Your Thanksgiving is going to be a little different this year (unless you’re still doing a big gathering with the whole family, in which case please reconsider). Maybe you’ll take it as an opportunity to challenge just who and what this holiday upholds, but maybe you also want to eat some stuffing and cranberry sauce that, in normal times, would be prepared for you by your family as you watch movies on the couch with your cousins. This year, though, you’re going to have to create it for yourself.
The good news for the less culinary-skilled among us is that store-bought mixes and ingredients can do a lot of heavy lifting for your Thanksgiving dinner. The bad news is that a dinner of instant mashed potatoes and canned creamed corn made exactly the way it says on the label may leave something to be desired. So how would an expert elevate these dishes to make them feel a little fancier? Chef Sohla El-Waylly, formerly of the Bon Appétit test kitchen, says she grew up on stuff like boxed stuffing and instant mashed potatoes, but she “never followed the instructions on the box.” Instead, she added other common household ingredients to make the instant stuff extra special.
Today, November 19 at 5 p.m. EST, El-Waylly, who now has her own show — Stump Sohla — on Binging With Babish, will be doing a livestream with Andrew Rea, showing viewers how to cook a Thanksgiving meal with everyday ingredients. But she took some time to walk us through how to take store-bought Thanksgiving staples and make them feel homemade. The main takeaway? Buy yourself some nice butter and you can fancify just about anything.
Canned cranberry sauce
First, El-Waylly implores you to get the canned sauce that’s more of a compote. The jelly that comes out shaped like the can is delicious, but you can’t really mix anything into it. “You could slice it and then cut out the slices with cookie cutters,” says El-Waylly, which does sound pretty cool, but with the compote there are more options to add your own flavors. “Stirring in a little fresh lemon juice, pinch of salt, some lemon zest, even a little bit of grated ginger, that’ll really waken it up a little bit,” she said. “And I feel like no one will even know that you didn’t make it.”
One of the recipes El-Waylly will be making on YouTube, Elote Spoonbread, calls for frozen corn, but you can use canned corn as well. “Whenever you’re using packaged things, frozen things, canned things, the best way to liven it up and make it feel like it’s fresh is by adding fresh herbs and fresh citrus,” says El-Waylly, who suggests adding lime juice and chopped cilantro to drained canned corn. If you’re working with a can of creamed corn, El-Waylly recommends grating in a clove of raw garlic, then adding a pat of butter and some chives. “Canned creamed corn has a tendency to get a little bit too sweet, so I think balancing it out with some savory things like garlic and chives would really make it feel new and fresh.”
“I love Stove Top stuffing. I think there’s nothing wrong with it,” says El-Waylly. It already comes well-seasoned, so you could just serve it as directed and everyone would be happy. But while the box usually says to mix with water, El-Waylly says it becomes even better when you substitute milk for water, and then you add whatever other vegetables you might have lying around. “My mom would always use a bag of frozen vegetables and then mix that with the stuffing and milk. And it really feels like something special.”
Instant mashed potatoes
Again, using milk and butter instead of the recommended water and margarine will completely elevate some potato flakes. El-Waylly suggests lightly toasting the dry flakes in a pan over medium heat to get rid of any prepackaged smell that might cling to them. “You’re going to barely toast it. You’re not going to get any color on it,” she said. “We’re just kind of having it have some direct contact with heat, and it gets rid of that stale box aroma.” Then, go to town with the dairy, and you can always add your own spices.
A packet of powdered gravy “is mostly seasonings and starches,” so it’ll have a lot of flavor to begin with. But once again, butter and fresh herbs will make it taste a little more homemade. “I think a little bit of parsley would be great in there, maybe a little tarragon. Fresh cracked black pepper makes a big difference,” says El-Waylly.
Pre-made pumpkin pie
There is truly no reason to bake your own pie when the grocery store has a bunch of perfectly good ones sitting right there. But by the time you take them home, the crust may have gotten a bit soggy. El-Waylly says to pop the pie out of the pan, put it on a wire rack, and throw it in an oven set to 375F for 5 to 15 minutes, until the crust is crisped but the custard hasn’t started cooking. Then, top it with homemade whipped cream. “None of the Cool Whip or the Reddi-wip!” she says. Instead, whip heavy cream, “add a spoonful of sugar, a splash of vanilla, and then that pie is going to feel really special.”
Mulling a jug of apple cider is a pretty hands-off process, with delicious results. Just put the cider in a crock pot or over low heat on the stove, and add in whatever warm spices you want — cinnamon, cloves, vanilla. El-Waylly says she likes to add cardamom to her cider, and then serve it with a lemon wedge. Throw in some booze, if that’s your style, and enjoy the holidays with your impressive — and easy — store-bought Thanksgiving dinner.