When I was a child, I loved Thanksgiving morning best: I’d awaken to the staccato banging of mom’s Chop-O-Matic — an avocado-green cylinder of plastic fitted with spring-loaded blade — and the toasty aroma of dad’s coffee. We’d flip back and forth between the various Thanksgiving Day parades on television, each one promising the arrival of Santa Claus. As the day wore on, the warm smell of turkey and dressing would overtake the house as my brother and I paged through thick Christmas catalogs and scribbled out lists.
I would’ve been OK if the holiday had ended right there. But of course, it didn’t, and as a compulsively fussy eater, I had to contend with the grandest meal of the year — and so much food touching other food. My teachers told me I should be thankful — and I was! — but the push and pull of the day’s delight and revulsion was stomach-churning. In the delight column: Spearing pickles to set the snack tray, mashed potatoes, turkey. Revulsion: Eating aforementioned pickles (or worse, eating pickle-juice-tainted cheese), gravy, cauliflower casserole.
In our house, cauliflower casserole was as essential to Thanksgiving as the bird. My mom first remembers it appearing on the family table when she was a kid, in the early 1960s, after my grandmother’s close friend Florencie recommended it. The original recipe card is labeled “Company Casserole,” but we never called it that.
As I got older, I gave up picky eating, only to acquire a new, equally shameful food habit: snobbery. When it came time to host my first Thanksgiving, I ordered a shockingly expensive heirloom turkey and gently suggested to my mom that maybe we should reimagine the cauliflower casserole. Perhaps we could substitute a different cheese for the Kraft Old English slices? Cook down fresh mushrooms, instead of using canned? Wisely, my mother stood firm, and together we cooked it as my grandmother had written it. The cauliflower casserole was as rich and dreamy as ever; the heirloom turkey was dry and weirdly fishy.
Sure, you could change the casserole, but then it wouldn’t be our casserole; and without our casserole, would it really be Thanksgiving?
That question was tested a few years later when Old English cheese slices disappeared from grocery store shelves. All my mother could find was the spreadable kind, so she called the Kraft hotline: They advised using half American, half sharp cheddar. No one — not even my brother, the casserole’s strongest proponent — noticed.
And so, this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the Kraft hotline. That heirloom turkey may be a part of some family’s history, but for many of us, our heirlooms involve processed cheese or maybe a can of mushroom soup. We’re encouraged to aspire to the Norman Rockwell vision of the holidays, but remember, Norman Rockwell illustrated advertisements for Jell-O and Coca-Cola.
This year, my family will indulge in cauliflower casserole alongside a responsibly raised turkey. And we will set out cranberry sauce made from whole berries as well as the canned kind. Because, for my father, Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving if the cranberry sauce doesn’t have rings.
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 55 minutes
Makes: 8 servings
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 cups cubed ham, about 8 ounces
4 to 5 ounces sliced mushrooms, or 1 can (7 ounces) sliced mushrooms, drained
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
3 slices American cheese, cut into narrow strips
3 slices sharp cheddar, cut into narrow strips
3/4 cup sour cream
½ teaspoon salt
Ground white pepper
1 ½ cups breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quart shallow gratin dish.
2. Cook cauliflower in a saucepan of well-salted boiling water until just tender; drain. Toss in a bowl with the ham and mushrooms.
3. Melt butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan; stir in flour. Cook, stirring frequently, until light golden brown, about 8 minutes. Whisk in milk; cook, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 10 minutes.
4. Take the sauce off the heat; add half of the cheese, plus the sour cream, salt and white pepper to taste. Return to heat; stir until cheese melts and sauce is smooth, about 3 minutes.
5. Toss together the breadcrumbs and olive oil in a bowl until well combined. Stir sauce into the cauliflower mixture until well combined. Scrape into the prepared gratin dish. Layer the remaining cheese on top; sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
6. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and golden, 30-35 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 346 calories, 19 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 58 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 16 g protein, 951 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
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