A couple of weeks ago we were at my in-laws' when the conversation, as it often does at this time of year, turned to Thanksgiving. While trying to explain why and what we celebrate, I found myself once again surprised at how little is known about this holiday in the rest of the world. Not that that's a bad thing; the fact that Thanksgiving is still confined to North American shores just stands in stark contrast to all those other holidays we seem to have exported to the furthest reaches of the globe (Valentine's Day and Halloween in particular come to mind). While it's true that Non-North Americans have heard of it, know it revolves around a turkey and may have even attended a Thanksgiving dinner staged by a homesick expat somewhere, most still don't really understand it. In particular no one seems to be able to grasp that there's no religious or political motivation behind it, that it really exists for the sole purpose of getting together with friends and family and stuffing ourselves as full as those turkeys on our tables!
While trying to decide whether I should feel proud or embarrassed by this fact, my step-father-in-law Jürgen interjected to inform me that Germans, in fact, have a comparable holiday. It may not have anything to do with giving thanks, or eating oneself into a food coma for that matter, but it at least falls in November and involves the roasting of a large bird. This holiday is called Martinstag, or St. Martin's Day, in honor of a Roman soldier-turned-monk who was canonized after ripping his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a blizzard, and apparently one of the ways this selfless act is celebrated is by roasting and eating a goose. Since any kind of roast fowl is cause for celebration in my book, I suggested we stage a hybridized holiday: they'd introduce me to the goosely charms of Martinstag, and I'd show off some traditional Thanksgiving specialties. A date was set for the following weekend.
Before I even sat down to mull over the menu, I knew one of my Thanksgiving contributions had to be a pumpkin pie. It's an unwritten essential, one of the pillars of Thanksgivingdom. It might even be more important than turkey; after all, I've been to various turkey-free Thanksgivings, but never one without pumpkin pie. There was no question that I had to make it. There was, however, a problem: I don't actually like pumpkin pie. I never have, and for most of my life I considered that a positive thing since when faced with the typical Thanksgiving multi-pie spread and limited stomach space I had one less decision to make. For a four-person dinner, though, I couldn't possibly justify making more than one pie. I also knew I couldn't serve my in-laws a pie I would rather scrape into my napkin than eat myself. The solution, obviously, was to find a pumpkin pie I liked. It couldn't be that hard, could it?
What followed was a week of pumpkin mania. From someone who hadn't so much as thought about pumpkin pie in years, I became obsessed with finding the perfect one. I started by listing the characteristics I detest in pumpkin pie (soggy, mealy, over-spiced), and conceptualizing my ideal one (tender, creamy, and actually tasting like pumpkin!). My next step was to assemble a few good candidates for pies. I didn't want anything that strayed too far from the standard, so anything with nuts, chocolate, cranberries or apples was out. I combed my books and the internet, looking for pies that looked like they might satisfy my rather abstract desires and finally settled on four contenders: one from Bon Appetit, one from Gourmet, one from Pam Anderson (of CookSmart fame, not Baywatch!), and one from the late, great Richard Sax. I wanted to include the famous one from Cook's Illustrated, but had to drop it when I realized canned yams are about as common in Germany as coconut palms, and at the last minute added in the classic Libby's back-of-the-can recipe for control purposes. And then I baked them all. Well, I didn't actually bake five pies; I cut each filling recipe by three-quarters and baked them in custard cups, using the bright-orange flesh of a hokkaido squash I roasted and pureed myself (canned pumpkin being about as common here as canned yams).
To my surprise, there was no clear winner. Every pie had something I liked and something I didn't. I liked the soft custardiness of the fillings that contained heavy cream, the almost cheesecake-like tang of sour cream in the Gourmet pie, the slightly saltier edge in Pam's and the Libby pies, and the sweet suggestion of vanilla in Richard's. The best texture of all belonged to the Bon Appetit pie, which included a tablespoon of cornstarch; this seemed to simultaneously soak up any sogginess and prevent the custard from getting too firm. On the other hand I didn't like the fluffy, souffle-like texture of the Gourmet pie; Pam's condensed-plus-evaporated-milk filling tasted too strongly of cooked milk to me; the Libby's pie was, just as I remembered, kind of bland and watery; and all of them were too heavy-handed with the spices. In particular I found myself rebelling against the large amounts of ginger in every single recipe. I don't know if I'm alone in the world in this, but I really don't like the fusty taste of powdered ginger; it always reminds me of gingerbread, lebkuchen and all the other over-spiced sweets I avoid like the plague at holiday time.
Looking over my notes, a recipe started to take shape. To get the tang of the Gourmet pie I would use something sour; to get a soft, custardy texture I would use only cream, no milk, and a little cornstarch. Seasoning had to include vanilla and a generous measure of salt but no ginger, and a mixture of brown and white sugars would give depth without masking the pumpkin's own flavor. By this point I had run out of time, though, so instead of being able to give my new formula a test run I crossed my fingers, threw together my favorite crust, and popped what I hoped would be the answer to my pumpkin-pie fantasties in the oven with only a couple hours to spare before our big dinner.
Everything that night was delicious, and we all ate so much goose, gravy, potatoes and stuffing I wondered whether anyone would have any room for the pie. But I needn't have worried: my dessert-ambivalent husband had seconds, my equally dessert-ambivalent mother-in-law Silvia asked for the recipe, and Jürgen said he wished he'd eaten less goose so he could've fit in thirds. And me? Well, after seeing how much they liked it I gave my in-laws half the leftover pie to take home with them, but a few minutes later, when I was in the kitchen cleaning up and my gaze fell on the two lonely pieces of pie that remained, something even more unexpected happened: I felt a not-so-tiny twinge of regret that I'd been so generous.
That, I think, says it all.
p.s. If there's still a hole to fill in your T-day dessert spread, check these out:
Autumn Trifle with Spice-Roasted Apples, Pears, and Pumpkin-Caramel Sauce
New-Fashioned Toll House Pie
Perfect Pecan Pie
Pistachio and Almond Tart with Orange and Cardamom
Treacle Tart, a la Heston Blumenthal
Tangy, Creamy Pumpkin Pie
This is without a doubt my favorite pumpkin pie ever. I love the freshness of the sour cream, the warm subtlety of the spices and the velvety-soft texture of the filling. If, like me, you've ever found yourself wondering why on earth people get so excited over this dessert, prep your shopping list now. This is a pie that does pumpkin justice.
A couple of tips on ingredients: whether you use crème fraîche or sour cream is up to you—crème fraîche is my choice since it's a little richer and makes for a slightly smoother filling but it's not worth going to great lengths to obtain (though remember, you can easily make it yourself!). Also, I know time is short on T-day but if you can manage to find the time, definitely roast and mash your own pumpkin—the difference in flavor is more than worth the effort. And don't think you have to stick to pumpkin; in fact other squashes are just as good if not better, particularly butternut, acorn, hubbard and kabocha. Finally, do grate your own nutmeg for this. It's not even the same spice as the anemic pre-ground stuff.
p.s. To roast your own pumpkin or squash, cut it in half, scrape out the seeds, rub the cut surfaces with vegetable oil and place cut-side down on a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Cover with a second piece of aluminum foil, lightly tucked around the sides to hold it in place, and bake at 375F/190C until completely soft and a knife passes through the flesh with no resistance. Cool before scraping out of the shell and mashing with a fork (it doesn't have to be perfectly smooth since the pie filling goes into the blender). To parbake your crust, fill it with aluminum foil and pie weights or dried beans and bake for about 12-15 minutes at 375F/190C, then remove the weights and foil and bake until lightly golden all over, about another 7-8 minutes. Let cool slightly before filling.
Yield: 8-12 pieces
1 1/2 cups (375ml) pumpkin puree (preferably from a pumpkin or winter squash you've roasted and mashed yourself)
1 1/2 cups (375ml) crème fraîche or sour cream
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
pinch ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (100g) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (100g) white sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 9-inch (23-cm) pie crust, parbaked (see headnote above; use your favorite crust or mine)
Place a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 325F/160C. Place everything for the filling except the sugars and cornstarch together in a blender or food processor. In a small bowl stir the white and brown sugar and cornstarch until no lumps remain. Add to pumpkin mixture and blend until everything is smooth and homogeneous. Pour mixture into parbaked crust.
Place pie on preheated baking sheet in oven and bake until the filling is puffed and just set, about an hour, lightly covering the top of the pie with aluminum foil if the crust starts to brown too much. Cool completely, and serve at room temperature with lightly-sweetened whipped cream.