A Small & Swanky Thanksgiving Dinner

Gatherings from The Kitchn

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We're getting into the Thanksgiving mood this week, bringing you a small, swanky Thanksgiving party that I hosted in my home. So far I've shown you the make-ahead menu, a schedule for getting it all done, and 10 things you can be doing now to make Thanksgiving a little smoother.

Now that we have all the prep out of the way, let's party! Come into my home and see how we cooked Thanksgiving dinner, doing most of it ahead to keep it low-stress, and enjoyed a swanky afternoon of good food, good wine, and Thanksgiving cheer with friends. Are you ready for some turkey action?

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The Kitchn's Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Menu

This menu is designed for about eight people.

Cranberry sauce, made well ahead of time.
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Pre-Thanksgiving Day: What I Did Ahead

This menu was designed for a smaller table of guests, and for those of us staying close to home. Maybe you're inviting just your parents and a couple neighbors, or hosting a Friendsgiving with coworkers. You may be at your desk right up until the holiday itself, too, so you want to keep it simple.

We have you covered: this menu hits all the traditional notes while being very make-ahead and accessible.

I've talked at length in earlier posts about how I prepare ahead of time for a big holiday meal like Thanksgiving, and also how I schedule the meal preparation. Make sure to read the comments on those posts too; there are more great tips from the readers on how they keep Thanksgiving relaxed.

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Ahead of Thanksgiving I froze what I could, like the gougères and the sorbet. I could have frozen the rolls, but I didn't start early enough, so instead I made and shaped the dough, then refrigerated them overnight. I made the cranberry sauce and all the desserts ahead of time, as well as the salad and the stuffing, which I refrigerated overnight, unbaked.

My goal on Thanksgiving was to have nothing major to do on the day itself other than the turkey and mashed potatoes. I aggressively prepped in advance so that I could pay attention to those two dishes and all the other little things that I knew would come up.

Of course, my work was different from most Thanksgiving dinners, because I was doing it all myself. You could certainly ask guests to bring sweet potatoes and stuffing, the dessert, or appetizers — in fact, you should! That's part of the spirit of Thanksgiving!

Here's how the day progressed for me.

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10 am: Clean Up the House

One of the nicest things about making nearly everything ahead of time is that you can start with a clean kitchen on Thanksgiving. My husband, always the kind and expert dishwasher, helped me clean up the remains of the previous day's cooking.

Around the house we swept the floor, straightened sofa cushions, and tidied the living room. I lit candles in the bathroom and made sure the hand towel was clean.

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12 pm: Get the Turkey in the Oven

I had two classic freak-out moments with my turkey. (Which, by the way, try finding a good-quality bird in early October. It's tough. The life cycle of most turkeys is very calibrated to Thanksgiving.)

The first: the turkey wasn't thawing fast enough. I had a deeply frozen organic bird that weighed about 15 pounds. I thawed it in the refrigerator for the required four days, but on the night before the dinner it still felt like a glacier. I took it out of the packaging and discovered that its cavity was jam-packed with ice, due to the neck and giblets inside. I tugged these out (it was like helping the bird calve, if we stick with the glacier metaphor) and dunked the turkey in a few changes of cold water.

Then I patted it dry, placed it on a baking sheet, and sprinkled it liberally with coarse salt, fresh pepper, and paprika. This "dry brine" helped season it, and I left it uncovered in the refrigerator all night to help the skin dry out so it would crisp up in the oven.

Basting the turkey with broth.
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The other moment came when I realized I had forgotten to get a roasting pan. Be ye not so thoughtless; make sure you have a large, deep pan big enough for your bird. It was easy to find one at the last minute, but that probably wouldn't have been the case on "real" Thanksgiving Day.

I put the turkey in the oven at noon, about five hours before we planned to eat. From there, I used the "set it and forget it" approach. I opened the oven and checked the temperature of the turkey a few times and basted it with pan juices and stock. Near the end I covered the breast with foil to keep it from scorching. And that was it! It turned out nicely — moist and juicy.

Most of the stress with a turkey happens prior to cooking. Get it thawed, and get a roasting pan. After that you'll be fine.

Mashing potatoes and rutabaga for the Golden Mashed Potatoes.
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12:30 pm: Make the Mashed Potatoes

After the turkey went into the oven and the table was set, there were a few things left to be done. I had to:

  • Make the mashed potatoes
  • Let the rolls rise (I had shaped and refrigerated the dough the day before)
  • Finish the salad
  • Bake the gougères
  • Bake the stuffing/dressing
  • Make the gravy

I made the mashed potatoes first, then put them in the slow cooker to stay warm.

I also took the sweet potato rolls out of the fridge. It was so helpful to have a schedule printed out and some alerts set up on my phone so I didn't forget things like this as the day progressed.

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2pm: Set the Table

My sister came to help me set the table after I had put the turkey in the oven and made the mashed potatoes. (Usually I would set the table the night before, but we wanted to photograph the process of putting it all together.)

This Thanksgiving table was designed with the help of Abbey Nova, a friend, design historian, and blogger behind Abbey Goes Design Scouting. We brainstormed inspiration over email and the phone ("Gourmet Magazine circa 2008" ... "violet is about to be big...") and shared Pinterest boards back and forth. It was so fun to do this with a friend!

Abbey saw the things I already owned with fresh eyes, and she helped me put them together in new ways. She also helped me think of smart, inexpensive ways to dress up the table, like using loose amethysts ($5 for a big bag on Amazon) as place card holders.

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The centerpiece was a lot of fun as well. It was created by another friend, Eva Provenzale, a local florist and owner of EcoFlora Organic Flowers. I hauled a big sack of vegetables and an inexpensive wood platter to her studio, and she built an all-natural centerpiece of beets, kohlrabi, cabbage, and other delicious things. (See the step-by-step process here.)

The best part is that she used all food-friendly and earth-friendly materials (did you know that floral foam is non-biodegradable?) so each and every vegetable could be eaten afterwards.

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Check out the other posts in this series where I share more in-depth about the table and the centerpiece, along with all the resources and products we used.

Frozen gougères can be baked directly from the freezer.
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3:15 pm: Bake the Gougères

As we got closer to the time the guests would arrive I put the frozen gougères in the oven to bake.

I have two ovens — which is so nice as to be embarrassing — but you could totally do these in the same oven as the turkey. Make sure you leave enough room above the turkey for a tray of gougères, and don't worry about the temperature shifts; it won't hurt the turkey to turn the oven up a little for a few minutes.

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3:30 pm: Set Out the Salad

Before the guests arrived I finished the salad. I had made the Brussels sprouts salad the night before and refrigerated it without the apples (so they didn't get brown) or the nuts (so they didn't get soft). I did, however, put the apple I was going to use right in the container of salad, just so everything was together.

I sliced up the apple, tossed with the nuts, and put the salad out on each salad plate. I love doing this — it's one less thing to pass, and it looked beautiful on the table. Also, many salads, including this one, just taste better at room temperature.

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The turkey nearing the end of its time in the oven. I covered it with foil to keep the breast from browning too much.
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Checking the temperature on the turkey one last time.
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4 pm: Take the Turkey Out of the Oven

I was checking the turkey frequently, and it finished roasting just as the guests arrived at 4pm. At that point I knew I had about 45 minutes to an hour to let the turkey rest and then to carve it. A big bird like a turkey genuinely needs a long rest to let the juices redistribute themselves.

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4:05 pm: Put the Dressing in the Oven

As soon as the turkey came out, the stuffing/dressing went in. If your oven is big enough you could start baking the stuffing during the last 15 minutes of the turkey's roasting time.

Popping the bubbly!
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Wine and gougères.
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4:15 pm: Serve Appetizers & Drinks

As the guests arrived, my sister lit candles, I set out the shrimp and sauce, and my husband popped open the bubbly! We all hung out in the kitchen sipping the wine and munching gougères, smelling the aroma of the roasted turkey and the sage stuffing in the oven.

We didn't eat as much shrimp as I anticipated; people really didn't want to fill up on appetizers, and I don't blame them. Next time I would just do the gougères, which were a serious hit, and leave off the shrimp entirely.

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4:30 pm: Put the Rolls in the Oven

While we were hanging out and sipping wine, a little alarm went off on my phone, reminding me to put the rolls in the oven. Sure, I could have baked them earlier in the day, but I love it when they're warm and just out of the oven!

Carving the turkey. Chris gave a hand too.
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4:45 pm: Carve the Turkey

As the dressing neared the end of its baking time, I handed the turkey over to my husband, and we all clustered around to watch him carve. He is a bit self-conscious about his turkey-carving prowess (he did fine!) and the bird was big, so our friend Chris also jumped in to help.

Chris certainly knows what he's doing in the kitchen (he's the editor of design blogs Curbly and Manmade DIY) and it was fun to watch them both get in on the action. I mean, if you're not watching football, then carving the turkey is the spectator sport of Thanksgiving, right?

Turkey!
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4:45 pm: Make the Gravy (Or Warm it Up)

I usually make my gravy ahead of time and freeze it — it's so nice to not have this last-minute task. But I didn't get to it this time, and so I whipped it up from the turkey drippings and some turkey stock while the guys carved the turkey.

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5 pm: Set Out the Food — And Eat!

And then it was time to eat! There was that last-minute warm flurry of activity — taking rolls and stuffing out of the oven, moving potatoes to a serving dish, distributing cranberry sauce and butter around the table. Everyone pitched in and helped out and then we pulled out the chairs and sat down.

And then we ate our salads, passed the plates, poured the gravy and the wine, and enjoyed Thanksgiving in October. What else needs to be said about that? Thanksgiving really is the homiest meal — all gratin dishes and mashed potatoes and hearty turkey. After all the hullabaloo of organizing a big meal, I love that moment of sitting down to the coziest, most comforting plate of food.

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This menu doesn't joke around: sage dressing, buttery mashed potatoes, a well-roasted turkey, and a spicy cranberry sauce hit all the notes I want on Thanksgiving. That welcome familiarity is as much a part of the holiday as the trimmings and the turkey.

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Dessert

The one place, however, that I did break with tradition was in the dessert. You can find pumpkin pie all season long, and pies are easy for guests to bring. (I didn't ask my guests to bring anything to what we were calling Faux Thanksgiving, but if it had been the holiday itself, I would have asked for help on the pie front.)

Instead, I made a no-bake maple pumpkin creme brûlée, adapted from the no bake creme brûlée in my book, which can be made ahead and leaves off the stress of pie crusts. I also baked two loaves of molasses cake, which was an indulgence to my own taste and one of my favorite desserts. To finish off, a quince sorbet for color and fall sweetness.

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I jumped up at the end of dinner, as people were still sipping their wine, and torched the creme brûlée. I did two layers: one of maple sugar, and one of regular white sugar. The maple gives the flavor and the regular sugar gives you the hard crack.

I served the dessert on cedar grilling planks — they were inexpensive, easy to find, and made the most perfect serving boards for the desserts!

Dessert, served on a cedar grilling plank.
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Hot cranberry punch with sage and peppercorns, a recipe from Maria del Mar Sacasa, author of the new book Winter Cocktails.
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Enjoying the Evening

Last but not least, we finished the evening with a hot drink, an intense cranberry punch flavored with sage, peppercorns, and Benedictine. It felt so grown-up and swank to bring this out, steaming and fragrant, and to hand it around in tiny cups.

People stayed at the table for a long time, sipping their drinks and nibbling from a dish of roasted pumpkin seeds I had set out. Eventually we broke out the Scotch, too, which contributed to the warm afterglow.

Our friends and guests left, reluctantly and finally, after a round of clearing dishes and rinsing pans. I packed up all the leftover turkey and mashed potatoes to send home with people (I'm just not a turkey sandwich aficionado), but I jealously guarded my turkey carcass from Chris, who eyed it and said, "Whatcha going to do with that?" Hands off my turkey stock, man.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you've enjoyed getting into Thanksgiving with us! It's just around the corner, and we're all looking forward to hearing how you cook your feast, set your table, and gather with good friends and family.

Hear The Kitchn on The Splendid Table

Listen to Faith talk to Lynn Rossetto Kasper about our Thanksgiving menu on The Splendid Table's Thanksgiving episode
  • Air date: Saturday November 23
  • Listen online or on your local NPR station

Thank you so much to our friends who came to dinner and played along with Faux Thanksgiving with great goodwill. Chris and Julia, Gaj and Bec (check out Bec's awesome science Tumblr), Henry, and my talented sister Susanna.

Special thanks to Duralex, Emile Henry, Lake Champlain Chocolates, Le Grand Courtâge, Leslie of Eleven & Paper, Vermont Maple, and Adam of Aesthetic Columbus.

Extra-big thanks to Abbey Nova of Design Scouting and Eva Provenzale of EcoFlora Organic Flowers.

Photos by Rachel Joy Photos of Columbus, Ohio

More posts in this series

A Small & Swanky Thanksgiving Dinner

(Image credits: Rachel Joy Baransi; Faith Durand; The Splendid Table)

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