It’s October and that means hosting my second Thanksgiving is just around the corner. It’s not that I’ll be hosting Thanksgiving, or that I’ll probably have around 20 guests, but that it’s Thanksgiving in Italy for just the second time. The guests I had last year were mostly family and a few friends, all of whom had never had a Thanksgiving meal as “seen on tv.” Last year putting this together was quite a challenge and came with a lot of planning because a lot of what’s on the menu is not commonly found in Italy-at least where I live. Not only does hosting require a lot of planning and prep in a foreign land, but it requires learning some of the language, how to improvise, and how to work with the Italian system of doing things. Above all, I wanted and want to represent my country as best as possible so the pressure is really on. I live in a house full of experienced Italian cooks with crooked eyes on everything that comes out of my oven, so hosting an event centered around food is gutty. But, I’m so doing this!
How to Throw Thanksgiving in Italy-with steps, advice, and guidance
1. Know the cultural system, or learn it quick at least 1 month prior to the big day
What do I mean by this? There are so many things that you’ll have to know, it’s just easier if I make bullet points!
- Plan to not have Thanksgiving on Thursday as nobody has that day off anyway, nor the next day. It will be easier to plan your Thanksgiving day for a Saturday or Sunday because people can actually relax. Remember that Saturday is considered a workday, so plan a day that works out for everyone.
- Remember that Italians eat lunch and dinner at later times, if you are planning a Thanksgiving dinner then be prepared to eat around 8 or 9, which will then extend your whole evening. Eating earlier just wouldn’t be fair to their work schedules.
- You CAN find turkey in Italy, you must order it from the butcher a week prior. Keep in mind that if you throw Thanksgiving for lunch then pick up your turkey the day before, otherwise you may not be able to get your turkey until the store opens at around 8 in the morning! You also need to measure your oven ahead of time, the butcher will ask you that. You could end up with a turkey too big for your oven!
- Remember that vegetables are seasonal in Italy, so learn which vegetables you will have and will not have in November. Do not plan recipes out without knowing the reality of what you will have available to you.
- Make sure that you save the sweet potato casserole as a dessert, and not as a main dish. Italians will think you’re funny otherwise.
- Explain to family members ahead of time that this is a special occasion with TRADITIONS i.e. tell your aunts to not bring pasta dishes or any food whatsoever, but they can come over early to help if they wish.
- TRADITIONS hold, if the man of the house cut the turkey where you grew up then let your man of the house cut the turkey. Again, hold back the aunts and mother-in-laws and explain to them the honor that goes into cutting your glorious bird.
2. How to make by without any canned or store bought food
When I first moved to Italy I didn’t know that I could make all of the canned stuff myself such as fried onions, pumpkin purée, cranberry sauce and such. You can make everything you need for Thanksgiving from scratch that you would usually find at Walmart or some other supermarket. You can make stuff ahead of time, can it or freeze it, and have it ready to go. If this seems like way to much for you then there are other resources.
- Resource 1: If you have access to an American military base, or have a friend who has access, then you can buy all of your goods there at the commissary ahead of time.
- Resource 2: Anytime you go to big cities like Rome make sure to go to an international store and stock up
- Resource 3: You can buy some food items from the UK on sites like amazon.co.uk
- Resource 4: Next time you go home you can always pack your suitcase full of stuff you think you’ll need
- Resource 5: Just do without, improvise, or cook side dishes with common Italian produce like artichokes, peppers, eggplants, or zucchini.
The most important thing you need to be prepared for is that all the time consuming hard stuff will not be pre-packaged for you. Yes, you actually have to cook here. That means gravy from scratch, pumpkin purée from scratch, chopped nuts (unless you want to pay an arm and a leg for a normal size bag of unshelled nuts), frosting that’s American style, marshmallows, cornbread, brown sugar etc. If you don’t want to deal with going all over the place to buy these things then stay calm because at least you know you can make them. If you don’t know how, don’t worry because I didn’t either, but I’ll show you how to make this stuff from scratch!
3. What foods will I most likely not find in Italy?
You will most likely not find these food items available in Italy:
pecans, cranberries, pumpkin purée, pre-formed pie shells, marshmallows of good quality that look normal, crazins, sweet potatoes that are orange on the inside (their sweet potatoes are actually white on the inside and are not at all the same as the American yams which will not work with sweet-potato casserole), American style graham crackers, fresh corn, boxed cornbread, molasses, cane syrup, brown sugar (packed brown sugar, not cane sugar), pumpkin spice, salad dressings, blueberries, and a lot of times bacon.
If you find these then go you, otherwise just chill, don’t freak out, I’ll show you how to improvise!
4. How to make common store bought things from scratch
Here I will show you how to make some vital Thanksgiving foods from scratch
- Pumpkin purée to use for pumpkin pie and all pumpkin desserts
Take any medium-large pumpkin and wash it. Do not pick out small pumpkins to cook, I’ve been told not to eat those here, they’re apparently for decor only. Once washed cut the pumpkin into quarters and remove seeds.
Salt the flesh of the pumpkin with rock salt and place the pumpkin flesh side down onto an oven tray. Cook the pumpkin at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.
Pumpkin will be cooked when you place a fork through the flesh and it is soft. Let the cooked pumpkin sit for a few minutes to cool off then take an ice cream scoop and scoop out the flesh. Put all of the flesh into a blender and blend at full speed until you get a purée. You should only need to blend the pumpkin for about 15 seconds.
Once you have your purée you can either freeze it, can it, or use it right away. It can sit in the fridge for about 3 days. One medium sized pumpkin makes about 4 cups of purée. A large pumpkin yields about 9 cups.
- “French’s” Fried onions for green bean casserole
To make home-made fried onions to top your green bean casserole you just need onions! Use any onions you like, slice them up very very thinly, coat them with flour only, and shallow fry them until golden brown. You can then put them on paper to soak the extra oil, and put them in a container for the next day. They will become crispy again when you put the casserole in the oven. They taste so much better when you make them because you can use a mix of onions like yellow, red, and white!
- Marshmallows for sweet potato casserole
To make marshmallows from scratch you will need gelatin packets (gelatina), corn syrup (sciroppo di mais), confectioner’s sugar (zucchero a velo), and some other basic ingredients. Follow this link to find the recipe from Barefoot Contessa.
- Brown sugar needed for most baked holiday sweets and sweetbreads
Brown sugar that is compact and fine is so easy to create. Add a tablespoon of molasses to 1 cup of regular granulated sugar and that gives you brown sugar! You can keep adding molasses until you get the color you want. You may be able find brown sugar in various stores around Italy, but my experience is that it’s very hard to come by. I usually buy my molasses in the US and bring it with me every time I come back from vacation, but you may be able to find this in Italy also. If so, it would be called “sciroppo di melassa.” After you make this sugar, put it into a container and it can stay in there forever. If you don’t want to keep it all then put a cup of it in a bag with a chocolate chip cookies recipe attached and give it out to your Italian friends, they would love that!
- Cornbread used as a side or to make a stuffing
To make cornbread you just need to buy cornmeal, as called in Italy “farina di mais.” Don’t worry, it looks like cornmeal and is very easy to recognize. You can find a recipe for homemade cornbread by following this link.
Instead of using sweet potatoes for a sweet potato casserole try mixing pumpkin and carrots for the filling instead. For graham crackers, there are several Italian cookies that are similar at the stores that you can use, just take a look. All salad dressings can be made at home, just choose the one you want and find a recipe for it online! You can use pancetta instead of bacon, “speck” or “cubetti” for small chunks of bacon. Almonds can be substituted for pecans, they are similar enough in flavor. I’ve never seen a pre-made frozen pie crust ready to go, but you can buy pie dough and re-shape it to fit into your pie mold. Pie crust is called “pasta brisè.”
Other useful tips for the cook
When I first moved to Italy I was extremely challenged in the kitchen because so many basic things were hard to find. Common items like heavy cream were in unexpected places in the stores with unique names. Making chocolate chip cookies were a continuous fail for about 6 months until I finally found the right name for baking soda and baking powder! Not only is the food a challenge in itself but there is the different measurement system as well. So, to facilitate this process for everyone else, I’ve collected a little list of common things you may be searching for in Italian.
Baking powder (with vanilla flavoring)
Instant pudding mix
Cream of asparagus (you can buy cream of anything in packets like these, you just mix the powder with some water or milk to get the same thing as Campbell’s Cream of asparagus)
Sweetened condensed milk
Another useful tip is to download a measurement application on your iphone if you have one. I use Converter+ as well as Italian-English Dictionary+ for language translation.
I hope you found this post helpful, it would have definitely helped me last year when I did my very first Thanksgiving in Italy! I will be writing another post to document my Thanksgiving here next month with more helpful information to come. Last but not least, make sure to practice all your recipes and test out your oven