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You might think that Shawn McClain would have no time for celebrating Thanksgiving. The 42-year-old chef runs two Chicago restaurants, Spring (precise yet luxurious Asian-inspired seafood) and Green Zebra (hyper-innovative vegetarian dishes that have won over a city of carnivores). And he’s opening Sage at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

Shawn McClain American Thanksgiving

© John Kernick

But despite McClain’s workaholic-chef ways, the happiness of his domestic life—revolving around a wife, a baby girl and a new house—has inspired him to create a Thanksgiving dinner that’s both delicious and easy. I know this because I helped him prepare it, sort of.

When I arrived at McClain’s house in the hip Logan Square neighborhood at 11 a.m., he had not started a single dish and was lazing around the kitchen wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. Which surprised me. We didn’t have forever! And we didn’t have a staff of 20.

But by the time I left, only a few hours later, we’d tackled not only a turkey with herbed gravy, fig-almond stuffing and a pear tarte Tatin, but also hazelnut profiteroles with blue-cheese filling. Profiteroles!

“I don’t like to overdo things. It’s more like, how simple can I make this meal and still have everything fit together?” McClain said.

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First things first: the turkey, which had been brined in water, salt, sugar and spices the night before. “Here, you can mix that up,” McClain said, giving me two sticks of softened butter and some fresh parsley, sage and thyme to chop. He showed me how to loosen the turkey skin by slipping my hand underneath at the neck, and I slathered the herb and butter mixture on the flesh, rubbing some on top of the bird and some in the cavity. Then McClain put the turkey on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. (Don’t use a high-walled roaster, “because then you’re poaching the turkey,” McClain said. “You want it to brown.”) He poured broth in the pan, popped the bird in the oven and that was pretty much it, except for some basting.

All I did, really, was chop. I chopped and chopped and chopped some more—carrots, onion, garlic, celery, fennel seed, herbs. But as I chopped, I got to observe the method behind those madly alluring profiteroles.

McClain toasted some hazelnuts, then removed their skins by rubbing them in a towel. I chopped them by hand until they resembled coarse sand, because he doesn’t have a grinder. He slowly brought butter, milk, sugar, salt and hazelnut liqueur to a simmer in a heavy skillet, then removed the mixture from the heat to mix in flour and some of my hazelnut sand. He stirred until the dough formed a ball, then returned it to the stove.

“You want to cook this until you don’t see the flour granules,” he said, moving the dough ball around the skillet and mashing it, then reforming the ball and rolling it some more. Once the ball became smooth and shiny, he let it cool, then mixed in several eggs. Then McClain gracefully transferred the dough to a pastry bag. “The secret is not cutting the hole in the bag until you’ve filled it,” he said. He squirted half-dollar-size blobs onto a parchment-lined pan. I brushed the tops with egg yolk using my fingers (McClain didn’t have a pastry brush on hand) and sprinkled them with my hazelnut sand.

Shawn McClain American Thanksgiving

© John Kernick

While the profiteroles baked, McClain sautéed onion, carrot, celery and bread cubes in butter for the gravy. He prefers to thicken it with bread cubes instead of flour. “I don’t like too-thick gravy,” he said, “and the bread helps thicken it just enough.” He pressed the vegetables and bread cubes into a sieve; later, he would add the results to the turkey’s deglazed pan drippings to make a beautiful, vivid-tasting gravy.

McClain had several dishes going at once, but he remained cool as he began chopping fresh fennel to mix with figs and all the other ingredients you’d expect in a stuffing—bread cubes, onion, garlic—and also fennel seeds. The fragrant dressing turned out to be prettier than the average stuffing, and not just because McClain doesn’t cook it inside the turkey. Stuffing cooked in the bird is “kind of gross,” he said. “And I like the crispy parts” of stuffing cooked in a baking dish, he added.

McClain checked on the turkey, which smelled wonderful and had taken on the color of sourwood honey. Then he pulled out a batch of profiteroles that had puffed and turned golden brown.

After poking holes in each profiterole to release the steam (“so they don’t collapse,” McClain said), he hand-mixed the filling: heavy cream, blue cheese and one of his favorite secret ingredients, mascarpone, because it adds an element “both sweet and rich.” He uses it at home to finish soups, make salad dressings and prepare seafood and vegetable fillings for pasta.

I began imagining how, next Thanksgiving, I would serve millions of these lovely hazelnut cream puffs; but I also began feeling like I could never make this meal by myself. McClain worked with the ease of someone making a ham sandwich. Would I ever be able to do this on my own, I worried? After all, I was a mere chopper, he a great chef.

But then something happened to restore my confidence: McClain botched his pear tarte Tatin. While he was melting sugar and water to make a red-wine caramel, the sugar crystallized. He started over. Same thing. “This is weird,” he said, not sounding bothered at all. I think he may have flubbed it just to make me realize that no one is perfect all the time.

Shawn McClain American Thanksgiving

© John Kernick

By the time McClain and his family and friends took their places at the holiday table, the food looked so good and the mood was so relaxed that McClain and his brother felt safe enough to joke about the less-elegant recipes at their childhood Thanksgivings.

“I remember the creamed corn,” said Forrest, making a face.

“Cranberries. From a can,” said Shawn, pantomiming a can opener. “And a turkey cooked for 20 hours.”

The turkey today, though, was a movie-star turkey: deeply browned and gorgeous. The whole meal was gorgeous. I took one last look at it, and then I did something miraculous.

I went home and made not just the profiteroles, perfectly, but also the tart. My caramel came off without a hitch, and it was fun swirling the sugar around in the pan until it browned, adding wine, inhaling the scent. The pears took on the wine color in the caramel; I carefully laid the puff pastry, cut into the shape of my cast-iron skillet, on top of them and tucked the pastry around the fruit, as McClain had instructed me. After placing it in the oven, there was nothing to do but watch it turn into the prettiest dessert I’ve ever made, and also the most delicious. It is now my favorite dessert in my repertoire. And I made it all by myself.

Emily Nunn is a writer whose work has appeared in Vogue and The New Yorker. She blogs about cooking at cookwolf.blogspot.com.

Published November 2009
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