How three Detroit chefs weave their own cultures into Thanksgiving, and celebrate the holiday’s most exciting components — the sides
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography By Darrel Ellis
For me, a second-generation Filipina American, Thanksgiving was always just another day. For my mom and dad, who worked at the hospital and U.S Postal Service respectively, it was an opportunity to get overtime since their co-workers wanted to take the day off. We never really celebrated the holiday.
In fact, the first time I ate Thanksgiving dinner, I was 21 years old. I was with some classmates from the University of Illinois, and we were spending our Thanksgiving break volunteering at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen and hospice. After we were done volunteering for the day, the staff at the hospice surprised us with a traditional meal: turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and green bean casserole (which became my favorite part of Thanksgiving).
In that moment I was truly grateful — not only for my friends doing this work with me but also for the chance to experience an official Thanksgiving feast. Some of the traditions from that first Thanksgiving have stuck with me: Today, my Turkey Day staples are palabok, a Filipino noodle dish that my family eats on holidays, and, of course, green bean casserole.
For many immigrants and second-generation Americans, Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to weave in their culture into the holiday. With that in mind, I asked three immigrant and second-generation Detroit chefs what’s on their table for the holiday. Hint: At their meals, the sides and desserts — not the turkey — steal the show.
Hip Hop Bake Shop, Detroit
Growing up in Albania, Adela Bejo enjoyed watching her parents cook in their tiny kitchen, especially on holidays. “We were a tight knit family and always celebrated holidays together — each cooking their specialty,” she says. “I would watch my aunt make her mayo from scratch, whipping that dressing for hours with a fork. My other aunt and my mother would [also be cooking] and everybody would be sharing stories about the old days and prepping these beautiful meals by hand.”
Today, Bejo is the founder and head baker at Hip Hop Bake Shop, an online and pop-up bakery that combines her passions for hip-hop and pastries. She landed in Metro Detroit in 2000 at age 12, when her family emigrated from Albania after securing U.S. visas through a green-card lottery. “There weren’t many opportunities in Albania unless you were connected, so for us, this was the only chance for a better life,” she says. “We literally ‘won the lottery’ of life.”
Over the past two decades in America, Bejo — who was the executive pastry chef at Grey Ghost in Midtown before striking out on her own in 2017 — has embraced the most American of traditions: baking pumpkin pie for her family’s Thanksgiving dinners. She’s also developed an appreciation for the holiday. An immigrant family’s Thanksgiving is a “double feast, where you’re introduced to a multitude of new things: new food, new people, their stories of migration, their successes and hardships … and tales of the old country,” she says. “What mattered was that we were all thankful to have each other and be together in one place. It did not matter if the dishes had one ‘nationality’ or another, but that we could come and cook together.”
For her family’s Thanksgiving, there’s turkey as well as lamb, a family favorite. Still, “It’s all about the side dishes,” she says. “My mother makes spinach and cheese burek. My dad makes his version of Russian salad and stuffing. I make the mashed sweet potato, Brussels sprouts and pumpkin pie. My sister doesn’t cook, but she’s good at wine pairing. After 20 years, everyone has finally figured out their task.”
Honey & Nut Cake (Shendetlie) with Cranberry-Orange Sorbet
Shendetlie is a popular traditional dessert in Albania and mostly prepared during the holidays. Every family uses their own recipe, with maybe a twist here and there, says Bejo — but “the most important ingredients are the honey and, of course, the walnuts.”
For The Cake
- 5 eggs
- 24 ounces honey
- 4 ounces melted butter
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- 2 ½ cups of chopped walnuts
- 16 ounces all-purpose flour
- 3 cups sugar
- 4 cups water
In a mixing bowl, whisk eggs and add honey and cooled melted butter.
Add baking soda, walnuts and half of the flour. Keep mixing until everything is incorporated, then add the rest of the flour. Note: The batter will be thick and quite firm.
Coat a 9×13 cake pan with olive oil or cooking spray and pour in batter.
Place cake in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, rotating halfway through to ensure even cooking. Cake will be dark brown and firm to the touch when it is done.
Remove from the oven and let cool while you prepare the syrup.
For the syrup, place sugar and water in a pot and let it come to a boil. Leave boiling for 10 minutes, mixing occasionally. Remove from heat.
Cut the cake into squares or diamond shapes and pour over the hot syrup. Use enough syrup to cover the cake plus ½ inch sitting on top. It may look like there is a lot of syrup; it will soak into the cake.
This is best served the next day when the shendetlie is cooled down and the syrup is fully incorporated.
Serve with a scoop or two of Cranberry-Orange sorbet.
- 430 grams sugar
- ½ cup + ¼ cup water
- 340 grams fresh or frozen cranberries
- Zest of 1 orange
- ½ cup of orange juice
- Juice of 1 lemon
In a medium saucepan, heat the sugar with ½ cup of water then add the cranberries and a pinch of salt.
Cover and cook on low boil for 10 minutes until cranberries are soft.
Remove from heat and let it sit at room temperature, covered.
Puree cranberries and their liquid in a blender or food processor and then press the puree through a sieve to remove any cranberry bits.
Stir in orange juice and ¼ cup of water.
Chill the mixture thoroughly, then churn it in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
*Note: For best results you will need to put the bowl or canister of your ice cream maker in the freezer at least 24-48 hours in advance. Do not skip this step or the sorbet will not set properly.
When Thanksgiving rolls around, you won’t find any of the standard turkey and fixings on chef Rohani Foulkes’ table. The Australian native, who came to New York in 2010 to work at the U.N. (she moved to Michigan after meeting her husband, who’s from here), prefers “an eclectic mix of provisions,” she says.
When it comes to the holiday, Foulkes, who owns Detroit restaurant Folk and catering business Nomadic Detroit, says she’s found it “incredibly eye opening to learn about the Indigenous history of Native Americans in the U.S. as an Indigenous First Nation, Australian woman.” She approaches Thanksgiving with some skepticism — “the product-promotion and overindulgence has always shocked me,” she says — but as a chef she’s committed to highlighting local producers and farmers and she relishes the opportunity to incorporate that into her work and what’s on her table at home.
To that end, her holiday spread prominently features local staples: various grains, foraged berries such as red currants and proteins from poultry and fish to smoked meats. “There’s always something different,” she says.
Wild Rice Pudding
Grain is a staple in most diets throughout the world — although the grain differs depending on the culture, says Foulkes. For many Islanders, it’s rice. Wild rice was a grain option for Native Americans and can be used for both savory and sweet dishes, she says.
Makes 6 portions
- 1 cup wild rice or wild rice blend
- Cook rice according to directions and cool.
- 1/2 cup cream
- 1/2 cup coconut milk *if you don’t have or like coconut, use 1 cup cream
- 1 cup oat, or any kind of nut mylk (preferably not almond, it’s killing our bees and monopolizing our water!)
- Pinch of salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ginger
- 2 small bay leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon finely cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup
- Zest of 1/2 orange (if you don’t have a zester, use a peeler and carefully cut away the white pith from inside the skin)
- 1 heaping tablespoon arrowroot or other similar thickening agent
- Water to dilute (optional)
- Apple cider syrup (reduce cider by boiling)
Gently combine and heat all creme ingredients in a nonreactive pan (do not boil!).
When small bubbles appear on the surface, whisk well and turn off heat.
Leave the pan on the stove. Remove bay leaves and orange rind.
Combine arrowroot powder with approximately 2 tablespoons water to create a slurry with the consistency of a slightly thick sauce.
Add slurry to creme, reheat over medium low heat for approximately 3 minutes. Creme should coat the back of a spoon.
Add cooked and cooled rice to creme and gently combine.
Serve immediately topped with a drizzle of cider syrup. Add toasted nuts and dried fruit of choice if desired.
Saffron de Twah, Detroit
For Omar Anani, who is of Palestinian and Egyptian descent, giving thanks is something his family does year-round. “We take every opportunity to get together and celebrate and eat,” says the chef and owner of Saffron De Twah, a Moroccan-inspired bistro on Detroit’s east side.
When he was younger, his mom would stuff the Thanksgiving turkeys with a Middle Eastern version of stuffing called hashweh, a rice and beef mix seasoned with spices like allspice and cinnamon. The traditions evolved over the years, but “there was always a mixture of foreign foods sprinkled on the table,” says Anani, who moved to Michigan from Maryland when he was 12.
This year the traditions will evolve once more: It’s Anani’s first Thanksgiving as a married man, and he’s planning a Bangledeshi-inspired spread in homage to his wife’s heritage, as well as Middle Eastern sides. The things that won’t change are Nabulsi kanafe, a Palestinian cake with shredded phyllo dough and drizzled syrup, and his mom’s warbat, another sweet pastry typically made with phyllo dough, cream and nuts. The holiday, he says, is incomplete without these two desserts.
Sweet Potato Tarte Tatin
This dish is a play on the candied sweet potatoes Anani’s dad used to make for Thanksgiving and a sweet potato dumpling popular in Bangladesh, where his wife is from. “I mish-mashed all of the heritages into this one dish,” he says, adding that he’s “obsessed with sweet potatoes and the role they play in cuisines around the world.” And what better time to celebrate them than Thanksgiving?
- 3 ½ ounces brown sugar
- 2 ½ ounces butter
- 1-1¾ ounces chopped hazelnuts
- 1 ounce shredded unsweetened coconut (toasted if you like)
- 2 sweet potatoes cut into 2-inch medallions
- 1 pound 2 ounces block pastry (any type of pastry like puff pastry will do)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Boil sweet potatoes until tender, about 8-10 minutes, then drain.
In a frying pan, put in the brown sugar. Once it starts to melt, add butter. Sprinkle the hazelnuts throughout the pan, shingle the potatoes on and add the coconut.
Cover the pan with the pastry and tuck it into the sides of the pan. Poke in vent holes and place in oven. Drop the temperature to 400.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool in the pan. If you flip it too early, the caramel will sink into the crust and create a soggy mess.
When ready to serve, place a plate on top of the pan and flip over so the tarte tatin drops onto the plate.