The feasts before the feast
Happy November! I love these few weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving when the anticipation of the holidays begins to build from a mild hum to a full-blown roar. November is, quite possibly, the month in which I spend the most time in the kitchen, and that couldn’t make me happier. My thoughts of food start to shift from pumpkin-spice everything in October, to warm and wintery and extravagant meals, fit for a king. In our house, Thanksgiving recipe-testing begins and the menu starts to take shape. Over the next few weeks, we’ll have many “mini-feasts” as I test and try out new recipes and new combinations before finalizing the Thanksgiving menu. November is the month of feast after feast.
One thing I know we’ll have a lot of are roasted chickens. I like to test Thanksgiving turkey recipes on them because they’re inexpensive and, with a bird as big as a turkey, I want to make sure I like the flavour combinations first. I don’t want to screw it up! A chicken is a great “guinea pig,” you could say, and even if it is just a chicken, it is always a thrill to bring a whole bird to the table. There will be apple cake, and pumpkin bourbon pie, and any number of sweet potato dishes (they’re so versatile.) If we can get our hands on some fresh oysters, I’ll make my husband’s favourite dressing with cornbread. I’m going to candy orange slices – I love to include them in a cranberry compote. There will also be cinnamon rolls, stuffed acorn squash, pumpkin risotto, potato gratin, baked apples and butternut ice cream. Can you tell I’m getting excited?
Thanksgiving was the holiday I missed most when living in Europe. Like most expats, we banded together to try to create something that resembled the feasts we’d grown up with. One year I made a batch of carrot cupcakes that were inspired by a brown butter and rum financier I had in Paris at a little pâtisserie on rue Saint-Dominique. When I first tasted these cakes, the flavour and texture reminded me of American carrot cake, though there weren’t actually any carrots in the recipe. Of course, I had to try to recreate them at home, and ended up using carrots as part of the flavour and sweetener. It just seemed right. I brought a batch of these to one of our Thanksgiving feasts abroad and they’ve been in the rotation ever since. This is my French-inspired American carrot cake. 🙂
This is also the cake I make my husband each October for his birthday – the recipe works equally well for cupcakes or a double layer cake. Just bake the cake a little longer. And, while I know carrot cake is popular in the spring around Easter, we love to have it in October and November. The flavours of cinnamon and rum feel more “fallish” to me.
The kids’ Fall Break was last week so we took the opportunity to escape to a spa and hot springs resort in the mountains for a few days. On the way there, we drove through the little farming town of Cañon City, about an hour from our home, and stumbled, quite by accident, across the most charming county market. I’m not sure whether I should call it a “market” or a “farm stand” because it was a little of both and a treasure trove of fresh, local fruits and vegetables. The best treasures are found when you’re not even looking, and we had planned on visiting a different farm with a corn maze instead, but it was closed that day. By chance I happened upon a map that said there was a corn maze in another location not too far from where we were. We arrived expecting to find fields of corn and lots of people, but what we found instead was so much better. A picturesque old barn with pumpkins growing out front surrounded by a shady orchard that had yet to be touched by winter, the trees still dripping with apples. The whole scene reminded me a little of The Wizard of Oz – the paths of yellow wheat and the apple trees that came to life when no one was looking. Inside the market sat barrels of winter squash, bushels of apples and carrots. There were shelves of locally made jams, confitures and honey; local wines and cider; fresh pressed juices; baskets of nuts; organic meats and cheeses and the cutest display of pickles. Smoke was rising from a chile roaster out front, filling the entire area with the intoxicating aroma of toasted Anaheims and Pueblo chiles. Oh, I love that smell! If they made a Roasted Chile Pepper scented candle, I’d be first in line to buy it!
The corn maze, it turns out, was actually a tall wheat maze, made all the better by dozens of mud puddles. We got exquisitely dirty! When I was a child, my aunt and uncle owned an apple orchard not too far from Cañon City where we would forage for wild asparagus in the spring and make pots of apple jam and butter from the fruit that had fallen to the ground in the fall. It makes my heart so happy to see my kids running wild and free as the birds through these wide open fields, tall grasses and apple trees, just like I did at their age.
If you happen to be in the area, the market is open from July to December and is located at 3175 Grandview Avenue in Canon City. The pumpkins, which we perfect, fresh and carved up beautifully for Halloween, were included in the price of the maze.
Wishing you all a very delicious November filled with mini-feasts of your own! I hope to share more of our Thanksgiving prep here on the blog, but if the month gets away from me, as Novembers are known to do, have a very happy Thanksgiving holiday!
Rum-Soaked Raisin and Brown Butter Carrot Cupcakes
(makes 20 cupcakes)
While the financiers that inspired this recipe on were not frosted, I have started frosting these cupcakes with a traditional, but not too sweet, brown sugar cream cheese frosting. The raisins are soaked in rum, and the leftover rum is used in the frosting for a boozy and delicious twist on the classic.
1/2 cup raisins
2 1/2 TBSP rum
2 cups organic flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup butter (1.5 sticks)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
2 cups grated carrots (from about 5 medium organic carrots)
Two hours before you begin to make the cakes, place the raisins in a small bowl and pour over the rum. Cover and let the raisins soak in the rum for 2 hours. (At the same time, set the butter and the cream cheese for the frosting out on the counter to come to room temperature.)
Preheat the oven to 375 F (190 C). Line muffin tins with 20 paper liners.
Cut the butter into several smaller pieces and place in a small sauce pan. Place the pan over medium heat until the butter has melted. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the butter, stirring occasionally until the foam has subsided and it is fragrant and the colour of chestnuts. Remove from the heat and immediately pour into a large, heat safe mixing bowl. (Do not leave the butter in the pan. The heat from the pan will continue to cook it, causing it to burn.) Set aside to cool while you prepare the other ingredients.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
Peel and grate the carrots.
When the butter is cool, whisk the brown and white sugar into it until smooth. Mix in the eggs, one at a time. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and whisk until combined.
Stir the dry ingredients into the butter mixture.
Drain the raisins, reserving the rum for the frosting. Fold the carrots and the drained raisins into the batter.
Spoon the batter into the muffin tins, filling each mold about half way full. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of one of the cupcakes comes out clean. Allow to cool completely. Frost with the brown sugar cream cheese frosting recipe below.
Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting with Rum
8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
reserved rum from the raisins (you should have between 2 – 3 teaspoons)
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese with the butter until uniformly mixed. Beat in the brown sugar, vanilla, salt and rum. Let sit for 15 minutes on the counter to allow the sugar to dissolve and the flavours to marry. Beat again, then slowly beat in the powdered sugar until smooth and fluffy. Frost the cupcakes when they are completely cool.