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Thanksgiving cooking is a slog, so we tried a Martha Stewart meal kit

The table is set, featuring the finished turkey and brussel sprouts.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
The table is set, featuring the finished turkey and brussel sprouts.

As far as holiday meals go, Thanksgiving can be one of the most intense — requiring weeks of planning and a complicated game plan to have everything ready and on the table at the same time.

(And if you're among the hordes of shoppers planning to hit the mall that day, in time to make the earlier and earlier store openings.)

So when Martha Stewart unveils a meal kit aiming to simplify Thanksgiving dinner prep, of course we requested a sample to test. Then we panicked, realizing we just signed on to cook two Thanksgiving dinners this year, because there's no way our families are going to let us off the hook a few weeks from now.

The Martha & Marley Spoon box includes all the ingredients needed to make Stewart's favorite Thanksgiving recipes: stuffing with herbs and dried cherries, cream cheese mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts and brown butter apple pie.

Plus the turkey — a 12- to 14-pound free-range bird — with a homemade pan gravy using stock made from the giblets. They estimate the kit will serve eight to 10 people. (Stewart is a partner in the delivery service, which uses her recipes for its weekly menus.)

The full meal kit with the turkey costs $179; customers can also opt to just purchase the side dishes for $119. The deadline to order is Nov. 15.

Did Martha's meal kit deliver? Yes, but we're not sure how easily the meal-kit craze fits into consumers' holiday plans.


Our impression is, the kit would work well for someone new to hosting Thanksgiving, who doesn't yet have a cherished set of recipes to work with and is looking for guidance on how to prep a turkey.

However, if you're also looking for a bargain Thanksgiving meal, this definitely isn't it.

While the quantities of food are good, you are missing a few holiday staples and may have to brave the supermarket crowds for cranberry sauce, squash or sweet potatoes.

"No matter what we put together as a Thanksgiving box there is always going to be that something missing," Jennifer Aaronson, culinary director of Martha & Marley Spoon, told CNBC.

Not to mention, the kit has to contend with family tradition. Martha's recipes are great, but they may not be what your family expects to find on the table come Thanksgiving.

So, if you opt for the box you are probably going to have to deal with Uncle Jeff griping that you didn't use Grandma's cornbread stuffing recipe, or the kids asking why there's no pumpkin pie. And they will ask why there is no pumpkin pie.

Or you can supplement with a few of your own dishes, which means you'll be cooking —and buying — the food in the kit, plus the ingredients for that favorite recipe for candied yams or from-scratch cranberry sauce. And judging from the portion sizes, it might be that Marley Spoon thought you would want to add a few of your own special touches.

Here's our take on the experience:


Cost

Let's be real: The cost of this kit is likely to turn away plenty of consumers. The Martha & Marley Spoon kit prices are pretty steep considering that you'll need to do all the cooking. (Disclosure: We received our kit for free in the course of the review.)

Last year, the American Farm Bureau Federation gauged the average cost of a Thanksgiving feast at $50.11 – less than a third of the Martha & Marley Spoon kit. The federation's planned meal includes "turkey, bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a relish tray of carrots and celery, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and beverages of coffee and milk, all in quantities sufficient to serve a family of 10. There is also plenty for leftovers." The group has yet to release its 2016 estimates.

Normally, there's a meal-kit advantage of pre-portioned ingredients so that you don't have to buy, say, a whole jar of sambal oelek for one recipe. That doesn't seem to apply with Martha's Thanksgiving kit, which calls for pretty standard ingredients that many home cooks probably already have on hand.



All the potatoes have been peeled and are ready to be boiled.
Devin Hance | CNBC
All the potatoes have been peeled and are ready to be boiled.

When we pulled together a virtual shopping cart with all the ingredients (except the turkey) from the local Shop Rite, picking organic wherever we could, the total came to $70.02. Even with a $20.95 delivery fee, that still undercuts the sides-only kit's $119 price tag by $28.03. Assuming you don't need to buy pantry staples like flour, milk, Dijon mustard, or apple cider vinegar, and you can cut another $10 or so.

Sure, Martha's turkey is free range, but we suspect the costs of packing and shipping had a big influence on the $60 price difference between the sides-only kit and the turkey-and-fixings kit.

Goffle Poultry, the New Jersey-based farm where the kit turkeys come from, advertises its price as $2.89 per pound for a freshly killed turkey. By that measure, our 12.33-pound bird, which Sarah had the pleasure of schlepping around the kitchen, would have run $35.63.

Christina usually gets a fresh turkey from a local farm; even her provider's quoted price of $40 is $20 cheaper than Martha's bird. Sarah has never bought a turkey before and therefore had no basis for comparison.

The kit is closer in price to ready-made meals available through local supermarkets and other purveyors — near us in Northern New Jersey, Whole Foods sells an organic turkey dinner serving eight people for $199.99; web grocery FreshDirect.com has a Thanksgiving dinner serving six to eight people for $159 plus a $6.99 delivery fee.

Process

Those of us who have cooked Thanksgiving before usually start their prep days in advance. For the purpose of this piece, we decided to do the unboxing just before cooking so that the whole process could be caught on video. (Key takeaway: Do not do as we did and attempt a blind day-of start.)

The kit's big miss, in our opinion, was the lack of a master plan to help cooks with simultaneous preparation of the turkey, gravy, stuffing, Brussels sprouts, potatoes and pie so that everything is hot, ready and on the table at the same time.

As Sarah put it, "Not everyone has a double oven, Martha."

The kit booklet does have a list of tasks that can be done days or hours ahead, which is helpful, but we think users could have benefited from a more detailed road map.


Martha & Marley Spoon’s Brown Butter Apple Pie is ready for the oven.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Martha & Marley Spoon’s Brown Butter Apple Pie is ready for the oven.

Other than the stress of juggling multiple dishes, there weren't any other major difficulties executing the recipes and we managed to have a bit of fun with the process.

A few confessions:

We did have to do a Google image search for "turkey liver" to make sure we discarded the right organ, and we took a few deviations from the recipes to make prep easier on ourselves — like making pie crust in a food processor rather than by hand.

And Sarah and Kelli may have stolen a few slices of sugar-coated apples when Christina wasn't looking.

Another lesson: Trust Martha. Her techniques elevate the meal.

Kelli, who regularly makes three or four pies for Thanksgiving, was nervous about following the recipe's instructions to have the brown-butter apple pie in the oven for almost two hours in total. (That's twice what many other recipes call for.)

Martha's gravy recipe was labor intensive, calling for simmering the giblets to make a stock that would later be mixed with de-fatted pan juices and reduced. But the results were impressive enough that we're all using that gravy technique this year, even if it means less time watching the Thanksgiving Day parade.

Taste

There's nothing like cooking for six hours to give you high expectations for a meal. Martha's recipes, for the most part, didn't disappoint.

The potatoes — a recipe from Martha's mom — were the runaway hit. The cream cheese makes them incredibly rich. We've all vowed to make these again.

We were also impressed by the gravy, which looked and tasted like something you'd get out of a professional kitchen.

Despite our recipe skepticism, the pie came out great. But there wasn't anything noteworthy about the flavor.


The finished stuffing with dried cherries and fresh herbs.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
The finished stuffing with dried cherries and fresh herbs.

The turkey, though flavorful, was a little dry, as was the stuffing that we baked separately. The batch of stuffing that cooked in the bird, however, fared much better. It was moist and the cherries became plump, adding a nice sweet note to the dish.

We liked the tanginess of the roasted Brussels sprouts, which were dressed with pomegranate and a cider vinaigrette, but the flavors didn't mesh as well with the rest of the meal.

To be fair, it's difficult to say whether any shortcomings we perceived were on the part of the kit, chef error, or some combination of the two:

For example, maybe the turkey was dry because the bird was frozen rather than fresh. Or it could have been because we didn't have a large-enough oven to follow the recipe's instructions, which called for alternating the turkey legs in, then legs out, throughout its cooking time.

Or we could have bungled the basting. After all, we're no Martha Stewart.