Over the River and Through the Woods — Memories of Thanksgiving Feasts At Grandmother’s House
With Recipes for Dough Balls and Wine Soup
Actually, we didn’t have to go over the river or through the woods to get to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. It was a two-minute ride by car.
I grew up in a village 25 miles southwest of Chicago. Both sets of grandparents were in the same village. Since they were so close, we had the pleasure of having * T W O * Thanksgiving dinners in one day. It was a gluttonous dream, an all-day feast.
We’d usually eat first at G&G G’s house at one o’clock, then G&G A’s house for the evening meal.
While I have pleasant childhood memories from both sets of grandparents around the holidays, I’m going to tell you a little about Thanksgiving at G&G G’s house because it involves a couple of not-your-typical-Thanksgiving dishes — and I’ll share the recipes at the bottom of this article.
At both sets of grandparent homes, we had the usual fare every year — roasted turkey with stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, yams (canned, baked with marshmallows on top — although they’re absolutely not allowed on my Thanksgiving table — yuck!), deviled eggs, canned sweet corn (neither set of grandparents served that yucky green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and French-fried onions, thank goodness), and of course pumpkin pie with lots of real whipped cream.
G&G G were of German heritage. I didn’t inherit their taste for German food. Too heavy and starchy. But the dishes I’m going to share with you are the exception for me. They’re gooooood! One is doughy and sweet, and the other is boozy.
Grandma G was the kind of cook and baker I can only dream of being. I never saw her use a recipe, never saw a recipe book anywhere in the house. It was a handful of this, a pinch of that, a dash of the other.
As Grandma G got on in years, my mother and aunts hovered over her as she prepared one last Thanksgiving meal for us before handing the cooking duties over to Mom and the aunts. Mom and the aunts estimated the amount of each ingredient Grandma G added to the mixing bowl or the tall steel pot on the gas burner and wrote down every step of the cooking process so they could recreate it in their own kitchens the next year and the next and the next and so on, finally passing it down to us grandkids.
G&G G’s house was small, very small. The dropleaf cherry wood dining table sat in front of the living room window, but for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, my dad and uncles would pull it to the center of the living room and put in all of its leaves. There it sat naked and in full bloom, matching chairs in ordered place around it. The setup blocked the television and the entrance to the two bedrooms. Access to the bathroom, as well as the front door, was kept clear of course. To my child-sized eyes, that cherry wood table took up the entire living room. Even us kids had to squeeze past the exquisite monstrosity to get from one end of the room to the other. It was TIGHT. The women covered the top of the table with protective, thick cream-colored table pads, with a white tablecloth over that.
While all of this was going on, while the turkey roasted, Grandma G herded all of us kids into the kitchen to help her make the appetizer — dough balls, otherwise known as:
German Drop Doughnuts
Dough balls! I’d never heard them called German drop doughnuts until I was it written on this recipe. In any case, this might be what I looked forward to most about Thanksgiving dinner. While the turkey was roasting, Grandma would gather all of us kids in the kitchen so we could help with the dough balls. She’d fry them in a huge vat of oil on the stove then drain them on paper towels.
As they cooled, she handed each of us kids a brown paper bag with some granulated sugar inside. She then put a barely-cool-enough-to-handle dough ball in each one of our bags. We closed the bags at the top and shook those things like crazy to coat them in the sugar.
The shaking wouldn’t start until each of us had a dough ball in our bags. The memories of our excited laughter as we shook those bags like crazy have stayed with me my entire life and still coaxes a smile from me. Back then, we were on a sugar high before we had consumed any sugar. The warm aroma was enough to get us jumping up and down with excitement as we shook the heck out of those dough balls in our little brown bags of sugar. When I think of those times now, I can still feel the exhilarating high of it. My adult self knows that a sugar high is also the high of love and laughter.
We repeated the shaking routine until all dough balls were well coated with sugar, then we dug in — and they were still warm! Oh, the ecstasy! I always ate two dough balls, but I wanted to eat more. I also wanted to save room for the turkey and all the trimmings, and the pumpkin pie with whipped cream. But those dough balls! Mmmmm!
Of course, as an adult I’ve had zeppoles (Italian donuts), which are similar to the dough balls we used to coat with sugar. The only differences I can detect between the dough balls Grandma G made and Italian zeppoles is that Grandma’s recipe contains raisins (not so with zeppoles). Also, zeppoles are coated with powdered sugar while we used granulated sugar.
Now it was time to eat. The entire family couldn’t fit around the table at once, so when the turkey was ready, us grandkids got to gorge first. The adults took the second shift.
This next recipe I’m going to share with you was off limits to us kids. It was adults only because the port wine didn’t cook out completely.
Grandpa G’s Favorite Wine Soup
Being the oldest grandchild (there were 11 of us), I was the first to be allowed to taste the wine soup once I became a teenager. It was good, even to my young taste buds not familiar with alcohol. I felt the effects of it immediately and wasn’t much in love with the feeling, so I sipped only a tablespoon or two. It was enough to get me buzzing, a feeling I’ve never been fond of, even to this day.
But my grandfather — he loved that wine soup. I remember him seated at the head of the table and nearly drooling in anticipation of it being ladled into his large, shallow soup bowl and then devouring it with the biggest smile and look of complete bliss I’d ever seen on his face. Grandma took extra care in seeing he had the plumpest prune and just the right amount of raisins for his taste.
Here are the recipes:
Grandma G’s German Drop Doughnuts
1 pkg dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
1 cup scalded milk
½ cup soft margarine
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
3 ¼ cups flour
½ cup raisins
Fat for frying
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Pour over milk, margarine, sugar, salt, and vanilla in large bowl. Cool to lukewarm. Add ¾ of the flour, eggs, raisins. Beat until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add remaining flour and beat again until smooth. Scrape bowl down, cover, and let rise in a warm place for 30–40 minutes until double. Stir down batter by beating about ½ minute. Let rise while fat is heating to 350–375 degrees. Drop batter by teaspoon into hot fat. Turn when edges turn color, about 1 ½ minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. When slightly cooler, put in brown bag with granulated sugar. Shake to coat. May be frozen without sugar coating and reheated when defrosted. You can sugar them at that time.
Grandpa G’s Favorite Wine Soup
1 tablespoon sugar
3 cups water
1 cup port wine
Prunes and raisins (Add as much as you like. Grandma used 2 prunes and 6–8 raisins per person.)
Cook until fruit is cooked — about 5–10 minutes. Add tapioca to thicken a bit. Start with 1 tablespoon. You can make it as thick or as thin as you want by adding or decreasing the tapioca. Cook just long enough to thicken. If you like it sweeter, add more sugar.
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