2013-11-21 / From The Garden

The Best Thanksgiving Desserts

By Cynthia Gibson

The French may have made the first pumpkin pie – Chef François Pierre la Varenne created the torte au pompion or pumpkin tarte in 1650 – but it is a dessert that we Americans think of as our own.

Long before Europeans arrived on North American shores, pumpkins were one of the continent’s oldest native crops and were integral to the diets of indigenous peoples. Native Americans would place whole pumpkins among the red coals of a camp fire, turning them slowly until the outer skin was black and the inside was cooked and very moist. This was a very different dish from the pumpkin pie that adorns almost every Thanksgiving table today.

After the Native Americans introduced pumpkins and squash to the colonists, they put their own spin on cooking. The colonists would carve a lid from the pumpkin, seed it, and pour a mixture of milk and eggs into the hollowedout body of the fruit. (Yes, pumpkin is a fruit, not a vegetable.) They would put the lid back on, place the pumpkin into a burning fire, and cook until the custard inside was set. This dish was a step closer to our traditional Thanksgiving pie. Later, sugar was added to the mixture, ovens were built, and the slow evolution of pumpkin pie began. What we now call Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, however, did not appear in the colonies until 1796. It took close to 150 years to put that pie on the table! No wonder it is considered such a treat.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Today, we still love a slice of pumpkin pie, but the use of canned pumpkin, which is so easy and makes the best pie and baked pumpkin desserts, has taken on new incarnations. There is pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin bread, pumpkin cakes, and pumpkin cupcakes too. The options are endless!

Berries and nuts played a great, but often less recognized, role in the fall harvest. Most of the softfleshed berries were out of season and eaten by October, so the discovery of the cranberry was a tremendous boon.

Native Americans gathered nuts in forests all over America and used them in cooking long before the arrival of the pilgrims. Nuts are indigenous to most parts of the United States; they were greatly prized because of their flavor and stored well for long periods. They served as an excellent alternate source of protein during the winters when meat was scarce and were often roasted and mixed in with breads and soups.

Nuts have always been included in Thanksgiving celebrations. They are a true symbol of the harvest and the tastiest nuts are those found in a hardened shell. Black walnuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, and pecans are real treats. Candied nuts are a delicious alternative to pecan pie when passed with coffee or demitasse after dinner. Ending a meal with nuts is a time-honored tradition, as evidenced by the oftrepeated phrase, “from soup to nuts.”

Making candied pecans or hazelnuts is easy. Try these! If you make them for Thanksgiving, I know you will be preparing more before Christmas.

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