Michael and I spent our first few Thanksgivings traveling to Washington D.C. for long holiday weekends. Having lived in and around Washington as a kid, the trips felt somewhat like secret homecomings. Back in the day, we had little money, so we made the trips in my beaten up '77 white Granada. As it's been throughout our years together, the journeys were as important as the destination. The visceral memory of our drives through the Shenandoah Valley on gray mid-November days still dance in my head as reminders of simpler times. Cradled by the monotonous rhythm of the road, houses tucked into sweeping meadows slowly passed by our speeding windows. Even from a distance, with car-stuffed driveways and smoke poofs drifting from their chimneys, the houses looked happy. All those thanksgiving families gathered together in all those passing farm houses. Quiet moving postcards.
Over the river and through the woods.
Family homesteads. Family farms.
After abandoning our boyish follies, Michael and I spent the next thirty years traveling over the river and through the woods to share our family holiday gatherings. Separated by hundreds of miles, our families brought vastly different things to the party. Different styles of turkey. Different sides. Different traditions. Time honored on both ends, they were always warm, comforting, and deeply familiar. We held fast until time slowly took its toll.
Nowadays, there are no more rivers and woods. Embracing the mishmash of our combined Thanksgiving traditions, we found our way home. Michael has to have his stuff and I have to have mine. You know, the non-negotiables. We're one dish away from needing a revolving lazy susan to navigate the sides. Win! And the turkey? No rules. Fair game. Boom.
Cider Brined Lacquered Turkey.
It's coming on Thanksgiving. Pour the bourbon and dress up the turkey.
Even a mild brine plumps a bird with moisture and flavor. Bolstered by the abundance of local apple cider, I got apple happy.
After warming 14 cups Evans Orchard apple cider in a large stock pot over a medium flame, I added 1 1/2 cups Country Rock sorghum, 1 1/2 cups Buffalo Trace bourbon, 6 cups water, 3 tablespoons black peppercorns, 3 bay leaves, 6 whole garlic cloves,, 4 sprigs lemon thyme, and 1 cup kosher salt. When the sugar thoroughly dissolved into the mix, I pulled the brine from the heat and added 6 cups of ice to cool the brine to room temperature.
I lined a clean bucket with a large plastic bag and carefully poured the cooled brine into the bag. After thoroughly rinsing a 12 pound all natural Amish turkey, I plunged it into the brine, placed a plate over the turkey to keep it submerged, tied the plastic bag together, and slid the turkey into the refrigerator to brine for 24 hours.
So, here's the deal. I needed a shallow pan to allow the legs and thighs of the turkey to be exposed to as much circulating heat as possible, so I used a shallow (2" deep) hotel pan. It was deep enough to hold the needed vegetables and liquid, but shallow enough for even heat distribution.
I pulled the turkey from refrigerator, disposed of the brine, rinsed the turkey under cold running water, patted it dry, and set it aside. For an added flavor boost, I combined 2 sticks softened unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon minced fresh sage, 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary, 2 tablespoons chopped thyme, and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley before smearing it over the entire turkey. Using the tips of my fingers to loosen the skin from the flesh, I carefully slathered the remaining herbed butter under the skin of the breasts, thighs, and legs. After stuffing the cavity with sliced apples, onions, rosemary, sage, and thyme, I tied the legs together with kitchen twine.
In lieu of a rack, I placed celery stalks and large unpeeled carrots into the hotel pan and positioned the buttered turkey onto the vegetables before scattering 6 whole garlic cloves, 3 quartered Scott County red candy onions, and 4 peeled Casey County Winesap apples to the side. After adding 2 cups chicken stock, 1 cup apple cider, and 1 cup bourbon to the pan, I slid the turkey into a preheated 350 oven.
To baste or not to baste? I'm a baster. As long as the turkey is cooked to the correct temperature ( internal temp 165 deepest part of the thigh), why not bath the skin with the reduced fatty pan drippings? Basting the turkey roughly every 30 minutes, I covered the breast with aluminum foil after 1 hour to prevent over browning and continued to baste while checking the internal temperature every 45 minutes or so.
I'm a sucker for a glaze.
It's all about balance.
After reducing 2 cups apple cider by half, I added 3/4 cups sorghum, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1/2 cup bourbon, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, and 1/4 cup brown sugar. I lowered the heat and let the glaze bubble away until it was the consistency of...well...sorghum. So, think of it as an amplified boozy apple cider-infused sweet and tart version of sorghum.
When the turkey reached an internal temperature of 155 degrees (about 2 hours), I started painting every inch of the exposed skin and flesh with the molten sticky glaze. When the turkey hit 165 degrees, I blasted to heat to 450 degrees, gave the bird a final slather, and popped it back into the oven to burnish the skin before pulling the turkey from the oven to rest for 30 minutes.
After reducing the strained pan drippings into a highly seasoned jus, I nestled the brushed mahogany lacquered turkey onto fresh greenery, feathered sage, and fresh bay leaves.
Full on savory, the apple cider and sorghum didn't blast the turkey into a candied sugar bomb. The bold double punch of brine and glaze combined to promote succulent, moist, and tender meat. While the bourbon added mellow smoky vanilla undertones, the acidic bolt of the apple cider vinegar tempered the fruity cider and soft bittersweet earthiness of the caramelized sorghum. Perfect.