I remember cooking my first Thanksgiving meal. I was a newlywed who was still finding her way in the kitchen. At that time in my life, I regularly turned to Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, and the Gorton’s Fisherman for cooking advice. They were always so helpful and reliable. Cooking from scratch was not something that was important to me at the time. However, I knew that I wanted to impress my guests at my first Thanksgiving meal. I figured that I would cook both a turkey and a fresh ham, neither of which I had ever cooked before. I feel really old making this statement, but this was before we had a desktop computer. I didn’t have a plethora of cooking advice and recipes that were strokes away, and, at that time, I don’t even think I owned a cookbook. I figured that I would wing it. How hard could it be? I planned out the menu which included the traditional green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, corn, and a pumpkin bread courtesy of Pillsbury.
The morning of Thanksgiving came. I cleaned my bird, which I must admit scarred me a bit, popped it in the oven, and began working on my other side dishes. In short time my potatoes were cut and soaking, and the green bean casserole was assembled and ready for the oven. But lurking from the top shelf of the refrigerator was the fresh ham. I was stumped. I took out that ham, unwrapped it, and stared in awe at the copious amount of fat that encrusted the meat. I knew how unhealthy all of that fat was so I decided, that since I loved my family so much, I would remove ALL of the fat from the ham and boil it. Yep, boil it…with all of the fat removed. I regularly purchased boiled ham from the deli counter so this seemed like a logical, viable option to me. So, I popped that ham into a big stock pot of water, covered it, and cooked it…for a very l – o – n – g – g – g time. I wanted to be sure that any of the residual fat that I had missed was boiled off.
By this time, the kitchen was filling with the aroma of seemingly delicious food. I turned my attention to my box of Pillsbury Pumpkin Bread. This was a special meal so I knew that I wanted to spruce up the bread a bit. I prepared the batter and added in some fresh apple and a handful of raisins. I took a swipe at the batter and was surprised at how good it tasted. I thought that the next time Pillsbury was looking for recipes for their Bake Off, I would submit this one. It was so creative. I mean, who would think to put some apples and raisins into a pumpkin bread. Ahem. Now as I write that, I shake my head and chuckle at how absurd that was, but back then, I was serious (or maybe clueless).
The table was set. Appetizers and snacks were at the ready. Guests were arriving. The bird was resting, and the ham was still simmering…no joke. My husband began to carve the turkey, which appeared to be quite dry. I made sure that I made plenty of gravy because gravy could cover a whole world of wrongs. While my husband began to assemble the dishes on the buffet, I finally removed the ham from the pot and laid it on the cutting board. When my husband walked back into the kitchen and saw the gray mound sitting atop the board, he asked “What is that?” I assured him that it was the ham. We both commented that we had never seen gray ham…ever. I encouraged him to slice it up. We placed the ham on the buffet and offered a disclaimer to our guests. I admitted that I had never cooked a ham and believed that I overcooked it (boy, that was an understatement).
Our Thanksgiving meal was a fun and joyous time. Our entire family was there. I recollect that there wasn’t much talk about the food at the table. Not any comments like, “This turkey is so moist and flavorful.” or “You have to give me the recipe for …”. Yeah, no, there was none of that. However, many people did comment on how good the pumpkin bread was, and I was more than willing to offer up my secret. At the end of the day I remember thinking how cool it was that everyone enjoyed that bread so much, and at that point, I convinced myself that I would one day enter the Pillsbury Bake Off.
Fast forward 16 years. November 4, 2013. Las Vegas. The Aria Hotel. The Ironwood Ballroom. Workstation number 83. The 46th Pillsbury Bake Off. Me, a finalist, cooking my recipe with 99 other hopefuls for the judges. And, no, I was not preparing pumpkin bread!
A lot happened in those 16 years. Somewhere along the way I picked up some food sense and cooking skills. I developed a passion for good food, food that was prepared with my own two hands and required more than pulling open a box or setting up a crisping sheet in the microwave. Food became one way, not the most important way, but one way for me to show my family and friends that I loved and cared for them.
I was fortunate to have been a finalist in the Bake Off last year, and find it utterly amazing that I will be returning to the Bake Off as a finalist this year as well. I want to take the next few blog posts to chronicle my journey from last year and to keep you up to speed on this year’s venture. More than anything it will be a way to have a written record for my kids to look back on one day.
So, if you dare, peek back every few days to see what I’ve added. Although the topic will be about the Pillsbury Bake Off, I’ll be sharing some lessons I learned along the way, lessons that have nothing to do with food.