For most of us, pumpkin pie is as much an integral part of Thanksgiving as turkey and stuffing. It’s been that way since the beginning, when pilgrims included pumpkin-based delights in their harvest meal.
But early versions of the dessert were much harder to come by than our canned-puree (or Marie Callender’s) variety. The original New Englanders used pumpkins from the American Indians’ harvest, of which they received a large share after arriving in Plymouth, Mass., in 1620. They filled pumpkin shells with a mixture of pumpkin, milk, honey, and spices, and baked them in hot ashes to get that puddinglike, orange deliciousness that so many of us crave by mid-November.
Back then, every part of the pumpkin was used. Pumpkin seeds were medicine. Mats were made from flattened, dried strips of shell. It even came in handy if you didn’t like your freckles or wanted to get rid of a nasty snakebite, or so the pilgrims believed. The early Americans were so infatuated with the fruit (then known as pompion) that they even wrote songs about it: "We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon / If it were not for pumpkins, we would be undone."
These days, it’s hard to find anyone who uses a pumpkin for anything more than a table decoration or a Jack-o’-lantern. But it’s just as hard to find someone who’d say that the orange-colored custard tart doesn’t belong on the Thanksgiving table. So why argue with tradition? At the very least, you’ll be serving up some good, old-fashioned nutrition to your guests, in the form of vitamin A, potassium, and fiber.
Here are some ideas for pumpkin treats, whether they’re traditional pies or modern alternatives, store bought or homemade.
From the outside, this Mission Street den doesn’t look like a place where you’d want to buy a pet mouse, let alone a dessert to feed your loved ones. But stepping inside the café is like opening the door to Oz: bright colors and friendliness offset the tattered exterior. The staff suggests preordering from the rotating menu of five popular holiday pies ($18) if you want a whole one in time for Turkey Day. And believe me, you will. Try a slice ($3.85, or $3.50 to go) with a dollop of chilled whipped cream and a cup of one of three house-blend coffees. You’ll find the pie’s as traditional as anything Grandma’s ever made for you.
2901 Mission, SF. (415) 282-1500, www.missionpie.com
MIETTE PATISSERIE AND CONFISERIE
It’s nutty. It’s succulent. And according to my findings, one person can devour the whole thing in a day. Beautifully wrapped in plastic and a pink bow, Miette’s pumpkin walnut cake ($14) is a staple dessert for anyone headed to Mom and Dad’s for Thanksgiving but only if you can make it there with some still left on the platter. Not dressed to impress? Oh please, this cake is class-y. It will make up for a tattered sweater or a stained pant leg.
Ferry Building Marketplace, Embarcadero and Market, SF. (415) 837-0300, www.miettecakes.com
This avant-garde brand makes completely organic pies from rice milk, free-range eggs, and palm fruit oil which all taste better than they sound. Plus, everything is wheat free, gluten free, and casein free, so dessert lovers who are allergic to wheat and dairy can pig out without losing sleep. Pick up an eight-inch pumpkin tart at Whole Foods, Rincon Market, RJ’s Market, Rainbow Grocery, Mollie Stones, Le Beau Nob Hill Market, or Andronico’s.
(415) 826-7187, www.cravebakery.org
It’s always fun to mix things up. It’s even more fun when there’s pumpkin cheesecake involved. In my opinion, the cheesecake is a close second to its time-honored counterpart, the pie. And unlike most cheesecakes, Zanze’s (6-inch pie, $14; 8-inch, $22; 10-inch, $28) won’t weigh you down like a pile of bricks you’ll have a turkey to do that. It’s light and carefully whipped, so there will be no need to embarrass yourself by unfastening your pant button and unleashing your belly bulge. It’ll all fit this year.
2405 Ocean, SF. (415) 334-2264
With its top layer of apricot jelly and delicate homemade crust, Peasant’s pumpkin pecan pie ($15.75, one-day advance notice necessary for ordering) will have you wishing Thanksgiving were a weeklong celebration. Peasant Pies’ menu was inspired by the savory tarts found in Sète, France, and was designed with health-savvy pie eaters (is there such a thing?) in mind. Bon appétit!
1039 Irving, SF. (415) 731-1978, www.peasantpies.com
With its oh-so-desirable pumpkin pies available only through New Year’s, the bakery recommends placing an advance order to get your paws on one. It also offers pecan pie and harvest pie (with apples, cranberries, and caramel strudel) during the holiday season (pumpkin and pecan, $17; harvest, $20). Now we really have something to be thankful for.
1346 Martin Luther King Jr., Berk. (510) 526-2260
BEARD PAPA’S SWEETS CAFE
Maybe you’re the unpatriotic Scrooge who doesn’t serve pie on Thanksgiving. Fair enough. But this year, dish up a few pumpkin-flavored cream puffs ($2.25 for one, $11 for six) to give off that I’m-a-reformer-who-still-has-a-little-spirit vibe. They’re flaky on the outside, creamy on the inside, and lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar that will undoubtedly end up all over the place. It could be a fun new tradition.
845 Market, SF. (415) 978-9975, www.beardpapasf.com
If you’re really brave and have some time on your hands, be bold and bake a pie from real pumpkin, not the canned-puree stuff. To make the filling, follow this recipe from www.vitalitymagazine.com:
Cut the pumpkin in half with a French knife or cleaver.
Scoop out the seeds. (Set them aside for roasting or use them in another recipe.)
Brush the cut sides with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Place the pumpkin halves on a baking sheet, cut side down. Bake them in a 375-degree oven for about one hour, or until a knife pierces the skin and flesh easily.
Remove them from the oven and let them cool.
Scrape the flesh from the skin and puree it in a blender or a food processor. Use it immediately or freeze it in one-cup portions.
A three-pound pumpkin yields three cups of puree.