Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

There’s a recipe that’s been bugging me for years, a dish teased by Washington Irving a century and a half ago. I’ve been asking my mother for years to make it, and this year we figured it out together. And I present it to you now as an option for that Thanksgiving turkey.

I have a tradition of reading the Legend of Sleepy Hollow every year around my birthday. It’s spooky, it’s in the period I study right now, and it is absolute food porn. Fun fact, Ichabod Crane has almost no romantic interest at all in Katrina Van Tassel. He wants Baltus’ farm, which she will inherit, because it is rich and full of crops and animals to make food.

There is a whole passage where he’s standing at the fence looking at all the animals and fantasising about what dishes they could be cooked into.

‘The pedagogue’s mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind’s eye, he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce. In the porkers he saw carved out the future sleek side of bacon, and juicy relishing ham; not a turkey but he beheld daintily trussed up, with its gizzard under its wing, and, peradventure, a necklace of savory sausages; and even bright chanticleer himself lay sprawling on his back, in a side dish, with uplifted claws, as if craving that quarter which his chivalrous spirit disdained to ask while living.’

(Just one of two similarly racy passages, btw.)

Now, I have a routine for my birthday: breakfast and mimosas at a local diner, then I get my hair done, lunch at a Victorian mansion, presents and movies, and my mom cooks me a themed dinner. Since I started reading Sleep Hollow, all I can think about is Dutch food. Which is fine by everyone because we have a little Dutch in us.

Every year, I ask my mother to make duck with onion sauce. Every year, she has trouble finding a recipe close to the image I have in my head. But this year, this year, we put our heads together and figured it out.

duck with onion sauce

Pictured above is an authentic recipe from the time, but not the sort of thing I had in mind. If Irving meant something that looks like mashed potatoes, he should have said so.

I wanted something rich and thick, more like a glaze than a gravy, infused with the flavour of sherry, and with round translucent onions shining like jewels.


1 box whole broiler onions, topped and tailed

1 box cipolline onions

A handful of oearl onions

2 T Sherry (I use Harvey’s Bristol Cream)

3T salted butter

1 t sugar (White is fine, but demerara could be divine)

1 T corn starch

1 c water


Parboil all of the onions and immediately transfer to a bowl of ice water. Top and tail them and remove the outer skins.

Caramelise peeled onions in butter and a little sugar and some sherry. (You can also caramelise chopped or sliced golden onion, as the spirit moves you. But I like the little globes on their own.)

You will stand there stirring for what feels like a year. This is not a quick recipe.

Mix corn starch with water. Transfer the onions from the pan to a saucepan and add the corn starch mixture to the sauce with the rest of the sherry. Stir until it thickens, then let simmer for about ten minutes.

Allow to cool and put it in a pretty bowl. Voilá!

It’s sweet and savoury, onion-y and sherry-y, perfect for turkey, and a classy complement to everything else on the table.

Happy holidays, everyone!

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