Have you ever reflected on who you really are? Not from a psychological perspective, but from an ethnic and ancestral one. I believe that food is among the first elements that connects us to our past and defines us.
More from Zester Daily:
Thanksgiving is a perfect time to truly ponder our connection to our ancestral foods. We are a nation of immigrants. While we embrace and give thanks as a nation, many of us also give a nod to our roots with our family Thanksgiving recipes.
I can relate to this firsthand. I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian grandparents and my parents. Food was the centerpiece of our existence. My Nana and Baba were always referring to their parents and grandparents.
The discussion often centered on food and recipes. Or, what it was like back “then,” when the family had come over “on the boat” and settled in the Bronx. They described the hardships they faced. But somehow I know they also romanticized it a bit. It seemed that “back then” always was better than “here, now.” What they were really saying was they cherished those memories. Their stories of food and meals were how they defined themselves.
Italian specialties to appreciate a new life in America
As a child, I heard stories of how the relatives all pitched in to make the Thanksgiving feast, which was really an Italian-American feast. I’ll never forget my grandmother’s mantra, “Many hands make for light work.” Turkey, by the way, was an optional. All the foods came from recipes and techniques handed down through generations.
A typical menu consisted of an antipasto, a soup course, some pasta with meatballs and gravy or my favorite, manicotti, a roast of some sort with vegetables, nuts and fruit for dessert along with Italian pastries from a nearby bakery.
My mom, to this day eschews the turkey. It just isn’t her idea of Thanksgiving. For my ancestors, Thanksgiving was a time to reflect on how grateful they were to be here in the United States. However, they clung to their ancestral roots like a worn, cozy baby blanket by serving their time-tested heritage foods.
Family Thanksgiving recipes that connect to our roots
My story is not unique. I’ve interviewed scores of people who bring their ethnic foods to their Thanksgiving table to honor their ancestral traditions. A family recipe brings a wonderful sense of nostalgia, love, belonging, connection and roots that cannot be denied.
Take Brazilian-born Ellie Markovitch, for instance who now lives in Troy, N.Y. She makes her Brazilian cheese bread, pão de queijo, on Thanksgiving to keep her food roots alive.
“We celebrate the Thanksgiving meal with recipes and stories from around the world,” she said. “That is because all the members in our family were born in a different country. I was born in Brazil; Dmitri in Estonia; Lina, who is 5, was born in France; and Lara, 2, was born in the U.S.”
There’s also Loring Barnes, a 10th direct descendent of William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony governor at the first Thanksgiving, makes her family’s acorn squash recipe and the Barnes family’s baked chocolate pudding — both recipes can be linked to her pilgrim ancestors.
So, in preparation for Thanksgiving, I beckon you to walk down food memory lane with your relatives and discover, if you haven’t already, those foods that connect you to your past. Perhaps adding an ethnic dish to the menu and the story behind it will become the bridge to your past and future. These foods will help define who you are.
Barnes Family Baked Chocolate Pudding and ‘Ice Cream’ Sauce Topping
This cake was elicited from Loring Barnes, “I am having a food memory.” This is the essence of Heirloom Meals — making and eating food that transports us to a great memory! I confess, this may be my favorite recipe and it’s a keeper. This dessert will please chocolate lovers and then some. It is the perfect combination of textures and is worth the indulgence.
For the chocolate pudding:
3 squares melted baking chocolate
½ cup sugar
1½ cups milk, divided
½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature/softened
2 eggs, beaten
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
For the ‘‘Ice Cream” sauce:
1½ cups sugar
⅔ cup melted unsalted butter (warm not blazing hot so it won’t “cook” the egg)
2 eggs, beaten
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups fresh cream, whipped
Optional: ½ shot of Gran Marnier
For the chocolate pudding:
1. Heat oven to 325 F.
2. Grease and flour a Bundt or tube pan. (A Bundt with flutes is the prettiest and defines your slices).
3. In top of double boiler combine chocolate, sugar and ½ cup of the milk. Mix and stir until it thickens, remove top from heat, allow to cool.
4. In large mixing bowl or stand mixer combine butter, eggs, flour, baking soda and water mixture, salt, the remaining 1 cup of the milk, and vanilla.
5. Add the chocolate mixture to above, combine until completely mixed but don’t over beat.
6. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, bake 1 hour on the middle rack. Cool and remove from pan.
7. The pudding should be kept moist, so keep the pudding covered with foil or plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Be careful not wrap so tight so that you the baked pudding sticks to your wrap. A Tupperware cake container is fine, but I still wrap it a bit within that storage.
Tip: I like wraparound soaked baking strips for even baking. This is also a way to create moisture without a water bath.
For the “Ice Cream” sauce:
In large mixing bowl or standing mixer blend ingredients together, pouring in sugar and butter so that the warm (not hot) butter will somewhat dissolve the sugar during the blending. Refrigerate until serving. Add the Gran Marnier, if you’re using it.
Serve baked pudding gently warmed in low-temperature oven. I dust with confectioners’ sugar on the plate, but this is optional. Slice, generously dollop with the hard sauce.
“Pão de Queijo” (Cheese Bread), courtesy of Ellie Markovitch
Known as the national treasure of Brazil, this cheese bread recipe is amazingly simple. Ellie adapted it from her mother’s recipe because in the U.S. we don’t have the same ingredients that are available in Brazil. It has just three ingredients. Made with yucca flour, aka tapioca flour, they are gluten-free. Ellie shared three tips with me: Once they are in the oven, you cannot peek for 30 minutes, or the rolls will collapse, so no peeking. Also, they are best eaten hot out of the oven. And last, double or triple the recipe because one batch will get eaten before it reaches the table.
1 cup of sour cream
1 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of yucca flour
1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Combine the sour cream, cheese and 1 cup of yucca flour.
3. Roll the dough into small balls in the palm of your hand, using about 1 heaping tablespoon of dough for each. Use the extra 2 tablespoons of yucca flour to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands.
4. Place the dough balls on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes Remove from oven and serve immediately piping hot.
Top photo: Pão de Queijo Brazilian cheese bread. Credit: Carole Murko