Thanksgiving at my parents' house always comes with some surprises. Mostly because we invite a lot of strangers. Not strangers exactly. You need to know one family member to get into a Keane Family Thanksgiving. My mother has been teaching English as a second language for over 30 years. And she kindly invites students who don't have family nearby to our house for Thanksgiving. That invitation has then been extended to myriad friends, acquaintances and coworkers over the years. And sometimes, those guests don't behave themselves.
Which is actually a good thing. Because it distracts us from fighting amongst ourselves.
And sometimes the surprise is positive, like the time that my mom’s Albanian friends Frederick and Aida changed into traditional Greek dancing outfits after dinner and started serenading everyone with folk songs and their original songs. Guess where they were in May of 2007? In Berlin going to the finals of Eurovision. No big deal. We didn’t find that out until a few years later. At this particular Thanksgiving we just knew that Frederick was “famous in Albania.”
But most often, the surprise is whose guest will offend, shock or annoy everyone else. My mom usually wins this contest, because her pool of contestants is so much larger. Her guests have mispronounced her name, broken her belongings, and one of her septuagenarian guests even cornered and kissed one of her own daughters on the lips. (Me. Ech. Still scarred by that one.) But sometimes it's someone else's church friend who is a loud talker, or a college friend who is rude, or an acquaintance who needs to be driven home because he drank too much and his wife doesn’t know how to drive.
Thankfully, the surprises aren't usually food related. My mom's a great cook and the only variable in the menu is dessert. People usually bring desserts with them. But it's pretty hard to screw up dessert in any significant way. Even if your sweets are bad, or dry or too sugary, their failings can easily be excused by the fact that they have been preceded by too much food—and excess tryptophan.
We tried that this same year, when my Czech roommate Monika brought her weird sour cream, lady finger and tinned orange dessert to Thanksgiving. But she had an even worse surprise in store for us: party food guilt.
This particular Thanksgiving was during our roommate honeymoon phase. It was before she started leaving me passive aggressive notes and before she attempted to extort me. Though, in retrospect, there were signs of things to come that I probably should have paid attention to. (Who refuses to pay tip and tax when they split a meal at a diner?)
But this was in the heady days where we were politely giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Missing home, I think she was glad to be invited to our Thanksgiving, and wanted to bring a piece of the Czech Republic to our family event. It was a great thought, and I was excited to taste the cake she couldn't stop talking about in the days before Thanksgiving.
Except I'm pretty sure she made it wrong. Some ingredient was missing, or got added in at the wrong point. Maybe she combined two recipes that weren’t related. At least there wasn’t meat in it?
It would be easier to explain this dessert if I could find a recipe for the thing and figure out if it actually exists or was just a weird mishap that my roommate had mistakenly compiled from memory. But Google has failed me so far. Here's what it consisted of (as best I can remember): lady fingers covered in sour cream, with bits of fruit—like grapes, banana slices and canned tangerines—mixed in amongst the cookies.
If it sounds at all like tiramisu, I think that was the plan. But it veered off somewhere. The trick to tiramisu is adding coffee or liquor to make the whole thing meld together into a delicious creamy cake. There was none of that here. And instead of sweetened mascarpone cheese, the cream base was sour. Also, there was fresh and canned fruit involved. Here's my opinion on mixing sour cream with citrus: Ew.
Have you ever eaten lady fingers on their own? No. Because they're dry and bland and terrible. That's why you need to drown them in liquid to make tiramisu.
Here, they had maintained their store-bought cardboard texture. Again, all of this could be easily ignored. That tin foil pan of cream and cookies looked nast. And nobody was lining up to pile any on their plate. Which is usually when the Thanksgiving excuses come in handy:
"Oh. I ate so much turkey. No room!"
"Man. Those tinned tangerines look AMAZING. But I can't eat another bite."
Except Monika was so excited about and proud of her dessert, that she kept hovering over the dessert table, encouraging people to try her concoction. And worse, asking them what they thought after they ate it.
If there is a worse habit than delivering terrible food to a party, it has to be pressuring strangers in search of compliments. I decided to ignore the look of this thing and put some on my plate. But once I tasted it, I made a beeline away from Monika. It was so bad. It hurts my teeth thinking about it. Also, I have a quick gag reflex. And I'm bad at lying.
In these situations, avoidance is usually the best tactic. But there was one more snag in this plan. Next to that weird Czech concoction, there was a beautiful, pristine tray of tiramisu. Honestly, no one has brought tiramisu to my parents' house before or since this one Thanksgiving. But when the desserts were laid out on the table, there it was. And that lightly dusted with cinnamon dessert sat directly next to the grape fingers, gently mocking Monika's attempt at dessert.
Also, I would like to say. It was completely delicious. I may even have sneaked some back to our apartment in an unidentifiable plastic container and secretly eaten it for most of the following week, guiltily indulging and hoping I could avoid admitting to Monika how it got there.
I don't even like tiramisu that much. But this tiramisu. Man, it was given to us by the gods.
If they weren't spiritual gods, then they were definitely Euro gods. Because in addition to singing in four different languages, it turns out Aida can make magic out of lady fingers. And as she sang strange folk songs and danced in her Greek vestments next to Frederic’s skirt, the tiramisu slowly disappeared.
That night in my parents' living room, their performance was a bit like this…
…but with more confused partygoers trying to figure out how you say Thanksgiving in Greek. Also, because I'm still scared of canned fruit, here's an approximate recipe for Aida’s magical tiramisu:
6 egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
1 pound mascarpone cheese
1 1/2 cups strong espresso, cooled
2 teaspoons Kahlua
24 packaged ladyfingers
cinnamon for garnish
Whisk the eggs and sugar together. And the mascarpone and one tablespoon of espresso. Beat until smooth. Put the rest of the coffee and the rum/Kahlua in a bowl. Dip the lady fingers in the bowl for a few seconds and then line the dish you'll be using with a layer of lady fingers. Spread half of the mascarpone over the cookies. Put another layer of lady fingers in the dish, and top with more mascarpone. Put in the fridge for two hours. Dust with cinnamon before serving.
Illustration by the marvelous Susie Cagle.