A Throwback Thanksgiving menu – that’s the underlying theme of what fills many family’s feast-day tables. The backbone of the meal is made up of core dishes that kindle memories, culinary traditions that are part of what makes each family’s repast unique.

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Through three generations, the names of many dishes carried attributions with monikers that called-out the name of the family member that “invented” them and were responsible for providing the gems year after year. Those concoctions’ place on the table remains set in stone; dishes such as Mom’s Apple-Spiked Dressing, Aunt Mary’s Cranberry Salad, or Cathy’s Pumpkin Pie.

Reluctant to tinker too much with tradition, I’ve sought out ways to freshen up those classics, tweaking each dish just enough to build flavor and create texture contrast, without creating a lot of extra work.

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Aunt Mary’s Cranberry Mold Cuddles Fresh Berries: I know that gelatin has lost foodie status over the years, but this version boosts the flavor by replacing half of the water with whole cranberry sauce, and adds diced celery and coarse-chopped nuts for crunch.

In my aunt’s childhood, gelatin was considered rather fancy. It was considered a sign of wealth before the dawn of prepared “pre-granulated” gelatin in 1894 by Charles Knox (a little more than twenty years before Mary’s birth). Prior to that only members of the elite classes could afford it; wealthy families employed cooks to labor for hours, rendering gelatin from beef bones and clarifying it to make elaborate aspics, salads and desserts. They were dishes with a Downton Abbey kind of splendor.

I updated Mary’s salad by generously garnishing it with fresh berries tossed with a mixture of orange liqueur, agave syrup and fresh mint.

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Cathy’s Pumpkin Pie Facelift

Delicious, and glammed out with cut-outs made with extra pie crust, I found a way to make the pumpkin filling taste better. Adding mascarpone, the Italian-style cream cheese, adds creaminess and subtle nuttiness. And increasing the spice components, just a smidgen, increases the allure.

As for the crust, I’ve included the recipe here. But in truth, during the holidays I often resort to using prepared refrigerated rounds of pie dough. I ease them into glass Pyrex pie pans, crimp them to look homemade charming, and hide the dough boxes deep within the recycle trashcan.

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Pillsbury’s pie crusts contain lard. That gives the crust a dandy texture, but prevents me from using it due to the vegetarians at the table (they can’t eat the dressing or the cranberry mold, so I have to have a dessert that pleases them). I use thawed Trader Joe’s pie crusts; they are made using palm oil and butter as shortening.

Happy Thanksgiving to all. Ask guests to help. It builds a warm feeling of community to give everyone a feast-job.

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Pumpkin Pie with Mascarpone Update
Yield: one 9-inch pie, about 8 servings
Crust (or substitute refrigerated pie crust):
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup chilled non-hydrogenated solid vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup (or more) ice water
Filling:
1 cup canned pure pumpkin (not pie mix)
1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (8-ounce) container mascarpone cheese, room temperature
For serving: sweetened whipped cream
Cook’s notes: Mascarpone is an Italian cream cheese; sold at many supermarkets (often stocked in the refrigerated deli with imported cheeses) and at Italian markets. To prevent dough from pulling in toward the center during baking, ease it into the pie pan, don’t stretch it. Often I cut the rolled-out dough in half down the middle, and then ease both halves into the pan. I close the seam by using two fingers to press it together. Whether or not you use the cut-in-half method, use your knuckle to press dough against side of pan where the bottom of the pie pan meets the sides.
1. If making crust from scratch: Blend flour and salt in food processor for 10 seconds. Add butter and shortening; pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add 1/4 cup ice water; pulse until dough begins to clump, adding more ice water by teaspoonfuls if dry. Gather into ball; flatten into disk. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 30 minutes. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead.Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on floured work surface to 12-inch round. Transfer to 9-inch glass pie dish (see cook’s notes). Trim overhang to 1 inch beyond rim. Crimp edges. Chill crust while making filling.
2. For filling: Using electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat pumpkin and sugar in large bowl until well blended. Add eggs and next 7 ingredients and beat until blended. Add mascarpone cheese and beat just until mixture is blended and smooth. Transfer filling to prepared crust.
3. Bake pie until custard is set, about 55 minutes. A tip for preventing crust’s edge from over-browning: Pie rings, made of aluminum or silicone, are gizmos made to fit over the edge of the pie crust. Often the edge of the crust starts to get very brown long before the filling is cooked. Check pies after 20-25 minutes of baking. If crust is nicely browned, place pie ring on top of crust and continue baking until filling is cooked. Remove ring with potholder.Transfer pie to rack and cool. DO AHEAD: Best served the day it is baked. But can be made 1 day ahead. Tent with foil and chill. Serve with whipped cream.
Filling facelift: Often pumpkin pies develop a crack or two in the filling during baking. For camouflage (just in case), you can cut leftover dough into leaves, twisted twig shapes or pumpkins; place in a single layer on baking sheet lined with parchment paper and brush cut-outs with egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon heavy whipping cream). Try to keep wash on cut-outs, not dripping over the sides onto the paper. Bake in 350-degree oven until golden, about 10 minutes. Cool. Place on pie filling in decorative pattern. (This is also a way to make store-bought pie look homemade.) Source: adapted from Bon Appetit magazine

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Aunt Mary’s Cranberry Mold
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
Large package (6 ounces) raspberry Jell-O
2 cups boiling water
1 (14-ounce) can whole cranberry sauce
1 cup diced celery
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Garnish:
3 cups mixed fresh berries, such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries
1 1/2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier (or orange juice) mixed with 1 1/2 tablespoons agave syrup
Fresh mint leaves
Cook’s notes: To avoid nuts and celery from floating to the top, chill the gelatin until thick (but not set) before adding them. My preference is to not worry about the nuts and vegetables floating to the top, because when the mold is inverted, the “jelly” part shows and looks pretty, plus when serving every scoop will have those components in it.
1. Combine Jell-O and boiling water in medium bowl; stir until completely dissolved. Add cranberry sauce; stir to combine and dissolve the “jellied” portion of the cranberry sauce (I use two big spoons and mash undissolved cranberry “jelly” between the spoons). Stir in celery and walnuts. Pour into ring mold or ornate crown mold. Chill until set. MAKE AHEAD: Can be prepared two days in advance, refrigerated in mold, well-sealed with plastic wrap.
2. To unmold, hold mold in warm water for 15 to 20 seconds; invert on plate. If it doesn’t unmold, repeat resting in warm water at 5 to 10 second intervals.Just before serving: In a medium bowl, combine blueberries and blackberries. Add liqueur mixture and gently toss. Add raspberries and use a clean hand to very delicately toss one time (raspberries are fragile). Arrange berries around mold and garnish with mint leaves. Source: adapted from Mary Kast, designer, watercolor artist

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