What is it about the promise of pumpkin pie that prompts normally normal people to think they can gather with extended family and get along? Disasters inevitably happen, but the triumph of hope over experience makes us try again and again.
I’m not sure why, but when I’m thinking over Thanksgivings past, the first ones that come to mind are the ones that didn’t go according to plan.
Like last year. We traveled to Seattle to see family. Our timing was just exactly wrong going both ways over the passes, leading to hours of terrible roads, some of the worst driving conditions we’ve been in for years. Then in Seattle, it was pouring rain. We had plans for dim sum for Thanksgiving dinner, which sounded like fun. I was driving around in the torrential downpour, looking for someplace and getting horribly lost while two family members riding with me got into such a bad argument that one of them jumped out of the car into the rain. When we finally got to dinner, there wasn’t a lot of conversation.
A few years ago, in Seattle again, my mom wasn’t well enough to come to family Thanksgiving, so a few of us took dinner over. Seeing the condition of her apartment, I wanted to stay and clean, but didn’t know how to do it without offending her independence. The feeling in the pit of my stomach gained dimension and permanence when I received a call a week later telling me she had cancer, which she would die of a within a month.
My husband’s father passed away the day before Thanksgiving fifteen years ago. When the kids and I were baking pies, I got a call from my husband, who was at the hospital. I left the kids to finish the pies and went to join him. My husband said that his father’s last words were, “This is all a bunch of hooey!” Can’t argue too much with that.
When I was eighteen and pregnant with my first child, I prepared my first Thanksgiving dinner with no help. My then-husband and his two brothers spent the afternoon loudly arguing about their own childhood traumas. When dinner was done cooking I locked myself in the bedroom and cried from exhaustion. I had to be coaxed out to eat. All I really wanted to do was sleep.
There was the year the power went out and I tried to make gravy over the flame of a candle. Or the time my mother had a meltdown over the possibility that there might not be enough forks to go around. I think she locked herself in her room. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess. Or the year that the temporary boyfriend of my daughter said that he thought Nixon had been a good president, and my husband banged on the table and roared. Scared everyone. He should have taken off his shoe and hit the table with it, but the boyfriend wouldn’t have gotten that reference, because he was just way, way, too young. I am pretty sure he locked himself in the bedroom. I didn’t blame him.
The thing is, cooking all that food is stressful. Being in the same room for hours with people you have too much history with is difficult. Sometimes there is liquor involved. Washing dishes for two days afterwards is a lot of work. Did I mention the year that the dishwasher broke down on Thanksgiving? Yeah.
The best part of Thanksgiving, the thing that redeems it, is the next day. No, I don’t mean Black Friday, that made up horror kicking off the orgy of commercialism that is Christmas. I mean leftovers day! The day in which no cooking shall be done. The day you eat rolls stuffed with turkey, with some of the fruit salad you didn’t get to the day before. And a piece of pie for a midday snack. And maybe a second piece of pie, because, you know, Thanksgiving.
I once risked losing a job that I really didn’t care for that much anyway, by sleeping in the day after Thanksgiving, eating leftovers, and playing board games with my kids. I listened to a voice mail asking me to come in at six in the morning for Black Friday…and ignored it until noon. Didn’t lose the job anyway, too bad.
I love my family, I really do. I love cooking with them, and spending time together. It’s just, sometimes…it’s nice that they’re all adults and don’t live in the same house with me anymore. I miss the zoo of having over 30 relatives together for the holidays, my five sisters and all their kids, but there is something to be said for peace and quiet and no disasters. Please, no disasters this year.
Now, the most important part–the recipe for our traditional orange rolls, without which no Thanksgiving would be complete. If you try them you’ll understand why we make them. We only make them once a year; they’re that special. Most of the people I’ve introduced these to have added them to their own Thanksgiving dinners.
You can use any cinnamon roll dough you like for these. This year I found one I liked and par-baked the rolls ahead of time.
For the dough:
1 scant tablespoon (1 envelope) active dry yeast
1 1/4 cup milk, slightly warmed
1/2 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter, very soft
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 – 5 cups unbleached white flour
To make the dough, sprinkle the yeast over the warmed milk in a large bowl and set aside for 5 minutes until slightly bubbly. With a whisk or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, beat in the sugar, softened butter, eggs, vanilla, and salt. Stir in the flour 1 cup at a time, until the dough is very thick.
Knead on lightly floured surface until smooth and warm, or switch to the dough hook and knead in the stand mixer. Knead for about 5 minutes in the mixer, or 7 minutes by hand, until the dough is taut and smooth.
Wipe out the bowl and coat lightly with oil. Shape the dough into a ball and place in greased bowl, turning it to make sure it’s coated in oil. Cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled — about 2 hours.
For the filling:
Grate the peel of one orange using a microplane or zester. Only use the orange part of the peel, not the bitter pith. Mix with a cup of sugar, rubbing it to release the orange oils. The amount of sugar can vary, depending on how sweet you want the rolls. I never really measure it.
Divide the dough into two pieces. Roll out into a rectangle on a floured board, exactly as you would for cinnamon rolls. Brush the surface with softened or melted butter and spread the orange zest/sugar mixture on it. I usually cut the dough into triangles and roll for crescent rolls, but it works just fine to make them like cinnamon rolls.
If you have rolled the dough like cinnamon rolls, cut with thread or dental floss into rolls and put in two greased 9 inch pans or a 9 x 13 pan. Cover loosely and let rise for about 45 minutes. Bake in a 350 oven for about 20 minutes or until beginning to brown.
If you want to freeze them, bake about ten minutes or until only a few spots are turning brown. Take out of the oven, cool thoroughly, and wrap in plastic to freeze. You can leave them in the pans. I bought aluminum pans so I could put the whole thing in the freezer. The night before you want to eat them, put in the refrigerator to defrost and finish the next day in a 350 degree oven for ten to 15 minutes until done.