Celebrated pastry chef Melissa Weller is a pro at making any holiday celebration feel festive, no matter the location
As Perry Como famously sings, there’s no place like home for the holidays. But with all due respect to the crooner, a strong argument could also be made for being somewhere else. For Melissa Weller, the desire to take a break from her life of perpetual movement inspired her to plan Thanksgiving away this year. As it turns out, the celebrated pastry chef discovered, spending the holidays away from home can also be pretty magical.
Weller clocks in hours on the train each week commuting between her home in New York City and Philadelphia, where she runs the baking program at the Walnut Street Cafe. After traveling in Brittany with her seven year-old son last summer, driving around the region in search of the best Kouign-Amann (the buttery pastry originates from the northwestern French region, and Weller specializes in her own perfectly flaky versions at the cafe—one classic, one filled with chocolate hazelnut) the baker got the idea to return to the country to celebrate the holiday. This time, though, the group—including her son, husband, and sister- and brother-in-law—headed for the Luberon, close to Bonnieux in Provence, and aside from shopping for provisions and some leisurely sightseeing, they stayed put. “It felt refreshing to be away and not to have the pressure of making the gravy and all of the trimmings— not having to perfect anything, but to be away from it all, with our family,” she says.
The group arrived at their temporary home to a welcome feast prepared by its owners before they departed for the rest of the week. There were pre-dinner aperitifs, plus roast pork, pumpkin soup, and a serendipitous coincidence. “When we got there they showed us around the house, and she explained how it had been in her family, her grandfather had owned the house, and he was a baker who had multiple bakeries in the region. They were so charming.”
For Thanksgiving, Weller prepared her own beautiful-yet-simple meal using seasonal ingredients bought at a nearby market. They feasted on goose rillettes, guinea hen, sautéed cabbage, roasted broccoli romanesco, potato gratin with Comté cheese, and for dessert, one of her perfect pies. “It was sort of in the style of a pecan pie, but I used chestnut honey instead of corn syrup and I used the walnuts we got at the market, and we bought some vanilla ice cream to go with it.”
After the idyllic holiday, Weller plans to make the trip an annual tradition. Below, find some of her tips for hosting your own cozy, memorable holiday away from home.
Find the perfect house.
Weller used Airbnb and paid particular attention to the photos. “I looked for a house that had a phenomenal kitchen,” she says. “[The one we chose] had a lot of dutch ovens, and a big, six-burner cooktop range.” Communicate with the host to ask any specific questions about the appliances or gadgets you need, or adopt Weller’s more relaxed attitude. (See below.) “I decided it looked good and I was going to do what I could with what I found.” Lucky for her, though, the house was stocked. There was a Smeg oven, tart pans, antique dishes and linens, and even a walnut cracker.
Research for provisions before you go.
While Weller doesn’t stick to a rigid travel schedule, she does a ton of research before arriving to her destination. The baker mapped out a place to buy organic flour for her tart dough, nice bottles of wine and a market for the rest of the meal’s ingredients. (She learned they would miss the town’s big Saturday market, so found a Tuesday market in the nearby town of Vaison-la-Romaine.) Thought it wasn’t part of the holiday meal, she even found a truffle farm and arranged to go on a hunt. “We bought a truffle and shaver from the farm, and they made their own wine, so we bought a couple bottles. Earlier that day I bought a kilo of pasta, and we had parmesan cheese and butter on the pasta and grated the truffle on top.” Research pays off.
It’s a little easier to prepare a grand meal using complex, precise family recipes when you’re at home, but when you’re cooking in someone else’s kitchen, be prepared to mix up your menu. “You have to be flexible. That was the whole idea. I’m going to have a good meal, but we’re going to be flexible.” Weller says. While spending the better part of the day going through the market, the baker found boudin blanc from a Loire-based butcher, broccoli romanesco, cabbage and chanterelles. “Walnuts were just coming into season, so I got this huge bag of walnuts, and we brought it home and took turns cracking them.” she says. "Whatever looked the best, and the most seasonal, that’s what we got.”
But pack any absolute essential.
Since pie was an essential addition to Weller’s Thanksgiving dinner, the baker brought her own scale to make the pate brisee. “That was the only thing. I thought, I’m not going to bring a whisk, I’m not going to bring my little serrated knife. I’m going to deal with it if the knives aren’t sharp. The knives weren’t sharp, by the way. But it was ok. I just used my scale to make the tart because that’s more of a baking thing that requires precision.”
Keep it simple. (Simple can still be special.)
After spending days driving around the French countryside, either shopping for ingredients or exploring Roman ruins and other sites, Weller wanted to spend the holiday relaxing and cooking in her temporary home. “Usually for Thanksgiving in the States, I go all out,” she says. “I buy turkey legs to make the turkey stock ahead of time to make the special gravy, and I’ll make the cornbread ahead of time. But for this, there was no prepwork ahead of time. It was simple but elegant. It was very freeing.”