Here, Taste This : Zesty Cranberry Sauce

My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are a blur of smells and sounds. Tableware clinking. Fresh rolls baking. Turkey roasting. The sound of laughter. The crackle of a fire. But it was the sight of the jiggling, crimson cranberry sauce that trumpeted "Thanksgiving is here." It was my favorite, even as a little girl. I would patiently wait for the silver serving dish of sliced rounds to reach me, and then I would take two. Or maybe three. Cranberry sauce was only served at Thanksgiving, so I felt justified in second servings.

Now that I'm a grown-up (most of the time), I still favor the cranberry sauce above all else. It is Thanksgiving to me. And this recipe? Oh my word. Cranberry sauce perfection. The ideal blend of sweet-tart. It's easier to make this than to shlunk it out of a can. And so much better.

Zesty Cranberry Sauce

1 12 oz bag fresh cranberries (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons grated orange peel
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine everything in a medium pot and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until cranberries begin to pop, about 8-10 minutes. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Here, Taste This: Nannie's Pumpkin Pie

I'm channeling my inner Peach this week: "Today's the day! The sun is shining! The tank is clean!" Because Thanksgiving is FINALLY here. It's my favorite holiday, probably because it's the least tainted with consumerism. (I know Black Friday is trying to suck the heart out of it; this post says it all. But if you ignore the must-buy-more hype and fix your eyes on your blessings, the Black Friday ghoul can't have you.)

Plus, food is my love language and my main spiritual gift. Cooking a huge meal and then serving it to my favorite people? It's my sweet spot.

Last year I posted my entire Thanksgiving menu on the blog, because it's the perfect symphonic meal. Sweet, salty, tart, sweet, crunchy, creamy. I can't really alter a thing without losing something. If you're looking for the complete package, head there.

But maybe you're just looking for a little something: a killer dish to bring to the in-laws, perhaps, or a fresh take on a classic. In that case, let me highlight my two favorite recipes for you. Some might say these are sides, ancillary dishes to the main deal. But I say these are the true heart-and-soul of Thanksgiving. Without these two dishes tucked away on my table, it isn't Thanksgiving to me.

Today, Nannie's Pumpkin Pie. Tomorrow: well, you'll just have to come back, won't you?

Nannie's Pumpkin Pie

In my opinion, pumpkin pie is more necessary than turkey for a real Thanksgiving. I know some people don't like it, to which I say: What is WRONG with you freaks?

Maybe it's because you don't have my Nannie's recipe for pumpkin pie, which has the perfect blend of sugar and spice. According to family lore, Nannie got the recipe off a Kroger's can of pumpkin in the 1940s, when food was being rationed for the war. It has simple ingredients and it's easy to make and it's practically fool-proof.

15 oz canned pumpkin
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1-1/2 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon dark molasses
1-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix all ingredients well. Bake in an unbaked pie crust at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, and then 350 degrees until set, about another 45 min.

Here, Taste This : Maple-Glazed Butternut Squash with Clementines and Pancetta

I don't know about you, but I often clip recipes or Pin them and then chicken out on the follow-through. As in, I like to think about them and look at the pretty pictures and imagine how wonderful that dish might taste. And then I don't cook it. Because what if it's a horrible flop? What if I waste food? It's easier to stick with the tried-and-true.

Pinterest: Where Inspiration Goes to Die.

But this past week, I was solo parenting, and the kids and I were going to have leftovers, again, and something rose up in my soul and said: I want to make something NEW and GOOD and HEALTHY. And I just happened to have a recipe on my counter I had cut out of Better Homes & Garden last weekend. And I just happened to have all the ingredients already, which an even bigger miracle. So I decided to do hard things and try something new and I got out my butternut squash and went to work. And lo, when I took that first bite, the heavens parted and the angels sang and OH MY WORD it was the best thing I'd eaten in months. I raved and wept and pleaded with my kids to "try this, you have to try it, it's amazing," but they scorned my offering. So I ate half the pan for dinner - that's one pound of butternut squash, for the record - and I groaned with joy the rest of the night.

If that isn't an endorsement, I don't know what is.

Maple-Glazed Butternut Squash with Clementines and Pancetta
Loosely adapted from Better Homes & Garden, November 2013

3 ounces pancetta, chopped
2 tbsp butter
2 pounds butternut squash, cubed into 1-inch cubes
1/2 cup water
3 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup unpeeled, seeded clementines, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1/2 cup orange juice

1. In a high-sided skillet, cook pancetta over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove pancetta to a paper towel to drain.
2. To drippings still in pan, add butter. Once melted, add squash. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until squash just starts to soften, around 2-3 minutes.
3. Add water, maple syrup, and salt to pan. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes, stirring as needed. Add clementines and juice and cook, uncovered, for 4-5 minutes more, until liquid has reduced slightly and both the squash and the orange slices are tender.
4. Transfer to a serving dish or plate up and top with pancetta and cracked black pepper.

1. This recipe marks my first time ever cooking with pancetta. I just happened to have some in my fridge from a gift basket Corey received. And it was amazing. But I imagine you could get the same salty, crunchy flavor kick by using bacon. For the record: 3 ounces of pancetta equaled 3 slices of my package. It was about 1/3 cup of pancetta bits, once cooked.
2. Costco sells peeled, seeded and cubed butternut squash. I love buying it ready to go (and frankly, if I had to peel, seed and chop a squash for this recipe, I probably wouldn't have tried it on a night I was solo parenting). If you can get the squash ready to go like that, I highly recommend it. It's the difference between declaring this recipe easy versus labor intensive.
3. I was skeptical that I didn't need to peel the clementines, but the original recipe promised the thin skins would soften during cooking and become edible. And wouldn't you know, they were right. The skins even added a slight tang of extra orange to the dish.
4. Do I even need to say that you must use real maple syrup for this recipe, and not some maple-flavored corn syrup? No? Good.
5. The smaller your squash, the faster this dish will cook. Mine was slightly too soft. It didn't hurt the flavor at all, but if you're a texture person, you will want to watch that closely.

What I Learned Doing 31 Days

I have to say: I enjoyed not blogging the last few days. Writing 31 Days of Birthdays was both enjoyable and backbreaking. I'm happy I did it; I've wanted to share my birthday party stories for years. And if I'm honest, I'm proud I did it. I told some friends last week it felt like finishing a 5K (or what I imagine it would feel like to finish a 5K): it took discipline, sweat and hard work, and I'm slightly in awe that I made it across the finish line in one piece. It's thrilling just to end upright.

But I will also say: It was tiring. And narrowing. I learned a lot. A few notables for people who might consider joining in The Nester's 31 Days series next time:

1. Pick a topic that excites you.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, I thought about blogging 31 Days of Birthdays for two years before I officially jumped in. Part of that is due to my ENFP I-hate-to-make-decisions, let's-consider-yet-another-option personality. But it's also because I've learned it's wise for me to think deeply before I commit to something so consuming. In my 20s, I had a tendency to commit to everything and finish very little. (Hashtag ENFP.) I don't do that as much now, because I hate-despise-shudder when I can't follow-through. So taking two years to really mull over 31 Days of Birthdays - do I have 31 days of material? do I really want to write about one topic for an entire month? how would I blog daily even while solo parenting four kids? - helped me mentally prepare for the task ahead. That prep time was invaluable to me. It built a foundation of confidence and determination that I needed to persevere.

2. Plan ahead.
I know not everyone is a planner, but I really think this is makes the difference between a good 31 Day series and a great one. Don't pick a topic and then wing it. Don't hope inspiration will strike you afresh every day. Don't just plan a few posts and then assume the rest will come. If you've truly picked a topic you're passionate about, you should be able to sketch out 31 post ideas before October even begins. I like visuals, so I drew up a schedule on a calendar page, so I could better organize and see at a glance what was coming up.

3. Start strong and schedule wisely.
Because I had a topic that excited me and because I planned ahead, I was able to prioritize my favorite posts. I wanted several of them to come that very first week, when the 31 Days link-ups over Nester's place were most active. Good first impression and all that. I also made sure my best posts didn't fall on the weekends, when we all tend to walk away from the computer. If I had a birthday party I really wanted to share, I scheduled it for a time when I know most of us are available and reading.

4. Solicit guest posts to fill in when you know your own calendar will be full.
When I made my 31 Days schedule, I immediately noticed the third week of October was going to be crazy for me. Not only did Connor's birthday come in the middle of the week, but the kids had fall break immediately afterwards and I had already committed to conferences, a field trip and various church activities. So my first task, after writing my introductory post, was to ask several blogging friends if they wanted to write a guest offering. When they graciously agreed, I scheduled them for the week when I knew I'd be most distracted. It was a huge blessing (overused word, but it's the best one in this case) to have those guests posts waiting in the wings when my life was swirling and my mental capacities were taxed.

And then there were the introspective lessons:

5. Defined topics are easier to write about than nebulous ones.
Writing about a defined, concrete topic like birthday parties was incredibly fun for me. A revelation. And easy, oy. So much easier than writing about feelings and thoughts and opinions. Writing 31 Days, I remembered why I enjoyed writing news for a living: facts, facts and more facts with a literary twist. Deadlines are hard and fast. Write, edit, then move on. No time to fuss. No pensive naval-gazing. Just the basic information. And gosh, that style of writing is my sweet spot.

Does it mean I should do more of that, if I primarily blog for fun? Probably. Does it mean I should avoid writing that causes me to struggle and strain and get frustrated because I can't seem to make the words do what I want them to do? Probably not. I think we need both styles of writing in this world: informational and inspirational. My favorite writers do both, in varying degrees. The thing I need to discover is where I fit in that spectrum. (See: the writer's holy grail, aka finding one's voice.)

5. Writing daily for my own blog eats up all my free time.
This might have been the most surprising thing I learned during my 31 Day series. I'm at a stage of life where free time is a precious commodity. I have four kids, I solo parent a lot. The only me time I get is after all my kids are tucked into bed and asleep, which is well after 10:00 most nights. I might then secret away for an hour and read blogs or watch Netflix or listen to a podcast while I fold laundry. But all that becomes luxury if I've committed to write a blog post every day, because that precious hour of free time is eaten up with writing. I was OK with it in October, because I was committed to 31 Days as a discipline. I wanted the focus, I accepted the limitations.

But I missed my other interests, especially reading and commenting on other blogs. I was depressed to have to spend all my time producing content and none consuming it. I missed that I no longer had the space to read what my friends were writing, to hear what they were learning and thinking. I was disheartened that I didn't have the time to reciprocate attention to bloggers who faithfully cheered me along the way. This community, this camaraderie, it's one of my favorite aspects of blogging. I can't enjoy the blogging life and produce content every day, at least not right now, at this stage of life. Which is why I will now return to my normal schedule of posting 2-3 times a week.

You're welcome. And thank you. Truly. Thank you.