Earlier this fall I attended a food writers’ conference in Santa Fe, and some of the old timers were recalling a conference I chaired in New Orleans in 1987. The subject comes up every year. We showed them how to deep fry a turkey and the results were everything from snickering to downright criticism that no one in their right mind would ever try such a thing. Well, the joke’s on them because all of them, from Oregon to Maine, have since run the recipe in their publications and know their constituents love it.

But that’s old hat. Everybody, at least in southern Louisiana, knows how to deep fry a turkey, or at least order one, so that part of the Thanksgiving menu is pat.

It is on to other courses, and my favorite is dessert.

Now my family is, I think, like most others about sticking to tradition. Mention a different dessert and they shriek and holler so much that I tend to give up and concentrate on making a better pecan pie, a fluffier pumpkin filling, a taller chocolate cake. The same old thing can get boring for the serious cook, so why not experiment?

Incidentally, we sampled a traditional Christmas dinner in Santa Fe (you’ll never guess what it was): salsa and chips; carne adovada (pork with pepper sauce); cheese enchiladas topped with green chile sauce; pinto beans with chicos (baked and dried corn kernels); hot sopaipillas; and bread pudding with raisins and walnuts. I thought the menu was much like a typical Mexican meal. It was a favorite traditional dinner, cooked at its very best; don’t we all try to cook some of our favorite regular dishes the very best way that we know how?

The first step for holiday dining is to lose five pounds. Then, you’re all set to dive into those luscious desserts that are calling your name. At the end of the holidays, you’ll have gained your five pounds back but, hey, that beats five pounds on top of your original weight. I once heard the theory that it’s probably holiday eating that adds a few pounds of weight every year, until eventually we’re 25 pounds overweight, maybe even 50. And it only takes a few years to do it. So, take it off first, then sit back and enjoy those favorite desserts.

Pecan Pie
1 9-inch unbaked pie crust
1 1/2 cups pecan pieces,
3 eggs
2 Tablespoons flour
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Use either a store-bought refrigerated unbaked pie crust, thawed, or the following recipe for pie crust. Place in a pie pan.

To toast pecan pieces, place in a pan in a single layer and toast in the oven for about 10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, use a whisk to beat eggs and blend in flour. Add all other ingredients and mix well. Pour into pie shell and bake for about 50 minutes. When toothpick comes out of the center clean, remove pie from oven. If crust is browning too much during baking, place a ring of foil around the edges.

Serve plain or with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Serves 6 to 8.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
5 Tablespoons ice water

In a medium bowl, mix flour and salt. Cut shortening in with a pastry cutter or two sharp knives until slightly course.

Gradually add ice water, mixing with a fork until the dough forms a ball. Using floured hands on a floured surface, flatten ball with hands, then roll out with rolling pin until 1 inch larger than baking pan. Cut into circle and place in pie pan. Pinch around the edges for a pretty crust. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Pumpkin Pie
1 9-inch unbaked pie crust, store-bought refrigerated or homemade
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed dark brown
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
3 eggs
2 cups fresh cooked and
      puréed in food processor, or
      canned pumpkin puree
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place pie crust into a 9-inch pie pan, flute the edges and set aside.

Mix dry ingredients and set aside.

Beat eggs in an electric mixer until foamy. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Add pumpkin and mix, then evaporated milk and mix well again. Pour half of the mixture into pie shell, place in oven and pour in rest. Bake for about 1 hour or until a toothpick comes out of the center clean. If crust is fully brown halfway through baking, place a foil collar around the edges.

Serve plain or with scoops of whipped cream.

Serves 6 to 8.

Coconut Three-layer Cake
3 large eggs, separated
1 stick butter
1/2 cup shortening
2 cups sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Filling and frosting:
3/4 cup boiling water
3 cups sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
6 large eggs, whites only
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups moist shredded
      coconut, fresh or packaged

To make cake: Set oven on 350 degrees. Grease and flour 3 8-inch cake pans. Let butter come to room temperature.

Separate eggs.

In an electric mixer, beat egg whites until stiff and place in a bowl. In mixer, cream butter, shortening and sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolks one at a time and continue creaming until well mixed.

Sift flour and baking powder several times. Add alternately with milk, ending with flour. Mix well. Add vanilla. Fold egg whites into mixture. Pour batter into 3 pans.

Bake 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out of the center clean. Do not overbake. Set aside to cool.

To make frosting: Bring water to a boil in a large pot and add sugar and corn syrup. Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. When the mixture comes to a full boil, remove it from the heat and pour into a pitcher.

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg whites until stiff. Pour the hot syrup slowly and in a thin stream into the egg whites, beating at high speed. Scrape sides of bowl and pitcher. Add salt, vanilla and almond extract and continue to beat for about 6 minutes or until frosting holds a stiff peak.

Place 1 layer of cake on a cake plate and spread with a thick layer of icing on top and sides. Sprinkle a layer of coconut on top and pat onto sides. Repeat with second and third layers, patting remaining coconut around sides and sprinkling on top. This makes a lot of icing. You may want to refrigerate some for use later.

Makes 1 3-layer cake.

Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup grated carrots, about
      2 carrots
1/2 cup chopped pecans

6 Tablespoons butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese
1 box confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup chopped pecans,

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour both 9-inch baking pans.

In an electric mixer, beat eggs well. Add oil and beat more. Add sugar and beat.

Sift dry ingredients together and add gradually to egg mixture while beating. Add carrots and mix well. Stir in nuts and pour into pans. Bake for about 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean from the center of cake. Cool completely.

To make frosting: Place room temperature butter and room temperature cream cheese in mixer and cream. Add confectioners’ sugar gradually and mix until smooth. Mix in vanilla. To roast pecans, place in a pan in a single layer and roast in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes. After frosting cake, sprinkle nuts on top.

Makes 1 2-layer cake.

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