How to prepare the ideal Thanksgiving feast

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As assignments, a deadly pandemic and post-election tensions fill us with fear, I find solace in filling my mind with warm carbs instead. Thanksgiving may look a little different this year, but quarantine baking has prepared Americans for cooking up a dreamy feast – even if we can’t share it with as many family members as we’d like. 

For me, the ideal Thanksgiving involves several key components. It begins with tuning into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which will happen this year without attendees. I then like to roam about the kitchen, cooking what I can and helping set the table with my grandmother’s Thanksgiving china. 

I think the ideal time to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast is early afternoon, which ensures maximum hunger levels and post-meal digestion time. After eating, my family usually likes to go for a long walk before playing games into the evening. 

This year, only my immediate family will be celebrating together and I will be getting tested for COVID-19 before I go home. It is important to remember that we are still in a pandemic throughout the holiday season and that we should celebrate responsibly. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t cook up a Thanksgiving feast for just the people you live with – after all, having lots of leftovers is the best part of Thanksgiving. 

To put together an elite Thanksgiving meal, I think you must put the turkey on the backburner and instead focus on the true stars – sides and dessert. I prefer my protein-to-carb ratio to be as carb-heavy as possible, which is easy to achieve with this array of my family’s favorite recipes. 

Appetizers

Preparing your Thanksgiving feast will inevitably take longer than you are anticipating, so putting snacks out in the kitchen can help prevent a hangry family. Purchasing a variety of cheeses and crackers requires no cooking and will tide you and your co-celebrators over until the timers go off and dining commences. 

You can also serve an easy sangria for your of-age guests, or this non-alcoholic ginger-cranberry sparkler for younger family members. 

Breads

Dinner is sometimes called “breaking bread together” for a reason, and that reason is that bread is the main character of Thanksgiving. If you’re looking for a low-maintenance Thanksgiving, Sister Schubert’s Yeast Dinner Rolls are a tasty alternative to the multi-day process that is breadmaking. However, nothing can beat homemade bread – especially when served with butter and apricot jam. Here are my two favorite breads to have at Thanksgiving:

Butterhorns

I have won multiple ribbons at both the 4-H county fair and the Kansas State Fair with these soft, buttery, fail-proof rolls. They do need to rise overnight, so be sure you start a few days ahead of Thanksgiving. Butterhorns freeze well, so you can even prepare them weeks in advance and thaw them out when you’re ready to eat. 

Recipe courtesy of Michaela Esau. Graphic by Claire Henry.

Pumpkin-shaped sourdough

If you are not an experienced bread maker, I would recommend sticking with butterhorns. However, if you’ve made sourdough before, this is a great Thanksgiving spin on the traditional loaf. 

Photo by Michaela Esau
  1. Follow The Pioneer Woman’s sourdough recipe up until it is time to score the loaves. 
  2. Cut four long pieces of kitchen twine. Tie each piece around the diameter of the ball of dough so it looks as though it has been divided into eight sections. Bake per The Pioneer Woman’s instructions.
  3. Cut the twine off as soon as the bread is cool enough to handle. The twine may be baked into the bread, but with a little effort you should be able to pry off the pieces while keeping the bread intact. 

Sides

Side dish preferences vary greatly depending on the person. I personally am not much of a fan of stuffing and would rather have a stellar mashed potato and classic green bean casserole to accompany my bread – or, I guess my turkey. 

Homemade noodles

Thick, delicious homemade noodles are deceptively easy and can be cooked in turkey broth to give them more of a Thanksgiving flair. My cousin’s wife was the first person to introduce me to Thanksgiving noodles a few years ago, and I will never be going back to a sad, noodle-less Thanksgiving. After all, the more carbs the better.

Green bean casserole

Green bean casserole is a Thanksgiving staple that is hard to mess up. Be sure not to skimp on the crispy onion strings, as they are objectively the best part of the dish. You can find the recipe on the back of most cans of cream of mushroom soup or packages of french-fried onions. Here’s the Campbell’s recipe. 

Mashed potatoes

Mashed potatoes are a requirement for a real Thanksgiving, there are no exceptions to this rule. My mom always makes The Pioneer Woman’s mashed potatoes, which become extraordinarily smooth and creamy thanks to cream cheese and half-and-half. You can also make them a few days ahead of time and store in the fridge until you are ready to pop them in the oven on Thanksgiving Day. 

Pies 

I would be denying my Mennonite heritage if I gave all the credit to bread on Thanksgiving and forgot about the majesty that is a good homemade pie. Every family has a nice pumpkin pie, but a plethora of pie flavors are necessary to an awe-inspiring feast finale. The most important part of a good pie is the crust – and flaky, flavorful homemade pie crust is actually much easier to achieve than you might think. 

Here’s my mom’s favorite pie crust recipe: 

Recipe courtesy of Julie Esau. Graphic by Claire Henry.

Once you’ve prepared your crust, you can easily make multiple pie varieties. Here are my favorites:

Julie Esau’s chocolate bourbon pecan pie

Recipe courtesy of Julie Esau. Graphic by Claire Henry.

Julie Esau’s apple praline pie

Recipe courtesy of Julie Esau. Graphic by Claire Henry.

Chocolate peanut butter pie

If you want an easier pie that doesn’t require any baking or making of crust, this rich and decadent pie is a favorite of my family. All you need is a store-bought chocolate cookie crust, peanut butter, hot fudge, cream cheese, sugar and whipped topping. 

Cinnamon ice cream 

Like your pie a-la-mode? We serve our apple and pumpkin pies with homemade cinnamon ice cream, and it brings them to a whole new level. You’ll need an ice cream maker for this recipe, but if you don’t have one you can always purchase cinnamon ice cream – I won’t tell. 

The key to a successful Thanksgiving is preparation. Make what you can well ahead of time, delegate cooking responsibilities, write out a schedule and stay aware of how much oven space you have available. If the oven is occupied, you can use crockpots to keep sides like mashed potatoes and noodles warm. I personally think pie is always better cold, so try making your pies a day ahead and keeping them in the fridge. This makes Thanksgiving Day less of a mad-dash and more relaxing.

The world is a strange place right now, but two things remain constant. One is that we can always find something to be thankful for, whether it be good health, shelter or technology that connects us to loved ones far away. 

The second constant is that a good homemade meal can make anybody feel a little bit better – or a lot better, depending on the number of carbs. 

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