Sam Sifton has had one doozy of a November.
As the national editor of the New York Times, he’s overseen the election, Hurricane Sandy and the Petraeus scandal all in the past two weeks. And as the author of the new book “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well,” he’s also had to expound on how to handle various gravy dilemmas.
“It’s a little bit like being in a centrifuge,”?he says about tackling his day job as well as the publication of his second book. “The last couple of weeks of going back and forth between the elections, Sandy and troubled cranberry sauce has been fascinating.”
But for the purposes of this article, Sifton — who, before becoming the national editor was the Times’ food critic and one-man Thanksgiving helpline for panicked readers — is talking turkey. “I wanted to lay out the basics of how to make this holiday work. I wanted to remove some of the stress that people feel cooking it, hosting it and attending it,” he says about “Thanksgiving,” an immensely readable how-to guide on the epicurean holiday.
In order to pull off the best Thanksgiving to date, Sifton says to stay away from the siren call of the latest Thanksgiving Day trends.
“It makes me out to be something of a culinary conservative that I make this argument for a traditional Thanksgiving,” he notes. “The fact of the matter is people in the media always need to provide the shiny, glittery new thing: Here’s a new side dish. Here’s a new way to cook the turkey. The argument of my book is to say, ‘Hey, whoa: Let’s make the turkey right. Let’s make terrific mashed potatoes. Make a perfect cranberry sauce. Declare that we can make brussels sprouts so delicious that even the kids will eat them and cream our onions until they’re perfect. You can put together a terrific Thanksgiving meal. Do not freak out.'”
Feeling uplifted? Hopeful that you can pull this off? Good. Because on Thursday, you do not want to be distracted by gifts (although “Thanksgiving”?could be a good one, jokes Sifton). You do not want fireworks and radical turkeys.
For your Thanksgiving, all you should aim for, says Sifton, is to “cook it well.”
Basic cranberry sauce
Cranberry sauce should be sweet but not cloying, and tart without causing pucker and anguish. It should have a jelly-like quality, but should owe more to the appearance of jam.
The key element to making cranberry sauce is to understand that cranberries are high in pectin, a carbohydrate that exists in many fruits and which is released by the berries when they are heated and the cells of the fruit break down. In the presence of sugar, which we add to cranberry sauce to offset its tanginess and acid, which is why the berries are tangy in the first place, the pectin molecules bond to one another, forming a kind of gel. The longer you cook a cranberry sauce, the more pectin is released and liquid is evaporated, and the stiffer the result will be.
Science! Sometimes it’s helpful. So is spice. Some like a clove or two added to their cranberry sauce. (I am not one of them.) Others, a whisper of ginger and a small handful of nuts, for texture. Of this, I approve.
1 12-ounce bag fresh or thawed frozen cranberries
¾ cup sugar
¾ cup orange juice, preferably freshly squeezed
Zest of orange, to taste
1. Place cranberries in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and pour over these the sugar and orange juice. Stir to combine.
2. Cook until sugar is entirely melted and cranberries begin to burst in the heat, four to six minutes. Stir again, add zest, and cook for two or three minutes longer, turn off heat, cover pan and allow to cool.
3. Put cranberry mixture in a serving bowl, cover and place in refrigerator until cold — at least two hours, or until you need it.
— Excerpted from “Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well” by Sam Sifton. Copyright © 2012 by Sam Sifton. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.