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Thanksgiving food traditions connect families across generations

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KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanksgiving is a time for gathering, with friends, with family, however you define family. It's a time for gratitude and it's a time for cooking, baking and enjoying good food. But I don't want to talk about turkey. In my opinion, Thanksgiving turkey is overrated. Today we're talking about sides, desserts, and something in-between. We're talking about recipes passed down from grandmothers, from mothers, and even between sisters. We have a story about a unique family tradition, a cultural spin on a Thanksgiving dessert, and the importance of the revered mac and cheese in Black households. In fact, let's start with the mac and cheese. Here's Earth Eats producer Daniella Richardson.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  The mac and cheese on any occasion, in any Black household, is a source of tension. One wrong seasoning shake, and you can easily find yourself uninvited from the the cookout. Thanksgiving is no exception of this rule. I became the mac and cheese master of my family in 2017. My mom had surgery just days before Thanksgiving, and was in no condition to prepare a feast. But me? I was 14, overconfident, and had some time on my hands. I took it upon myself to make Thanksgiving dinner happen that year, and everything felt straightforward. Okay, almost everything. The mac and cheese was the one thing that I couldn't risk. Just because my mom couldn't hold the spoon didn't mean she couldn't hold my hand. That day, I learned the basic construction of a roux, the importance of home grated cheese versus store-bought and, most of all, the patience required to make such an important dish.

 And a side note, before we really get into it: this is something already understood by me from birth, but just in case you didn't know, breadcrumbs are not required. This year, I thought it would be fun to sit down with my sisters Katelyn and Elizabeth, to walk Katelyn through cooking the mac and cheese and talk with them both about what Thanksgiving and food in general means to our family.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  You don't want it to be floury, remember.


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  It's okay. We measure with the heart here in the Richardson household.


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  It's going to taste yummy delicious. You know why? Because it was made by sisters' love.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  I hope sisters' love make it taste not grainy.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Yes, it can do that too.


KATELYN RICHARDSON:  Our next ingredient, which is... all-purpose flour.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Do you remember the first year when mom made this for Christmas?


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Catherine Anne came over and we played Just Dance, and she was obsessed with the mac and cheese.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  For Thanksgiving it was delicious every time.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  You say you don't remember?


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  It was our first Christmas without Daddy.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  I don't remember that. I think I've, you know, blocked out some things, you know?

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Alright, we've got the water boiling for the macaroni, then my sister Katelyn started melting the butter in a pan.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Okay, so what does food mean to our family?

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  Oh, food means, you know, happiness, togetherness. That's how I associate it with. I know I feel a lot happier when I eat. Proud. A sense of pride if it's homemade, which I think anyone feels when they make good homemade food. How do you feel?

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  It's a great gathering point for our family. Something, like, simple, you know, like a meal. Sit down and enjoy each other's company.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  We didn't brown the butter.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  She's messing up my mac and cheese right now.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  No, it is not messed up. This is a learning experience. I'm going to keep stirring and stirring.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  When the pasta finished boiling, we set it aside and began our bechamel sauce. Bechamel is a French sauce made of white roux and milk. For those unaware, like I was, a roux is a combination of fat - which in our case is butter - and flour. We melted the butter down fully and then slowly added the flour while whisking. One time - it was actually not one time, it was last year - I was making the mac and cheese and, as I previously stated I lackpatience, and I added way too much flour all at once, and it looked like pancake batter. My mom had to come in, actually, and save the day for that one.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  Yep. It was crazy, dude.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Now that the roux has been made, we begin adding in the seasonings and cheese. For seasoning we add garlic powder, salt, onion powder, paprika, black pepper, a pinch of cayenne and the absolutely needed nutmeg.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  We're taught by our mother and it was passed down from hers, to add a pinch of nutmeg and I know that may be weird, but it actually is delicious if you try it. It adds like a certain spice to it. It just elevates the sauce of the mac and cheese. It's so good. Especially once it's all baked in and it settles. You guys need to try it. It's so good.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Again, we will be measuring with the heart, so it is entirely up to preference just how much you add. For the cheese, you want it to be freshly grated because, in my opinion, it just makes it better. My family does sharp and mild Cheddar, as well as Gouda. And now we bring in Elizabeth, who's a special person in the Richardson household, because Elizabeth doesn't eat cheese and she doesn't like it, and although she's never tasted it, I asked her to comment on our family mac and cheese and just tell me what she thinks about the process.

ELIZABETH RICHARDSON:  Well, I think that because you care about mac and cheese, that makes it extra important and it always looks good from afar. I just can't get over it. The taste of cheese just kind of makes me, like, blah, you know? But you always make it look good, especially when you're eating it and when you're cooking it, it just looks like you put a lot of time and effort into it. You all look like you really care about it.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Thanksgiving is a great time to get together and express our passion for food. Of course there's other times of the year where we put in a lot of effort to make food and stuff, but I would say that this time of year, we really like to show out and express with the different seasonings and different sides and everything, and the food only gets better. A lot of people are like, "Oh I hate the leftovers and stuff," but we put a lot of time and effort into our food, so it only gets better as the days go on, and we have a lot of fun. We sit together, we watch movies that we always watch every single year and it never goes wrong.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Now, since you can't eat the mac and cheese, obviously, for your own personal and understandable reasons, what is your favorite Thanksgiving side dish?

ELIZABETH RICHARDSON:  So, mine is dressing. Some people call it stuffing. It will forever be my favorite. There have been several years where I help make the dressing, because I love it so much. I could literally just eat it. That could be the whole meal for me. It's just really good.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Now that the sauce is all finished, we're going to pour it over the pasta, mix it up really well and place it in the oven at 375 degrees for about 25 or so minutes, or until golden brown on top. When it's finished, I like to sprinkle parsley on top, because parsley makes literally everything better.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  You was about to record me pouring milk.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Yes I am. It's called ambience. Now continue.


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Just shut up. Continue talking about familyand gatherings and the food please.

ELIZABETH RICHARDSON:  Okay. Well, I would say, out of anything, some people express love with gifts. We're very expressive with our food. If there's a bad day going on, we'll make some food that's just really good. Our mom literally makes food out of nothing and it ends up being the best food ever. So, I would say it means that togetherness, and emotional connection for us, in the way that we really show. Like, "Hey, I may not be able to say it in words but here's some food. Let's just sit down and eat, and maybe we can start laughing together."

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Unfortunately, since our 2017 Thanksgiving, my mom has suffered a stroke. While speech is difficult for her, she still managed to share her opinion with me of my work.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  When I cooked Thanksgiving dinner that one year, what did you think?

DANIELLA'S MOM:  Oh, it was a loving thing. I liked it. You were perfect.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  What did you think of my mac and cheese?

DANIELLA'S MOM:  Good. Very good.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  How did it feel teaching me how to make it?

DANIELLA'S MOM:  I don't remember, but I remember the picture, the whole thing, so I know it was perfect. No problem.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Did you have fun?

DANIELLA'S MOM:  Yes, because you did it.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  What's your favorite part about Thanksgiving?

DANIELLA'S MOM:  Together.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  Being together with family?

DANIELLA'S MOM:  Yes. You're very good at your work. You're very good.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Thank you. I love you.

DANIELLA'S MOM:  I love you too.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Happy Thanksgiving.

DANIELLA'S MOM:  It's not...

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  It's for a Thanksgiving episode.

DANIELLA'S MOM:  Oh, sorry. Turkey!

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving. Can you say the rhyme that our dad always said?

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  I don't know that.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Gobble, gobble, gobble.


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  I'm the interviewer!

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  Okay. Gobble, gobble, gobble. I don't like Thanksgiving Day. Gobble, gobble, gobble, because I know I shall be eaten soon.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  No, you need to land on the "eaten".


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  He says "eaten." And I shall be "eaten" soon.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  And I shall be "eaten" soon.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Okay. Now you're just being vindictive.

KATELYN RICHARDSON:  You said it like that!

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Gobble, gobble, gobble. I don't like Thanksgiving Day. Gobble, gobble, gobble. Because I know I shall be eaten soon.



KATELYN RICHARDSON:  I enjoy being with my family. I love them dearly. Despite everything, it's always good to have your loved ones around you, no matter what, and I hope I have them for many years more, Lord willing. Thank you guys. Goodbye.


KATELYN RICHARDSON:  You see why I play? Because you're judgy, right?

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Alright. This has been Katelyn Richardson and Daniella Richardson, cooking in the kitchen with mac and cheese. Thank you. Signing off.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That was producer Daniella Richardson in her family's kitchen in Carmel, Indiana. After a short break, we'll hear from another set of sisters in California, talking about a unique Thanksgiving recipe in their family and the special bowl it simply must be served in. Stay with us.

TRISHA LAGUE:  Apple cake is a very family-specific recipe. Apple cake was more of, like, a dessert that blends with your turkey, with your mashed potatoes, all the traditional Thanksgiving fixings. It just complements everything.

TIPHANIE WHITE-LAGUE:  What a beautiful addition to a holiday meal.

TRISHA LAGUE:  It's a layering.

KRISTINA LAGUE:  You would get apple cake with the main meal.

TRISHA LAGUE:  It's not overly sweet.

TIPHANIE WHITE-LAGUE:  It's delicious and we have to have it every year.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I heard about this recipe from a childhood friend of mind, Trisha LaGue. Everyone in her family has fond memories of apple cake, served by Gramma Jones every Thanksgiving in a special blue bowl.

KRISTINA LAGUE:  Apple cake bowl has been around our family for decades. My Gramma Jones had made apple cake in this bowl every year.

TRISHA LAGUE:  The bowl is kind of a sea foam blue. It's melamine. Not very big and kind of has a little bit of an oval shape on the top. It's round, but has a unique shape to it. It's cut at an angle and sort of deep. The material's just unique - it's a thin kind of plastic. You're not going to go find that at a store. And when that blue bowl came out on the table it was just, like, "Oh, there's the apple cake" and you knew, you know, Thanksgiving had arrived.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The bowl and the apple cake are intimately tied memories of Gramma Jones. I asked Trisha to tell me a little bit about her.

TRISHA LAGUE:  Oh my goodness! Well, we lovingly referred to her as Gram, everyone in the family. It might make me cry a little bit. She was a very amazing woman. Just very gracious to everybody. Very neat and orderly. That was kind of her thing. Did everything in moderation, and she was just really good to learn from. There was just a lot to learn from Gramma. She was always reading; she liked to have her one little glass of wine at night; when she had dessert it was a teeny tiny scoop of ice cream, with maybe just a little smidge of chocolate sauce on top. So, everything in moderation and that's how she lived her life. And so, she was a really good role model in a lot of ways. Hard-working. She was an RN. She was a veteran from the army. Graduated from Stamford. She was very much in charge of everything that she did in her life, and she even made sure that she was in control of her last days.

 She had a a heart condition and made a decision that she wasn't going to be anybody's burden. She didn't want to take medication and she told the family, "Come and see me. I'm done." It was really difficult, but we all went and had our time with her and she told us, "Goodbye," and she passed the day that her youngest son left after seeing her. She'd seen everybody and she passed in her sleep that night. Yes, it's a really amazing way to live your life and to go out. She was 97 - I don't know if I mentioned that. She probably could have gone a few more years, but she was done, and she'd made a decision that she was done. So, her apple cake recipe will live on.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And the bowl it was served in lives on, too. It ended up in the hands of one of her daughters, Kristina and Trisha's Aunt Kristi. Anytime Kristina made apple cake for Thanksgiving, she mentioned the special bowl to her wife Tiphanie.

TIPHANIE WHITE-LAGUE:  Kristina has been going on and on about this apple cake tradition and I joined the family about six years ago and I didn't realize that the apple cake was served in a particular bowl. So, she was mentioning how special the bowl was and how, you know, obviously Gramma Jones had passed on. It was her bowl and it was in the family; one of the ladies in the family had it. Wasn't sure exactly where it was, but I knew that Trisha, my sister-in-law, would be able to locate this bowl, and I just wanted to see if I could get as close as I could to the bowl - I didn't think that I would be able to find the same exact bowl - and I just kind of wanted her to have something special to remind her of her Gramma.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Here's Trisha on what happened next.

TRISHA LAGUE:  So, Tiphanie texted me privately and said, "Hey, do you have a picture of Gramma's blue apple cake bowl, because I'd really like to try to find something similar for Kristina for Christmas." And I said, "Well, I don't have a picture, but I do know who owns the bowl." So, I got in touch with my Aunt Kristi, which would be my Gramma's daughter, and asked her to send a picture of it, and in the process of that, she noticed that there was actually a label on the bowl, so, she got online and found the exact replica of that bowl - and there were two. She found them on Etsy - it was in at some vintage antique store on the east coast - and I immediately ordered it for my sister, on behalf of Tiphanie. She originally wanted to give it to her for Christmas, but it so happened that the bowl arrived the day before her birthday. So, I texted Tiphanie and told her, "Hey, the bowl has arrived," and she said, "Oh my gosh! I'll just give it to her for her birthday."

KAYTE YOUNG:  And here is Kristina, the recipient of the apple cake bowl replica.

KRISTINA LAGUE:  We would make the apple cake in different bowls each year and we always made it. We always had it at the dinner table, but it was never quite the same. I'm not big on my birthday. I'm always like, "Don't get me anything. Don't do anything." I just want to go out to dinner - that's my favorite thing. So, my wife surprised me, and found the exact replica of the apple cake bowl that belonged to Gramma Jones. She asked my sister for help, and my aunt, who has the actual bowl, did some researching and found the exact replica, which was a vintage piece from the 1970s, I believe, maybe the 1960s. I opened it; it was full of, like, packing peanuts, so, at first I just was looking at the packing peanuts and I didn't really see the bowl. So, I was thinking there was something hidden underneath the peanuts, and then when I pulled it out, I noticed it was the bowl. It's so unique and one of a kind that it couldn't have been anything else, other than the bowl.

 And then I thought she had somehow gotten the bowl that has been in the family, that my aunt owned, so, that was confusing for a minute. Like, "How did Aunt Kristi give you this very special bowl?!" I knew she wouldn't have parted with it. So, then I just turned and said, "Oh, did you get this from Aunt Kristi?" and then Trisha and Tiphanie told me the story.

TRISHA LAGUE:  And I got to witness that and my sister cried and it was just, it was really cool. A cool gift idea, a cool experience and now we have another of the same bowl in circulation in the family.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, that's the story of the apple cake recipe and the special bowl that Gramma Jones always served it in on Thanksgiving Day.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Having never tasted apple cake myself, I felt compelled to try it, so I could report back for the show. I followed Trisha's instructions and peeled, cored and finely chopped some Granny Smith apples. Next I pulverized saltine crackers in the food processor. Finally, I whipped cream and added a bit of sugar and vanilla. Then I selected a bowl. Not the bowl, obviously. And I started the layering. A layer of apples, a layer of crackers, a layer of whipped cream and repeat. I think I made my whipped cream layer too thick. Either that, or my bowl was too shallow. I didn't have enough room for more than two sets of the layers. Trisha said they should be very thin - I'll remember that for next time. I ended with whipped cream, covered it and moved it to the fridge for two days.

 When I pulled it out for a sample, it appeared unchanged. I dug my spoon down through the layers and gave it a taste. The apples had sweetened and softened, though they still had a bit of a bite. The crackers were not recognizable and the whipped cream was still fluffy and delicious. Overall, it was light and not overly sweet. I'd say that apple cake is more than the sum of its parts. I liked it. I could see how it would fit well on the Thanksgiving table and I understood how it became a tradition in Trisha's family. Especially with that sea foam blue melamine bowl that Gramma Jones had.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's not just that it's a family tradition, you actually like the dish.

TRISHA LAGUE:  Love, love the dish, absolutely. And anyone in my family would tell you that it's a big deal. I come from a big family - I'm the oldest of six kids. We all have children. My parents now have 23 grandchildren, so my Gramma started that. It's a big family and we all know what apple cake is. We all aspire to make it, we have a few that do, and everyone looks forward to it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The family heirloom, Gramma Jones' apple cake bowl, is nothing fancy. It's not made of fine china or hand-cut crystal. The blue plastic bowl is made precious by the memories it holds. Family traditions give meaning to our everyday lives and build connections as we gather for special occasions. They help to hold us together in the face of other forces that threaten to tear us apart.

KAYTE YOUNG:  After a short break, producer Daniella Richardson talks with a mother and daughter about their Thanksgiving dessert tradition. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Next up, we have a story about a family with an unexpected Thanksgiving dessert. Here's producer Daniella Richardson.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Not every family that celebrates Thanksgiving has a traditional American dessert. Pies and cakes are amazing, but find yourself in the right household and sometimes you get a special blending of cultures that redefine the expectations for this holiday. I learned this first-hand by going to my best friend's house the day after Thanksgiving. We had just finished some of the turkey leftovers when her mom Vanessa asked me if I would like some dessert. Now, I have a self-proclaimed sweet tooth, so I would never say no to dessert, but while I expected maybe a pumpkin pie or even sweet potato, which is my favorite, she pulled out a beautiful brown and fluffy flan. For those of you who don't know, flan is a classic Latin dessert made of a caramel topping with a sweet custard base. Its roots of creation trace all the way back to Rome, Italy, but for Vanessa, her earliest memories of flan find their way back to sunny and bright Puerto Rican holidays and stained aprons in the kitchen with her mother.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  My most memorable Thanksgiving? I cannot tell you which one, to be honest with you, because they were so good, because all my family was there, so it was just always good to see everybody.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  With Vanessa, food has always been an essential part of her life.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  I believe I started cooking around ten, eleven. It's a big tradition in families, so you learn from looking and observing other people doing it. But it was kind of a requirement for you - you have to learn how to cook. I really enjoy cooking for other people and just showing my culture by cooking. Here, where people are just going buy stuff or eat fast food, I think when they see me cooking and understand the work that goes into it and how much time it takes to make stuff from scratch, they just appreciate that. So, I really enjoy doing that.

 I think a part of cooking in Puerto Rico is also using the resources that are available to you, rather than just going and buy something and then prepare it. I think that's a big difference as well. We have quite a lot of roots that we eat, you know, like the [INAUDIBLE] potatoes, but their glycemic index is lower, so it doesn't spike your sugar as much as a potato. I think that just using the things that, you know, Mother Nature provides in ways of, like, eating fresher.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico is done differently. From the dishes they prepare to the time spent in the kitchen, Vanessa immediately noticed the small details that shifted when she moved to America.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Do you guys celebrate Thanksgiving in Puerto Rico?

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  Oh yes, it's a big holiday. It's a big tradition to spend time with your family and just be thankful for all the things that you have. Your family having to work. So, we're always thankful. I remember last time that I was in Puerto Rico for Thanksgiving, I got up at 6 AM, because you have to put the turkey in the oven. We also make pernil, which is roast pork, and we do arroz con gandules, which is like yellow rice with pigeon peas, and it's a whole day. First, you have to prepare the day before, or two days before. Well, let's just talk about buying the turkey at the supermarket and they are tall, right? Which I don't know if you guys do that in here, too, but the preparation and the seasoning of the turkey is a whole process, too. We do everything from scratch.

 Then you kind of marinade the turkey for, like, one day or two days and then put in the oven, because it has to be cooked slowly. The first, I think, traditional turkey dinner I had probably was after I got divorced, because I didn't want to make, like, a whole meal just for me, Vaneli, and Alex, because I really just don't have any family members or friends. So, I bought one of those ready meals at Kroger.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Oh yes, they do the Thanksgiving thing, don't they? Yes.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  Yes, it was not memorable! But it's okay. There is a lot of things that I just do not understand and I think that American Thanksgiving is kind of on the go, so to speak. Like, people don't put too much time into actually making the dishes. Like, for example, the first time that tasted green beans casserole, I mean, that's just green beans with a soup on top and then you put some crunch and stuff. I mean, what? That doesn't take any time to get ready. I can see some parallels between the traditions in Puerto Rico and here on the mainland. They gather and it's a time to be thankful for things.

 I'm going to say I have never been to a big family turkey dinner because I really don't have a lot of friends. We went to one, but they're from Cuba, so they didn't have a lot of family members either there, so it was a small gathering. They put some emphasis on getting together and having the dishes ready, but definitely I don't think that it's the same intensity as in Puerto Rico.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Cooking has always been a part of Vanessa's life. Her favorite recipes are passed down from generation to generation.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  I pick up a lot from mama, from my grandmother on my mom's side. I did improve a little bit of stuff like adding my little flavor or my little twist to things. But for the most part, you kind of follow or use the same ingredients as your family have used in the past. We don't measure anything; we just put it in the pot and just cook. Also, I think my mom was a big advocate of you spending time on things that are going to make you better. She didn't have a lot of money, a lot of education, so that was also a way of helping us to be successful. Like, okay, you don't have to spend time doing this, and I can help you with this. But that's also part of the society that we used to live, right?Patriarchal society where moms, that's what they do - they cook and they clean and they take care of kids, and the dad just works and is the big man in the house. So, she followed that model, you know, until my dad died.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Flan has always been on the table at her family functions and it is a crowd favorite.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  Yes. Flan is a big part of the food in Puerto Rican, to the point we have created, like, different versions, different flavors. The original one is just vanilla. It tastes creamy, with vanilla. Then the second most popular one, you add cream cheese to it, so it's kind of like a cheesecake and a flan. And then we have, like, coquito, which is with coconut - some people put rum on it, just for the flavor. Pistachio. I mean, you name it. But my favorite one is the one, the vanilla and cheese.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  It's a dessert with a simple ingredient list, but it does take a lot of patience.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  It's a very intricate process and I think that one of the most difficult parts is just not to overcook the flan. So, for that you have to do a water bath or a maria bath. I don't know why maria, but never ask. So, you know, basically you have a big container of water on the bottom and then you put the container or the mold with the flan on top of that water. So, basically, the flan is getting cooked with the vapor of the water that is getting evaporated. So, it is not an exact science, pretty much. You kind of have to eyeball it and look at the bubbles on the top, make sure there is not too many bubbles, because that means that it's just getting too dry.

 One of my probably bad memories about making flan is, one time I decided to use Pyrex to put the hot water and when I took it out and put it on the cold surface of the counter, it shattered, so that all the water, which was hot, of course, like, got on my feet. I didn't get burned, seriously injured or anything, but I remember that was just a shock. You know, like, oh my God!

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Oh my God! Yes. Because what do you do with that?

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  Yes, nevertheless, I don't think I have to tell you that I had to throw the flan away because, I couldn't tell if there was glass inside. So, the whole process was just a waste of time!

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Vanessa recently had knee surgery, so cooking is a bit difficult. However, she continues to pass the generational torch and will have her daughter Vaneli walk us through making the flan.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  In terms of flan, have you taught Vaneli how to make it?

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  It's a work in progress. I think that this year she's going to pay more attention. Definitely, I mean, they know the basics. It's pretty easy to make - putting milk, vanilla and then you can put, like, the cheese if you want to, or any other ingredient that you would like to, and five eggs. And then probably one of the most difficult parts is to make the caramel from scratch, because you need to know when to take off the heat, so it doesn't get burned.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Did Vaneli tell you that she's going to be recreating your flan?


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Yes, she's going to be cooking it.


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  In Bloomington. We're going to do it at my radio's test kitchen. She's going to be making it.


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  The test kitchen I was referring to is actually the staff lounge at the radio station. It has a full stove-top and oven and Vaneli and I met Kayte there on a Saturday morning to cook the flan. Now, me personally, I had an injury that I was also contending with, so Kayte took over the recording and interviewing. You might catch me chiming in off-mic from time to time. Vaneli is a biology major and art minor at Purdue University. She has found ways to connect the science in her academics with the science in her food.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Baking is a science, you know? That's the thing about a flan. It's half cooking, half baking.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  My name is Vaneli Crespo-Cruz. I am a Purdue student and a Puerto Rican American.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And what are we going to be making today?

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Today we are making my mom's cheese flan. It's one of the many flavors that are available, but this is favorite in my family.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, it's not always made with cheese, but in this case we are?

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes. So, some people do it with coconut or just plain. You can also add fruit or chocolate.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It sounds great. So, have you ever made this before?

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  I've seen it done. I have seen it done many times, but completely on my own, I have not attempted it, so it's going to be fun today. We'll see what happens.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Have you been around when your mom was making it?

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes. So, this happens at my house pretty much every holiday since I was a kid. Flan is like our special dessert, and me and my brother love it so, I've definitely seen it made. She's probably attempted to show me how it's done, but I haven't tried it all on my own, so we'll see what happens.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Alright. So, this is next generation.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Learning the flan.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Learning, yes.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Alright. Well, Daniella was able to secure a recipe for us...


KAYTE YOUNG:  ...from your mom.


DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Can you walk us through how you would make a flan? And then we're going to have Vaneli try and follow this.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  Okay. You need to get out a pot. Hopefully, you can do stainless steel or something that doesn't have like a non-stick coating on it. And then you're going to put one cup of sugar - white sugar, two teaspoons of water, and just like a squirt of lemon, just so the sugar doesn't get crystallized. Then you stir it. Also, just to use a wooden spoon and then you stir it and then you put it on high and then you let the sugar melt. You're going to see this when it starts bubbling and then it's going to be liquid, so there you stir again. You know, you need to keep your eyes on it the whole time, because the burning point is reached. After it starts going, like golden, the burning is point, it can happen really fast.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Do you think that looks right, or does it need more water?

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  It's looking a little bit dry. However, I know that the sugar tends to melt a little bit in some cases. We're going to probably add more water. Now we just let this get hot and then we'll add the lemon as well.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, just to describe this. It still looks pretty grainy, but it'll melt.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  You can see it's starting to get looser.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right now it's white.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes. So, also, as it gets warmer you can see it kind of turn more off-white and get warmer and warmer and then it's going to get that golden brown color that you associate with the top of it, when you flip it over and the it's the white custard and then, like, all nice and brown on top. So, that's what we're looking for in the end product. But we'll do the lemon. How much lemon is it?

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's just like a little squeeze of lemon.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Okay. So, I'll just slice this.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Growing up, flan was always my favorite, so I really just associate it with winning. As a child I would want it every day of the week, if possible. So, any time I got to eat flan it felt like a treat just for me, although everyone in my family likes to eat it. Not a lot of my family lives up here, but my mom loves the holidays and I'm sure she missed her family at home too, so she goes all-out at Thanksgiving, Christmas. Even if it's just the three of us, there's a spread available. So, this was just something she would do in the days leading up to it, because it does have to cook for a while and then chill overnight. So, it definitely is a labor of love.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Now that she lives off campus, in an apartment, food has taken a more central part of her life, just like it does for her mother.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What kind of dishes have you made at home?

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  One thing that we make, it's like fried rice, sort of. It's chicken and rice, but it has, like, vegetables and other stuff in there and that was always one of my favorites as a kid. It's chicken and rice with yellow corn. So, getting to make that was probably my favorite one, I think.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Does that have a name other than chicken and rice?

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  I guess in Spanish it's arroz con pollo. I don't know what they call the yellow one specifically, but that's just what my mom calls it. It's chicken and rice.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  I'm going to turn this off. So, the caramel is pretty much done here. You can see it's, like, really brown. I'm going to let it sizzle a little bit more.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, that pan will hold the heat, so it's probably still cooking a little bit.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  That's what I'm thinking. But it will be done very soon.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay, it's turning now.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes. Now you can see it's starting to get really brown and in a couple of minutes it will be ready.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay. Well, these are ready for you to pour into if you need to.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Love that. So now, this part of the process is really fast. So, once you get over that tipping point, you can see it getting darker much quicker than it was before. And we just want it to get a little bit more brown before we pour it in.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And now I'm really smelling that too.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Like, I didn't smell it at all until now.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes. So, it's deceiving and I think it's hard the first time you do it, the second time you do it, the third time you do it, and every time after that. But here's the thing: if I didn't know that that middle part would take forever and look like nothing is happening, then I would have burnt it by now.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  You have so much patience.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  This is where the previous knowledge comes in handy. I'm just lucky, honestly, that I've seen it done so many times.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's interesting how it's, like, it's like candy.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes, it really is chemistry.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's already, like, solidified almost.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  So, because it's so little water and so much sugar, it's really only suspended in the liquid temporarily. It's conditional that when it stays that hot it will be liquid, but as soon as it cools down at all, it's going to solidify because it started as mostly solid. You just amalgamated it, if that makes sense.


VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  So, I always think that part's fun. That's actually my favorite part. Now, the rest of it is pretty rote. I want to take a picture to show my mom.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  Then you take it off the stove, and then you put it on the glass container or whatever container where you're going to do the flan. So, that's going to be the base of the flan. While you do that, then you let it cool down a little bit. So then you can start making the mix for the flan, which you make in the blender. Your pour one can of evaporated milk, one can of condensed milk, a teaspoon of vanilla, to taste, and then five eggs and if you want, you can put half a block of cream cheese. Then you blend it all in the blender until it's smooth.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  This is something we always have in our pantry - evaporated milk. We don't use it very often, but I don't know why. Oh my gosh, this is my favorite part. My mom would get so mad at me as a kid, because I would want to lick the top of the can. And it's sharp, obviously, so it's dangerous for a child. But now that I'm an adult, she can't tell me not to. This is probably where I would get the spoon involved. This would always be my job and I would always slack off, so that I would have remnants in the can, and I would just eat them with the spoon, because that's the type of child that I was. And hopefully, my mom won't listen to this episode, because she doesn't need to know that.

KAYTE YOUNG:  She already knows.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Oh man! So, that's all that. I'm going to just put this aside for my treat later.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, I'm realizing now that the sweetened condensed milk is the sweetener for this part.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes. And it is very, very sweet. So, this is literally sweetened and condensed milk. It's milk. Well, think about how thin milk is. If you guys could see it, this sweetened condensed milk is like pudding almost. It's so thick. But the name is so simple that it's almost deceiving, I would say, to some.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's descriptive.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Descriptive is correct. So, now we'll add the eggs. Just crack them right in there.

VANESSA CRUZ-MARTINEZ:  And then you pour it over, the caramel on the container where you have the caramel. Then you set the oven to 350 degrees and you get another container, bigger than where you have the flan. You put on the oven and then you fill it with water. Be careful not to fill it too much, because then when you put the container with the flan in, the water might overflow. And then just cook at 350 degrees probably for half an hour. You can stick a fork in the middle. Make sure it goes in, so it's not too liquid in the middle. But you cannot see a lot of bubbles on the top, because that means that it's getting dry. The flan, you need to leave it to cool down in the fridge for at least four hours or five. Sometimes I leave it overnight, because then that's when it solidifies.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes, so now they're all done, they're out of the oven. We got them out of the water bath as well. So, the rest of the process now is their journey not ours, right? So, now they're out of the oven and they're just going to cool down - gradually at first and then we'll put them in the fridge. But the turning-out is the most iconic part of the flan, right? You turn it over. The caramel is on top. It kind of, like, comes down. So, we didn't grease the tin or anything, but the reason that it's so easy for these is because one, the high fat content and then, also, they're kind of puffed up and expanded now. The air expands as it gets hotter and it does have, like, a lot of bubbles in there. But as it cools, they'll sort of shrink and also shrink away from the walls of the container, so that will make it a little bit easier for us to get them out. They have to do this part on their own. There's nothing we can help them. You know, we've done our best up to this point and now we must let them go. But we can put them back in the tins and then stick it in the fridge.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay. So, we're just going to let them cool to room temperature, then we're going to put them in the fridge for three or four hours.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes. Usually when I do this at home, we stick them in the fridge to chill overnight. So, since we're doing it pretty early in the day, probably by this evening they'll be ready to eat, I think.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay. Great.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Vaneli knows that whether on or off the island, or in or out of her mother's house, she can find family within the recipes, and take a piece of home with her wherever she goes.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  I've really, really enjoyed, honestly, living off campus and having access to a kitchen, because I do get to do stuff like this more than I have in the past. And I've honestly had a lot of fun making Puerto Rican food and making the food that my mom makes for me at home. It's just really comforting to be able to eat something that you've been eating since you were a little kid. And also rewarding, to know that I made it myself. And I get to call my mom and ask her questions, which is always fun.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thank you so much for doing this.

VANELI CRESPO-CRUZ:  Yes, of course. Thanks so much for having me. I had a lot of fun.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Since the flan needed to chill for several hours, we didn't have a chance to taste it all together. We divvied up the ramekins between the three of us. Daniella's was sadly eaten by an unsuspecting roommate, so I brought one of mine into the studio for Daniella and I to sample together.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, let's give it a try.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  That's really good. I like it. And the thickness of it is good as well too.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's so much more creamy and smooth than I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be more like.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  The texture of a Jell-O.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes, or like, how certain kind of puddings have a certain gel to them. This is not gel. This is, like, cheesecake.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  Exactly, yes. And I really like that consistency of it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  But I like how it's really caramely on the top and, like, now because it's sitting in that syrup, but then the middle doesn't really have that. And I thought it was going to be super super sweet, but the middle is not that sweet.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  It's not, no. It's more savory and it balances it out well. You get it more just on the crust of it.

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  And I think Vaneli did really well for her first time making this alone.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What did Vaneli think about it?

DANIELLA RICHARDSON:  She thought it was really good, so, she enjoyed it a lot. I don't know if she thought it was as good as her mom's, but she definitely thought she did a good job.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Not as good as her mom's. I think that's to be expected. In my experience, things often taste better when they're made for me by someone who loves me.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That story comes to us from producer Daniella Richardson.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our Thanksgiving special. I hope your Holiday season includes time in the kitchen and at the table, enjoying food and conversation with those you love. Take care.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The Earth Eats team includes Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Schemenauer, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media. Special thanks this week to Katelyn Richardson, Elizabeth Richardson, Kristina Richardson, Trisha LaGue, Tiphanie White-LaGue, Kristina LaGue, Vanessa Cruz-Martinez and Vaneli Crespo-Cruz. Earth Eats is produced and edited by me, Kayte Young. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music. Our Executive Producer is Eric Balstridge.

Tiffany-White LaGue and Kristina LaGue smiling at the camera, holding two toddlers with Christmas decor behind them

Tiphanie White-LaGue(L) wanted to give her wife Kristina LaGue(R) a bowl that would remind her of the special one that Apple Cake had always been served in when she was a child. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“Apple Cake is a very family-specific recipe–I’ve never heard of it anywhere else, seen it anywhere else. My gramma started it–for as long as I can remember we had it on Thanksgiving. It was served in a very specific bowl and as a child, for Thanksgiving, everyone would look forward to the Apple Cake. And when that blue bowl came out on the table it was just like –gasp!-- there’s the apple cake. And you knew that Thanksgiving had arrived.”

This week on the show--we celebrate Thanksgiving with three family food traditions. 

Daniella Richardson brings us into her family's kitchen in Carmel, Indiana, where she and her sister Katelyn prepare their version of the revered mac n’ cheese of Black households. They reminisce with their sister, Elizabeth, on the year that Daniella, at age 14, assumed the position of “Head Thanksgiving Chef” when their mother was recovering from surgery. The family reflects on the ways food connects them all through the difficult and the impossibly wonderful moments of their lives. 

a pale blue bowl filled with whipped cream and chopped apples with cracker crumbs on top and a spoon in it
After the layers are assembled, the Apple Cake is placed in the fridge for several days (courtesy of Kristina LaGue)

Kayte Young visits with a childhood friend, Trisha LaGue, in Bakersfield, California, who shares the story of Apple Cake--a unique Thanksgiving family recipe. She talks about the extraordinary woman who started the tradition and how they got their hands on a replica of Gramma Jones' special, sea-foam-blue, Apple Cake bowl.

cat face sniffing a pale blue bowl on a marble countertop
Trisha and her Aunt Kristi found a replica of the Apple Cake bowl that Gramma Jones used. Kristina's wife Tiphanie gave it to Kristina as a birthday gift. Now the Apple Cake can be properly prepared! (courtesy of Kristina LaGue)

Finally, Daniella catches up with close friends to discuss their family’s Thanksgiving traditions. Mother and daughter, Vanessa Cruz-Martinez and Vaneli Crespo-Cruz walk her and Kayte through the making of the classic Latin dessert, Flan.

a round dessert with a golden orange layer on top of a light colored pudding
Flan might not be the first dessert that comes to mind for Thanksgiving, but for Vanessa Cruz-Martinez and her family, it is a holiday favorite (Kayte Young/WFIU)

Along the way, the mother-daughter duo share beloved memories associated with the dessert, and talk about how cooking and food help them maintain close ties with their Puerto Rican roots.

Music on this Episode:

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from and  Universal Production Music.

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