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Touring Wisconsin Food

Tips On How To Cook A Traditional Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner With 21st-Century Ovens

While my kids rev-up for Halloween, I’m preparing for Thanksgiving. I know, anticipation of one dinner in November’s 4Th week seems absurd, but as most of you cooks understand, Thanksgiving is the most difficult meal of the year. The Thanksgiving turkey dinner is the only meal that has a prescribed list of foods. Tradition has determined the entree, side-dishes, and desserts, and all of these compete for time to be baked in a single oven.

How did we get ourselves into this ridiculous cooking situation? I believe the fault lays with technology. In the 18th-century, meals were cooked over large hearths. A grand animal could be roasted in the center while multiple pots hung at the sides, simmering their contents. Additional foods were simultaneously baked in chambers within the hearth stone. Some of the cooking, especially the roasting, was even done outside over a woodfire. In the 19th-century, our fore-mothers cooked Thanksgiving dinner on multi-chambered woodstoves. Most women were highly adept at controlling varying heat levels in each chamber. And meanwhile the large bird may have been smoked or roasted outside.

Click on “Continue reading…” for more of the story and a great recipe for butternut squash and apple bake.


In the 20th-century, cooking of the turkey moved inside and the ovens got smaller. I’m not sure why they got smaller, but they did. Still however, many 20th-century ovens had two chambers, at least my mother’s had two. She could bake something at 325 in one chamber and something else at 400 in the other. By the end of the 20th-century, most American ovens were reduced to a single chamber. It’s true that some families continued the tradition of barbecuing their Thanksgiving turkeys outside, – a tactic that frees up the oven for other foods and renders delicious barbecue flavor. I recommend this tactic, but you must find someone willing to stand out in the cold. Other families bought large cylindrical gadgets called turkey fryers (especially popular here in Wisconsin) in which the whole turkey can be fried, – the result is similar to fried cheese curds, only more substantial. This counter-top turkey-cooker is an ingenious work-around to the oven-space problem, and ideal unless of course your kitchen is counter-space-challenged. But most of us in the 21st-century lack turkey smokers, turkey fryers, and double ovens. The designers of our kitchens swapped the multi-chambered oven for one oven and a microwave.

I agree that the microwave is an ingenious advancement in the culinary arts. Yet, as most cooks know, microwaves do poor jobs at baking and toasting. Their speed at heating is to be celebrated while their limitations at cooking worked around.

So now, as Thanksgiving approaches, how can we utilize our 21st-century microwaves to prepare Thanksgiving’s traditional foods which centuries ago were baked in multi-chambered ovens? Of course, we could dodge the whole issue and change the Thanksgiving menu and substitute side-dishes that can be “nuked”. I approve of this tactic, but warn that if you try it, you may receive resistance from family members obsessed with tradition. If so, just wave a wooden spoon at the recalcitrant traditionalists and point to the kitchen. Tell them to cook the dinner. Too much friction for the holiday? Perhaps. We must keep peace on this reverent holiday? Okay, on to tactic #2.

Tactic #2: Start now and find recipes that can be prepared ahead of time, baked, then reheated in the microwave without sacrificing flavor. Thanksgiving stuffing is a natural for this method, but potatoes are resistant, – especially mashed potatoes, (although some good recipes of crock-pot mashed potatoes exist, – more on these later). Squashes however allow a little more lee-way. So now’s the time, in October and early November, try out squash recipes and see which ones taste as good re-heated as when fresh from the oven.  Here’s one recipe I’m currently testing. It’s a recipe for butternut squash and apple bake. Both the squash and the apples are traditional Thanksgiving foods. And since I found this recipe in the cookbook Mom’s Updated Recipe Box: 250 Family favorites made quick and healthy, I’m assuming it’s been cooked in family kitchens long enough to merit the descriptor “traditional”. In fact, I remember having a similar squash side-dish decades ago when I was a Thanksgiving guest.

So here’s Donna L. Weihofen’s recipe for butternut squash and apple bake.

  • 1 medium butternut squash, 1 1/2 pounds
  • 1 Tablespoon butter or margarine
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 medium apples, peeled and cored
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar

Topping:

  • 1 cup corn flakes, slightly crushed
  • 1/4 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 Tablespoon butter, melted
  • 1 Tablespoon brown sugar

Peel squash and cut in half lengthwise. Remove seeds and cut in large pieces. Place in a large pan with 2-inches of water. Cover and steam for 20 to 30 minutes or until squash is tender. Drain well. (Instead, I halved and de-seeded the squash but didn’t peel it. Then I put it in a casserole dish and microwaved it on high for about 18-minutes. Once the squash was soft, I scooped out the pulp and put it in a mixing bowl. No draining involved.) Add 1 Tablespoon butter, salt, pepper, and brown sugar. Mash with electric mixer (I used a spoon). Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round pie pan. Thinly slice apples and arrange in pan. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Spread squash over apples. In a small bowl, combine topping ingredients. Sprinkle over squash. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until apples are tender. (I was in a rush so I put the apples in the pan, nuked them for 2 minutes, then added the squash and topping and only had to bake it for 20 minutes.)

This butternut squash and apple bake is a winning squash recipe. I served it with ham and mixed greens. My daughter liked the squash so much she asked if she could have it for breakfast; my jaw dropped. I think it is suitable for making ahead of time, if the time is not too far ahead. I’m not sure I would make it the night before. But I can see making it earlier on Thanksgiving day and then re-heating it in the microwave. In fact, we may just do that.

So if you’re considering preparing this squash side-dish for Thanksgiving, try it out now and see what you think. On the other hand, if you find yourself fortunate enough to dine at someone else’s house appreciate your blessed position. For this you can be truly thankful.

3 Comments

  1. This is a great post! I love Wisconsin…live in Northern Illinois myself, but my husband’s family has a cabin “up north” in Mercer. There is definitely some good eating in your great state. 🙂
    I’m Editorial Director for RecipeLion.com, a free cooking and recipe website, and I liked your post so much that I linked to it from my own:
    http://blog.recipelion.com/how-to-cook-a-traditional-turkey/
    Thanks for a great article, and happy Thanksgiving!
    Nina

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post; hope you enjoy the squash recipe too. Your comment came at just the right time because I was trying to recall all of the squash recipes I had ever written about. I had forgotten this one. And how could I? It was the only one my daughter REALLY LIKED! I must make it for Thanksgiving! Thanks again. Cristie

  3. Mouth watering dishes are what people loev to enjoy.

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