Always leave room for dessert, especially when it’s served with a little business history on the side. In her new cookbook, “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts,” Serious Eats senior editor Stella Parks tells how some of the most all-American desserts became so popular in this country. A lot of times, it’s because a corporation made it happen.
Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal talked to Parks about some of the recipes in her book and how they came to define American baking. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: So this is an awesome book because there’s all kinds of fun stuff in it. And were I a better baker, I would make some of it. But it’s a little bit depressing too, because there’s a whole lot of corporate and branding and marketing and all that stuff behind all these treats that we know and love in this country.
Stella Parks: That’s not depressing.
Ryssdal: Oh. OK. It was depressing for me.
Parks: No, I think it’s a fantastic part of American culture, the way these desserts are disseminated across the country thanks to these marketing efforts and corporations.
Ryssdal: So we’ll do a couple of examples here, the first one up, talk to me about pumpkin pie for a minute, would you?
Parks: I wondered if you’d bring that up. I know you’re not a fan of pumpkin pie.
Ryssdal: I think pumpkin pie is overrated.
Parks: I think that’s fair for people to, I mean, know what they like. I think you’ve probably experienced the fact that you say, “I like pumpkin pie,” and people say, “Well, you haven’t had my grandmother’s pumpkin pie.” Pumpkin pie can have a lot of bad things going for it, so it’s not unreasonable that you haven’t enjoyed it.
Ryssdal: Totally fair enough. Give me the corporate story, though, of how we got to where pumpkin pie is this staple in this economy now?
Parks: Well it’s this kind of secret pumpkin cabal in a way.
Ryssdal: And other phrases that have never been said on Marketplace.
Parks: Right. So pumpkins are not actually very good for pie. And everyone knows this. Back in the day everyone enjoyed squash a lot more, like a butternut squash or winter squash. And so there is this guy who was like this kind of squash king and he was into kind of consolidating different squashes and squash research and growing different varietals of squash. And he just snapped up this packing plant and was able to kind of get a monopoly on all the farmers in a specific area of America, which is now Libby’s Pumpkin, which is secretly squash.
Ryssdal: But if I go to the store and I buy a can of pumpkin, it says on the outside 100 percent pumpkin.
Parks: Yeah, there’s no rule about what pumpkins are.
Parks: The Food and Drug Administration has no legal distinctions between pumpkins and squash. They’re all in the same botanical family, and it’s just a game of semantics. And the FDA was like, it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t. I’m pro-squash.
Ryssdal: I wonder how many people listening to this interview, of which I am one, I will tell you, thought it actually was pumpkin that came glopping out of the can.
Parks: Yeah, it’s totally not pumpkin.
Ryssdal: That’s mildly horrifying. All right. So to prove that I am not a complete dessert Scrooge here, cheesecake. Cheesecake is my go to. At my house, on your birthday, you get the dessert you want and cheesecake is mine.
Parks: That’s fantastic. Cheesecake is just dreamy. It’s pretty great.
Ryssdal: And yet there is a corporate story behind my favorite dessert here.
Parks: So the story behind cheesecake comes down to cream cheese, which was, in the 1800s, a really unique regional product to Pennsylvania. But it was also really popular in New York because New York farmers, they would skim it, so it just didn’t have that same luxurious sense of a full-fat cheese. So this New York based dairy farmer and his marketing partner decided to start selling their New York cream cheese as “Philadelphia cream cheese.”
Parks: So people go to the market, they’re not used to advertising. They have no savvy about how to, like, differentiate what these claims truly mean. And they just see this really beautiful package, this thing that says “Philadelphia cream cheese. And they’re like, “Perfect, that’s exactly what I came here to buy today.”
Ryssdal: There you go, and I’ll tell you, go to the store today and it’s completely recognizable and you don’t even think. You grab a couple or three and you go home and you make whatever you’re making.
Recipes and photograph from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts by Stella Parks. Copyright © 2017 by Stella Parks. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Butternut Pumpkin Pie
America’s favorite pumpkin puree is actually made from squash, so why not turn to the earthy sweetness of fresh butternut squash? It’s dead easy to prepare at home and tastes more vibrantly “pumpkin” than anything from a can. By that same token, homemade condensed milk is rich and creamy like no other. Baked together in a crisp and flaky All-Butter Pastry Crust, these DIY ingredients elevate a traditional pie into something more than the sum of its parts.
Yield: one 9-inch pie; 8 to 12 servings | Active time: 45 minutes (only 5 minutes with components prepared in advance) | Downtime: 45-minute roast, plus 2-hour rest
1 medium butternut squash (about 7 inches long and 4 inches across at the base; at least 24 ounces)
1 recipe (2 cups | 19 ounces) Quick Condensed Milk (page 169), at room temperature
1/2 cup packed | 4 ounces light brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract or bourbon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg, plus more to garnish if desired
1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons | 1 ounce unsalted butter, melted
3 large eggs, straight from the fridge
1 fully baked No-Stress All-Butter Pastry Crust (page 150)
1/2 recipe (2 cups | 8 ounces) Make-Ahead Whipped Cream (page 89), or any variation (optional)
1 cup | 5 ounces crushed Homemade Heath® Toffee Bits (page 320; optional)
Prepare the squash puree:
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 400° F. Split the squash lengthways, scoop out the seeds, and place cut side down on a foil-lined aluminum baking sheet. Roast until fork-tender, about 45 minutes.
When the squash is cool enough to handle, use a large spoon to scrape out the pulp. Pulse in a food processor until smooth, or rub through a double-mesh sieve. Measure out 14 ounces (1 3/4 cups) squash puree. Use warm, or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Make the pie:
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 375° F. In a medium bowl, whisk the squash puree, Quick Condensed Milk, brown sugar, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, cloves, butter, and eggs until smooth. Pour into the baked crust, place on an aluminum baking sheet, and bake until the custard has puffed into a gentle dome, about 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350° F and continue baking until the custard is firm around the edges but still wobbly in the very center, about 25 minutes more (200° F; 210° F if the probe touches the crust). Let cool at room temperature until the custard is set, about 2 hours.
Cut the pie with a chef’s knife. If you like, serve with dollops of whipped cream and a sprinkling of crushed toffee. Wrapped in plastic, leftovers will keep for up to 4 days at room temperature.
From the No-Stress All-Butter Pastry Crust, which can be rolled, shaped, and frozen months in advance, to the Quick Condensed Milk and squash puree, every element of this recipe can be made well ahead, so don’t feel as if you need to tackle it all at once.
If you have any leftover squash puree, it can be refrigerated for up to 1 week and used in your next batch of Five-Minute Muffins (page 282).
Mix it up!
Snickerstreusel Crumble: The last-minute addition of crunchy toasted nuts and chewy oatmeal via my buttery Snickerstreusel give this creamy pie a wonderful variety of textures. Make and bake the pie as directed, but after reducing the oven temperature to 350° F, sprinkle the semi-baked pie with 3 ounces (3/4 cup) cold or frozen Snickerstreusel (page 48). Continue baking as above, allowing an additional 5 minutes for the streusel to crisp.
Quick Condensed Milk
Homemade sweetened condensed milk traditionally requires ultra-low heat and up to 6 hours of constant stirring, but with a splash of heavy cream added to prevent scorching, I can crank up the heat and be done in 45 minutes. The result is thicker, creamier, and more luscious than anything from a can, with a rich dairy flavor and subtle notes of caramel. If you like chai tea, be sure to try the cinnamon-spiced variation.
Yield: 2 cups (about 19 ounces) | Active time: 45 minutes
4 cups | 32 ounces milk (any percentage will do)
3/4 cup | 6 ounces heavy cream
1 cup | 7 ounces sugar
1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half as much if iodized)
Key Point: Even slightly acidic ingredients will cause hot dairy to curdle, including raw cane sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey, and agave. Take care when experimenting with ingredients not listed in the variations.
Combine milk, cream, sugar, and salt in a 5-quart stainless steel saucier. If using a scale, weigh the pot and ingredients together so you can digitally track the reduction. Place over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a heat resistant spatula, until the milk begins to simmer, about 12 minutes. Continue cooking another 30 minutes more, scraping continuously to prevent a milky buildup from forming around the sides. When the thickened milk-syrup suddenly begins to foam, it’s almost done. Keep simmering and stirring until the foam subsides and the dairy has condensed to exactly 2 cups or 19 ounces. If using a scale, the pot will weigh 26 ounces less than when you started.
Pour into an airtight container, seal to prevent evaporation, and refrigerate up to 1 month. To mimic the consistency of canned milk, bring to room temperature before using.
The timing of this recipe may vary considerably depending on the heat output of your stove and the size, shape, and heaviness of your pot. If it takes considerably longer than 12 minutes to bring the milk to a simmer, you can safely increase the heat to medium-high in order to reduce the dairy within the allotted time. Conversely, should the milk begin to simmer much faster, reduce the heat to medium-low to prevent the dairy from cooking too hard.
Mix it up!
Chai Spice: Along with the sugar, add two 4-inch cinnamon sticks, 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice berries, 10 whole black peppercorns, 5 whole cloves, and 6 white cardamom pods, gently cracked. Proceed as directed. For an easy chai latte, stir 1 tablespoon of the spiced milk into 6 ounces (3/4 cup) hot black tea, such as Assam.
Dulce de Leche: This rich and nutty variation owes its caramel flavor and color to baking soda, which raises the dairy’s pH, allowing the lactose to brown at lower temperatures than normal. Add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda to the sugar and proceed as directed; though the mixture will foam more vigorously, there is no risk of overflow. Made with goat’s milk in the variation below, dulce de leche is known as cajeta. As the browning process will resume with continued exposure to heat, neither dulce de leche or cajeta can be used as an ingredient in baked goods.
Fresh Ginger: Peel and roughly chop a 2-inch piece of fresh ginger; add along with the sugar.
Goat’s-Milk: This variation is more easily digested by those with lactose intolerance, and because goat’s milk won’t curdle when it’s boiled, there’s no need for cream. Trust me, there’s nothing “goaty” about it — just gentle creaminess anyone can enjoy. Replace milk and cream with 38 ounces (4 3/4 cups) goat’s milk and proceed as directed. Note: This variation requires “ultra-high temperature” pasteurized goat’s milk, as raw or low-heat pasteurized versions may turn grainy with prolonged cooking.
Lavender: During the cooking process, lavender mellows into something soft and aromatic, without any hint of the soapiness that can so often be its downfall. Add 1 tablespoon dried lavender buds along with the sugar.
Rosemary: Wonderfully herbaceous, this variation is my absolute favorite way to make Pumpkin Pie. Add a 4-inch sprig of fresh rosemary along with the sugar.
Soft-Serve: This eggless ice cream has an unbelievably pure and creamy flavor, with a silkiness that reminds me of Dairy Queen soft serve. Prepare the Quick Condensed Milk or any variation and pour into a large bowl. Add 10 ounces (1 1/4 cups) heavy cream, 2 ounces (1/4 cup) whole milk, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (half as much if iodized), and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract and mix well. Chill until cold, about 2 hours, and churn according to the directions for Double-Vanilla Ice Cream (page 334).
Vanilla Bean: I make this variation whenever I have an empty vanilla bean left over from another project, as the cooking process will extract considerable flavor from even the most withered pod (the sheer volume of seeds in a “fresh” pod can turn the milk gray). Add scraped vanilla pod to the milk and proceed as directed. To deepen the flavor, leave the vanilla pod in the jar of Quick Condensed Milk.
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