Behold what has entered into the kitchen!
The grocery stores near Our Mom of Cookrye put the turkeys on a fantastically steep clearance, marking them down until they were literally cheaper than liver. And what might one do with this lovely bounty? We consult our dearly-treasured inspiration, whose disapproving gaze we hope ever falls upon our culinary endeavors: Fanny Cradock!
|Baked Turkey with Mushrooms|
2 pint boxes sliced mushrooms
1 package (12 oz) raw bacon*
1 or 2 tbsp very soft butter
Heat the oven to 325°. Select a roasting pan with higher sides than a normal 9"x13", and line it with foil.
Cut the bacon slices into squares. Mix them with the mushrooms, adding pepper and any other seasonings you'd like. Don't add any salt, the bacon adds plenty of it. Separate any bacon pieces that try to stick together, so they're nicely dispersed among the mushrooms. Set aside.
Lay the bird on its back in the roasting pan and pinch at the breast and leg skin to loosen it. Get your hand under it and gradually free it from the meat without taking it off the bird. Rub the top of the skin all over with the butter (if the butter is a bit hard, work it in your hands for a bit to soften it up). Stuff the mushrooms and bacon under the skin, inserting absolutely as many as possible. In addition to getting mushrooms over the breast, try to get some over the legs. The turkey skin will stretch much more than you may expect, and you will probably get all of them under it.†
Stuff the turkey if you so desire, and bake it.‡ Put a loose foil tent on top of it for the last third of the baking time. The turkey is ready when a thermometer in the thigh joint reads 180°. If you stuffed it, put a thermometer right into the center of the stuffing and make sure it's 170°.
Let the bird stand 15 minutes before carving it up. Serve the mushrooms on the side.
*Fanny Cradock says to use raw ham instead if you can get it. But as raw ham is often hard to find or very expensive, she says raw bacon will be just fine.
†You don't need to discard any extra mushrooms. Simply cook them in a frying pan and serve them on the side. Make sure they're cooked thoroughly since they've been in such close contact with meat, and enjoy the bacon-flavored mushrooms.
‡I just used the baking times on the Butterball website since Fanny Cradock doesn't give any on TV.
Source: Your Christmas Bird, Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas, BBC 1975
First, I love that apparently in Britain we call it a Christmas bird. It's like having a cookout and telling everyone we're eating pig sausages and sliced cow. Fanny Cradock says what so many people have said for years as she begins working over the turkey on camera: "Turkey, let's face it, traditional as it is, is a very dry bird!" She then immediately tells us the solution to to the dryness: bacon!
|These scissors look like they should be hopelessly worn and dull, but somehow they're not.|
A lot of professional chefs seriously underrate cutting food with scissors. Apparently it just doesn't look "professional" to put your green leafy things into a cup and snip them finely, even though it is often faster. More relevant to today's recipe, the bacon slithered all over the cutting board when I tried to use a knife like a "real" cook, but the scissors had the bacon cut up in less than a minute. (Also, don't worry about the germy counters, I had a spray bottle of cleaner which I brought forth after every step!)
The bacon is here today to lubricate our very dry bird. I love how blunt Fanny Cradock is- other people would use more delicate, cookbook-worthy words when giving a recipe. But I cannot dispute the technique- it's a classier version of what we've been doing at Thanksgiving for years. Only instead of bacon, my aunt puts I Can't Believe It's Not Butter under the turkey skin and squishes it around to distribute it across the bird. The results are so good that you forget that you cancelled all the supposed health benefits of eating a nice, naturally-lean turkey instead of a grease-laden duck.
|pictured: Turkey lubricant.|
And now we get to the stuffing. Here in America, families all have very carefully-kept traditional turkey recipes. Any variations inevitably meet with a lot of grumbling about how it's not like it's always been. And so, I decided to make my friend's mom's recipe that she's always done. The recipe that tastes like childhood to him is as follows: "Open the bag and make to package directions."
Said directions involve an entire stick of "butter or margarine." While we do have butter, we also have the rest of an unused box of oleo (that's margarine to you) from when we made cookies from Maxine Menster's grave.
|There's enough oleo in this bowl to make an entire batch of Christmas cookies.|
I'll have you know that where I'm from, we never use stuffing mix. We use made-from-scratch Jiffy cornbread and cans of mushroom soup that we opened ourselves.
Back to the turkey. Fanny Cradock claims that putting raw ham into dishes instead of salt is a very common, very old French trick. I don't know if that's true or not, she often made things up and claimed they were old French cooking traditions. Nevertheless, she claims that many old French kitchens will have a dried ham (which she helpfully tells us is a jambon de Bayonne) hanging from the ceiling. Apparently cooks will grate a bit off of it instead of merely using salt. I don't know if that it is true, but jambon de Bayonne is indeed a real type of ham. Because it is French, the Wikipedia article goes into loving detail about what an ancient and revered tradition it is.
You know what other ancient and traditional way we have to cure slabs of pig? What sacred technique we have that dates back thousands of years, perfected over the millenia? Bacon, and you can eat it without wearing fancy clothes. But to properly insert our bacon, we come at last to the most entertaining part of the recipe: preparing the skin to receive our turkey.
I suspect Fanny Cradock pre-loosened the turkey skin before they started taping the episode. She makes it look like you just pinch the skin a little bit and then it practically slips off. In reality, we had to pinch and tug at it a lot before getting our hand under there and reaching everywhere under the skin to make it let go of the meat below.
I love how the mushrooms on the turkey legs make them look a bit like leg-o-mutton sleeves on a 120-year-old dress. We bought more mushrooms than we thought the turkey could hold under its skin, thinking we could just cook the extras in a frying pan and eat them on the side. But the skin actually stretched until we could shove two whole pint boxes of sliced mushrooms (and of course an entire package of bacon) under it. We also got all the stuffing to fit in there. I've heard stuffing expands, and that therefore one should leave extra room in the turkey for it to grow. But we were all wondering if it would crack the turkey ribs from beneath. Therefore, we packed the turkey hard to find out.
I think the best stuffing (whether it's cornbread, rice, white bread, or whatever else you like) is the stuffing that's baked inside the turkey. Cooking it in a pan is just not the same, even if you lay raw turkey meat on top of it to imbue it with flavor from above while it bakes.
Now, a lot of people think you can't put the stuffing in the turkey because it's unsafe. So the theory goes, the turkey gets properly cooked, but the stuffing (which has as many raw-bird germs mixed into it as the turkey itself) doesn't quite get hot enough in the very center. The solution to this is simple: pretend you stuffed the entire bird with raw meat. Then, cook it until the imaginary raw meat is hot enough to be fully-cooked. Just stick your thermometer right into the center of the stuffing and make sure it's as hot as cooked meat should be.
But with that said, some of you following along at home might notice a problem just waiting to ruin everything. You see, we tested the biggest pan in the house for fit by dropping the still-wrapped-at-the-time turkey in it. No bird extremities dangled over the edge. Yes, it was a little bit shallower than most roasting pans, but we figured we could skip the chicken broth Fanny Cradock pours around her turkey on the show. In theory, nothing could slosh out of the pan since we poured nothing in it. It only took 30 minutes before we heard the first sizzles hit the oven floor. Within half an hour, the smoke alarm was carefully removed from the wall and the kitchen looked like this.
|These fans are the real MVPs of tonight's turkey.|
I'm not proud of being so quickly experienced at airing out a kitchen after turning the oven into a smoking mess. I let everyone else know that once again we had smoke in the house.
|Texting has succeeded where those 1950s whole-house intercoms failed, freeing us from having to actually traverse the house to speak.|
For those of you who are just popping in, that response refers to when we smoked out the kitchen in an attempt to cook a duck. While the door was propped open, a nighttime wanderer chose to visit:
And so, when we should have been doing literally anything else while the turkey tended to itself for a few hours in the oven, we were instead stationed in the kitchen and doing wildlife patrol. You never know who will think an open door is an invitation.
As for the cause of the smoke-induced open door, I could not find anywhere in the pan that was dripping. Yes, the oven was covered in charring splatters, but the pan wasn't anywhere near overflowing with juices. Neither the legs nor the wings were hanging over the edge. Then I saw a bubble come up and burst with a massive BLUP, followed by a landing sizzle and yet more smoke attacking me in the face before the fans (yes fans plural) blew it out the door. And so, we frantically tried to spoon out as much as we could without burning ourselves.
|It'll make a good soup for one.|
While we did manage to stop any further splashovers, the oven already looked like this.
|Let us now appreciate self-cleaning ovens.|
But believe it or not, the turkey actually came out fine! I was afraid it'd either be dried out or have a faint overtaste from all the smoke that it shared the oven with. The mushrooms shrank a lot, meaning that the meat under them had absorbed their lovely mushroom flavor. Also, the turkey no longer had unnerving mushroom and bacon bulges. You could serve it to your family without everyone thinking the bird looked ruined.
Although in full disclosure, the turkey is a bit mottled with black from the subcutaneous mushrooms. Let's get a better look at what one sees when removing a Fanny Cradock turkey from the oven. As you can see, the turkey skin has retracted over the mushrooms, squeezing the juice out of them as they shrank beneath it.
Also, while the stuffing did expand as we had heard it tends to do, we didn't get any amusing bird ruptures. The stuffing readily found its way out of the existing holes in the bird. The end result looked a lot like the turkey extruded stuffing like a Play-Doh nozzle, emerging in a perfect cylinder with a crispy, ahem, butt end.
|Note also the almost unnervingly-blackened mushrooms crawling under the skin.|
Cooking a turkey felt peculiarly ritualistic compared to doing any of the other species of bird one meets in the supermarket. While I knew that objectively I was simply cooking meat from the clearance bin, it felt like I was doing the sacred duty of the holiday (note that we weren't cooking this for a holiday feast but for a weeknight).
Anyway, we gave the bird its 15 minutes of standing time and then attempted to cut it. As magnificent as any whole bird looks when brought to table with a golden skin, there is no dignified way to present what's left after you've cut it up.
But despite the oven smoke, this bird was perfect. Not only was it not dry, but we ended up putting away the carving knife and gently prying the meat off with a fork. The meat didn't fall off the bones, it slid away from them. Using just a fork, the entire turkey breast came off in one piece, not even leaving little residual meat shreds behind on the ribs. If you look at the big turkey breast, you can spy the mushroom dents.
|Behold the great tower of turkey!|
In case you doubt how easy this bird was to carve, these bones just fell out of various parts of it. They really did slip out of the bird this clean, meaning all the meat went to the serving plate.
The mushrooms themselves were delicious after spending several hours taking on the flavor of the bacon and turkey. We saved them all out on their own plate. The bacon itself, however, was bland and mushy. But that's not a demerit on this recipe- the bacon had done its duty and imparted all its bacony deliciousness directly into the bird.
|We just piled all the mushrooms onto the skin and lifted them out like a food hammock.|
I don't know why Fanny Cradock's turkey method isn't a lot better known because it is delicious. Is it because Fanny Cradock herself is barely a cook anymore but a badly-aged retro joke? Even the BBC mercilessly describes her as "the formidable Fanny in a series of lurid frocks." Is it because it looks weird to shove things under the bird skin? It may look weird when you put it in the oven, but a lot of people put various things right under the turkey skin. Also, this method doesn't involve getting any intimidatingly unfamiliar ingredients that we don't see at any other time of year. Nor does Fanny Cradock use any weird techniques that are impossible without years of practice.
The bacon added a marvelous savory overtone to the turkey, and the mushrooms completed the flavor. Furthermore, I want to emphasize that we didn't even need a knife to carve it off the bones. I'd be willing to nab another turkey and cook it just like this regardless of whether it was a holiday. As a bonus, if you're not putting on a whole Thanksgiving feast, this bird is a complete meal in one dish. Like an elevated casserole with more presentational panache, you get your meat, vegetable, and bread all in one baking pan.
We have to salute Fanny Cradock. A lot of her recipes aged really badly (liver roll-ups or mincemeat omelet, anyone?), but her basics are amazing. She always uses slightly different methods than everyone else (like frying chips -AKA French fries- twice), but the results are always amazing. We've now done all the species from her episode on cooking Christmas birds- (see the chicken with subcutaneous mushrooms, and the duck with honey), and all of them are absolutely delicious.