Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sorry, Pumpkin

Sorry Pumpkin, there’s a new pie in town.

Thanksgiving weekend has just about passed; the cooking is done, the dishes washed, families and friends have gathered and dispersed, the kids are getting ready to head back to Ann Arbor.   Our family has often traveled on Thanksgiving weekend, and been pretty flexible with the scheduling of the actual Thanksgiving day feast.  However, there has been nothing flexible about the menu.  This year, I suggested to Al that instead of traditional mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, etc, we could make that wonderful roasted root vegetable recipe I tried a couple of weeks ago- chunks of potato, sweet potato, carrots and fresh beets, roasted in a little olive oil and butter with simple seasonings.  “What?  No mashed potatoes?  We NEED mashed potatoes for the gravy!”  he exclaimed, clearly horrified by the prospects of a non-traditional potato treatment.   Although I love roasted veggies and was eager to have fewer side dishes (and consequently fewer leftovers), I conceded without further debate.

If you know me at all or have been following this blog, you’ll know that cooking is one of my favorite hobbies.  Al loves to cook too and is well known for his homemade pies.  He makes beautiful, flaky crusts and has a knack for juicy (but not runny) fillings.  This year, he and Ellen cooked up two wonderful pies, and of course, Thanksgiving tradition called for pumpkin and apple.  Both lived up to his high standards and were simply delightful.

But this year, there was an intruder on our Thanksgiving dinner. 

A week or so ago, Nancy came to dinner and brought a dessert called “Nantucket Cranberry Pie.”   Despite having grown up in  fairly close proximity to Nantucket,  I had never heard of this pie, really more of a cobbler.  The filling is made from fresh cranberries, walnuts or pecans, and sugar and the buttery topping has a wonderful overtone of almonds.  Al and I simply loved this pie and if you want to make one,  the exact recipe can be found at the PioneerWoman website.  We immediately deemed this recipe a new favorite, and I decided to make one ‘for the weekend’ if not for Thanksgiving day itself. 

This recipe is not at all difficult, calling for no unusual ingredients, no special equipment, and no advanced techniques.  However, there is one teeny-weeny thing you should be aware of.  

Size matters.  A lot.

I have lots of experience and really should have known better, but I made a couple of bad decisions on my first attempt to recreate this pie. First, the recipe calls for 2 cups of fresh cranberries, but a typical 12 oz bag contains 3 cups.  The Thanksgiving cranberry sauce was already made and not having any use for one cup of leftover fresh cranberries, I decided to use all of them-- making the filling extra-cranberry-y.  Of course, cranberries are not naturally sweet so I adjusted the other filling ingredients to compensate.  This seemed like a good idea and it would have been fine, except for my next decision.  I really wanted to use my pretty glazed stoneware pie pan, with its deep cranberry red exterior, so perfect for the cranberry pie.  The diameter of the pan is a little small, but I convinced myself that it was deep enough to contain the recipe.   I put the three cups of berries, the pecans and sugar into the pan and that is when my brain should have sent out some warning signals “Danger Will Robinson!  Pan is too small” but I was so enamored with the idea of the cranberry pie in that cranberry- red pie dish that I just kept going.  The batter came right to the top of the pan—in fact there wasn’t quite enough room for all of it.  Oh well.  I stuck the pie in the oven next to the apple pie that Al and Ellen made and went upstairs while the two desserts baked.

About 10 minutes later, Ellen called from the kitchen. “Mom!  Should I open a window to let out the smoke?” 

Smoke?  Egads!

I ran downstairs to discover my cranberry pie had overflowed and that delicious buttery, almondy topping was emitting a thick gray smoke as it turned to charcoal on the bottom of the oven.

 It was really quite impressive.

We turned on all the fans and they began clearing air in the room.  I was worried that the apple pie would acquire an unpleasant smokiness, so I moved it to our second oven (for which I was grateful!).  With no other options, I put a cookie sheet under the oozing calamity that was my cranberry pie and just let it finish cooking. 

Wolfgang Pauli, in dismissing some inferior scientific work, famously said, “This isn’t right.  This isn’t even wrong.”  Well, I can tell you my pie was not beautiful.  It wasn’t even ugly.  It was a train wreck.

But-- and here is the amazing part--it was still delicious. 

Nantucket Cranberry Pie- Second Try!
Everyone loved it and just like that a new tradition was born.  When the first cranberry pie ran out, I made a second in a bigger pan, with no further incident. Nantucket Cranberry Pie will not replace traditional apple and pumpkin, but will take its place alongside, and a decade from now it will be as deeply rooted in our family tradition as beignets on Christmas morning.  I will, however,  ALWAYS remember to use a larger pan.

So, Santa… if you are reading this, I’d like a 10” cranberry red glazed stoneware pie pan.  

On Thanksgiving, as everyday, I am thankful for so many things.   First and foremost, Al, Eric and Ellen.  Extended family, adopted family, close friends, new friends, old friends, and friends yet to come.  Good health, a warm safe home, rewarding work, furry pets (although maybe not the shedding), laughter.  The beauty of all creation.  Music, art, science,  literature, good food,  chocolate,  sunlight, moonlight.  Memories, this moment, the promise of tomorrow.    So many blessings.   Life is good.



  1. Pretty sad that two veteran chefs like us messed up the easiest pie ever! I'm sure there are lessons in there:) LOVE the Linus Pauling quote. I can think of lots of situations where that applies!

  2. oops-- that was really Wolfgang Pauli, not Linus Pauling. Blog has been corrected.