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“Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.” -W.T. Purkiser

Thanksgiving Spread

Thanksgiving Spread

My favorite holiday dinner is Thanksgiving. Christmas lunch is clouded by the scent of freshly torn wrapping paper, Easter is rushed to get the kids out searching for colored eggs, and Fourth of July cookouts are just a prelude to the fireworks. Thanksgiving, however, is a holiday centered firmly around the table. China is ceremoniously dusted after months in the cabinet, treasured family recipes are prepared and reminisced about fondly, and the great debate about how best to cook the turkey begins again. As we gather around the table, we think about the blessings we have and pile our plates high to celebrate the bounty we are so blessed with. Food is integral to our memories of Thanksgiving, and if there is any question about this, try to change the dressing recipe.

This year, we visited family, and were expecting 35 people over two meals, lunch and dinner. Thanksgiving for me is not about taking a day to focus on what I am thankful for. I try to practice gratitude in my daily life. It keeps me grounded and sober. It also helps me not to take for granted what I have been given. Thanksgiving is my opportunity to express my thanks to the people in my life in a very tangible and delicious way. My time spent in the kitchen is not a dreary chore, but an act of love for family and friends that I don’t get to spend enough time with. It is also an act of thanks-giving to God and the gifts he has given me; my wonderful wife and children, my family and friends, my sobriety, my job, which provides for me and my family, and my ability to cook, which brings happiness to people I love. This dinner is me saying,”I am so thankful for you that I will give up my holiday and vacation time in order for you to experience something special.”  I get to exhibit my thanks on a platter, next to the gravy.

And so, Wednesday, I began chopping, brining, mixing, and seasoning. Thanksgiving in the South is an especially momentous occasion. This meal would require me, a non-Southerner, to do proud the fine tradition of Southern cooks from ages past. We ended up with an extensive spread, gracing the marble island like a fall-inspired cornucopia. The menu consisted of a smoked turkey, a brined and roasted turkey, giblet gravy, cider glazed ham, cornbread dressing, white bread dressing, sweet potato souffle, corn casserole, green bean casserole, root vegetable slaw, collard greens from the neighbor, cranberry-apple-orange-pecan jello salad, homemade cranberry-orange sauce, macaroni and cheese, glazed carrots, a three nut brown butter tart, a marginal persimmon pumpkin pie, homemade cookies, Lanelle’s best-in-the-world coconut cake, and of course sweet tea. It was an embarrassment of riches. Nothing was bad, although the pumpkin persimmon pie was merely ok. With all this planned, I found myself laying in bed Wednesday night worrying that we wouldn’t have enough dessert. I also thought we probably needed something chocolate, just to be safe and not step on anyone’s toes. Gluttony, thy name is Thanksgiving.

I stumbled on an epicurious recipe for Rich Chocolate cake with Dulce de Leche and hazelnut brittle. I had some hazelnuts left over, so I decided to give it a go. Unfortunately, the cake fell apart as I was taking it out of the pan, so I improvised, with the idea from my mother-in-law, who diligently cleaned up the pots and pans I piled into the sink, time after time. I ended up turning it into a trifle, which was probably even better than the original recipe. The whipped cream lightened the dulce de leche, and moistened the cake, and the brittle added exactly the right crunch to the top. This is not a ridiculously sweet dessert, which was nice, and I revisited the trifle dish multiple times over the next couple of days. It kept getting better as the flavors melded together. You don’t need a roomful of holiday revelers to make this, but if they are there, I’m sure they will enjoy it. They may even thank you.

Chocolate and Dulce de Leche Trifle with Hazelnut Brittle

Chocolate and Dulce de Leche Trifle with Hazelnut Brittle

Chocolate Dulce de Leche Trifle with Hazelnut Brittle

recipe adapted from by Dawn Casale and David Crofton, One Girl Cookies Bakery
For the Cake

  • 1 C freshly brewed hot coffee
  • 1/2 C Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 3/4 C packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 C plain whole-milk yogurt or sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 C granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 C all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon table salt

For trifle

  • Hazelnut Brittle (recipe follows)
  • 1/2 C dulce de leche (recipe follows)
  • 2 C heavy whipping cream, whipped to stiff peaks

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare a 10-inch round cake pan by greasing it with cooking spray and then lining the bottom with parchment paper.

2. To make the cake, pour the hot coffee into a medium bowl and stir in the cocoa powder until it dissolves. Stir in the brown sugar, followed by the yogurt and the vanilla. Stir thoroughly to ensure that all of the ingredients are incorporated.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and granulated sugar on medium speed until light-yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs and mix for 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer running on low speed, mix in a third of the flour mixture and half of the coffee mixture. Scrape down the bowl. Add another third of the flour mixture and all the remaining coffee mixture. Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining flour mixture until all of the ingredients are fully incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.

5. Bake for 25 minutes. Rotate the pan in the oven and bake for 20 more minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and let the cake cool in the pan for 20 minutes. Then turn the cake out onto a clean plate, remove the parchment, and turn the cake back over onto a wire rack. Let the cake cool completely.

6. In a food processor, pulse the brittle pieces 3 to 4 times until the brittle is powdery. Alternatively, place brittle in plastic baggie and smash into pieces.

7. Mix cooled dulce de leche with whipped cream, folding until combined.

8. Layer cake, broken into pieces with whipped cream mixture, top with crumbled brittle.

9. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

Hazelnut Brittle

  • 1/2 cup whole unsalted hazelnuts, skins removed
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon table salt

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F.

2. Put the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 15 minutes until browned and fragrant. Let cool.

3. Prepare a large baking sheet by lining it with parchment paper. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan set over medium heat. Whisk in the sugar and corn syrup, and bring to a boil. Continue whisking constantly until the syrup is a rich amber color, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and carefully whisk in the baking soda and salt. Stir in the hazelnuts and then pour the contents of the pan onto the prepared baking sheet and spread it out into a thin layer. Let the brittle cool completely.

4. Break the brittle into 2-inch pieces. The brittle will keep in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Dulce de Leche

Empty one can of sweetened condensed milk into an ovenproof bowl or casserole. Cover tightly with foil. Place in a larger ovenproof pan. Fill pan with water halfway up the side of the bowl. Bake at 400 degrees for approximately an hour, checking after 40 minutes, until the milk has turned a light caramel color. Cool.