The Thanksgiving holiday is almost upon us, but Brian and I have already celebrated Thanksgiving once this year. In October (and no, we weren’t in Canada). We were in Italy.
As far as I know, it wasn’t actually Thanksgiving anywhere in the world on October 15, but when thinking of something “American” to cook for a group of Italian friends and having already made a 4th-of-July-style hamburger dinner complete with potato salad and baked beans (it was actually July 4th) and Tex-Mex on previous occasions, Thanksgiving seemed like the next logical step.
Actually, it was Francesca’s idea, and I’m not quite sure she knew what she was getting herself into when she suggested it. I’m not sure I realized the full implications when I agreed to it. Or I had forgotten the amount of planning, time, and effort that went into the first Thanksgiving dinner I made. On the other hand, Francesca and I love to cook whenever we visit each other, so making Thanksgiving dinner didn’t seem like a bad way to spend a day or two of our time in Venice.
It was late Tuesday night when we made the decision. There would be about 15 guests and at the meal that would take place Friday evening – a pretty quick turnaround, especially considering our location and compared to last year when I spent a week-and-a-half preparing for half as many people. We would start with appetizers: a cheese ball and the Venetian apertivo, spritz all’Aperol. The main meal would consist of turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, corn casserole, and green beans. For dessert we would make pumpkin cheesecake and chocolate chip cookies.
I didn’t think about the fact that the butcher would need a day to get us the turkey nor the fact that I needed 24 to 48 hours to dry-brine the turkey. When it finally occurred to me Wednesday afternoon, the butcher was already closed for the day. The way dry-brining works is that the salt draws the juices out of the turkey, dissolves in the juices, and then gets absorbed back into the turkey along with the liquid – resulting in a tender, juicy turkey that is well-seasoned throughout. We would have needed at least 24 hours to allow the process to take place. Stopped halfway through it would result in a very dry, unsalted bird. So I would have to figure out something else.
When we stopped by the butcher’s on Thursday, he said he could have a turkey for us Friday morning. Thursday afternoon we hit the grocery stores with a long list of ingredients. We were relatively successful.
Cranberries: We didn’t find cranberries, so we bought a jar of “whole berry” Ocean Spray cranberry sauce at a specialty shop. It was actually pretty good – much better than the canned stuff. (If you’re in Venice looking for American or other specialty ingredients, try Rizzo market, located near the Rialto bridge. In Rome, look for Castroni, which is a chain selling a huge selection of imports, specialty ingredients, wine, and candy.)
Sweet potatoes: Although sweet potatoes aren’t native to Italy, Francesca was familiar with them and thought we would find them at the supermarket. We did -- a bin full of knobby, twisted patate americane.
Pumpkin: The word for pumpkin in Italian is zucca, which just means “squash” or “gourd” (and is also the basis of the word “zucchini,” which means “little squash”). I was surprised not to find pumpkin, but we found plenty of other large winter squash, which were shaped more like butternut squash than pumpkin. We chose one that was sold cut in half because we were able to see that the firm orange flesh closely resembled that of a pumpkin.
Baking soda: It’s so basic an ingredient in so many different things – from cookies to toothpaste – that one wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find. It’s not – if you know where to look. We were in the supermarket for over an hour and spent a significant portion of that time looking for baking soda. It wasn’t in the baking aisle. We checked several times. It wasn’t in the cleaning section. We made several trips up and down that aisle, too. We finally asked a stock person if he knew where it was, and he brought us right to it. In the beverage aisle, right next to several kinds of additives for turning still water into sparkling. Of course.
Baking powder: Once we had baking soda, the baking powder was simple. By mixing one part baking soda with two parts cream of tartar (found in the baking aisle), we had baking powder!
Cheddar cheese: We didn’t find it, so we substituted sharp provolone for the cheese ball instead.
Salt pork: The Italian equivalent seems to be lardo. Pancetta could also work, but for our purposes (flavoring not consuming), the fattier lardo was more appropriate (and cheaper).
Cheese cloth: Surely we could have found cheese cloth somewhere, but we didn’t have time to seek out a specialty store. Instead, we ended up using loosely woven cross-stitching fabric. Why the grocery store would carry cross-stitching fabric and not cheesecloth is beyond me.
Pecans: Both the sweet potato casserole (topping) and the pumpkin cheesecake (crust) called for pecans. We knew we wouldn’t find them anywhere in Venice, so we substituted hazelnuts, which we thought would go equally well with holiday spices (with the added bonus that Brian isn’t allergic to them).
Vanilla wafers: For the cheesecake crust, we substituted the Barilla brand “Mulino” cookies for vanilla wafers. The Mulino cookies are denser but have a very similar flavor. I like them even better.
Brown sugar* and vanilla extract** were easy – We had brought Francesca 2 boxes of brown sugar and 2 bottles of vanilla extract from home.
*Nope, no brown sugar in Italy—at least not brown sugar the way we think of it. There is, however, zucchero di canna, which is un- or partially-refined sugar similar to Sugar in the Raw and, hence, contains some molasses. It’s not exactly the same thing as the “light brown sugar” and “dark brown sugar” that Americans use because ours are made by adding a standardized amount of molasses back into refined white sugar. I have never baked with zucchero di canna in place of refined brown sugar. I have read that it can work as a substitute but may yield some flavor and texture differences because of its lower molasses content.
American-style brown sugar can be made by adding molasses to white sugar. However, molasses is only found at specialty/import stores in Italy. For a brief primer on the different types of brown sugar, try this article.
**I don’t know why Italians don’t seem to use vanilla extract. The baking sections in grocery stores sell an artificially-flavored vanilla powder, but no real vanilla extract, which seems strange to me in such a food-conscious culture.
If you find yourself in Italy without vanilla extract, you can make it yourself. All you need is pure-grain alcohol or vodka, vanilla beans, and time. Two other food bloggers have useful posts on the subject here and here.
By the time we finished shopping, it was time to make dinner and get some prep done for Friday. I started with the cheesecake, which first required roasting the squash. I had never made the cheesecake with fresh pumpkin/squash before but discovered that I could substitute an equivalent amount of roasted squash for the canned pumpkin called for in the recipe. It worked out about the same in both volume and weight.
The oven in Francesca’s kitchen was apparently running hot because the cheesecake came out burnt with 15 minutes of cooking time left on the clock. Fortunately a hot oven and a burnt cheesecake were no match for our kitchen-problem-solving team:
I think it was even better than usual. We shaved off the burnt layer and covered it with sweetened cinnamon-ginger whipped cream and some crushed cookies and hazelnuts.
Friday morning, while I got things ready around the kitchen, Brian and Francesca went for the turkey.
Then we had to figure out what to do with it.
I had decided on a short (6-hour) wet brine, and as luck would have it, there was a large, new bucket that was just about big enough to hold the entire turkey. By removing a refrigerator shelf and some of the contents, we were able to just fit the turkey inside.
While preparing the turkey for brining, I realized that something was missing. Unlike American butchers, the macellaio hadn’t automatically included the neck and giblets, and I hadn’t thought to ask for them. How was I going to make gravy with no turkey parts?
Brian and Francesca went back to the butcher to see if he still had the rest of the turkey. He explained that he never had the giblets to begin with; he would have had to specially request them when he ordered the turkey.
On the opposite side of the Grand Canal near the fish market, there was another butcher shop where Brian and I had seen half a lamb, an entire skinned rabbit, and a turkey sliced right down the middle on display in the window the day before. If anyone had what we were looking for, that butcher shop would. But instead of turkey giblets, Francesca and Brian got only strange looks. As a last resort, they asked for chicken instead. Although he was still confused by the request, the butcher picked a chicken neck and heart from the scrap pile and wrapped them up – but not before asking whether or not they were sure that the meat would be enough for us to eat. At that point Brian and Francesca didn’t have the patience to explain what we were making, but knowing that the chicken parts would be smaller than a turkey’s, they asked for a second chicken neck and left.
Meanwhile back in the kitchen, I had moved on to the sweet potatoes. Once I had washed all the dirt off, they looked suspiciously pale, and when I cut them open after baking, I was dismayed to see that they were white. So… not sweet potatoes. Right?
Then I tasted them. White sweet potatoes!
(In related news, the first weekend after we returned from Italy, Brian and I went to the farmers’ market where we saw… you guessed it, white sweet potatoes.)
The first challenge was getting it out of the refrigerator without spilling raw-turkey-salt-water all over the kitchen floor. We decided to scoop out the water until it was several inches below the top of the bucket.
Then the turkey could be removed from the fridge, drained, patted dry, and stuffed;
then its fat deposits pierced, its skin rubbed with a baking soda-salt mixture (for crispness),
its legs tied up, and its back draped with lardo (for flavor).
In place of a roasting pan, we used an oven rack set over a shallow pan of the same width (which was made to slide into oven the same way that a rack fits in the oven). Because they were exactly the width of the oven, the only way they would fit was to actually slide into the built-in grooves, putting the turkey and rack at one level and the pan on the level below the turkey. Thus, getting the turkey in and out of the oven without dripping all over the oven floor was a precarious two-person job.
A little over an hour into cooking the turkey, we started to smell something burning. I was sure it was just some drippings that had hit the oven floor when we took the turkey out to remove the lardo and turn it over. When it seemed that the burning smell was not going away but getting worse, we finally investigated. It was the turkey legs touching the top of the oven. So we performed another death-defying, four-handed turkey removal and moved it to a lower rack in the oven. After that, things went perfectly smoothly.
While the turkey continued to roast, we started the gravy and prepped the casseroles, which would to go into the oven during the turkey’s half-hour rest.
The turkey came out crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. It could have had a touch more salt but not to the extent that anyone really noticed.
The cheese ball was a hit! I barely had time to snap a picture of it before it was gone.
Our friends were fascinated by Brian’s turkey-carving, having been exposed to American movies in which the patriarchal figure ceremoniously carves the bird at an elaborate dinner table surrounded by family and friends.Brian’s carving was not so ceremonial, but quite impressive, especially considering he’d only done it once before and that this time he had an audience. The spread (minus the stuffing):
Finally out of the kitchen:
The plate would have been more colorful if we’d had time to make green beans and if the the potatoes had been orange. But no one else seemed to mind, so I didn’t worry about it either. I was relieved to see how much everyone enjoyed the meal and even came back for seconds. We hardly had any leftovers, which is quite a rarity at Thanksgiving dinner.
I thought it was interesting that one friend commented on how strange it was to have sweet and savory dishes on his plate at the same time. He wasn’t sure how to handle it because it was difficult to go back and forth between sweet and savory every other bite. The American approach to meals is quite different from the Italian, especially at Thanksgiving, when there may be 8 different foods piled onto a plate, whereas Italians never have more than two at a time.
All in all, our day-and-a-half of work ended in a meal that was a great success and worth every ounce of effort.
Coming soon: more about Italy and recipes related to this post!