Plan ahead for a relaxing Thanksgiving filled with gratitude

Photo by Ann Cipperly

by Ann Cipperly

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year. While I look forward to the cooking, decorating the table, and spending time with family, I am always aware of its true meaning and why the Pilgrims knew how important it was to take the time to thank God, even when there are day to day concerns.

I learned early in marriage that preparing the Thanksgiving meal required planning ahead. We were living in New Jersey the first time my husband’s parents came for the holiday dinner. I should have been focused on the meal, but instead I decided to clean the apartment thoroughly, especially the closets.

On Thanksgiving morning, I put the turkey in the oven and set the table. Soon my in-laws arrived in a joyful mood from Manhattan. I served a few light hors d’oeuvres and went to the kitchen to make the pies. Once the pies where assembled, it occurred to me that I could not bake them until the turkey came out of the oven.

The dinner lingered on longer than I had planned with a few grins from my mother-in-law, and you have probably already guessed that no one saw the closets or even noticed the super clean apartment.

After we moved back to Opelika, I took over preparing the Thanksgiving meal for my mother. This time I was prepared and continued to learn more about planning, as our family grew to 35 for dinner, with family arriving from Birmingham.

Now, when Thanksgiving morning arrives, there is nothing to do but put the second turkey in the oven. I sip hot tea as I remove cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole, vegetable casseroles, pumpkin and date nut breads and mac and cheese from the freezer. (I now have two ovens.)

The mashed potatoes, gravy, the first turkey, cranberry sauce and other dishes await in the refrigerator, while Carrot Cake, Fall Carmel Cake, Pecan Pies, Pumpkin Pies and other desserts are ready on the sideboard.

Roasted Pecans and Cheese Wafers or Cheese Straws are set around on tables before guests arrive.

The first two things to do in order to be rested and relaxed on Thanksgiving day is to plan the menu ahead and make a detailed grocery list.

Decide which dishes you will make ahead to freeze and plan when you will cook each one. I generally spend one entire day in the kitchen cooking. Other dishes can be prepared one at a time while cooking dinner. For instance, plan to bake potatoes with dinner one night and bake sweet potatoes at the same time for a casserole to freeze.

The most important thing about freezing dishes ahead is being sure they are tightly wrapped. Once the dish is cold, cover the top with plastic wrap and then completely cover the dish, top and bottom, with foil and secure tightly.

Homemade Cornbread Dressing takes the longest time. While you can use purchased chicken broth, I make my own by boiling a chicken or two with onions and celery. I use the broth for the dressing and make a casserole for that night’s dinner with the chicken. Leftover chicken is good also for sandwiches at lunch the following day.

The day before Thanksgiving I roast a smaller turkey to be sure I have plenty, even though I will cook a large bird the next day. I boil the giblets for stock and make a batch of gravy from the drippings.

Remember for a tender turkey it has to rest 20 to 30 minutes, depending on size, before carving. Otherwise, all the juices will run out making it dry.

When there are children coming for dinner, I make mac and cheese and freeze it. One year a little granddaughter arrived and looked over the abundant buffet of dishes and announced she wanted a bowl of cereal!

While I have a passion of cooking Thanksgiving for my family, I know the day is about much more than the food.

I thought I was thankful every day until a few years ago when I endured surgery at UAB for a rare stage four cancer followed by two serious infections back to back. During those fall months, I wasn’t sure I would make it to Thanksgiving or be able to make the journey to M.D. Anderson in Houston, Tex.

I discovered that this season is about much more than turkeys and getting ready for Christmas. It is about miracles and waking up being grateful just for another day no matter what else is happening.

This can be a difficult season for many with empty chairs at the table where loved ones once sat, a sickness in the family, financial problems and a sadness with family members far away.

As you plan your Thanksgiving menu, become aware of those in the community who are lonely or unable to prepare a meal for themselves.

Just as that first Thanksgiving, we can prepare what we have, share it with others and be thankful to God for what we have survived and for things we take for granted every day.

Ann Cipperly can be reached at


Cornbread Dressing
3 cups self-rising cornmeal
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
Pinch of soda
3 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 1/2 cups chopped celery
2 Tbsp. oil
1 and 3/4 cups Pepperidge Farm herb seasoned dressing mix
2 tsp. sage or more to taste
1 can cream of chicken soup
5 or more cups homemade chicken stock
Combine first 4 ingredients; add buttermilk and eggs. Stir in onion and celery. Heat oil in 10-inch skillet or baking dish; place in 400 degree oven for five minutes until hot. Pour batter into hot skillet and bake for 30 minutes until lightly brown.
Cool slightly and crumble into a large bowl. Add stuffing mix.
In a separate bowl combine cream of chicken soup and part of the stock; add to cornbread mixture. Mix well and add more stocks as needed.
Place into a greased 13 x 9 x 2 inch baking pan.  Can bake at 375 for 30 minutes or cool, cover tightly and freeze.
Can thaw overnight in refrigerator before baking or bake frozen covered with foil until thawed; remove foil and bake until lightly brown.

Make Ahead Mashed Potatoes
5 lbs. potatoes
1/2 stick or more butter
1 cup sour cream
8 oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
2 tsp. salt or to taste
Pepper to taste
Peel and cook potatoes; drain. While potatoes are cooking, beat sour cream and cream cheese until fluffy.
Mash potatoes with butter and then gradually add hot mashed potatoes to cream mixture; beat until fluffy. Add seasonings to taste. Spoon into greased casserole dish.  If not serving immediately, store in refrigerator until ready to serve.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes. Can make a day ahead or freeze.

Mother’s Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups Wesson oil
4 eggs
3 cups grated carrots (baby carrots work well)
1 to 2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift and mix dry ingredients. Add oil and stir well. Add eggs one at a time and mix well after each addition. Add carrots and nuts; blend well.
Bake in two or three greased and floured cake pans for about 25 minutes or until cake tests done. Cool. Spread with Cream Cheese Frosting.
Note: To assure cake layers do not stick, line cake pans with foil and coat with nonstick spray. When layers are cool, use foil to pull out of pan, flip onto cake plate and gently remove foil.
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter
1 box confectioner’s sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts, optional
Cream together cream cheese and butter; add sugar, vanilla and nuts.

Fall Caramel Cake
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3 cups sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
6 eggs
1 cup whipping cream
2 tsp. vanilla
Cream butter and sugar well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.
Add flour and cream alternately, beginning and ending with flour. Add vanilla.
Pour batter into three greased cake pans. Bake at 300 degrees for 40 minutes or until it tests done. Cool in pans before removing. If making more than three layers, adjust baking time.
Easy Caramel Frosting
1 cup butter
2 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup cream or milk
1 box confectioners’ sugar
Melt butter in saucepan; stir in brown sugar. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil and stir over low heat for 2 minutes. Stir in cream; heat to boiling. Cool. Gradually stir in confectioners’ sugar.

Best Pumpkin Bread
3 cups sugar
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. soda
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup oil
1 cup water
15 oz. can solid pack pure pumpkin
4 eggs
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Combine all ingredients; beat for 3 minutes. Pour into two greased loaf pans.
Bake for one hour or until test done. Cool on wire racks for 10 minutes before removing from pans. Freezes well.

Connie’s Pecan Pies
4 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup light Karo syrup
2 cups pecans
1 stick butter
2 piecrusts
Melt butter in 10 or 12 inch skillet until brown, stirring constantly with wooden spoon.
Remove from heat until cool.
Stir in sugar and syrup.
Beat eggs and add to mixture.
Whip mixture with whisk until eggs are completely mixed.
Place one cup of pecans in bottom of each piecrust.
Fill piecrusts with custard.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350, and bake 20 to 25 minutes or until set.

Green Beans in Sour Cream Sauce with Toasted Almonds
1 medium onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
8 oz. sour cream
2 (16 oz.) cans green beans, drained or fresh beans, cooked
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Toasted almonds
Sauté onion in butter; gradually stir in flour, water, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Simmer 3 minutes. Add sour cream and beans. Pour into greased 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Top with toasted almonds.

Southern Creamed Corn
Three 16-oz. pkg. frozen yellow or white shoepeg corn, partially thawed
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cup milk or more
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
In a food processor or blender process 1½ pkg. corn until smooth.
Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Stir in pureed corn, remaining corn, milk, salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed, stirring often. Add more milk if needed for a creamy texture.
Can be prepared ahead. Makes 12 servings

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese
1 lb. elbow macaroni
5 1/2 cups milk
6 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
4-5 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided
Cook macaroni according to directions on package being sure to salt water; set aside.
Heat milk until hot. Melt butter in Dutch oven pan over medium-high heat, whisking until well blended and simmering a minute.
Slowly pour in hot milk; continuing to whisk until milk begins to boil. Remove from heat. Stir in 3 cups cheese; blend until cheese melts. Add 2 tsp. salt and nutmeg.
Add cooked macaroni.
Grease large baking pan or two medium-sized. Pour macaroni half way up sides in both pans. Sprinkle grated cheese over mixture. Pour in remaining macaroni; sprinkle top with grated cheese.
Bake at 375 for about 30 minutes. Freezes well unbaked.

Praline and Marshmallow Sweet Potato Casserole
This is a popular sweet potato casserole that many families prepare every Thanksgiving. Don’t add the sugar until you have tasted the potatoes, as you may find that you only need a small amount, if any. The topping adds sweetness.
I sometimes put topping on half of the casserole and freeze. When it is baked, I add marshmallows to the other side and bake a couple of minutes until marshmallows are toasted to offer a choice.
3 cups sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla
1/3 cup evaporated milk (can use regular milk)
Mix all of above ingredients and place in greased 13 x 9 x 2 inch casserole. Top with the following:
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup butter
1 cup chopped pecans
Mix topping ingredients and sprinkle on top of sweet potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. May be made day ahead or can be frozen and then baked.
Easy to double.

No Knead Yeast Muffins
1 pkg. yeast
2 cups warm water
1 1/2 sticks butter or margarine, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
4 cups self-rising flour
Place yeast in warm water. Cream melted butter with sugar; add beaten egg. Add yeast and water, then flour.
Drop batter into greased muffin cups. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Can be stored tightly covered in refrigerator up to a week.

Orange Glazed Sweet Potatoes
8 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 cup orange juice
2 Tbsp. grated orange rind
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt
Place sweet potato slices in large pan; add water to cover. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat to medium and simmer 20 minutes or until tender; drain. Let cool.
Arrange slices in a greased 9 by 13-inch baking dish.
Combine remaining ingredients in saucepan. Boil 1 minute. Pour mixture over potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
Can be prepared ahead but do not bake. Refrigerate until ready to bake. Let stand 30 minutes. Bake as directed. Serves 8.

Creamy Corn Pudding
4 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed
4 eggs
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
6 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 stick butter, melted
2 Tbsp. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients and stir well. Pour into greased 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Bake about 45 minutes until lightly browned and set. Cool ten minutes before serving.

Orange Glazed Sweet Potatoes
8 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 cup orange juice
2 Tbsp. grated orange rind
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt
Place sweet potato slices in large pan; add water to cover. Bring to a boil; cover, reduce heat to medium and simmer 20 minutes or until tender; drain. Let cool.
Arrange slices in a greased 9 by 13-inch baking dish.
Combine remaining ingredients in saucepan. Boil 1 minute. Pour mixture over potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
Can be prepared ahead but do not bake. Refrigerate until ready to bake. Let stand 30 minutes. Bake as directed. Serves 8.

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Apples
6 to 8 medium sweet potatoes
1 cup peeled, sliced cooking apples
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 to 1/2 cup cornstarch
1 tsp. salt
2 cups boiling water
1/2 cup butter
Dash cinnamon, nutmeg
Peel and slice sweet potatoes; set aside. Butter a large baking dish; layer sweet potatoes and apples. Combine remaining ingredients; bring to a boil. Pour over potatoes and apples. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour.

Date Nut Bread
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 cup chopped dates
1 cup seedless raisins
1 1/2 cups boiling water
2 tsp. baking soda
Mix above ingredients together and set aside to cool.
In a separate bowl combine:
2 eggs, well beaten
2 scant cups sugar (just slightly less than 2 cups)
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 1/2 cups flour
Mix together and slowly add first mixture. This works better using the mixer for blending. Bake in greased loaf pans for 1 hour in a 325 oven. Freezes well.


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