Simple Thanksgiving Appetizers and Desserts

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Apologies for postings being fewer and farther between as of late. I too am getting ready for the start of the holiday season. But this year finds me in a predicament, because given my pregnancy condition, I need to take it really easy for Thanksgiving festivities. Normally I do a huge spread, but this year I have to scale down a little bit and be smarter about what I serve. The result? Super tasty, seasonal foods that will surely delight that are fun and easy to make. Here are my tips.


It seems almost silly for such a feast day to include appetizers, but they're a must and I'll tell you why. First, Thanksgiving is a whole day affair for most people, not one isolated 2 hour involved dinner. So as guests come in and out, lounge about the TV to watch football, or mingle while you're prepping in the kitchen, you have to keep them occupied. Think of appetizers on Thanksgiving as more a distraction so you can have time to put together the meal. Or, if you're not into the whole turkey dinner, you can make a day out of it simply from a bunch of great appetizers! Either way, have at least one thing out for guests to munch on so they don't get wasted on cocktails but be careful not to overdo it either; the star of the show is still the bird later!

Here are some tips for super easy to prepare appetizers you can throw together last minute or even prepare a week before. They're still elegant and festive, but no one will know you didn't slave away to make these too.

Puff Pastry is your best friend.
There's something so fancy pants about hot, flaky, buttery pastry dough. You can make your own (like if you're on Top Chef), but most of us will buy the premade sheets conveniently found in the freezer section of your local grocery store (they're usually near the desserts, pies, etc.). You can do a lot with puff pastry. The basics I like to do is squares, pockets, or pinwheels.
  • To do squares, you simply take the defrosted puff pastry and gently roll it out. Then crimp the sides of the pastry rectangle upwards, creating a wall. Then take whatever filling you like and spread it in the middle (the borders help keep the filling inside). Bake in the oven until pastry is puffed and golden (usually about 15 minutes) and then cut into squares.
  • To do pockets or triangles, simply cut the pastry dough into squares. Fill the middle of each square with a little of your filling, then using an eggwash gently moisten the borders of each square. Fold the square over itself (and over the filling) creating a triangle shape. Brush the tops with more eggwash and bake until puffed and golden.
  • Pinwheels are very easy to do. Simply roll out your dough and place the filling in one even layer, leaving about 3/4" inch of pastry border along the whole rectangle. Then starting from one side, gently roll the pastry onto itself, and continue rolling into a log. Pinch the sides a little and slice the log crosswise into 3/4-1" pieces. You'll see each piece will look like a pinwheel. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until puffed and golden, about 15 minutes.
The trick with puff pastry is to (a) defrost it properly -- overnight in the fridge is best or on the counter for an hour; (b) keep your fillings simple, and (c) use parchment paper on the baking sheets. The fillings you can use are endless, anywhere from a cheese souffle to confit of duck to wild mushrooms to caramelized onions. The key is not to use a saucy filling because it will make the pastry soggy. And the beauty of using puff pastry is that flaky crust. These are great appetizers because they can be made weeks in advance then kept frozen. When you're guests are ready to arrive, simply throw some in a preheated oven and you're done! They're also great to have on hand in case you have extra visitors you weren't anticipating, and need more food!

Smoked fish is an easy "help yourself" appetizer for guests.
Yes, I said fish. For Thanksgiving we often get so consumed with the turkey, we forget what was actually served at the real Thanksgiving! Fish! Being so close to seaside, you bet they feasted on various shellfish and probably cod or bass. You can take a note from history and offer some smoked varieties for your appetizer table. Simple smoked salmon is always a crowd favorite, or for more authenticity try smoked haddock or other fish in oil. Yes, canned food if bought right can be quite tasty. Serve with slices of good bread. If doing smoked salmon, I like thinly sliced pumpernickel bread the best. You can also whip up a super fast chive creme fraiche -- simply combine creme fraiche (or in a pinch sour cream) with a little lemon juice, small pinch of salt (remember the fish is already salty!), freshly ground black pepper, and some finely chopped chives. Place all the components on a platter and let your guests help themselves!

This year I'm merging two cuisines I love for Thanksgiving: Pacific Northwest meets Southern. And one of my appetizers will be a Pac NW style smoked salmon (it's flaky) with the above-mentioned bread and chive sauce. But you can do anything you like, from smoked mussels to even sardines. It will be a crowd-pleasing appetizer that will surprise your guests, and even get conversations going about the original Thanksgiving.

Figs are not only seasonal, but present so beautifully and are tasty too!
bleu cheeses. I take the sweet-savory step a bit further, and stuff sliced figs with roquefort or gorgonzola, then wrap them in bacon and roast in the oven for 10 minutes until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is melted. The combination is incredible, and goes with any cocktail. These stuffed figs also give a sense of the season, and are so beautiful on a plate. Everyone loves these. I'll be doing them this year again.

If you can't find figs, you can substitute with dates. I like using Medjool dates because they are the largest. Simple cut each date in half, remove the seed, stuff with cheese, wrap and roast at 375 for about 10 minutes until bacon is done. These will fly off the platter!

Fancy nuts are always great, especially if you're planning a cocktail hour!
I confess, I'm a fan of the mixed roasted nuts. Like the bulk ones from Costco. Look -- they just get the job done, ok? But for a holiday, I like to make it a little more special. Try getting specialty nuts like marcona almonds for a change. They are to die for and everyone will enjoy them. Or, spruce up a regular nut. Like Ina Garten's idea to take cashews and flavor them with rosemary. Simply take the nuts and place in a dry saute pan (this means no oil because the nuts will release their own oils). Heat on medium-low heat, and add salt (if not salted already) and fresh herbs. Rosemary is really great. Stir constantly in the pan to prevent burning. Once you can smell the nuts and the herbs, it's ready and promptly transfer it out of the pan and into a serving dish (leaving them in will burn them!) You can add a spicy kick buy adding cayenne pepper. Or do a southwestern flare with chile powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and some ground cumin.

The proverbial cheese ball feeds a crowd and can be done days in advance.
Oh yes I did...I said cheese ball. Look, as horrendous as it looks, it feeds a crowd. And when you're having a more casual Thanksgiving or one where football is being watched for hours before the feast, this might be a good bet to have on hand. The cheese ball involves a mixture of cheeses, formed into a ball, then usually rolled in nuts and served with crackers and a knife for self-service. You can make the classic cream cheese-cheddar-rolled in almonds-ball, or you can make it more gourmet. Try a combination of cream cheese, gorgonzola cheese, and a little honey mixed together into a ball, then rolled in toasted chopped pecans or walnuts for a treat.

The classic, the favorite, simple freshly baked bread with good butter.
Yes, I'm dead serious. Still, there is nothing that beats the comfort and taste of freshly baked, right out of the oven bread. A loaf placed at the appetizer table sliced and served with good European style butter is always a favorite, for adult and kid alike. You can make your own bread from scratch, or buy a really good quality loaf from your local baker or store like sourdough or oat grain. Warm it in your oven right before guests arrive, then slice a few beginning slices. Place the slices and loaf with the bread knife on a bread board, along with the butter and let everyone help themselves. I love how rustic and earthy this extremely easy appetizer is, and everyone will enjoy its simplicity and comfort as well.


The other hard part of Thanksgiving is the desserts. Often the desserts take more effort and time than the entire Thanksgiving main meal! If you're overwhelmed this year or just simply don't want to dip into the dessert pool, you have options to dress up ready made desserts or put together with minimal effort quick bake breads and turn them into delicious sweet endings to the feast.

Cranberry Cheesecake

You can dress up any store-bought cheesecake for any occasion, and Thanksgiving is no exception. Purchase your favorite cheesecake from the store or bakery. Then make a cranberry compote to place on top. This recipe from Emeril Lagasse is wonderful. Simply spread the cranberry compote over the cheesecake and serve. Your guests will think you've slaved away all day for it!

Caramel Apples
I saw this recently on a posting from hostess with the mostess for a Thanksgiving-themed dessert table and thought, "wow, that's one of those 'duh' desserts that makes total sense and why aren't we doing this more often?!" Who doesn't love a caramel apple? It's a riff on the classic apple pie, a Thanksgiving favorite, that's far less maintenance. You can make them yourself, or better yet buy them from candy stores. You can either set them on each guest's place setting with a cute note attached, and even decorate your whole table around the apple theme, or set them out on a beautiful silver platter and bring them in "turkey style." By this, I mean I love the pomp and circumstance of The Presentation of The Turkey. You can hit the same note in a fun and casual way buy doing the same thing with these apples for dessert! It will get a good laugh and everyone will be so excited to eat them.

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches
Take this super easy box mix from Williams Sonoma for pumpkin spice cookies and bake as directed. Get a good quality vanilla ice cream and form sandwiches. Voila! Kids (and adults) are beyond pleased for dessert. Consider it an easier version of the more labor-intensive pumpkin pie, with a super fun and casual twist!

Cider Doughnuts
Get help by simply purchasing cider doughnuts from your local doughnut shop! Everyone loves ending a feast like Thanksgiving with coffee or cocoa or better yet, a hot cup of mulled cider! What better to go with a piping hot beverage than doughnuts?! They're not just for breakfast, and again will surprise and delight your guests, especially if you have kids coming.

Pumpkin Bread with Orange Scented Whipped Cream
One of my all time favorite things from Williams Sonoma is their pumpkin bread mix. It's super easy to put together and tastes incredible. You can dress up a fancy bread dessert by simply baking this bread as directed, then serving it with freshly whipped cream. To do the cream, simply pour some very cold heavy whipping cream (it has to be cold!) into a chilled bowl (stainless steel works best if you've got it). Then either with a handheld mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or a standing mixer fitted with its whisk attachment, begin whipping the cream on high speed until stiff peeks form. Add a little bit of vanilla extract and some freshly grated orange zest at the end, whip another minute to combine, and serve a dollop of the cream on a slice of the bread. Garnish with a sprinkle of finely grated nutmeg or cinnamon.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Although I'm usually a fan of From Scratch foods, even I have to be humbled that sometimes it just can't be that complicated and fancy. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break and take a shortcut. Hope these help and Happy Thanksgiving!

1 comment:

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