For some at Thanksgiving--even in the best of circumstances--it’s the pie that gives us heartburn. How does one prepare turkey with all the trimmings and turn out picture-perfect pumpkin pies that please even a discriminating Aunt Rena?
Ponder this: Last fall, I gave a Thanksgiving presentation at the Slow Food Salone del Gusto in Turin, Italy. This meant baking eight pies quickly from ingredients I had to hand-carry over, in a makeshift kitchen, in a foreign country, while jet lagged. I’ll see your finicky aunt and raise you 65 dubious Italians who already think Americans a bit odd for using zucca in sweet rather than savory dishes.
Clearly, I needed the tastiest, truest and easiest pumpkin pie recipe possible. But what exactly is the quintessential pumpkin pie? Is it the recipe on the Libby’s label? More than 100,000 learned international foodies attending hundreds of Salone del Gusto taste workshops on traditional and artisanal foods expected the real thing. So began my search for the perfect pie for this international mission.
It turns out that of all the foods we eat at Thanksgiving, our sugar-and-spice pumpkin pie filling most closely resembles its ancestor. Pumpkins, or pompions as the New World native was called, had been imported to Europe and England in the 16th century, and some varieties were known to Pilgrim cooks.
It was so plentiful, that the first song written in the Colonies in 1630 bemoans its three-times-daily presence, says Kathleen Curtin, food historian at the living history museum, Plimoth Plantation. Pumpkin’s commonness means it probably was served at the 1621 three-day secular harvest celebration that inspired our holiday (a true Thanksgiving in those days was a somber religious service). Roger Williams, later the founder of Rhode Island, recorded that the local Wampanoag tribe also dried and stewed askutasquash .
Curtin makes a familiar-tasting stewed pumpkin side dish at the museum from John Josselyn’s 1672 “New-England’s Rarities Discovered”: “The housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice ... and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day ... not putting any liquor [liquid] to them; and when it is stewed enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vimegar, (with some spice, as Ginger, &c) ... to be eaten with Fish or Flesh.”
Plymouth housewives also made spiced custards, similar to our modern pumpkin pie filling only without the pumpkin. Gervase Markham’s 1615 “The English Housewife” instructed: “Take a pint of the sweetest and thickest cream that can be gotten...and put into it sugar, cinnamon, and a nutmeg cut into four quarters.”
Wheat flour was scarce in early Plymouth, so pastry crusts most likely would have been used only for precious fillings like venison. Early versions treated pumpkins like apples; they were sliced, not pureed, and sometimes sauteed with herbs and spices. Pumpkin was often paired with apple for sweetness (today, a “new Northwest” combo).
The first pumpkin pies were recorded by Amelia Simmons in 1796 in “American Cookery,” and were extremely common by 1800. She gives two recipes similar to today’s:
“No. 1. One quart stewed and strained [pumpkin], 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into [pie pastry], and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.
“No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.”
Actually, these bear a striking resemblance to the Libby’s recipe, pretty much unchanged since its introduction in 1929. Who knew? This straightforward favorite has Colonial legs.
Now that I had the “what,” I just needed the “how.” Many bakers believe the best pumpkin pies are made by pouring warm filling into a pre-baked crust to avoid a soggy bottom. Some assert only fresh pumpkin be used, but I really didn’t want to go there. Surprisingly, after a number of experiments, I decided on a variation of the recipe-on-the-can. I substituted heavy cream and whole milk for the evaporated (better taste and more available in Italy), and dark brown sugar for the white for that historical molasses-y quality and color. I eliminated the cloves (overpowering) and threw in some nutmeg as Markham recommended back in 1615.
For a sturdy yet flaky crust that browned nicely, I used a mix of butter and shortening with a touch of sugar for extra flavor, tenderness and browning. I chilled all the ingredients, including the flour, to enhance flakiness. Home bakers often choose glass pie pans because the oven’s heat can pass through glass directly to the dough, cooking the crust more quickly. But American pie pans are hard to find in Italy. Ferry Pyrex across the Atlantic? I don’t think so.
This is what I carried to Italy: eight perforated pie tins (a soggy-crust solution popular in the 1930s now available in some supermarkets), a dozen cans of pumpkin puree, spices, four 1-pound boxes of dark brown sugar, two cans of Crisco, my favorite apron and French-style rolling pin with tapered edges, American measuring spoons and cups, and a small food scale. Not to mention the cranberries, cornbread and stuffing. Don’t complain to me about lugging groceries in from the garage.
Once I arrived, it took hours to find my kitchen among the dozens at the Turin Lingotto, the old Fiat factory turned convention center. Imagine a soaring Moderne industrial space filled with beeping Costco-like palette movers and instructions and disagreements shouted in Italian. Here, the Great Halls of Taste were being set up, like a giant miles-long food bazaar where you could taste and purchase everything from Sicilian almonds to Zibello cured meats. Where you could learn about black Romagnola pigs and Morozzo capons and acquire a taste for lardo di Colonnata (wish I’d thought to make a lard crust--the flakiest--in Italy where pork is king).
Now, picture me wheeling my suitcase of supermarket ingredients through this esoteric uproar. Luckily, Italian-speaking Evan Kleiman, owner of Angeli Caffe, Los Angeles Slow Food chapter leader and fellow presenter at the Salone, and I had arranged to help each other cook for our respective seminars.
We were met in the kitchen by a gaggle of teenage hotel school students in white toques assigned to help, and the pecking order was apparent. The boys lorded it over the girls, and they all dissed the American women in bluejeans.
Amid much gesturing, the universal language of cooking soon broke the ice. “Amelia, Amelia” they’d beckon to discuss each task. They zealously whipped cream practically to butter, foraged ingredients and protected our time in the kitchen (shared with German sausage specialists and Japanese sushi experts). They jostled for center position in our snapshots, and tasted the new and strange flavors we Americans brought. Under their watchful eye, Kleiman whisked the filling while I made the pastry. In two hours, eight pies were cooling. The presentation itself is a blurred memory, except for the cacophony of simultaneous translation and the din of surrounding seminars drifting over the room dividers. What is crystal-clear is Kleiman’s thumbs-up--the plates came back to the kitchen clean--and the vision of once-supercilious kids clamoring for more ciliegie (cherries--there is no precise Italian word for cranberries) and a real American pumpkin pie.