Our Thanksgiving dinner is both very traditional and not at all. We have the standards: a golden, crispy-skinned roast turkey as the centerpiece, mashed potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce glistening ruby red and jewel-like in a cut glass bowl, and stuffing laden with softened celery and bits of onion and so much butter.
We have family, but not the huge sprawling crowd that so many people welcome on Thanksgiving. With the exception of a few years, it’s always just us four girls (me and my three sisters) and my parents. Once we started getting married, our spouses were invited (boyfriends, never!) and now there are babies, too.
This translates to the coziest, most comforting holiday. Our Thanksgiving dinner always just resembles regular dinner (as in, no travel, no planes, no weird relatives we don’t really know, just the six of us as always at home), but just far more celebratory. We took care to make it an occasion—sometimes we’d spend the day foraging on the farm for things to craft a homemade centerpiece or place cards. We’d make menus, carefully noting all the ingredients that came from the farm. Here we are: the six musketeers! (Note the super cool pant choice. Farm fashion, kids.)
And still, it’s special and different. We treat it as an occasion to make a regular night something memorable. I think we’re always pretty thankful, and I credit my parents with being the sort of people who practice regularly expressing gratitude for even the tiniest things, but Thanksgiving is a moment to take stock of all that more formally.
Oh, and did I mention the dessert situation? No pumpkin pie graces our table. You won’t find pecan pie either, and maybe there has been apple pie in some years. More often, it would be apple crisp—hot and bubbling with a pitcher of thick, cold, raw cream from our Jersey cows alongside it.
Instead my mom always made pastry swans—and this was one of the small things that made Thanksgiving feel like the most sparkling, thrilling occasion when we were little. (It still does for me.) The swans are an old Jacques Pepin recipe: pate a choux dough rounds, split and filled with vanilla pastry cream and topped with a dollop of whipped cream. You pipe lines of pate a choux dough into “s” shapes to make the neck, and you cut the top circle of the body in two to form the wings, which perch jauntily in the whipped cream. The entire thing is plated on a pool of luscious chocolate ganache.
If there’s a fancier, more fun dessert to eat at age 6, I can’t think what it would be. Except maybe baked Alaska. And that’s a close tie.
When we all have families of our own, we won’t always have the same Thanksgiving dinner—just the six of us—anymore. We’ll be together most years, but we’ll all have to jockey for family time with our in-laws and other obligations.
I plan to carry on the pastry swan tradition even if I’m not with all my sisters. And I think I’d like to add a fun tradition of my own—something to delight both a chubby three-year-old and grandparents equally. These pumpkin-shaped rolls are a strong contender. They’re so realistic-looking (a little pumpkin puree in the dough gives them a slight orange hue) that my husband actually thought they were real gourds.
I fill them with a sweet pumpkin puree, but you could leave that out if you want them to be a little more appropriate as dinner rolls. The dough itself has a very subtle sweetness, sort of like a potato bread does, and would be absolutely ideal for the bread basket for Thanksgiving dinner.
A note on the recipe: Don’t skip the step of soaking the twine in oil. I’ve tried it both ways, and it really helps to make the twine easier to remove after baking.
Of course, you can skip the twine step altogether and just bake these as simple round dinner rolls, and they’ll still be wonderful.
Mini Pumpkin Rolls
Adapted lightly from Chopstick Chronicles; makes 8 rolls
For the dough
2 cups (240g) bread flour
30g pumpkin puree
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons active dry or instant yeast
1 egg yolk
2/3 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the filling
2/3 cup (100g) pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup olive oil
8 pumpkin seeds
To make the dough, mix together all the ingredients (I use a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook) and knead until you have a smooth, elastic dough. The dough will be rather sticky but keep kneading and it will get less sticky — knead for at least 10 minutes.
Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 2 hours. The dough won’t double in size but it should get puffier and bigger.
While the dough rises, make the filling: Stir together the pumpkin, nutmeg, and sugar in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin thickens noticeably. This will take about 5 to 8 minutes.
Set the filling aside to cool.
When the dough has risen, divide it into 8 evenly sized pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, then working with one ball at a time, flatten it into a circle. Take a small spoonful (about 1 tablespoon) of filling and place it in the middle of the circle. Wrap the dough up around the filling, pinch it closed tightly, and then roll the ball lightly in your hands until it’s fairly smooth.
Repeat with each piece of dough, placing them on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
Take 8 long pieces of plain twine. Pour the 1/2 cup of olive oil into a shallow bowl and dunk the twine into the oil—this will ensure that the twine doesn’t stick to the dough and is easy to remove after baking.
Take a piece of twine and wrap it around a dough ball, starting at the top and crossing the pieces underneath, then repeating around the top and bottom until the twine makes 8 segments (see the photo to see where the twine markings are). Tie it at the bottom and snip the ends.
Don’t pull the twine too tightly against the dough, as the dough will expand as it bakes. You want it to sit loosely against the dough.
Let the dough balls (covered loosely with plastic wrap) rise for about 30 minutes on the parchment-lined baking sheet while you preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Remove the plastic wrap, place a pumpkin seed upright in the center of each roll, and bake the rolls for about 15 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove from the oven and let cool until you can easily handle them, then snip the twine in a few places and gently peel it off.