A pumpkin soufflé might be just the ticket this year for those of us who are under lockdown but still want to celebrate Thanksgiving. Here in Paris, where the lockdown is in effect until at least Dec. 1, a friend and I who give a gala dinner every year have begun thinking about how to get creative when gatherings are essentially banned. For the moment, we’re planning a twosome — meaning roast turkey with stuffing is off the menu. What is to be done?
Soufflé au potiron / Pumpkin soufflé
First, let me say that this soufflé is a lovely dish to serve whenever pumpkins are in season. It is light yet filling, flavored with tangy cheese and a dash of nutmeg. Preparation is fun, although a bit longer than most of the recipes on this site. Count on 20 minutes for cooking the pumpkin, 20 minutes for making the soufflé base and 40 minutes in the oven. You can do the first steps ahead of time — but once you’ve whipped the egg whites, the soufflé needs to be baked right away. And taken straight to the table.
You can serve the soufflé as a lunch dish for two, accompanied by a salad and perhaps a nice bottle of red, or as the starter of a larger meal. This is what I have in mind for this year’s mini Thanksgiving. Our menu could be: Pumpkin soufflé followed by roast quail, roast partridge with pears or chicken with walnut sauce as the main dish, accompanied by, say, sweet potato purée, puréed celeriac and a salad of lamb’s lettuce and Belgian endive. And what about dessert? No point in making a crowd-sized pie this year. Instead, perhaps caramelized pears, pears in red wine and cassis or chestnut mousse.
If you’re planning a vegetarian Thanksgiving, then I’d suggest starting with a salad of tender leaves, walnuts and pears and serving the pumpkin soufflé as your main dish, followed by any of the side dishes and desserts mentioned above. Vegans could follow the same plan, although omitting the soufflé and substituting a dish like braised finocchio with Belgian endive or wild mushrooms with herbs. And I’ll just add that any of these menus would make a fine autumn dinner for guests.
Given all the difficulties of this season — the virus, terrorist attacks in European cities and the rocky political situation in the States — it can be hard to stay optimistic, and when these difficulties affect our holidays and traditions one’s mood can darken further. Yet I find that limits are in fact a spark for creativity, in the same way that the size of a canvas will help define the artist’s vision. Which is why I’m finding it interesting to consider alternatives for this very particular Nov. 26.
This isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with a non-traditional Thanksgiving. A few years back, I was invited by the French television channel Arte to participate in a program called De l’Art et du Cochon — a play on the expression ‘du lard ou du cochon’, which translates literally as ‘bacon or pork’ and actually means not knowing what to make of something. The program’s theme was to take a well-known painting of food and have a famous chef reproduce it. The painting in question was Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom From Want’, in which a family looks on eagerly as Grandmother brings their Thanksgiving turkey to the table. And the man tasked with reproducing it was the three-star chef Georges Blanc.
My role as the token American was supposed to be simple — to make cranberry sauce and bring it to Blanc’s table in Vonnas, just south of Burgundy. At the last minute, I was asked to provide cornbread as well (oops, not my specialty). When we sat down, Georges Blanc produced a roast turkey unlike any I’d tasted before — stuffed with veal, pork, walnuts and thyme — and a fabulous pumpkin gratin. Here’s a photo from the occasion.
Getting back to the pumpkin soufflé, I served it one sunny day last week before the lockdown kicked in when a friend came by for lunch on my veranda. We ate and enjoyed the whole thing, and I’m thankful we were able to meet. I’m thankful that, despite the current limitations affecting our lives, we still have plentiful food that we can creatively turn into beautiful dishes. I’m thankful we have the telephone and the internet to bring us close to farflung family and friends. And I’m thankful to you, dear readers, for giving me the constant pleasure of writing about the joys of French cuisine.