To most of us, Thanksgiving dinner brings to mind pumpkin pie almost as much as it does turkey. But the pumpkin pie that we know and love today—a pumpkin custard, gently spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a bit of ginger and allspice, and baked in a crust—didn’t come into existence until the late eighteenth century. That was long after abundant harvests began to be celebrated in New England in the mid-seventeenth century. What types of pies would these earliest New Englanders have enjoyed at their "thanksgiving" dinners? Edward Johnson, author of the first history of New England, writes that by the 1650s the English settlers of the region were having “apple, pear, and quince tarts instead of their former Pumpkin Pies.” Clearly, he has a pecking order in mind—and pumpkin isn't at the top. He's referring to the unhappy association in his contemporaries' minds between pumpkins, those ungainly New World vegetables that grew like weeds, and the lean early years of settlement. What he claimed most people preferred were the superior cultivated fruits of the Old World--apples and pears.
But Johnson may have misjudged the prevailing attitudes toward pumpkins, and the pies to be made with them. For the year after his book was published, in 1655, a quite remarkable recipe for pumpkin pie was included in a cookbook attributed to the former queen of England, Henrietta Maria, the widow of the beheaded Charles I. Take a look at it. It's not your mother's pumpkin pie, that's for sure. But don't let that stop you from considering its merits. Here’s the recipe for it, just as the deposed Queen Henrietta Maria may have recorded it:
“To Make a Pumpion Pye”from The Compleat Cook (1655)
Admittedly, from our point of view this is pumpkin pie only in the sense that pumpkin is one of the ingredients. But it carried the cachet of royalty, and as an example of the finest cuisine of the time may well have been found on the festive tables of New England's newest inhabitants. It continued to be found there for another hundred years. How do we know? A manuscript cookbook kept by the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant in the years just before the American Revolution contains an almost identical recipe. So if you’d like to have something a little different among your array of Thanksgiving desserts this year, have a go at this “pumpion pye” fit both for a queen and also for New England’s first Thanksgivings.
Makes 1 9-inch pie
¼ pound raw pumpkin, seeded, peeled, and cut into 6 strips
1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme
1 heaping teaspoon fresh chopped rosemary
1 heaping teaspoon fresh chopped marjoram
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
5 eggs, beaten + 3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons butter
2 apples, peeled and sliced as discs, then each disc cored
¼ cup currants
¼ cup white wine
2 9-inch pie crusts
How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 400° and blind baked the bottom crust for 10 minutes. For our pie crusts, we used a recipe from the same time period as that of the “pumpion pye,” but any standard modern pie crust recipe will also be perfectly fine.
With a whisk, we beat together the herbs, spices, eggs, and sugar and added the pumpkin strips, producing a mixture for what the seventeenth-century English called a “froiz”—essentially an omelet or frittata. We melted 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet on high heat, poured in the froiz mixture, and immediately reduced the heat to medium. When the froiz puffed up and bubbles began to form on top, we removed it to a plate, melted an additional tablespoon of butter in the skillet, flipped the froiz over and, with the heat off, returned it to the skillet for 3 to 5 minutes, allowing the side that had been on top during the initial frying to solidify. Then we set the froiz aside to cool. After cooling, we cut it into strips.
Now we were ready to fill our pie. We put a layer of froiz strips on the bottom, then a layer of apple discs, then a layer of currants, then repeated the sequence until the pie plate was almost full. We dotted the apple discs that formed the top layer with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and covered the pie with the top crust.
Into the oven it went, for 30 minutes at 400°, then for 60 minutes at 375°. (After the first 30 minutes at this temperature, we covered the pie with aluminum foil to prevent excessive browning of the top crust.) While the pie was baking, we beat together the egg yolks and the wine to make the “caudle.” When the pie was done, we removed the top crust, poured the caudle over the top of the filling, and replaced the top crust. As the pie was cooling for about 75 minutes, its residual heat cooked the caudle and mingled its flavors with the pie’s already rich blend of pumpkin, apple, currants, herbs, and spices. “Pumpion Pye” made for a truly memorable Thanksgiving at our house last year!
Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald
Authors of Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011)
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