When planning the main course for a memorable holiday meal, you're usually allowed a little wiggle room. You probably won't be ostracized if you serve duck instead of lamb at Easter, for instance, or disinherited if roast beef, or even goose, takes the spotlight at Christmas.
But Thanksgiving is another story. Turkey takes center stage on the dining room table. Anything else borders on sacrilege. Anything other than the traditional bird would be about as welcome as baked ham at a bat mitzvah.
Side dishes, too, are usually set in concrete or at least wet cement. Cranberry sauce is a given. Then there are candied sweet potatoes, buttered Brussels sprouts for the adventurous, and what would a beaming Aunt Betty do if she didn't appear on the doorstep without her Campbell's Green Bean Casserole (circa 1955) topped with those toasty, canned French's French fried onions? Why, she'd rather stay home and sulk.
When it comes to dessert, the table fairly groans. Pies of pumpkin, apple, mincemeat, pecan, and sweet potato – any of those, and often more than a few, are likely to make an appearance.
But there's a classic old favorite that's not as popular these days as in years past: Indian pudding.
That's something of an American tragedy. Just ask Kathleen Curtin, food historian at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum here, and coauthor of "Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, From Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie" (Clarkson Potter, 2005). To Ms. Curtin, the subject of Indian pudding is like talking popcorn with Orville Redenbacher.
"Indian pudding is one of my favorite subjects in the whole world," exclaims Curtin at an interview here at the plantation. She's been making it for years for her family and makes it every Thanksgiving for the staff at Plimoth Plantation.
Indian pudding was more popular in years past, says Curtin. "It's become known as a regional New England recipe, even though it originally wasn't. Before 1900, it was in most American cookbooks."
Although thought of as a Thanksgiving dessert, it wasn't on the menu "until the mid-1700s, during the molasses trade," Curtin says. "And it is a strictly American dessert.... Very little in it is European."
Puddings were very different in the days of the first settlers here. The Pilgrims of Plymouth made puddings the old- fashioned way: They boiled them. And they're still doing it that way at Plimoth Plantation.
Two interpreters playing the roles of Candice Wainwright and Patience Prence are making puddings in the reconstructed 1627 home of Isaac Allerton, ruling elder of the church. Here, they demonstrate to a crowd of wide-eyed school children standing cheek by jowl on the dirt floor the making of "puddings" as they stuff animal casings with bits of pork, fat, spices, and cream. The stuffed casings will be boiled and then served to the men after they come in from repairing fences and hunting deer and turkey.
Last Friday, on a day that was as shiny and crisp as a McIntosh apple, Curtin served scoops of her molasses-rich Indian pudding to curious tourists at Plimoth Plantation. It went faster than peanuts at a ballpark.
Thomas Flahive, a dairy farmer visiting from County Kerry, Ireland, is giving it a try. Reluctantly. "We don't use it [molasses] for human consumption," says a surprised Mr. Flahive, with a brogue as thick as the pudding itself. "We use it on the farm to sweeten cattle silage."
His camera-shy wife, Helen, is equally impressed, "Tastes lovely," she agrees, "Easy on the palate."
Lisa Webb from Salem, N.H. is back for seconds. "I make it every Thanksgiving," she says. "I'm from an Italian family, and we like our desserts: cream-filled everything."
And how many desserts are served at a typical holiday meal at her house? "One per person. I'm not kidding. Fifteen people, 15 desserts! I made Indian pudding for the first time four years ago and everyone ate it. It was gone."
Ms. Webb balks at those who say it's not popular today because it takes too long to make. "You just mix it up, put it in the oven and forget it," she says. Webb plans to visit her in-laws this year for Thanksgiving, and, yes, you know what she's been asked to bring for dessert. So just why has Indian pudding fallen out of favor?
Back to Curtin. "People who aren't used to it ask, 'What is that brown stuff?' It isn't pretty. It's homey and homely." But when it's baking, she says, "it smells better than potpourri."
Despite the title, early New England settlers did not adapt this recipe from native Americans: 'Indian' refers to the 'Indian meal' used – cornmeal, as wheat flour wasn't available.
Before you start this recipe, plan ahead. This dessert has a long baking time: three hours altogether, plus another 30 minutes to cool.
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup water
4 cups milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup dark molasses
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup raisins or other dried fruits like cranberries or blueberries (optional)
Vanilla ice cream
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Heavily grease a 1-1/2 quart ovenproof baking dish with butter or lard.
Place 3/4 cup water in a small bowl and gradually whisk in the cornmeal until it is completely mixed and smooth.
Scald 3 cups of the milk in a heavy saucepan (heat until tiny bubbles appear around the edge – don't bring to a full boil) and stir the cornmeal mixture into the hot milk. Reduce heat to low and stir frequently, for 15 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened.
Remove from heat. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Stir some of the hot cornmeal mixture into the beaten egg, a spoonful at a time, until you have added about 1/2 cup. (This is to warm up the egg mixture gradually, so the hot cornmeal mixture doesn't cook it too quickly.) Return egg mixture to the saucepan and stir in the sugar, molasses, butter, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, salt, and optional raisins or dried fruit. Pour the mixture into the prepared greased dish. Bake for 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and gently pour the remaining 1 cup of milk over the top of the pudding. Do not stir in. Bake 2-1/2 to 3 hours longer, or until pudding begins to set. Remove from oven and set aside for 30 minutes to one hour. Pudding will thicken further as it cools. Serve warm, topped with vanilla ice cream. Serves 6.
Note: Leftover pudding may be served cold, topped with heavy cream, for the next morning's breakfast.