a serving plate.
Spoon any extra caramel over the top of the cake. Cool and serve.
House-whipped cream on the side? Write that down.
Reduce flour to 2 3/4 c.
Reduce buttermilk to 3/4 c.
Add 1/2 c. sourdough starter to the buttermilk mixture.
You won't necessarily notice a sourdough flavor to the cake, but it will bake up just a bit lighter than the standard version.
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* Organic free-range turkey, sweet potato mash, loosely grown local carrots (!), wild rice, sage-brown butter stuffing, wasabi green beans and cranberry-pineapple relish.