This is the fifty-first installment in Mucho Gusto, a recipe initiative by and for students to help connect us through food in times of isolation. If you’ve got a recipe you think would make a great addition, reach out to us!
No individual raised on American culture, especially in the Northeast, can fail to recognize the cultural cornerstone that is pumpkin spice. From the infamy of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, to its incorporation into every baked good conceivable, pumpkin spice has come to dominate autumnal culture. If you were to ask what the flavor of fall is, anyone born in the last century would respond with pumpkin spice. It is clearly inescapable, but where did this flavor—or flavors—come from?
A mixture of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger, pumpkin spice was first mentioned in American cooking and baking in early 20th century recipes. It only became the commercialized product we know it to be in the 1950s when spice giants like McCormick began selling pre-mixed pumpkin spice. Considering the age and historical significance of all its respective components, pumpkin spice is a relatively new development; a look at its individual ingredients is where we will find the most insights into the history and cultural significance of its flavor.
First mentioned in Chinese writings of 2800 BCE, cinnamon is derived from the bark of the Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon tree, which is native to Sri Lanka. Different languages and cultures developed different names for the spice based on its uses or growing patterns, but the name “cinnamon,” as it is referred to in English, is derived from the Arabic word ‘amomon,’ which means fragrant spice plants. Cinnamon began its major worldwide transitions to other regions such as South America and the West Indies in the 18th and 19th centuries. It can be grown in most tropical regions, making it a very versatile spice found throughout cultures worldwide.
Cloves are the unopened flower buds of the evergreen Syzygium aromaticum, which is native to Maluku Islands of Indonesia. Unlike the other elements of pumpkin spice, cloves were relatively slow to spread to the rest of the world. Their cultivation was limited to certain countries, notably Zanzibar, which previously produced a majority of the cloves in the spice trade.
Nutmeg comes from the seeds of the nutmeg fruit, which grows on the Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree native to Banda. Nutmeg has an especially rich history; it was particularly significant to the Romans, who are thought to have discovered it and began using it around 1 CE. Much like the other spices in pumpkin spice, Nutmeg found its way to worldwide cultivation in the West Indies, South America, and other tropical and temperate regions. In the 13th and 14th centuries, like many spices, nutmeg was prized by the wealthy, particularly for its hallucinogenic properties.
Ginger may be the oldest flavor in pumpkin spice. It is the root of the Zingiber officinale, a flowering plant originating from Southeast Asia. Ginger’s use in medicine means that it has seen widespread cultivation. It is mentioned in historical documents dating as far back as 5000 years ago in India and China, but ginger’s diversity means its specific origins are somewhat difficult to pinpoint.
The spices of pumpkin spice are diverse, each with a unique history, but they have still managed to come together in the past century to define our flavors of fall and winter. Their cultural omnipresence is undeniable, and sometimes polarizing. Critics of the pumpkin-spice-everything movement seemingly take up arms every fall season, fighting in zealous opposition of pumpkin, but the seasonal battle has yet to conclude. Although I cannot convert the critics or supporters of the pumpkin spice movement, I do have a recipe that may be able to appease both parties.
My auntie Carol’s sweet potato pie has always been the household choice for enjoying autumnal flavor. It is sweet, rich and delightfully spiced. It is somewhat ironic that pumpkin spice goes into a pie that contains no pumpkin, but it’s a modification of the Southern staple that bridges the divide between pumpkin overload and the flavor of fall.
This recipe will make two nine-inch pies.
Crust (recipe adapted from foodwishes.com)
- 2 ½ cups all purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup unsalted butter, frozen, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 8 tablespoons ice water
- 6 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced into approximately ½ inch pieces
- 2 cups white granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 4 large eggs
- 1 ½ teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- A pinch salt
- 1 ½ cups margarine
- A pinch of nutmeg (optional)
Begin by making the crust. Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large bowl or food processor, combine the salt and flour. Add the cold butter to the mixture and pulse until the mixture has a texture similar to that of wet sand. Alternatively, if mixing by hand, cut together the butter and flour with a fork until there are some pebbles of butter remaining and the texture has reached that of wet sand.
Transfer the dough to a smooth, sizable work surface. Slowly add the ice water, periodically mixing by hand or with a bench scraper. You may not need to use all the water, so add it slowly. Be careful not to overwork the dough as it may result in a less tender final crust. Once the dough has reached a shaggy but cohesive texture, wrap in plastic wrap or place into an airtight container and move to the fridge until ready to use.
Next, move on to the pie filling. Place the sweet potatoes into a pot and add cold water until all the potatoes are submerged. Bring the water to a simmer over medium high heat, and cook until fork tender. Drain the sweet potatoes in a colander and leave them to cool, then transfer them to a large mixing bowl and mash. Add sugar, vanilla, evaporated milk, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, salt, and margarine to the mashed sweet potatoes, and stir until the mixture is homogeneous.
Then comes the assembly process. Remove the dough from the fridge and divide into two equal halves. Flour your rolling pin and surface. Roll each half into a roughly circular sheet, approximately 1/16 of an inch thick and slightly larger than a 9-inch pie plate.
Drape a sheet of dough into each of your two ungreased pie dishes. Lift, drop, and press the dough so that it lines the walls and corners of the dishes. Trim excess dough from the edges and crimp, or press the dough’s edges into a pattern if desired. Dock or poke holes in the bottom of the dough with a fork or toothpick to prevent it from rising in the oven, then par-bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until the edges of the crust have turned a light blonde color.
Evenly divide the filling between the two prepared pie dishes and bake for 30-40 minutes or until the surface of the pie has darkened slightly and the crust is golden brown. Carefully remove the pies from the oven and let them cool completely. If desired, sprinkle nutmeg atop the pie as a garnish. Cut a slice and enjoy!
Cover photo courtesy of Betty Crocker