A long time ago I was married to this nice Jewish boy whose Grandma Lottie’s cooking was so poisonous that her own son would stop at the nearest McDonald’s before every visit and desperately mow something — anything — down before risking his neck over there.
Tiny, ancient, clueless, amiable Grandma Lottie was a shapeless wee dumpling of a woman who had had everything removed that it is possible for a person to have removed and still remain halfway viable — breasts, gall bladders, lady parts, you name it. If you picked her up and shook her she would have rattled, but she was in fairly good nick really, except for a bad case of arthritis which obliged her to “drive” one of those Lark wheelchair-mopeds around in order to do her errands and things. Her skills with the Lark were along the lines of her kitchen ones, I regret to say. She once plowed the thing into the only pole in a huge empty parking lot, and both Lark and Grandma toppled right over onto the pavement. At which news we laughed uproariously (in private) and then felt really bad when it turned out she’d gotten a black eye from the fall. She would giggle over that kind of mishap herself, though; she was a good egg.
One Thanksgiving, Grandma Lottie served us turkey. This arrived at table mysteriously pre-sliced and immured in a slab of congealed gravy of a lurid yellow hue, and was handed round in a silence heavy with fear. There was a large group of us, each eyeing his plate with the gravest doubts, none willing to be the first to plunge in. Nervous conversation and a few garrulous toasts staved off the moment but eventually it had to be faced, and forks were raised. It was like eating a morsel of wet cardboard encased in bouillon-cube pudding.
“Lottie,” gasped a daughter-in-law in agony. “How did you get the turkey to taste like this?!”
Lottie beamed with pride.
“Welllllll,” she simpered. “I bake the turkey and slice it the night before, and then I leave it overnight to dry.”
We all gaped.
“That way, it can soak up the gravy!”
That’s not why I divorced her grandson, though. Oh boy. Terrific mess there, but nothing at all to do with cooking, or with his really lovely family.
Anyway, now that you know a few of Grandma Lottie’s Thanksgiving secrets, let’s move on to my aunt Carmen’s. She is mostly called just Tia, or if you are one of our American in-laws, the Teaster. Tia has lived in the same house in East Long Beach, California, for the last forty-five years or so (another triumph of the super-olds, who decades ago made their last mortgage payment.) The neighborhood has always been kind of dicey, so one day I idly invented this family myth about the Teaster being a dope peddler, because you know how these old ladies always seem to be awash in money, and handing out such sumptuous presents at every baby shower? Wherever does she get it all? I was thinking. And what a perfect cover, because nobody would suspect this tidy, ladylike little Cuban woman of so much as incorrectly sorting her recycling. She and my mom (her sister) are so charming that flight attendants give them bottles of wine to take home from the airplane, so bribing the cops would be a breeze. Plus, the alley behind her house, so convenient … it isn’t true, though, she isn’t really a dope peddler. I just like spinning yarns with my cousins at what, decades later, we still call “the children’s table.”
Visiting Tia is also fun because she’s completely addicted to every telenovela there is, for which my mom mocks her mercilessly, but of course my mom watches them with her too when she’s there, which is to say constantly. And why not; watching telenovelas with Tia is a laff riot, because the plots of those things are so insane they make Dynasty look like The Brothers Karamazov. The villains, most of them ferociously painted women, are more broadly drawn than characters in an English panto. “Dios mío, that Estrella!” we cackle. “Haha, she totally poisoned her sister!” “Claro que si.” “Oh boy, she’s dead now.” Half the time they’re not dead, of course.
Tia is 85 years old and still makes a fine Thanksgiving dinner for a big crowd every year; a stuffed turkey, the Cuban rice and bean dish congri, and also ham, candied yams, this and that. For dessert, a lovely pumpkin flan. The ingredients for this sound, I admit, a little weird! But it’s really nice, and not hard to make. You must make it the day before, though, so that it sets up properly and the caramel liquefies enough to unmold — the flan should be served quite cold — and serve it with plain whipped cream.
Pumpkin Flan a la Teaster
For the Flan:
An amount of pumpkin roughly the volume of a small cantaloupe
Half a vanilla bean
One can of Eagle Brand Condensed milk
1½ cups half and half
2 T cornstarch
A splash of Grand Marnier
For the Caramel:
¼ C water
a splash of Grand Marnier
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 325F.
Poach the pumpkin in simmering water, to which you have added the vanilla bean, for about twenty minutes, or until it’s quite tender but not too mushy. Tia puts a stick of cinnamon in the water, but I don’t. Either way!
Meanwhile, prepare the caramel. In a heavy pan (I use an iron one,) mix the sugar and water. Cook over a brisk flame, stirring once in a while, until it starts to turn amber. It will continue to darken in the pan after this point, so don’t leave it too too long. Off heat, whisk in the Grand Marnier and the salt. Once it’s a dark whisky color, more or less, pour a bit into each of six or eight little ramekins of 3½ to 4½ inches, swirling to coat the insides (doesn’t have to go too far up the sides, really).
Drain the pumpkin and process or blend the pulp, together with the innards of the vanilla bean and a bit of the poaching liquid — a scant half cup or so — until it’s very smooth. There should be about 1½ cups of pumpkin puree, or maybe a little over. Blend or process in the remaining ingredients until the whole thing is smooth and very silky; do this in batches if you need to and then just whisk everything together at the end. Strain the mixture through a medium-fine sieve and divide among the ramekins, which you’ve arranged in a roasting pan for the bain-marie. Carefully fill the pan with really hot water so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the ramekins, and pop the whole contraption in the oven. Start checking them after about 45 minutes; the sides should be totally set and the middles look just a tiny bit jiggly; a knife inserted in the center will come out clean. Remove from the oven, take the ramekins out of the pan one by one and set them aside to cool. Once they’ve cooled down to room temperature, cover them with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator overnight.
When you’re ready to serve, unmold the flans onto a flat serving plate; the caramel sort of melts overnight into a thin sauce. If you’ve overdone it on the caramel, you might need to pour a bit off. In that case, transfer each flan to a fresh plate with a thin spatula and pour the caramel on again, or dot the caramel around it 90s style. Add a generous blob of freshly whipped cream, and serve at once, to wild acclaim.
Illustration by Susie Cagle.