I’m as fascinated by food travels as I am human travels. So many menus in Europe are the beneficiaries of European colonization of the Americas. What would Italian food be with New World tomatoes??
Add to that the pumpkin. First cultivated by humans in North America as many as 9,000 years ago, the round bright-orange winter squash was one of the first foods taken back to Europe. Cookbooks in Great Britain already had recipes for pumpkin/pumpion custards with pastry crust in the 17th century. Recipes often added apples, and more savory herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and marjoram.
A time to gather to be thankful for our friends and family, our good fortune, and for some, the end of pumpkin spice season.
Harvest feasts have long been common, a celebration of a successful growing season and a meal prepared from the bounty. According to a December 1621 letter from Edward Winslow of the Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims had a three-day feast sometime that fall, and members of the local Wampanoag community were in attendance. The moniker Thanksgiving wouldn’t appear until later. And while the holiday began to emerge on various fall dates, it wasn’t until 1863, while the nation stood divided by the Civil War, that Thanksgiving was proclaimed a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was likely influenced by a letter from Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and editor whose work in the late 1800s pushed for a designated feast day and a standardized menu that included turkey, stuffing, and, of course, pumpkin pie.
The English word comes to us from Greek, oddly enough, where they didn’t even have pumpkins or other squash, but they did have melons and gourds (and unless you are a botanist, there isn’t a significant difference. A Greek word for “cook” was applied to a melon being ripe, as in “cooked” in the sun, and so evolved the word pepon, meaning melon. It passed into Latin as pepo and further on into Middle French as pompon from where it was borrowed by English as pompion (See Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor) and took on a diminutive suffix –kin.
A more recent origin theory purports that the Wampanoag had a word pôhpukun (ponh-pu-kun) meaing “grows forth round” and so the etymological debate is on. Detractors cite an absence of historical references in early writings, the widespread presence of the word in English around the time of the first contact with Wampanoag. It may be that the word was taken up by the Wampanoag from the English. But then, wouldn’t they have their own word? But perhaps they would use the English word when communicating with English speakers? Leaving that one for the experts to sort out.
“As Easy As Pie”
Whoever came up with this expression likely was referring to eating pie not making it. Pies require a bit of work, especially just to get the crust right. My mother, now decades in as the prime Thanksgiving dinner cook and baker cringes at the thought. “A lot people don’t like pie. I don’t care for it,” she tells me. “I always felt that rolling out pie crust was too much work. Sometimes they just want a little piece, you know, and so…”
And so she picked up a couple of cheats that have become family favorites.
Always a stickler on the importance of healthy eating and yet a strong defender of baked desserts, Mom adds, “Pumpkin is supposed to be very healthy for you.” It’s true. By itself pumpkin is rich with potassium, vitamin A and the antioxidant beta-carotene, but you might want to watch the amount of sugar, butter, sweetened condensed milk and whipping cream with which it is often served. Scratch that. It’s Thanksgiving and you can worry about that some other month. Mom says it’s healthy, so it’s healthy.
Some may note that allspice is absent here. Allspice is made from the dried and ground unripe berries of a tree native to the Caribbean, and it is also the prime ingredient for Jamaican jerk seasoning. The name comes from it being similar to cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon – you know, all the spices – and so it blends nicely in your pumpkin pie filling, but we go with cloves instead.
Notice the aroma throughout the house while these are baking. You can skip the pumpkin spice potpourri.
Annie’s Pumpkin Pie Bars
For the Crust:
1 cup flour
½ cup oatmeal
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup butter
For the Filling:
2 cups of pumpkin (1 15-ounce can)
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk (you can use low-fat 2%)
2 eggs, beaten
¾ cup sugar (may be reduced to taste)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon cloves
For the Topping:
½ cup of chopped walnuts
½ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons softened or melted butter
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Soften butter a bit and place all the crust ingredients in a bowl, mix them into a crumb-like consistency and spread evenly in the bottom of a 9×13 cake pan. You do not need to create raised crust edges. Bake for ten minutes.
While the crust is baking, make the filling: Beat the eggs, add and mix the remaining ingredients thoroughly, and pour the filling over the baked crust. Bake this for 20 minutes. Insert a knife an inch or two from the edge, and if it comes out clean, it is done.
For the topping, mix the chopped walnuts, brown sugar, and melted butter. Sprinkle the mixture evenly across the bars and bake another 15 minutes. Let the dish cool and set, then refrigerate it before serving and afterward if there are leftovers. Cut into squares and top with whipped cream or Cool-Whip. Makes about 16 bars.
The original recipe called for condensed milk, I’m told, but that was way too rich. My mother adds a few pinches extra of some of the spices and cuts back on the sugar in most cases. (I’d round down the brown sugar for the topping myself.) This is great as is, but you may want to make it your own.
Still unsure about that texture of pie filling? Maybe cake is a better option for you.
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
1 16-ounce can pumpkin
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon ginger
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Mix all ingredients and bake at 350F for 40-45 minutes on a greased and floured 9×13 cake pan. A toothpick poked into the middle and pulled out clean tells you it’s done. Allow the cake to cool before adding frosting.
3 ounces cream cheese
6 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon milk (more if needed)
¾ cup crushed walnuts (optional)
Soften the butter. Mix all the ingredients to a frosting consistency, adding milk as needed if it is too thick for your tastes. Spread the frosting over the cake and sprinkle with crushed walnuts if you choose. Refrigerate leftovers. Serves about 12-14.