Breakfast in SFO, dinner and breakfast on LH, lunch in FRA, dinner in OSL

Mom and I flew to Oslo yesterday and today, hence the complicated meal plan. Our flight took off early Sunday afternoon from SFO, where we killed time with brunch at Andale–Mom had yummy chili verde and I had a pretty good burrito carne asada.

We flew Lufthansa to Frankfurt, and I am trying to figure out how it is that American airlines are all going bankrupt and can’t afford to give us meals or drinks, but Lufthansa can provide two decent hot meals and lots of wine and booze on basically the same ticket pricing structure. Dinner was pretty decent–I had pasta with mushrooms and marinara, and Mom had some kind of chicken rice dish. We both got edible rolls, okay salad with good dressing, and a tiny triangle of chocolate cake with whipped cream and a strawberry. There were good Ritter chocolates available in the galley overnight when I went up to get us drinks. For breakfast we had another good roll, an omelet that wasn’t great (when are eggs ever good in an airplane?) but was at least a lot better than some of the eggs I’ve had in United Business lately, and fruit salad just like every other airplane fruit salad: red grapes and pieces of underripe melon; oh, well. But still–two hot meals and plenty of free alcohol, on a route that United would have given us one hot meal, one disgusting breakfast snack, and drinks for $5.

We had lunch in the Senator Lounge at Frankfurt airport, which has a pretty nice buffet, including Frankfurters, chicken meatballs and Shanghai noodles, a funky tuna salad, some beautiful Christmas breads that I didn’t try, some serviceable minestrone (perfectly good but not a knockout like some German airport lounge soups I’ve had), olives, After lunch I enjoyed a campari-gin-bitter lemon and some Jelly Bellies. I wish we could buy bitter lemon in the States. Maybe I can figure out how to make it, now that I’ve got a CO2 tank and am not afraid to use it.

The unhappy part of our stay in Frankfurt was that my new AT&T mobile account didn’t seem to include international roaming after all–the guy I talked to when I switched said I was all set, but that turned out not to be the case. This wouldn’t be that big a deal, except that I needed to check my email and voicemail right away to find out whether I had an appointment with a natural horn or not. It turns out I didn’t. But what I had to go through to get AT&T to fix things is absurd. Since my phone didn’t work, I couldn’t use it to call them. I can’t remember the last time I saw a pay phone anywhere, so that meant I had to buy an hour of wifi and $10 of Skype credit so that I could use Skype and wifi to phone home, whereupon I reached an agent who said I’d have to call back after 7am Eastern when a certain department opened up–which was when we were boarding our flight to Oslo. In the end I couldn’t get it all straightened out until we got to the hotel, where I connected on the free wifi and again used Skype to call AT&T. Naturally just as we were getting things working, the call dropped and I had to call in AGAIN and finally got things working–and got the news that it’s $1.29 a minute for anything, including receiving but not answering calls, receiving voicemails, or actually receiving or placing calls. It’s highway robbery. Of course, when getting or missing a call means getting or missing a gig that pays $100ish or more, it’s worth it, and calculations like that are why wireless companies get away with charging so darned much. Argh!

Back to food, it was a good thing we ate in the airport, because SAS charged for everything on the connection to Oslo, with prices starting around three euros for coffee or soda. We were happy to pass.

We landed in Oslo at 3:45, collected our bags, got cash and airport express tickets, and were in downtown Oslo by 4:30. Our first order of business was to pick up our train tickets, which was only partially successful. Now that I’ve got email access again, though, I’ve got the various confirmation numbers I’ll need to get the rest of them. After that we searched out a vinmonopolet (literally “wine monopoly”–other than weak beer, all alcohol in Norway is sold by the state) and picked up some provisions for our hotel room so that we’ll be equipped to cope with any jet lag, and as I type this Mom and I are enjoying a lovely, fruity juleakevitt by Linie. Since we were tired and only vaguely hungry, we ate supper in “Erwin’s spiseri” right in the same food court.

So for our first Norwegian meal, Mom had “husets kremefisksuppe” or the house special cream fish soup, which we both thought was quite yummy. I had the “julelunsj tallerken” or “Christmas lunch plate” (I think) of gravet laks and sweet mustard sauce (yum), pickled herring (ick), a slice of ham, a slice of brie, a pile of the most iodine-y bay shrimp I’ve had in a long time, bread and butter, and a mound of–of all things–Waldorf salad. The Waldorf salad was good but I think it’s the first time I’ve had Waldorf salad since I was in the hospital with pneumonia during second grade. Somehow I remember eating a lot of Waldorf salad in that hospital, and for me it’s a dish lost to time. It’s kind of a perfect Norwegian salad, though–white, bland, sweet, and everything from a can. “Except the apples,” Mom pointed out, but I can’t say that I found any apples in there. I washed it all down with a pretty good juleøl (dark Christmas ale) by Ringnes.

After dinner, we walked the rest of the way to our hotel, which isn’t fancy but seems decent enough and has free wifi.

In electronics sadness, somehow I managed to erase everything from my iPod before we left, so I couldn’t do language immersion learning by zoning out to Norwegian podcasts during the long flights as I’d hoped. Not exactly tragic, but how on earth did I do that, and how will I make sure I never do that again? Fortunately we had decent movies on the long flight: “Happy Go Lucky,” a diverting but pointless Mike Leigh film (someone please enlighten me if there was a plot) and “Nanny Diaries,” which wasn’t as good as the book but was entertaining enough.

I’m still a little stuck on the Sunday NYT crossword but I’m not ready to give up and seek help from Rex Parker’s blog yet.

Nano-opera: Boris Godunov

16th century Tsar Boris proves he is Russian by wallowing in guilt for three hours until finally dying of guilt. Librettist proves he is Russian by giving long list of characters long names but very little to do. Composer proves he is Russian by giving long list of instruments very little to do but sound colorful.

But who cares about any of this when Samuel Ramey is singing?

A military perspective on Obama vs. McCain – the MAJORITY perspective

Here’s an email I got from a friend of mine, whose husband is in the Air Force. I think it’s worth reading.

Dear family and friends,


Most of the public is completely disconnected from the wars on a personal level (which was my life before) so I want to try to personalize it for you:
My husband is in the Air Force and I have had the humble (& challenging) privilege of learning about the military world for almost 10 years now. I have seen first hand, the toll that this war has taken on countless families. When our daughter was a baby I took her to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in DC for checkups, where I saw soldiers with limbs and/or parts of their head missing from combat. When our close friends are in war zones, I pray for their safe return. My heart hurts when I see children suffering due to an absent parent (for 15 months!!) and spouses struggling to keep their families together. Due to frequent moves, we typically do not have the luxury of living near family and close friends, so we often bear the burdens on our own. Military members and spouses are some of the STRONGEST, most HONORABLE and IMPRESSIVE people I have ever met.

Regardless of your position on the war(s), if you appreciate the sacrifices that our MILITARY (over 4,000 dead, many with serious lifelong physical and mental issues, increased numbers of suicide) and their families are making to serve our country, I BEG you to THINK about THIS COMPELLING FACT (from the NON-partisan Center for Responsive Politics), and PLEASE pass the info along to as many people as possible:


To me, this says everything. If so many of the troops don’t want McCain as their Commander in Chief (and Veterans groups support OBAMA far more than McCain), THE PUBLIC REALLY NEEDS TO TAKE NOTICE (particularly because this is supposed to be McCain’s strength).

I have joined a group called Blue Star Families for Obama ( We are military families who are PRO-MILITARY and PRO OBAMA, and we are working hard to get the word out that many military families want Barack Obama to be our next President.

The deadline to register to vote is rapidly coming up (especially for people serving overseas) – please see voter registration info below. PLEASE participate in this historic election.

With love, ACTION and FAITH in our goodness,
Kimberley Taylor-Beer


Kimberley –

Registration deadlines are coming up soon. Tell your friends, family, and neighbors to check out our new one-stop voter registration website.

Just forward this message. makes it easier than ever to register. Instead of tracking down the right forms, all you need to do is answer a few basic questions and you’ll be ready to vote. You can also:

Confirm your existing registration
Apply to vote absentee
Find your polling place
If you don’t know your own registration status or you’d like to learn more, take a minute to visit the site right now.

This race is too close and too important to stay home on Election Day.

It’s people just like you who will transform this nation.



On Sarah Palin

All this excitement about Sarah Palin is bizarre. Sure, she’s funny and pretty, but her opinions about and track record on governance are scary! How is a funny, pretty scary politician any better than an ugly, boring scary politician?

My friend Alicia has taken to calling her “Caribou Barbie.”
I think Hillary Clinton got it right: 

I don’t think [Palin is] what this election is about. Anybody who believes that the Republicans, whoever they are, can fix the mess they created probably believes that the iceberg could have saved the Titanic.


Recently we attended the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 2, which opened with Mozart’s “Divertimento 15” and choreography by Balanchine, continued with Mark Morris’ “Drink to me only with thine eyes” on piano etudes by Virgil Thomson, and closed with Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and the original Diaghilev choreography by Possokhov.

I’m not a dancer, I’m a musician, and my reaction to the program can be summed up as briefly as: “I’m a hopeless modernist.”

The Mozart was performed well and the dancing was lovely, but all I got out of it was, “Oh, look at the pretty dancers. Oh, hear the pretty music. They make it look and sound so pretty and easy. Ho-hum. Zzzzzz.” Honestly, I think I would have gotten more out of the music if the dancers hadn’t been there doing their repetitive arm-y fluff-y things every beat. They made pretty shapes, sure, they looked graceful, and for the first movement, it was all very pretty. After that I was bored silly. My dancer mate Victoria loved it. (I’ve lived with ballet dancers. I’ve roomed with them at summer camps. I’ve learned all about toe-tape and how broken dancers are from all the crazy stuff that they have to make look easy and natural. I have tremendous respect for the accomplishment of it all, and then I’m bored.)

I loved the Morris/Thomson. The visuals perfectly matched the music and added to it. The dancers embodied what I hear in the music, carving melodies with arms, tracing harmony in the space. Not only did it all match what I as a musician-geek hear in the music, it also created a complementary new, spatial dimension that was right and appealing, making the music fresh. This is pretty much always my response to Mark Morris’s work, and it’s a sharp contrast to the Balanchine, where I think I’m probably seeing ballet the way amateurs hear music: the way I used to hear music before I had all this music education: “oh, look at/listen to the pretty dancing/music!”

And then came the Stravinsky/Possokhov! It suddenly hit me what the problem is–I’m a modernist!
The classical Balanchine stuff bored me silly, the newest stuff was fascinating, and the big shocker from about a hundred years ago seemed perfectly natural to me. Instead of being tempted to riot, as Stravinsky’s first audiences apparently did, I felt at ease watching the narrative play out. I got it in both large and tiny strokes, from the blocking to the fingers fluttering and the flirty eyelashes. I still saw plenty of tutu-arm-fluffy stuff, but with a backdrop of evocative music that keeps spinning out at least an abstraction of a story. And for this musician, finally seeing the ballet was a revelation. I noticed lots of music that didn’t make it into the Firebird Suites we always play in orchestral concert presentations, and I’ve decided that’s just as well, but I also noticed many passages where familiar music made sense for the first time, seen in its narrative context.

I was puzzled by some details. I’m not sure where the schoolgirl picnic fits into the story. I’m not sure why the one character had a train of chiffon coming out her ass; it reminded me of when our black lab eats too much grass and then has the so-called “Klingon effect” when she poops.

So you think you want to install Elfa closet systems?

Recently a friend planning an Elfa closet system asked if I had any tips, since he knew I’d built three Elfa closets after our big hardware flooring project this summer. Do I ever! The Elfa system has worked out really well for us, but I do have a few tips about designing, purchasing, and building an Elfa system.

First, it’s largely a waste of time to go through their online design process, as the guy on the other end will invariably make a dozen stupid mistakes (switching around numbers, misunderstanding your requests, etc.) that will take you a while to discover and correct. However, it’s worthwhile to fill out the form a few times, just to make sure you have all the necessary measurements and are clear on which measurement is which, and also to make sure you have measured out how much hanging space of each length (shirt, pants, dress) that you need. You might even measure your longest shirts, pants, and dresses just to be sure that their norms make sense for you. V and I are both tall, so we disagreed with some of the defaults.

So, go to the store (we went to Container Store) and do the design in person–that’s how they fill out your order, anyway, and you can lean over their shoulder and make tweaks. While they’re doing it, keep an eye out for wasted space–we were able to add four inches here and there, squeeze in way more shelves closer together for shoes, and so on. For example, our master bedroom closet goes up a ridiculous 8′, and we’re both tall, so we had them move the double closet rods about a foot higher than they thought was reasonable, and then we put TWO rows of 12″ shelves all the way across the bottom for three rows (one on the floor, two on the shelves) of shoes. Above the closet rods we have two and three rows of shelves for wicked-hard-to-reach storage of out of season clothes, fat pants and skinny pants, etc. They weren’t willing to think of these things because they’re inconvenient, but for us it was important to cram every list smidgin of storage into all three of our closets. We even have one hanging rod that is intentionally too long–it sticks out the side and runs to the wall, because the closest-fit Elfa framing was that many inches narrower than the space. It bought us hanging space for 15 more of Victoria’s dresses. It might look weird to the Container Store people, but in our closet it makes perfect sense.

Second, choose between chrome or white. Ignore all the other choices (wood types, etc.) because they’re just extra pieces that they charge you extra for that you slap on as the very last step, and it’s a pretty bogus way to run up costs for no extra value whatsoever. Choose a basic color, build your whole system, and if you still care, go back and get the decorative bits.

Third, they’ll sell you a whole bunch of little bits that you don’t need, like closet-rod ends, shelf bracket covers, and so forth. Again, skip them and go back later if it turns out you care. Also note that for drawer stacks, they have lots of options, and they’ll start by trying to sell you the most expensive kind, which you don’t need. You also might not want top-covers

Fourth, before you leave the store, count every last doodad. We had to make three trips back to the store during our installation to get the pieces they’d forgotten to pack. They were nice about taking us at our word, but it was a royal pain that we did NOT need while building.

Fifth, if you have any trouble at all sinking the screws/bolts into your wall, run (don’t walk) to your nearest Home Depot and buy (a) a screw gun (the best $80 I’ve ever spent) and (b) some boxes of drywall screws at 1/4″ lengths from 1-1/4″ to 2″. Get the HD guys to show you how to use the depth-adjusting choke collar thingy–it’s a little weird but very handy. Our contractor friend George assured me that the drywall screws are plenty strong for the situation, and believe me, they were way easier to get into the wall. I started with the default hardware where I could, then used 2″ screws where I couldn’t, and if those didn’t work, I used progressively shorter screws until I could get one all the way in. Depending on what’s going on behind your drywall, these are likely to work a lot better than the default hardware, and I ended up using a big old mix of fasteners in different places.

Sixth, make sure you have a long level–say 30″ minimum. Mark where you think the hanging brackets should be, then use that long level to make sure that height is going to work all the way across the closet. Closets tend to be way crookeder than you expect. Don’t get hung up on the height that the Elfa design recommends–it might make sense to hang your system as high as possible, as it did for us. Now, attach the first bracket by sinking the first screw through it, and use the level to hold the bracket in place and sink the next screw. This step requires a helper for the longer brackets, which are heavy. Now you’re done with the level until you sink the rest of the screws and are ready for the next bracket. This way is much easier than trying to make and understand pencil marks with any precision.

The rest is pretty straightforward–as long as you’re not missing any pieces!

Oh! And while you’re at Home Depot, get a small tub of joint compound and an assortment of putty knives from 1-1/2″ wide to about 6″ or more inches wide (in the drywall department). When you demolish your old closet fittings and when you make mistakes on the Elfa installation, you’ll get holes in the drywall. You’ll quickly swipe a generous lump of joint compound with the smallest logical putty knife into the gouge, then use the largest putty knife to smooth it out. If you end up with any massive holes (like I did a few times because I was using the pry bar wrong), then crumple newspaper into the hole first, and then use the joint compound. Don’t worry about bits of newspaper sticking out of the compound–they’ll sand off easily when dry. If your closet walls are white, you might not even care about painting over the joint compound zones. –Erin

Nano-opera: Rake’s Progress

Another nano-synopsis, this time for Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress,” on a libretto by Auden and some other dude: Boy gets rich, abandons girl, abandons virtue, abandons reality. It’s yet another twist on the Faust tale, where boy sells soul to devil, only this time he finds out the terms of the deal after the fact, and then weasels out of it by getting lucky at cards, but loses his mind, so spurned girl gets to be dumped one more time, this time by the harsh reality that boy is not just a jerk but also bonkers. Yet another misogynist libretto with a likable woman who’s too spineless, stupid, or both to dump the jerk from the outset or at several more intervals in the plot–yeah, right.

And fabulous music. SFOpera’s production was quite wonderful, with lots of movie-like devices and references, goofy stagecraft, wacky costumes, and clever comic touches.

Nano-opera: La Rondine

La Rondine is your basic “girl meets guy, blows off icky rich husband, runs off with guy, wimps out, returns to rich husband, blows off and breaks heart of good guy” story set to equally boring music. 

So, yet another misogynist libretto and forgettable music, performed well by the San Francisco Opera, conducted adequately by some dude with regrettable Kent Nagano hair. A violinist friend in the opera orchestra (nameless here for reasons about to become obvious) said his hair was the only reason they could follow him: he attempted to give beats 1, 2, and 3 with his stick and did give a really clear beat 4 by running his other hand through his hair. The violinist mentioned that it’s a good thing his hair is long, or else beat 4 would have been only an eighth note. 
Victoria pointed out that the lead diva had nice breasts. (She sang well, too.) A backstage friend in the opera company (nameless here for reasons about to become obvious) replied that it was no accident that only she had low-cut costumes, and then admitted that it was probably just as well given most of the figures in the chorus. 

How could I have forgotten the wine?

Well, we didn’t–I just forgot to write about it. 

We repeated something fun from last year’s Thanksgiving, was that we had an informal contest to see who could come up with the best wine pairing for the meal. The prize is bragging rights, and the fact that all the dishes were departures from tradition made this year’s contest extra challenging. 
Pretty much everything we had was really good, but one wine did eke out a victory–the Navarro pinot noir that Noel and Ayse brought. David the Violinist brought a wonderful New Zealand sauvignon blanc by Isabel, along with a late harvest sauvignon blanc that we enjoyed with dessert. David the Bassist also went white, with two bottles of Chateau St. Michelle riesling. Victoria and I served two champagnes, one a yummy Scharffenberger and the other an even yummier Dampierre that Katja had given us at last year’s smørgåsbord. We also entered a white table wine from Hagafen called “Don Ernesto’s Collage” and a Tayerle pinot noir. 
They were all good, and most of us agreed that each wine was optimal with a certain dish, but the Navarro pinot noir won as the best overall match for the meal.  

A radical take on Thanksgiving menu traditions

I inherited a gluten intolerance from my mom, which means I’m not supposed to eat bread or anything else made from wheat, rye, oats, barley, or malt. Fortunately, I don’t have celiac disease, the most extreme form of gluten intolerance where consuming gluten slowly destroys your intestines, so when I cheat, the immediate suffering is the only consequence. I am generally willing to cheat if it’s for a good enough reason; the bread Hayes Street Grill served with our pre-opera dinner on Wednesday night, for example. My mom’s Thanksgiving stuffing is another worthy exception, and I probably would have been willing to cheat for it again this year–since Ayse was making dessert, we knew to expect baking miracles, so I knew I was going to be eating some gluten anyway, and she didn’t disappoint us. Still, I decided to make a breadless stuffing.

Let me back up.

We’d decided that this year’s potluck Thanksgiving should have radical takes on all the classic menu items.


Starting from the end of the dinner and working backwards, Ayse came up with a brilliant replacement for the traditional pumpkin pie: an amazing peanut butter pound cake baked in the shape of a turkey (who knew that turkey-shaped cake pans even exist?), surrounded by an assortment of cookies, including crunchy-gooey meringues and an absolutely brilliant update of the classic peanut butter with chocolate kiss cookie: peanut butter cookies with integrated Reese’s peanut butter cups! We served this with espressos and lattes. Noel gave me a much-needed refresher lesson in making espresso and got me back on my espresso game.


Instead of mashed potatoes, we had Noel’s scalloped potatoes, which featured a secret. They were incredible, and nobody could guess the secret: he’d deep-fried the thin potato slices before assembling the casserole, which he finished under the broiler. I have no idea what else was in them. Radical and fabulous.


Instead of some traditional gloppy cooked vegetables, David brought a tossed salad with goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, microgreens, a classic vinaigrette, and a surprising key ingredient: figs! Wonderful, and the acid/sweet contrast was a welcome palate-cleanser in such a rich meal.


Victoria wouldn’t let Thanksgiving go by without her favorite cranberry sauce, so I did make a batch of cranberries according to what I think of as Mom’s recipe (the one from the back of the bag where you run cranberries and whole oranges through a Cuisinart, then stir in a pile of sugar, a couple slugs of Triple Sec, and a dut of Kirschwasser), except that I had run out of sugar and substituted 1/4 C of Splenda where I was supposed to use 2 C of sugar. That turned out well. The key to working with Splenda seems to be to use about an eighth of the sugar amount–or at least start with that, taste, and increase slowly until you’re satisfied. Remember that anything served cold needs to be a little sweeter than you want it to be while it’s still warm. I couldn’t find my Kirschwasser, so I used some German apple-pear brandy that was right in the front of the liquor cabinet instead, and that added a nice, subtle extra dimension. Serve cold. 

To keep the radical rule, though, I also made the most unconventional cranberry sauce recipe I know of, which is the classic Mama Stamberg recipe that Susan Stamberg has recited on NPR every year since the beginning of NPR. As she admits, it sounds disgusting–cranberries, sour cream, onions, horseradish, and sugar?! in the freezer?!–but it’s actually quite good. Kind of a Jewish chutney, if you will. 

I guess if horseradish is good on a Hillel sandwich (matzoh crackers, the chopped-apples-and-walnuts mixture called charoset, and fresh grated horseradish), why not in cranberry sauce? Our next door neighbor, Jaryn, serves horseradish with just about everything, including her St. Patrick’s Day corned beef, and I have to admit it’s what corned beef has always needed.


Okay, I broke the rule with the yams and made the same yams I’ve made just about every year since Josie first brought them to my Thanksgiving back in the 90s: they’re her mashup of two different recipes, and my version of them is basically to roast and peel a mess of yams, then pour a mixture of melted butter, orange juice, and bourbon over them, add pinches of your basic sweet spices, and bake. This year I made a slight twist by adding cardamom to my usual choices of cinnamon and mace. However, we did do something a little bit radical when it came to serving them: the pot was really hot, and we were out of room on the table for anything requiring a trivet, so I set them up on the window ledge instead. And there they sat, forgotten, until we were clearing for dessert. Can you believe nobody had yams with Thanksgiving, and nobody noticed they were missing? We all had a token serving as a separate pre-dessert course.


I’d tried to talk folks into having a goose instead of a turkey (the ultimate radical menu change!), but everybody insisted we had to have turkey. Victoria especially insisted, and I know better than to disappoint her on something fundamental. 

Our turkey was pretty straight-ahead. It was your basic bargain-basement non-orgasmic cage-raised boringly-fed bird, seventeen pounds, brined since Monday in Emeril Lagasse’s brine (at John Watkins’ suggestion), but with the addition of juniper berries (from Barbara Kafka’s brine). As usual, I followed Barbara Kafka’s instructions for roasting at 500 degrees (actually I set the oven for 450 with the convection fan on) for only two hours. This method puts out a lot of smoke, so we had the hood running pretty much the whole time. It also results in a very darkly-browned skin with some crunchy bits.

Another twist was that this year, instead of attempting to carve the bird the way my dad does, I decided to try the method recommended in a New York Times’ article I’d read the day before, “The Butcher Carves a Turkey,” which was accompanied by a helpful video demonstration. The basic idea is to part the roasted bird off its carcass first, then slice it, and to arrange it all on the platter a certain way that keeps the white and dark meat separated but still looks attractive. I did this for two reasons. One, even though he’s tried to teach me several times, I suck at trying to do it Dad’s way, but I’m pretty good at butchering raw birds, so I figured I’d be better at butchering and then slicing a roasted bird than I’ve ever been at trying to carve the traditional way. Two, I agree with all the points the butcher makes about why it’s a better way. Dad manages to make the traditional way work out really well, but as the butcher points out, the big problem with the traditional way–besides that it’s difficult–is that you end up slicing with the grain of the meat instead of across it.

I’m completely sold. I had the entire thing neatly sliced and plattered in the time it would usually take me to make a mess of half the bird. I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to carve around all the weird shapes; I was just slicing hunks on a board. The slices were coherent and tidy. The light and dark were nicely separated. The platter looked good. I could throw all the weird bits into my gravy pan, which was simmering away while I was slaughtering. We had a platterful of sliced meat to put away after dinner instead of a big, messy carcass. It was easy to pack our guests off with leftovers. Noel had a tidy carcass to take home for making stock, something I won’t be having time for this weekend, since I’m making a mileage run to Frankfurt and back, Saturday-Monday.

However, I would add two tips to the butcher’s instructions: one, wear a full-length apron, not a waist-down one like I did; two, if you have two boning knives, use the one you don’t like to get the chunks off, then use the one you do like to do the slicing. That way, you can save the good knife’s slicing edge for slicing after the dirty work is done by the more expendable knife, and if you’re working one hunk at a time, you simply switch knives instead of having to steel your knife repeatedly.


My gravy was only a little off from tradition. I always make a stock from the odd bits of the turkey, celery, onion, and herbs. This year I used the spent herbs from my unstuffing custard (see below), cream and all, along with chicken stock (since our bird had almost nothing on the way of odd bits), onions, garlic, and celery. That simmered away all afternoon. After pouring off the turkey fat from the roasting pan, I deglazed it with the strained stock, then kept tossing in the weird and fatty bits from my carving process as it simmered away on the burner, reducing to about half while I carved, and then straining out the chunks before thickening. As usual, I added several slugs of marsala and a bunch of salt and pepper, then thickened it with a gluten-free cornstarch slurry, and I broke with tradition by adding a dash of Pernod pastis to finish it. I don’t think you could quite taste the pastis’s anise in the gravy, but it did have a more complex flavor. Also, since I’d roasted the bird at 500 degrees, the pan drippings were nearly scorched, resulting in a wicked-dark brown gravy that miraculously didn’t taste burnt.


Which brings me to the main point of this blog post: my “unstuffing custard.” The goal was to make something that would be as satisfying and delicious as my mom’s classic breadcumb stuffing, without the bread or any other gluten. Since I’m better off with low-carb eating, it ideally wouldn’t have carbs at all, but I wasn’t going to be stubborn about that in a meal that’s already hopelessly carby. 

My version of Mom’s stuffing is to make a huge bowl of bread cubes from at least three kinds of bread–usually a dark pumpernickel, white sourdough, and something medium-brownish like a whole-wheat. Saute onions and celery in a lot of butter. Drizzle over the bread cubes. Add salt, pepper, and a ton of crumbled sage leaves–enough to make Dad sneeze, and then a little bit more. Moisten with boiling water, stuff into bird, roast, extricate, and serve with a ton of gravy.

The miracle of Moms’ stuffing is the wonderful, overpowering sage flavor. I figured the key to my unstuffing would be to do something with enough fat to draw out the celery and sage flavors, and I’d need to come up with some kind of base that would have the rich, puddingy texture of a traditional breadcumb stuffing. I thought maybe some kind of savory custard recipe would be the starting point, so I googled a bit and found this one from the New York Times: Baked Savory Custard with Cheese. This looked close to what I was hoping for, so I decided to use it as the skeleton of my new recipe. Since I haven’t made a lot of custards but know that they can be tricky to get right, I also did some reading on the science of custards from both Cookwise and Harold McGee’s latest book. My particular question was whether adding a lot of fat, such as butter or olive oil, would interfere with the thing setting up. I couldn’t find any commentary on that, so I just decided to plunge in. What else is new? I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that it all worked out, and if I say so myself, it was pretty fabulous. So, here’s the recipe that I developed and why I did things the way I did. Most of the measurements are approximations from memory, because I’m really not a measurer, and somehow I seem to get away with that.

Unstuffing Custard

  • 2 C cream
  • several springs fresh thyme, oregano, rosemary
  • almost a whole bunch of sage sprigs
  • 3 large cloves of garlic
  • 4 stalks celery
  • 1/2 stick salted butter
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 C dried shiitakes, rehydrated with boiling water
  • pinch of cayenne
  • 1/3 package of cream cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • 4 C finely-grated Emmenthaler, parmesan reggiano, pecorino romano
  • 3 eggs plus 2 yolks

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F and put a kettle of water on to boil.

Put all the herb sprigs and the cream in a small saucepan and bringly slowly up to a simmer. The original recipe just wants you to scald the cream, but I wanted to simmer it for a while to extract as much herb flavor as possible, so I let it “simmer” just below a simmer the whole time I was doing everything else. At some point it did start to boil because of my inattention, but I got it off the heat right away and then continued with the sub-simmer simmer. 

Pour boiling water over the dried, sliced shiitake mushrooms to rehydrate them. (Or use fresh.)

Chop the onion and celery into hunks and run them through the Cuisinart, not quite to a puree but close. (It’s about juice, as I’ll explain in a bit.) Melt half a stick of butter in a small saute pan, then add the onion-celery glop and let simmer over medium heat–just high enough that you’re not sweating the vegetables, just low enough that you’re not browning them much, either. Run several large cloves of garlic and a shallot through the Cuisinart and add those to the pan. Add a pinch of cayenne (a few taps-worth from the shaker jar), kosher salt, and freshly ground black telicherry pepper. You want all this to cook gently for quite a while, so that as much juice as possible steams off. I think adding the salt to this part of the recipe also helps with the water-dispersal, but I’m not certain about that. The kitchen scientists warn about the danger of water from vegetables seeping out and making the custard have runny bits, so that’s why I took all these juice-minimizing precautions.

Crack three eggs into a medium casserole (I used a deep souffle dish). The original recipe has you use ramekins, but that didn’t seem right for a Thanksgiving stuffing. Crack two more eggs over the dog’s food dish, separating the whites into her food dish and the yolks into your casserole. The dog also gets the egg shells, and if you’re lucky, she sticks around to clean up any other little messes that arrive on the floor. Back to cooking, lightly beat your share of the eggs.

Strain the shiitake juice into the stockpot that’s going to end up in the gravy (see “Gravy” above). Just about wring those suckers out–get all the extra moisture out, as explained earlier. Buzz the cream cheese up with the shiitakes in the Cuisinart, then stir this mixture into the eggs. I don’t think the cream cheese ended up being very important, especially given the next step, but we had some sitting around, and I wanted to give my custard every chance of setting up. I was worried that all the water in the celery, onion, and mushrooms would make my custard a watery mess, as the scientists had warned, but as it turned out, my custard set up quite well, so I probably could have skipped the cream cheese. 

Grate about 4 cups of semi-hard or hard cheeses. We had a hunk of Emmenthaler, a smaller hunk of parmesan reggiano, and a tiny hunklet of pecorino romano, so that’s what I used. Stir about two-thirds of this into the egg mixture, and reserve the rest.

Slowly stir the sauteed vegetables into the egg mixture. Strain the cream slowly into the egg mixture while stirring constantly. Toss the used herbs into the stockpot, cream-coating and all. (Why not?) I had Victoria pour the cream slowly through a mesh strainer into my mixing bowl, while I was folding the mixture with a silicone scraper. I’m not sure how you’d accomplish this without a Victoria; I suppose you’d have to pre-strain the cream into a convenient pouring container and then pour with one hand while stirring with the other. The key in this step (and the steps above) is that you’re never shocking the eggs with a sudden influx of heat, which would cook and curdle them; instead, you’re first diluting them with all the other cold ingredients, and then you’re slowly stirring in the hot veggies and finally the hot cream.

Place the souffle dish in a somewhat larger pan that’s at least as deep and at least half an inch wider–an inch all the way around would be better still. Fill the larger pan up to the level of the glop in the souffle dish with boiling water. Try not to splash water into the custard as I did, but if you do, use a paper towel to soak it up and out. Baked custards need to bake in a water bath, so that the heat is gentle and consistent, and the custard can set up slowly. Too hot, and you get scrambled eggs in runny slop; too cool, and you get wobbly goop. At least that’s what the kitchen scientists say. I decided not to use the convection fan on my oven, reasoning that it would make the top of the custard cook too quickly.

Bake uncovered until it’s almost done, then scatter the reserved grated cheese over the top and let that melt and brown while the custard finishes. “Done” is defined as the point where most of it has set up, but the center is still a bit wet and wobbly. The center will finish setting up from carryover heat while it rests and cools. The kitchen scientists say to have courage about taking it out before you’re convinced it’s done, because if it cooks any longer, the eggs will curdle and the fluids will weep out and form runny rivulets. Ish kabibble, as my great-gramma would have said. I had mine in about half an hour, plus ten more minutes with the cheese, but apparently the shape of the dish and its bain marie (hot water bath) can both affect cooking time, as well as all the usual variables that affect cooking times for anything you bake. (My ex the chef pointed out that any good pastry chef will tell you the temperature but not the time for baking anything, because you can never count on the time, no matter how much you try to control all the variables. Therefore, the correct time for any baking recipe is always “until it’s done.”)

The original recipe said to serve it warm, at room temperature, or cold a few hours after baking. I made it just before putting the turkey in to roast, so two hours later it wasn’t very warm, and I think stuffing ought to be warm or even hot. So, while the turkey rested, I threw the yams in to bake (about 30 minutes), and I put the custard in for the last fifteen minutes or so, covered, just long enough to warm it through but not long enough to risk more cooking.  

Serve with lots of gravy, just like a real stuffing. 

That’s the recipe, best I can recall. Please leave a comment or email a question if you think I’ve missed something important in there–I might have, and I don’t want to be one of those people who publishes recipes that haven’t been tested and don’t work.

Our guests loved it. We did, too! I think it was a success. The cheeses were a great addition to Mom’s stuffing’s flavor profile, but I think it would have tasted good without the cheese, too, or with about half as much cheese. The catch is, I’m not sure what would happen with the custard if you changed the cheese factor in the recipe; I just don’t have enough experience with custards to guess. If anyone experiments with that, please report your results in the comments!