Thanksgiving in Italy can be kind of a strange thing. Obviously, it isn’t a holiday celebrated by Italians so I usually end up having to work on the actual Thanksgiving thursday. It’s also weird not being with my family, as I can’t really afford to fly home for Thanksgiving AND Christmas. As an American living abroad, you have two options: either celebrate thanksgiving and go all out or just skip the whole thing and pretend like it never happened.
I personally don’t like missing thanksgiving and I never have, despite living in Italy for the past four years. I just feel like the show must go on — not only for my own sake, but often because of the curious requests by my Italian friends who want to know what all this turkey business is about. It usually ends up being a strange hodgepodge of Italians and stranieri (foreigners) coming together to share their favorite dishes. In otherwords, alongside the stuffing and mashed potatoes, there’s lasagna and a tiramisu. One year we even had homemade hummus and flatbread from Lebanese friend who had joined us for the occassion. That’s beauty of Thanksgiving anyways, isn’t it?
This year is no exception. I will be celebrating Thanksgiving on Saturday night with a few Italian friends, two of my lovely British colleagues, and one other American girl who I thank my lucky stars understands the goodness of a southern macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving.
No it won’t be the same as Thanksgiving in America. Any American residing in Italy knows just how hard it is to track down certain key Thanksgiving staples like a whole turkey bird (you have to special order it one month in advance from the butcher shop), canned pumpkin puree (make it fresh!), or any form of cranberries. You make do with what you’ve got and it all turns out alright.
Indeed celebrating Thanksgiving in Italy has given me a lot to be thankful for and I feel more me – neither American nor Italian but somewhere in the middle – on Thanksigving than ever. I know that I won’t be able to find that instant pudding mix or canned pumpkin and so I’ll have to find another way, which sounds a lot like my life in Italy. Nothing is ever easy – Italians give me a funny look when I ask for peanut butter or black beans or when I don’t knowhow to tell them my height in centimeters. I used to feel embarrassed about it but now I just chuckle and say, sorry but I’m American! And when I go home I cringe when someone pronounces ‘bruschetta’ like “bru-shed-da” instead of “bru-sket-ta” but then again, I used to too. I get it.
My point is that the key to a successful thanksgiving abroad isn’t having all the exact ingredients or tools. It’s the spirit, it’s making it work for you and the people you’re with. Over the years I’ve gathered up a few tips, tricks and not-so-traditional recipes of my own for celebrating a different kind of Thanksgiving in Italy. Here are my favorites.
Celebrating Thanksgiving in Italy
You won’t find any Butterball turkeys for sale in an Italian supermarket, nor will they just magically appear in the butcher shop during the month of November. I recommend going to the macelleria (butcher shop) and special ordering a whole turkey (tacchino intero) a few weeks in advance. Remember that you’ll need to know how many servings of turkey you need in order to request the right weight. A good rule of thumb is about 500 grams of turkey per person.
Servings of Turkey to Kilograms:
4 to 6 servings = 4.5 – 5.5 kg
8 to 10 servings = 5.5 – 7 kg
12 to 16 servings = 7 – 10 kg
Of course if you can’t find a whole turkey or you want to pull off a last minute thanksgiving meal, you could buy a few turkey breasts and make a turkey roll. All you have to do is pound a the turkey breasts about 1/2 inch and place your favorite homemade stuffing mix inside, roll it up and bake it. Obviously, the baking time will be a lot less.
Another option is to buy simple deli turkey meat – no cooking required!
Obviously boxed stuffing isn’t an option in Italy, which is fine because it’s way better homemade anyways and all the ingredients you need are readily available here. The basics are bread, onions, celery and butter but I’ve also added in some chesnuts and pancetta into the mixture seeing as they’re easy to find here. I sometimes also like to add dried cranberries into the stuffing mixture so that I don’t have to bother finding cranberry sauce, which we all know is pretty impossible to come by here.
Although you can find pre-made pie trust in Italian supermarkets. In Italy pie crust is called pasta sfoglia or pasta briseè. Pasta sfoglia is more flaky and works really well for savory pies. Pasta briseè is what we would call a shortbread pastry, and is perfect for pumpkin or apple pie. Of course making your own homemade pie crust is always better and ensures that you get that same buttery flavor that you’re used to. Just make sure that you use manitoba flour, which is the same as all-purpose flour that we use in the U.S. If you can’t find Manitoba flour, tipo 00 flour will work as well, but you may have to make some adjustments since it’s more refined.
If you can’t find canned pumpkin (I found some at a specialty food store in Bologna, but haven’t seen it many other places), you can always make your own. Although it takes a bit more time, I actually prefer it and it’s way more cost effective than buying an imported can of pumpkin purée for 6 euro. I simply buy a whole zucca (butternut squash variety works well), quarter it, roast it in the oven, and purée it after. If you need help, check out my recipe for fresh pumpkin purée. Keep it in the freezer until you’re ready to use it on Thanksgiving day. Any leftovers can be used to make a delicious creamy pumpkin risotto!
Cranberries in Italy? Nope, not gonna find them (or at least I haven’t yet). Instead, what I like to do is incorporate dried cranberries (which I have found in many Italian supermarkets) into my dinner somehow. For example, I like to add them to my stuffing for a little extra zing. Although it’s not the same thing as cranberry sauce, it still gives off that sweet and salty combination.
Another suggestion that I heard about is using ribes or red currant berries instead. Boil them in sugar and water or orange juice until it has reduced and voila! You’ve got “cranberry” sauce.
An update on this: I have discovered that Ikea in Italy sells cranberry sauce and juice. So next time you’re at Ikea, pick up a jar or two to stock up for the big day.
Yams nor the classic North American sweet potatoes are grown in Italy. Nevertheless, Italians do eat sweet potatoes, they just look a little different. Patate dolci are white sweet potatoes that have a little bit of a harder, drier texture. Still they taste delicious and can be used instead of their bright orange North American counterparts. You could also roast butternut squash or make a butternut squash soup.
Give the meal an Italian spin
There are so many wonderful autumn Italian dishes and ingredients, that I like to incorporate them into the meal. One year I made Italian macaroni and chese with provolone, asiago, fontina, and parmesan cheese. I think Italian mushrooms (porcini) or truffles also pair wonderfully with many thanksgiving sides, you could easily add the ingredients like this into potatoes or stuffing. Another Italian dish that i think is AMAZING and works really well for thanksgiving is Fennel with Bechamel Sauce. I made this last year and all my friends loved it. I always buy at least one bottle of good Italian prosecco to toast with and a bottle of enjoying a nice Barbera or Barbaresco from Piedmont which goes really well with the turkey.
Other tips and tricks:
Have a conversion chart handy
Whenever I’m cooking American recipes in Italy, I always have to look up measurment conversions since we use things like cups, tablespoons, and pounds in the U.S., while Italians use grams and kilograms. My favorite conversion site is Traditional Oven. I recommend converting all of your ingredients before you start cooking so that you don’t lose time looking up the conversions while you’re elbows deep in making pie crust.
Learn some Italian Thanksgiving vocabulary before you go shopping
Some words you might want to know:
Thanksgiving = Ringraziamento
whole turkey = un tacchino intero
turkey breast = petto di tacchino
cranberries = mirtilli rossi
pie crust = pasta sfoglia
all-purpose flour = farina Manitoba
sweet potatoes = patate dolci
pumpkin = zucca
mashed potatoes = purè di patate
brown sugar = zucchero di canna
baking soda = bicarbonato di sodio (usually in the cleaning product section in Italian grocery stores)
baking powder = lievito in polvere
cinnamon = canella
and my favorite…
gobbe gobble gobbe!= glu glu glu!
For all my Americans living abroad – how do you celebrate Thanksgiving? I’d love to know what you think. Let me know in the comments below!