thanksgiving chef santi gabino

My mother adores Thanksgiving. Every year, she makes sure to tell us this. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand her reasoning. Thanksgiving is about family. There are no presents to buy, no decorations to put up (save a few ceramic turkeys and fake autumnal flowers). Thanksgiving music is not playing on an endless loop when you go into any commercial establishment.

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy Christmas music, I truly do, and I own a pretty big collection of it. However, I don’t want to hear “Jingle Bells” while I’m pumping gas on Nov. 1.

Mom really outdoes herself every year. Since I can recall, she has been making her turkey the same way. It’s one of the most comforting constants in my life.

I remember from my childhood how she would start seasoning it a couple of days before the big day. When my grandfather was alive, he would pick sour oranges from his tree and bring them over to the house in a big brown paper bag. My mom would then start juicing them and begin marinating the turkey.


The night before, she would put the turkey in a low-temperature oven and let it begin cooking overnight. Few of my childhood memories are as wonderful as the one of waking up to that intoxicating smell on Thanksgiving morning and tuning into the Macy’s parade.

Her turkey and gravy recipe came to her by way of my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother, in turn, received it from a friend who, at the time, was a cook for President Nixon at the Little White House on Key Biscayne. So, I guess you could say every year my family enjoys the same turkey Nixon would enjoy when he spent the holiday in South Florida.

I wanted to share this recipe with you, but if I did, there’s a pretty big chance my mother would disown me. All I can say is that it involves bacon, lots of it. Enough said.

November is a big month for me. All in the same month fall my birthday, Thanksgiving and a very-special anniversary.

On Nov. 14, 2006, two days before my 30th birthday, my father was riding his horse and was hit by a drunken driver. It nearly killed him. His beloved horse, Black Beauty, was killed in the accident and by absorbing most of the impact, that majestic horse saved my father’s life.

I’ll never forget those days immediately after the accident. My father was in a coma for weeks. It was a very difficult time for my family.

The day of my 30th birthday, I had spent all day in the hospital with my mother, siblings, family and friends. Later that night, as I was walking toward my car in the parking garage, my brother-in-law’s mother saw me, called out to me, and asked me to come to her car. She opened her trunk, reached in and handed me a beautiful cake.

She said, “I know you are going through a very difficult time right now, but today is your birthday. You still deserve to remember it and celebrate it. You have so much to be thankful for.”

I sat there in awe, holding the cake and staring at her. I began crying (sobbing actually), and all she did was hug me. For as long as I live, I will never forget that moment or the kindness she showed me. It remains one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done for me. From that day forward, I began calling her my aunt. She became my family.

I often receive strange looks when I tell people that my father’s accident was, in a way, a positive thing. By no means did I wish to see him hurt and suffer as much as he did, but it really made me take a hard look at my life and realize what was important. I took inventory of who and what was helping me … and who and what …was not.

As a family, it made us all so much closer. And it is that, for me, that is the true meaning of the holiday: family (whatever and whoever that may mean to you).

Of course, I’m all about the casseroles, side dishes and desserts, but my mother is right, Thanksgiving is a true holiday.

The name says it all; it is a day to give thanks. And, while life may be difficult at times, and worry can often build a sturdy nest in your head, we all have things to be thankful for.

As far as I’m concerned, my father was reborn on that day. God gave him a new lease on life. In fact, every Nov. 14, I call my dad and wish him a happy birthday. He turns 16 this year.

For this month’s recipes, I had originally thought of sharing recipes to go alongside the big feast. However, I’ve gone a different route and chosen things that have meaning to me and that are meant to be enjoyed on Thanksgiving morning and after the meal.

Tata’s Apple Cake

First is a recipe that my maternal grandmother and all of her sisters used to make. It has been in my family for more than 75 years. It’s an apple cake that I usually make for Thanksgiving breakfast. It has a consistency somewhere between a chewy brownie and a coffee cake.

PHOTO COURTESY/SANTI GABINO JR. A picture of the recipe that she (Carmen,
but nicknamed “Tata”) wrote down for me many years ago. I’ve translated it from its original Spanish.

It goes wonderfully with coffee or tea, but also makes a great dessert when warmed and topped with a scoop of ice cream.


2 cups of sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup of vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
3 cups of apple, peeled and sliced
thin (a tart variety works best)
Grease and line an 8-inch-square pan with parchment paper. Or, you can choose to heavily grease and flour the pan, but I find the parchment makes it much easier to remove the cake from the pan later.
Mix the sugar, eggs and oil in a large bowl.
In a smaller bowl, sift the flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and mix to combine. Add the thinly sliced apples to this mixture. The mixture will be very thick.
Place the mixture in the prepared pan, and bake at 350 for one hour. When done, it should be golden and have a brownie-like consistency on top.

Grandma Connie’s rum balls

And, here is my recipe for Grandma Connie’s rum balls. Connie used to be my next-door neighbor. Over the seven years I lived next to her, she became far more than a neighbor; she refers to my husband and I as her grandsons. Placed in a lovely holiday tin, these make a great gift!


3 cups of crushed vanilla wafers
6 tablespoons of spiced dark rum
1 cup of powdered sugar
3 teaspoons of light corn syrup
1 1/2 tablespoons of cocoa powder
Combine all the ingredients, and mix together well, adding additional drops of rum if needed to hold the mixture together.
Pinch off small pieces of the mixture, and roll into small balls. Roll the balls in powdered sugar. Store in an airtight container for two days before serving, to allow the rum to mellow. Makes 2 1/2 dozen.

Coquito (Puerto Rican coconut eggnog)

This recipe is for a traditional Puerto Rican Christmastime favorite drink. Many Latinos and Floridians (such as myself) have adopted this delicious coconut concoction.
I usually make it for Thanksgiving and bring out a chilled bottle once the plates have been cleared and we are making way for dessert. It is the perfect drink to kick off the Christmas season!


1 (15 oz.) can cream of coconut, such as Coco Lopez
1 (14 oz.) can of sweetened condensed milk
1 (12 oz.) can of evaporated milk
1 (15 oz.) can of coconut milk
1/2 cup of white rum (more to taste, if you’d like)
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 teaspoon of coconut extract
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
In a very large bowl, or even better, a large measuring cup, mix all the ingredients in the order listed and whisk until combined thoroughly. Alternatively, you could mix it in a blender for a minute or two. I prefer to do it by hand.
Taste the mixture and see if you’d like to add more rum. Pour the mixture into a clean bottle, and seal with a cork or screw cap. I start saving bottles in October just for this.
Let the mixture chill overnight or for at least four hour before serving. Shake the bottle well, and serve very cold in small shot glasses or cordial glasses. Sprinkle with cinnamon if you’d like. The mixture will keep in the fridge for two to three weeks.
Note: There are many versions of this recipe. Some people put eggs in it, and I have done so at times. You could add a couple of egg yolks, which would make it even richer. I’ve seen people get very creative with this drink. I have a friend who makes a peanut-butter version that is amazing!


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