November 28, 2004

turkey, REALLY old-school

My parents live in an 1825 farmhouse in the boonies, and have a big fireplace with a brick beehive woodfired oven. They use it once a year to cook the Thanksgiving turkey, which comes out amazing because the heat is very high at first, with a long slow heat to follow. The meat stays moist & tender & flavorful -- it's just great.

The one problem has always been that the outside has a tendency to burn to a crisp because the heat is so high at the outset (between 500-600F). Over the years we've tried lots of things, like covering the bird with an oil-soaked cloth, putting water in the bottom of the pan, etc. Last year's innovation was to cover the bird with a pound of bacon underneath the oiled cloth, which worked great, because the bacon burned to a crisp instead, leaving mahogany skin underneath. Bacon makes *everything* better.

This year, we let the oven cool down much more than usual (because I was too slow finishing the stuffing, whoops), to just above 400F or so. This means we don't have enough residual heat after the turkey finishes to bake our usual pots of beans, but I'm willing to sacrifice, because the burning-to-a-crisp situation is much improved. The bacon is almost edible, if a bit well-done, and the skin is gorgeous and the meat is delectable as usual. Next year, I'm agitating for even more preliminary cooling. I'm sure it will make my father completely insane, because he has waiting issues -- he can barely stand to let the bird sit & reabsorb its juices for more than 10 minutes after it is done. *grin*

The basic method for brick oven usage is to build a wood fire inside the night before, and let it burn down. In the morning, shovel out the ashes, and build another fire, which you time so it'll have burned down by the time you want to start baking. Shovel out the coals & ashes again, and when the temperature is where you want it, bung in the bird and shut the door. The whole fireplace structure will be hot to the touch, because the bricks have absorbed so much heat, and the cooking is done by the heat radiating back out from the bricks. That's why the temperature comes down so fast, from 600F+ to below 400F in just a few minutes after the coals are removed, but then stays between 375 & 300F for hours. It's nice to come in from a walk outside in the cold raw woods and warm your hands up by fondling the toasty fireplace wall.

The rest of dinner was even better than usual, if we do say so ourselves. We had mashed potatoes with the usual complement of dairy-based fats, mashed buttercup squash, smashed rutabaga & carrot (YUM), green beans, brussels sprouts picked out in the yard that morning, creamed onions (my father's sweet & tender garden onions made these *so* much better than the slightly tough, sharp supermarket onions that never seem to meld right with the cream & butter), bread stuffing with sausage, sage & mushrooms sauteed in sherry, dripping gravy, corn pudding (from my friend M's family recipe, soon to be a foodnerd family recipe - yum!), relish tray of olives & sweet gherkins & carrot sticks, and jelly-style cranberry sauce still bearing the shape of the can. And because too much is never, ever enough, especially on Thanksgiving, we had four desserts: apple pie -- please note my mother's fabulous pie crust, which I have never been able to equal; marlborough pudding (an old 18th/19thC recipe of custard laced with sherry and stewed apples and nutmeg & baked in a pastry shell); pumpkin pie from my jewish grandma's asskicking recipe (a shot of whisky is the secret ingredient); and sailor's duff, another recipe of M's for a steamed molasses-based pudding-cake, with unbelievable sauce of whipped cream enriched with a cooked egg-sugar mix, and for which I am forbidden to post the recipe, lest I be hunted down by M's family members and shot. Oh, and vanilla ice cream and regular whipped cream. And port.

We had to go lie down for a while after dinner.

12/8/04 addendum: In addition to the creamed onions recipe in the comments, by popular demand here is the Marlborough Pudding recipe.

2 large apples
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup sherry
6 tablespoons melted butter
2 teaspoons nutmeg
4 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 lemon , juiced
1 sheet puff pastry dough OR 1 pie crust

Preheat oven to 350F. Stew apples until very tender -- push through fine sieve (or food mill) to make puree. Mix together 3/4 cup apple puree, sugar, sherry, butter, eggs, heavy cream, lemon juice, & nutmeg.

Line deep 8" pie plate or square pan with pastry. Pour in apple mix. Bake about one hour or until set -- knife inserted in center comes out fairly clean. Cool before serving. (Old Sturbridge Village recipe. )

Posted by foodnerd at November 28, 2004 08:36 PM

Oh wow, that sounds delicious! Pretty please, share the recipe for creamed onions? That sounds absolutely wonderful! :)

/An avid Swedish fan

Posted by: Anne at November 29, 2004 02:40 AM

I've emailed Mom for the recipe, because I wasn't really watching when she did it... i'll post again when it arrives, but it looked to me like all you do is boil the onions till tender, put in a baking dish and dot with butter, add a bit of cream, sprinkle with salt & fresh ground pepper, and either bake or microwave till the butter melts & makes a thin sauce. The trick is definitely to get good onions -- Dad's were small ones (I want to say Portugal sweets?) he grew for the scallion tops all summer, and by late fall, the ones that were left had made wee onion bulbs about 1" in diameter, perfect for this purpose. They were so tender and sweet, none of that icky toughness/stringiness that has always put me off the pearl onions you buy in stores. They were delicious... but watch out, because it's so tasty that it's easy to eat way more onions that your digestive system is necessarily used to, which can be unpleasant both for you and those around you. ;-)

Posted by: foodnerd at November 29, 2004 11:15 AM

You had described the propcess to me in person before the event, and even though I am turkeyed-out at this point, my mouth was watering reading about it and seeing your pictures.


Posted by: TallMatt at November 29, 2004 11:54 PM

Mom has emailed back about the creamed onions recipe, and she says I had it right except that she's never used *just* cream. Usually mostly/all 1% milk, maybe with a splash of cream if it's in the house anyway and she's feeling reckless. I'll vouch that it's plenty creamy and yummy, so i guess the extra butterfat really is extraneous. ;-) Hope yours come out good too!

Posted by: foodnerd at December 3, 2004 10:37 AM

Okay, you win Foodnerd. In the contest to see who takes the most pains and is the most inventive in cooking the Thanksgiving turkey, you beat everybody. Not even Harold McGee, who straps ice packs on his turkey's breasts, can top the turkey in the fireplace. building two fires and shoveling out coals twice really clinches it for you (also wrapping the turkey in bacon, much nicer than ice packs).

I'm e-mailing this post to my BIL, who brines and smokes turkeys but hasn't done this yet...

Posted by: Leila at December 3, 2004 11:36 PM

Further note: recipe for marlborough pudding? Please?

Posted by: Leila at December 3, 2004 11:43 PM

AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGGGGHHH !!!! Man, it wasn't even me who got spammed and I get pissed off. Damn them all to a firey hell. They know darned well nobody here is going to click on those links !!!! I ended up having to PAY for the newest Movable Type and require a account to post comments. So far, it's the only way. I feel for ya.

I want an oven like that !!! But I'd have to build it and it'd come out looking like Homer's fireplace oven. No good.
I stuff my bacon under the skin. But I can see why yours goes on top. It's necessary. Take care,


Posted by: Dr. Biggles at December 21, 2004 03:14 PM
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