Caroline Barrett Cocoa Spice Pumpkin Pie

Thanksgiving Traditions, and the Foods to Match

Here’s my Times Union column for November. Read it here, or see below. The recipes to go along with it are Cocoa Spice Pumpkin Pie, Smoky Sweet Potato Soup and Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Crispy Capers.

Thanksgiving, we know, is a holiday made of food and family and doing the same things, year after year in what we call tradition. Traditions of what we eat, yes, but most importantly, the things we do with family. Last year, Covid turned everything upside down and at our house, we had a weird and quiet Thanksgiving. Our daughter Zoe had to quarantine in her apartment, so we only saw her through computer screens. Our hearts were sad without her and the other beloved faces who typically adorn our table. This year, we are ready to get back at it, to eat and party and hug and fling open our doors to our (vaccinated) family and friends. 

We are lucky. In our house, we did not lose any of the faces we so dearly love to the pandemic. So this Thanksgiving, we’re all together again, dusting off our old traditions and feeling downright thankful for all we have. So, the traditions. One of them involves my wonderful husband, who loves to give thanks before we eat. Each year, we sit at the table, glasses raised, and Paul beams with love and pride, clinking his glass to each one at the table. He’ll touch on milestones that happened throughout the year, things like a graduation or a new job, and then go on to acknowledge each person. It’s sweet and touching. And I, I cannot help it but I hold up my glass and I think about my mashed potatoes and how they’re getting cold. 

Before we can dig into our dinner, there’s another tradition: the family picture, where each and every soul at the table has to squeeze in and often there are multiple attempts and jockeying to make it happen. FInally, after the picture is taken and the toast that’s really a speech is given, when we are genuinely hungry and the mashed potatoes are genuinely cold, Thanksgiving is allowed to commence. 

I have my own tradition and it’s in planning the side dishes that go along with the meal. I like to be sure that every fall color, vegetable hue and palette known to the autumn dinner plate will be represented on the buffet. I like brilliant red cranberries and deep copper-colored squash to nestle up to forestry kale. And yes, I mix it all together on my plate (blasphemy, to some) and then I savor every rainbow bite. Hey, Thanksgiving food is more about the richly colored and textured side dishes than a boring old turkey, right? Here are a few ideas for side dishes, for color, for flavor and hopefully, for crowd pleasers. It’s stuff to scoop up alongside your bites of turkey and mashed potatoes (be they hot or cold.) 

I think a pot of soup is a nice touch to a Thanksgiving spread. The day can be long and alongside the cheeses and dips and nibbly things we put out during the day, a cup of hot soup is a good holdover. This particular recipe checks the required Thanksgiving recipe boxes: make it ahead, keep it warm all day, let everyone customize their bowls with sour cream, roasted seeds, hot sauce and whatever else you can dream up. And, it is made from loads of sweet potatoes, making it simple and beautifully colored. The secret here is the balance of the sweetness in the potato, the smoky paprika and the touch of spice in the chile powder. Do note that the spice used here isn’t your regular old chili powder, but a powder made from ground ancho chiles, nothing else added. It’s pure, warm spice, and easy to find in the spice aisle. 

There’s always a salad on our Thanksgiving table and this year, I’m combining all the root vegetables I can gather up at the market and spreading them, roasted, over salad greens. The important thing is to be sure to cut everything to the same size, so it all roasts evenly. I absolutely love the little morsels of sweet, caramelized shallots sitting alongside earthy veggies. Their mellow onion flavor (kind of like getting a mini shot of French onion soup in each bite) is really good, so don’t leave them out. The dressing on this salad is an easy puree of olive oil, lemon and avocado, along with a bit of herb. Roast the vegetables and make the salad dressing the day before Thanksgiving, then assemble and dress it before the big event. Tiny bits of crispy, brined capers add an unexpected pop. 

The pie I’ll make this year is a shake up of old traditions. Everyone in our house loves pumpkin pie, and it must be part of the dessert table, but why not change it up? In this version of our beloved pie, a little extra spice is stirred in, and a small amount of cocoa powder, too. The cocoa makes it feel a little like you’re eating a chocolate cream pie and your taste buds might have a tug of war as you eat your piece. It’s chocolate! No, it’s pumpkin! Better go back for another slice, just to be sure. The sugared crust is something that will please the crust lovers at the table: crackly raw sugar makes the edge feel like a flaky, buttery cookie. Be sure to stretch your dough out far enough over the edge of the pie plate  to create a holder for all that sweet crunch. 

Our Thanksgiving this year will be full of traditions, some old, and some new. There will be new faces and new friends alongside the old ones. We’ll eat a few favorites, like macaroni and cheese and turkey and sausage stuffing. And for sure, we’ll raise our glasses and listen with happy hearts while Paul blesses our family and our food, and then we will eat together, another year of tradition, of family, of friends and of cold, cold potatoes.


  1. Pingback: Smoky Sweet Potato Soup – Caroline Barrett

  2. Pingback: Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Crispy Capers – Caroline Barrett

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