It is truly strange that Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Think about it: a day dedicated to one momentous meal, weeks of planning, hours of laborious cooking, and further hours of steady eating, drinking, and carousing. Surely such a culinary orgy is more appropriate to our gastronomically inclined neighbors across the pond. How about the Italians for instance? I can just picture them embracing the idea, substituting pasta for mashed potatoes and tiramisu for pumpkin pie while retaining the spirit of extravagant enjoyment. Or the French, who would perhaps sweep away our cranberry sauce and stuff our turkeys with chestnuts. Yet neither of these foodie nations has any festival comparable to the utterly hedonistic delight that is Thanksgiving in America.
And my brother and I agree: it is the best of holidays, really the only American celebration that counts. There is none of the agonizing over presents, familiar duties, or manufactured jollity that typify Christmas, and non of the mildly uncomfortable flag waving that accompanies the 4th of July. And besides a fairly gentle undercurrent of advertisements for cranberry sauce and turkeys, the usual bombardment from retailers is absent. Perhaps some ambitious business tried to turn Thanksgiving into a hallmark holiday at some point, but if so it clearly didn’t work. Instead the day has remained magnificently single-minded. It is, quite simply, all about grub.
However, I can’t claim coolly objective speculation this Thanksgiving evening, as I’m in a sad state of exile with all the rosy hued nostalgia that brings. Instead of occupying my rightful position—at the culinary helm, sweating in an unladylike fashion and bellowing orders at my long-suffering kitchen minions—I am tucked away in a flat in London, glumly sipping sherry. It is no substitute, I assure you. But I have one secret palliative to help me through the anguish of wistful memories and the prospect of a cheerless, empty kitchen, one glowing light at the end of the tunnel of gastronomic wilderness: I have pie in the oven.
Trudging through the grey streets of London this morning, with an equally monotonous sky overhead and a caustic chill to the air, I became convinced that I would dissolve into despair if I did not at least prepare something—some iconic edible—to commemorate the occasion. A turkey wasn’t feasible, so I decided to go for dessert, something sweet to sooth the ache. And if you’re fixing just one dessert on Thanksgiving, there’s only one option: you bake a pumpkin pie.
No messing about with posh French pastry nonsense. Instead, opt for a simple all-butter crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces butter, well chilled
3-5 tablespoons cold water
Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a cheese grater, grate the chilled butter into the flour and rub quickly between fingers until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. (Work as quickly as possible to avoid warming the butter. It’s those little pieces of cold fat that help create a flaky pastry.) Add enough water to bind mixture into a rough ball. Press the ball down on a floured counter and roll out one inch bigger than your tart pan. Line the pan with the dough, folding over the edges and pressing into a shapely border if you’re the aesthetically sensitive sort. Place the lined pan in the freezer while you pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C and mix the filling.
15 ounces fresh or canned pumpkin puree.
2 large eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of ground nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves
Beat the eggs together, then add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Pour the filling into the shell and bake for about 45 minutes of until risen and browned. Allow to cool a little and serve with vanilla ice cream, creme fraiche, or whipped cream.
Take one slice, as often as needed, till the Thanksgiving blues have dissipated. Then, as tradition dictates, eat another slice for tomorrow’s breakfast to complete the cure.