New Yorkers are rumored to be a cynical bunch—and, for the most part, they don’t disappoint. Moving here from California was like watching Annie Hall in reverse: shedding the golden optimism of the West Coast for the Woody Allen snarkiness of the East. Since sarcasm is my lingua franca, I usually fit right in … until November 1 rolls around. Because when it comes to holiday traditions, I’m an unrepentant sap.
“There is no season which so vividly recalls the endearments of home and so fully awakens the recollections of its blessings as the return of these annual holidays,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Thanksgiving Day, 1828. I might put it a little less floridly, but Longfellow and I agree on the main points. We love the family gatherings. We love the familiar traditions. And most of all, we love to eat.
“Talking about Thanksgiving Day puts me in mind of the Pioneers and ten thousand other things,” he wrote to his sister Anne. And those ten thousand things? They’re all food: “geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens, roasted pork, plumb [sic] puddings, sour apples and molasses and pumpkin pies baked in milk pans.” Sure, the Pilgrims are important. But for Longfellow, pie is the priority.
Born and raised in Portland, Maine, Longfellow was particularly proud of pumpkin pie’s New England roots. He summarily dismissed British holiday desserts, saying that their traditional mince pies were “far surpassed by the ‘New England peculiar’ baked pumpkin and pan-dowdy.” When observing Thanksgiving in Venice in 1828, he reassured his father that his dessert needs were being handled. “You must not think … that I am deprived of all your New England comforts. On the contrary: my good landlady has promised me baked-pumpkin and hasty-pudding for dinner to day!” Crisis averted.
But more than pie, Longfellow relished the holiday’s sense of community, and extended an invitation to supper for others who were far from home; Charles Dickens, on his second tour of America in 1867, spent Thanksgiving at the Longfellows’ table. The holidays, Longfellow wrote, were meant to “gather friends and relatives together, and call in from the thoroughfares of the world those that have been thrown out of the family circle, and jostled apart in the crowd.”
Although he was one of the most popular poets of his day, Longfellow’s work is now often criticized for being overly sentimental. You might say the same about his thoughts on Thanksgiving: “At such times,” he wrote, “the heart clings to home, as the dying man clings to life.” Sappy? Sure. But for this cynical New Yorker, ’tis the season for a bit of saccharine, in both our hearts and our desserts.
According to my family’s Thanksgiving traditions, the recipe for the perfect pumpkin pie comes from an unassailable source: the side of the pumpkin purée can. It takes 5 minutes and always turns out great, so why fix what isn’t broken? As any latté drinker can attest, a pinch of cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg can cover a multitude of culinary sins.
Knowing Longfellow would be ashamed of my shortcuts, I decided this was the time to try making purée from scratch—and to my surprise, it was nearly as simple as cracking open a can (okay, nearly). Don’t worry about dicing or peeling the pumpkin; just stick some wedges in the oven, and the flesh will come right off. Early New England cookbooks suggest sweetening the mixture with molasses, another staple of Longfellow’s “Yankee feasts.” He served up the results to visitors like Dickens—an act of pastry patriotism. The Pilgrims would approve.
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups pumpkin purée (from a 3-pound pumpkin, or a little less than a 15-ounce can)*
3 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
*Note: If making your own purée (try it!), cut the top off the pumpkin and slice vertically into 5 wedges. Scrape out pulp and seeds, place wedges on a baking sheet, and roast at 400 degrees until tender, about 40 minutes. Let cool, scrape the flesh off the peel, then purée in a food processor. Ta-da!
1. In a large bowl, rub flour and butter together with your fingertips until it resembles coarse meal. In a small bowl, beat together salt and 2 tablespoons cold water. Add to flour mixture and stir until dough forms. Gather into a disk, cover with plastic wrap, and chill 30 minutes.
2. Heat oven to 375°F. Place dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper and roll out to a 12-inch circle. Transfer crust to a 9-inch pie pan. Cut off any excess dough, crimp edges, and prick crust all over with a fork. Chill 30 minutes.
3. Cover crust with foil and fill with pie weights (rice or dried beans also work well). Bake 15 minutes; remove foil and weights and continue baking until pale golden, 5 to 7 minutes more. Cool on rack.
4. Heat the oven to 325°F. In a large bowl, whisk together pumpkin purée, eggs, milk, brown sugar and molasses until smooth. Stir in cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, lemon zest and salt. Pour mixture into pie shell.
5. Transfer pie to a large baking sheet. Bake until crust is golden and center jiggles slightly when shaken, 50 to 60 minutes.