Thanksgiving is a funny holiday. It’s a weird mix of frenzy and sloth, gratitude and greed. What should be a fun and peaceful time spent with relatives and friends is often preceded by the chaos of having too much to do and too little time in which to do it.

If you are the person responsible for cooking the Thanksgiving meal, you know that Extreme Grocery Shopping is the hallmark of the holiday. Simply getting your groceries home can be the stuff of nightmares if you live in a crowded city or suburb. Cooking the meal is a cakewalk by comparison.

Every year as I approach the local Whole Foods in the days running up to Thanksgiving, I see couples in the parking lot dividing their lists in two, synchronizing their watches, and saying things like, “Commencing operations at Oh Seven Hundred! We reconnoiter in Spices and Baking Needs! Go! Go! Go!”

Here is my shopping stress management suggestion: buy as many of the non-perishable ingredients as you can by Tuesday morning. That way all you’ll have to get on Wednesday night are the turkey, salad greens, and other fresh ingredients. When supermarket aisles are crowded to a near standstill, buying 10 ingredients rather than 20 will cut your shopping time by more than half — and may qualify you for the express checkout lane.

As far as Thanksgiving dishes go, I recently had an excellent Buddhist-style wheat gluten-based “meat analogue” version of chicken at my friend Kama’s house. It didn’t exactly taste like chicken (odd, since just about everything in the edible universe is reputed to), but it did taste like turkey, and the texture wasn’t bad. She told me that it was VegFarm, which I then googled, but most of the websites came up in Chinese, so I couldn’t find out much about it.

I went to Super 88, the big Asian market in Allston, Mass., to learn more. I finally found the VegFarm aisle, where they had several styles of fake fish and poultry, but not the whole fake chicken Kama had served. They had little chunks of soy-based “salty chicken,” but no wheat-gluten “chicken.”

Since it might be hard to find a VegFarm “roast” (unless you can read Chinese and live near a well-stocked Asian market), I can recommend the usual turkey substitutes.

A friend of mine who’s highly allergic to mushrooms wants me to remind people that some poultry substitutes are made from fungus, aka mycoprotein (like Quorn). If you’re serving it you should ask if anyone’s allergic to mushrooms, since you can’t tell it’s the main ingredient from the look, smell, or taste.

If you are cooking for vegetarians on Thanksgiving, consider serving something that isn’t related to turkey or the traditional Thanksgiving meal. How about a wild mushroom consomme followed by butternut squash ravioli in a béchamel sauce? Ready-made ravioli is available in the freezer sections of health food stores. If you’ve never made béchamel sauce before, you might want to make it once before Thanksgiving for practice, but it’s pretty easy to do. There are many recipes available on the web.

There are already more turkey, dressing, and gravy recipes out there than anyone could cook in a lifetime, so I won’t give you one of those. But readers did ask for substitutes for pumpkin pie. Here are recipes for a deep, dark gingerbread, given to me by my friend Paul Hollings (it’s great on its own or accompanied by sauteed peaches and whipped cream), and my Great Aunt Karlie’s Sweet Potato Pudding, which is actually a side dish but sweet enough to be eaten as a dessert.

I’m still working on a pie that contains apples and dried fruits, trying to make it taste good without tasting like mincemeat or fruitcake. I’ll have that for you later this week.

Lots of my friends complain they never have a chance to cook a turkey themselves, since they always spend T-day at a relative’s house. If that’s something you want to do, buy a turkey the day after Thanksgiving (they’re usually on sale!) and invite your friends over for a “Friend Thanksgiving” later in the weekend.

After all, it’s nice to have a chance to express our gratitude for our friends.

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Great Aunt Karlie’s Sweet Potato Pudding

Like many family recipes, this was written by my great aunt using somewhat inexact quantities and instructions. For example, her recipe said to use one large can and one small can of mashed sweet potatoes. I generally use one 28 oz can and one smaller can (they range in size from 14 to 16 ounces), because those are the sizes available these days (and they work in the recipe), but who knows if that’s what she originally intended? This year when I looked for organic sweet potatoes I found they only had small cans, so I just bought three of them, which works out to approximately the same amount, i.e. about 42 ounces.

The thing my family always thought was hysterical is that my great aunt wrote the word “good” before the word “bourbon” — and she underlined it three times.

This is a sweet and gloppy dish, best eaten and served with a spoon. If you want to put some cinnamon-dusted biscuits on top rather than the marshmallows, you’ll have a nice cobbler. In the past I have made it with a meringue topping instead of marshmallows for vegetarian friends. (Marshmallows contain gelatin, whereas meringue contains egg whites but no gelatin.) Like the marshmallows, you add the meringue topping at the very end.

If you have access to black walnuts, they really do make a difference to the taste of the pudding, although it’s good without them too, and pecans make a nice substitute. I order black walnuts off the web since they are hard to get around here. You definitely want to buy them already shelled since it’s nearly impossible to shell them yourself.

Okay, here’s the recipe:

  1. Butter baking dish.
  2. Drain and mash 1 large and 1 small can of sweet potatoes (approx. 42 oz. total).
  3. Add 1 tablespoon of butter.
  4. Add 1 egg.
  5. Add 1/4 pint of thick cream (1/4 pint = 1/2 cup).
  6. Beat thoroughly until creamy.
  7. Add 1/2 cup of good bourbon.
  8. Add 1 cup of black walnuts.
  9. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt.
  10. Bake slowly until it starts to bubble.
  11. Top with marshmallows and brown.

You may notice that no capacity is given for the baking dish, and no temperature for the oven, and no estimate of the time it will take to cook, and no number of servings (about 8-10 people, but you can give guests more or less– it’s good, but rich, and a little goes a long way).

Here’s what I do: use a regular dutch oven, casserole, or soufflé dish, cook it at about 350 degrees, begin looking in after 30 minutes but expect it to take about 40-45 before it bubbles, and then brown the marshmallows for a minute or two.

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Hollings Family Gingerbread

This is a recipe given to me by my friend Paul Hollings. He got it from his mother Jennifer, who learned it from her mother. I am grateful Paul was willing to share it. I have added a recipe for sauteed peaches to serve alongside it, but that’s just for fun, as it is perfectly delicious on its own.

11 oz. butter (2 3/4 sticks)
5 1/2 cups all purpose flour
28 ounces molasses (not blackstrap)
2 3/4 teaspoon powdered ginger
6 eggs
2 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
7 oz. milk
1 3/4 cups dark brown sugar

  1. Cream the butter.
  2. Add sugar and beat well.
  3. Add half the flour and all the molasses, ginger, and beaten eggs.
  4. Mix thoroughly.
  5. In a separate container, warm the milk and add the baking soda to the milk.
  6. Stir the milk/soda mix into the batter alternately with the remaining flour.
  7. Grease and flour the sides of an 8 quart ovenproof pot (I use Farberware) or a 17 x 11 lasagna pan. Butter the bottom and sides.Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom and place it there. (My mother’s recipe says you could butter and flour the bottom, but I always use parchment paper to be safe — you don’t want it sticking.)
  8. Pour the batter into your container.
  9. Bake at 300 degrees for 90-120 minutes (or longer). The center may collapse, which is a good thing.
  10. When a knife inserted into center comes out clean, turn out onto a rack and let cool.

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Sauteed Peaches in a bit of Bourbon Sauce
(Makes enough to serve as a sauce and accompaniment for the gingerbread)

2 tablespoons butter
1 can of sliced peaches (approximately 14 oz.), drained
1 tablespoon maple syrup
two pinches cinnamon
2 tablespoons good bourbon

  1. Melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a skillet. Don’t let it burn.
  2. Drain the canned peaches and add them to the skillet.
  3. Cook the peaches until they are warmed through. They don’t have to brown, but it’s okay if they do.
  4. Once the peaches are warmed through, take the pan off the flame.
  5. Add the maple syrup and stir it in so it’s thoroughly distributed.
  6. Add the two pinches of cinnamon. Stir.
  7. Away from any other burners with flames going, add the bourbon. If the pan is still hot it will make a mist, which is the alcohol rising up in the steam. This mist is flammable for a few seconds, so be really careful.
  8. Stir until all is well mixed.
  9. Serve alongside the gingerbread.

Whipped Cream
(Makes enough to serve with the gingerbread)

1/2 pint chilled heavy cream (1 cup)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon liquor (ginger, orange, hazelnut or almond) or more to taste

The key to good whipped cream is to make sure it’s not sweeter than the dessert you’re serving with it.

  1. Make sure to use chilled cream and, if possible, chilled beaters and a chilled bowl.
  2. Stir the sugar and liquor into the cream and whip until it’s the texture you like, somewhere on the foamy-to-stiff continuum.
  3. Gloop on peaches and gingerbread.