It's not your normal type of dread, like the kind that takes up residence in your stomach every time you pay bills or when your boss unexpectedly arrives at your weekend place with Vuitton bags in hand. No, this dread is more primal. It occurs every November when I know I'll once again be facing a fixture of the Thanksgiving table: pumpkin pie.
I'm all for tradition. But 382 years after the Pilgrims sat down and made history, it seems we should have a little more to sample in the dessert department. Refusing to be a gastronomic automaton and mindlessly bake yet another pumpkin pie this year, I instead went searching for a new American classic.
First I turned to Craig Underwood, owner of the Underwood Family Farms in Moorpark. Each year throughout the month of October he sells his pumpkins at the local Fall Harvest Festival. With more than 70,000 people foraging for the perfect orange gourd, I figured he'd have some ideas.
"Oh, people make all kinds of things," he said. "But pies are the most popular."
When I asked what his favorite dessert was, his voice warmed: "Pumpkin bread." (As it happens, the recipe was from a 1970 Los Angeles Times article.)
Of course, that's like asking a father which of his children is his favorite. So he added pumpkin cookies and cheesecake to the list. That got me thinking that cake--minus the cheese--could possibly be this year's new pumpkin pie. But it needed something.
That night I was doing a little light bedtime reading, flipping through the pages of "The Vineyard Kitchen" by Maria Helm Sinskey (HarperCollins, 2003) when my eye landed on a recipe for a cake slathered with maple-flavored cream cheese frosting--the missing link.
With that, I tumbled into a restful sleep, certain that my new dessert was going to change the face of the American Thanksgiving menu.
The next morning as I was rummaging through the cupboard gathering ingredients, I remembered the words of Sara Jane Underwood, Craig's wife: "There's a dirty little secret in the pumpkin world," she warned. "The canned stuff tastes nothing like the real thing." If I wanted true pumpkin flavor, it was into the pumpkin patch for me.
According to Sara Jane, sugar babies, which are about eight inches in diameter, are the pumpkin of choice because they have thick flesh and little moisture. To use them in the recipe, quarter one pumpkin, and remove the stems and seeds. Place the pieces skin side up on a foil-lined baking dish. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool, scoop the flesh into a food processor, and whir.
A fever of 103 degrees prevented me from pumpkin picking, so I reached into the pantry for the canned version, which still created a cake that had neighbors pleading for the recipe.
So with apologies to Mayflower descendants everywhere--America, may I humbly introduce your new Thanksgiving dessert.
Pumpkin Cake With Maple-Cream Cheese Frosting
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature, plus more for greasing pans
1 cup firmly packed dark-brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, optional
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk mixed with 1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin
Two (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 8-by-8-by-2-inch cake pans, line them with parchment circles, butter the parchment and coat the pan with flour. Tap out excess.
In a mixer, beat the butter and sugars until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, sift the flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, salt, and pepper if using, into a medium bowl.
Add the eggs 1 at a time to mixer, scraping down the sides. Alternate adding the flour and milk mixtures, beginning and ending with the flour. Beat in the pumpkin until smooth. Divide batter equally between the pans. Rap the filled pans once on the counter to release air bubbles. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 to 40 minutes. Cool the pans on racks for 10 minutes. Invert cakes onto racks and remove the parchment paper. Cool completely.
In a mixer beat all the ingredients until fluffy. To assemble the cake, frost the top of one cake, place the other cake on top. Frost the sides and top, swirling decoratively. Refrigerate the cake for 30 minutes before serving.