Pumpkin pie redux

by Eszter Hargittai on November 26, 2004

Who would’ve thought that discussing pumpkin pie would be such a popular topic among Timberites (and others as well). Here, I offer an alternative European perspective as there were eight of us around the table last night (with not an American in sight although some later joined us for socializing): three Italians, two Germans, one German/French, one Dutch and one Hungarian. First of all, I’m proud to say that you couldn’t have had a more traditional Thanksgiving meal including a mashed potato/sweet potato dish, bean casserole, cranberry relish, cranberry jello salad, squash, stuffing, plenty of gravy and, of course, a beautiful and delicious turkey. Other than the dinner rolls, ice cream and whipped cream everything was homemade. But let me fast forward to the dessert portion of the evening.

After a walk out to the beach to make some room for the pies, we started a general discussion comparing European vs American pastries. Several people around the table thought that American desserts are just too sweet. This may explain why most people only took a small slice of my pecan pie (oh, and I cheated, I didn’t make the crust). However, I was happy to note that people were quite excited about the pumpkin pie (pictured here without the important whipped cream component). I relied on canned pumpkin pure, but used a special recipe that adds vanilla ice cream to the filling making it extra fluffy and yummy. To the skeptics who in the comments to Belle’s post wondered whether people just said they liked the pie versus actually enjoyed it, I can report that my guests were quite honest regarding their preferences. Everyone got to take food when they left and people did not seem to have any qualms about expressing their preferences (thus I got to keep quite a few peanutbutter bars given that several of those in attendance have not yet developed a taste for peanut butter). I should add that my friend’s Alsatian apple tart was a really big hit as well (and as suggested earlier, it was not as sweet as the other desserts). One more point about desserts: I never use vanilla extract, I use vanilla sugar instead. I think it works much better (the former seems to have an artificial taste I don’t like). Substituting one packet for one teaspoon seems to work well.

The evening ended with us reminiscing about European 70s music (that may require a separate post sometime) and playing around with the various toys on my coffee table (coffee table books are so passé, try putting some Rubik games out sometime). Of course, after that amount of food no need to get so technical as to introduce elaborate puzzles. I brought out my vintage Schwarzer Peter card deck my grandmother and I used to play with when I was five. There is a reason I used to play with it when I was five. After a few minutes of playing we started wondering how many PhDs it takes to figure out the quickest way to end the game (well, you know, without actually just calling it quits). (Keep reinventing the rules and working with the other players so someone can win.) What a fun evening, and of course, no need to cook for the next several days.



harry 11.26.04 at 7:56 pm

I feel a bit guilty for starting the trend. But not as guilty as I feel for taking Mince Pie to the AM’s house when it turned out that what the AM’s family wanted was Bakewell Tart (which, I gather, I usually take in addition to Mince Pie)! Back to both pies next year.

While I was at the AM’s house, I met numerous Australians called Baxter who all seemed to know Quiggin (confirming my view that Australia is much smaller than it looks on the map) and one of whom taught Kieran (and, perhaps, you?) at Princeton, confirming my view that the academic left is pitifully tiny.


eszter 11.26.04 at 8:02 pm

An Australian certainly taught both of us, but not by the name of Baxter or Quiggin (not in my case anyway). Did I miss something here? (And are we being this cryptic on purpose?:)


Vaughn Hopkins 11.26.04 at 8:57 pm

I like pumpkin pie, all pumpkin pie, with or without whipped cream. Pumpkin pie is good. I overeat pumpkin pie. (Did my sincerity come thru there?)


Ehrsaadts Gle' 11.26.04 at 9:45 pm

1- I’ve been to more than a few dinner/drink parties in NY where I was the only American. NY is now full of foreigners who come here to meet each other and Americans who come to meet other Americans. It didn’t used to be that way.

2- Boney M play in small Polish clubs in my neighborhood every few months. For years I’ve been wondering who they were, but never looked them up.

3- Whipped cream from a can?!


harry 11.26.04 at 10:02 pm

No we’re not being obscure on purpose, just trying to be brief. Well, I can’t tell whether I made sexist assumptions, or the reverse. I met Bruce and Mark Western, and swear that the first to introduce himself called himself Baxter. But I must be wrong. I know Janeen Baxter’s work, so was thrilled to meet her, but must have mixed up the surnames. You misread me about Quiggin though — they all seemd to know the Quiggin we blog with.


Charlie Stross 11.26.04 at 11:23 pm

It’s not just American deserts that are too sweet. Basically, the food manufacturers in the US will pump corn syrup into anything they can get their hands on, because it’s (a) cheap, (b) bulks up the food in question, and (c ) makes it taste a bit sweeter. Over the course of a couple of decades they’ve gotten everyone accustomed to food that tastes sweet; this comes as a shock to British (or other European) taste buds on first exposure. Chocolate with more sugar than cocoa solids, hot and sour soup mix (main ingredient, sugar?!?), and so on.

This isn’t an exclusively American problem (in the UK, check the water content of cheap cuts of meat — odds are, it’s over 10%), but I suspect it’s at its worst in the world of deserts, which are meant to be noticeably sweet.


Gregory Pratt 11.27.04 at 12:26 am

Several people around the table thought that American desserts are just too sweet.

The biggest difference between our snacks and theirs, I think, is that we have so many chemicals in our food that fatten us up and give us diabetes. Also it’s the fact that we, in general, don’t care about the poison we put into our bodies. So long as the food is good why ask questions?

Aside from that point, I was wondering if you could add my blog to your “political theory” section? Please, I’d appreciate it muchly.


david 11.27.04 at 12:52 am

Why wasn’t the whipped cream homemade? Was it a matter of preference?


eszter 11.27.04 at 12:57 am

Harry – Bruce Western is on the sociology faculty at Princeton and both Kieran and I had the good fortunate to study with him. He is an incredibly talented and smart person, I learned a lot from him. Kieran worked closely with him and has some joint publications.

Regarding sweets, Gregory suggests:
So long as the food is good why ask questions?

But many sweets are not that good just because they are super sweet (or precisely because of that). Pastries can look great, but a little bit reveals right away that they don’t taste nearly as good as they look.

David – No, it wasn’t a matter of preference, it was a matter of keeping things realistic. I guess it wouldn’t have taken that much extra effort to make whipped cream, but the to-do list gets long pretty quickly so I had to draw the line somewhere.


Cranky Observer 11.27.04 at 2:58 am

Over the last 20 years American desserts have become far too sweet. My wife, her mother, and her late grandmother all make (made) pies using recipies from the 1800s that use fresh fruit and a reasonable amount of sugar. They taste 10x better than almost any commercial or restaurant pie available in the US today.



KCinDC 11.27.04 at 3:55 am

The most excruciatingly sweet desserts I remember having were rice pudding and baklava at Lebanese and Greek restaurants, but those restaurants were in the US, so perhaps they’ve Americanized their recipes. The rice pudding was certainly sweeter than any I’ve had at an “American” restaurant, though.


Brian 11.27.04 at 4:15 am

Yes, ever had Greek desserts? Honey cake swimming in honey syrup? I liked it actually but wow it was sweet.

As a pumpkin pie enthusiast, I forgot my favorite tip about pumpkin pie: it must not be eaten the same day it is cooked. It should rest overnight before eating it. It allows the spices to all blend and mellow and tastes much better. Pumpkin pie is pretty nasty right out of the oven. It has to age a bit. (Unlike say apple or cherry pie which is great warm).


Tom T. 11.27.04 at 4:22 am

Look, until you European folks disavow the notion that salty licorice constitutes candy, I’m not sure that anyone over here in the US is going to take you too seriously when you critique our desserts.


riffle 11.27.04 at 4:33 am

Eszter wrote:
” I never use vanilla extract, I use vanilla sugar instead. I think it works much better (the former seems to have an artificial taste I don’t like).”

I make my own vanilla extract. Get the best vanilla beans you can find (often bourbon beans) and drop them in vodka (some use bourbon whiskey — different from bourbon beans). Give them a few weeks to soak and you have a rich vanilla that gets better over time.

Here’s one page that has some ideas. I do things a little differently but common sense should govern your creation:


I make vanilla sugar, too, but I find for most recipes it’s far easier to maximize the vanilla effect with handmade extract.

I prefer my homemade extract to even the most precious commercial product– but I’ve never run across an “artificial taste” in any extract made from real beans steeped in alcohol. On the other hand, what passes for “vanilla extract” in a typical US grocery store generally doesn’t have any real vanillin in it — avoid it at all costs.

My dessert preference on Thanksgiving is … pumpkin pie. Even a weak pumpkin pie is a tasty thing. But I’d probably say Bananas Foster is the dessert I’d request for a last meal.



obeah 11.27.04 at 6:06 am

My husband hasn’t developed a taste for peanut butter either. I do not understand these people.

My favorite Thanksgiving dessert is pumpkin cheesecake, which seems to be catching on.


John Quiggin 11.27.04 at 11:10 am

Australia is much smaller than it looks on the map! I have a couple of acquaintances called Baxter, though they are not inclined to Marxism as far as I know.


John Quiggin 11.27.04 at 11:18 am

OK, reading on I see the Baxters were a false lead and it’s Mark Western who I know well. It sounds like an enjoyable Thanksgiving was had by all!


KCinDC 11.27.04 at 4:03 pm

Peanut butter is perfectly fine. It just doesn’t belong in desserts.


Cranky Observer 11.27.04 at 4:51 pm

> Yes, ever had Greek desserts?
> Honey cake swimming in honey syrup?
> I liked it actually but wow it was
> sweet.

I have never been to Greece, so I don’t know what is served in restaurants there for dessert. I have had such things in Greek restaurants in the US. While incredibly sweet, they are typically served in a reasonable-sized portion, not something the size of a Chicago softball. Serving size of the typical US dessert is another issue.



Tom T. 11.27.04 at 4:59 pm

You don’t have to eat the whole thing, you know.


David Tiley 11.28.04 at 8:47 am

From: world

To: neocons

“You don’t have to eat the whole thing, you know.”

A lovely, versatile phrase.


Rich 11.30.04 at 9:43 am

Thai desserts also tend to be excessively sweet (not the swill you get in most US Thai restaurants–the real thing). Middle Eastern desserts also tend to go overboard with the honey (again, I speak of teh real thing). Continetal Eurpoeans are not necessarily sloaches in the sweet department–just go to a Konditerei in Germany. British cooking tends toward teh bland and fatty–no reason for them to complain about something being too sweet.

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