Laurie Colwin and Nantucket Cranberry Pie

Recipe Testers,

I'm always a bit fascinated by the way our senses are linked to food and the seasons. If someone offered you a pumpkin latte in the spring, it just wouldn't smell, sound or taste right. It seems "off" somehow to eat something out of season. Part of the pleasure is gone from it. It's as if it doesn't taste the same because your not in the mood for it. With each season we have "new" cravings for the old familiar things. In spring I can't wait for asparagus, peas and rhubarb. In summer I can't wait for cherries, apricots, peaches, tomatoes and blueberries. But now that fall is upon us I crave apples, pumpkins, pears, pomegranates and cranberries. I've gone without them all year it is with such joy that I see Dittmar's apple stand open, pumpkins under their big green leaves in the field and pomegranates ripening on the trees.

I always seem to start my "craving" and "taste" for something just before they the food actually becomes available. So right now I'm craving cranberries even though I haven't seen them available anywhere yet. When I think of cranberries I think of Laurie Colwin's Nantucket Cranberry Pie. It isn't really a pie. It is actually a cake. In fact, it is an upside down cranberry cake. The thing about it is that it is easy easy easy! I remember not even having the recipe and kind of throwing it together when I'd be at someone's house. It is very forgiving that way.

Before I write the recipe I want to say a little bit about Laurie Colwin. Laurie Colwin used to write a one or two page article for Gourmet magazine. (I've mentioned before what a huge influence Gourmet magazine was in my early cooking life. Later I will devote an entire recipe testing e-mail to that.) Every month, I'd get my Gourmet and flip through the pictures and menus to get an overall glance of what excitement lay ahead in my culinary adventures and then would turn with great comfort to Laurie Colwin's article. I thought Laurie was my friend. I thought she was writing the article just for me. The articles weren't formally written. Instead, they seemed like a conversation she was having with a friend where she was telling some great new cooking tip or recipe that she loved.

When I was younger I wanted to be her. I dreamed that the perfect job for me would be to write a one page article for Gourmet every month. (Now I realize the perfect job for me is to write recipe testing e-mails to my friends!) I saved quite a few of her articles but I wish I'd torn out more of them. I think I started my "white notebooks" near to the time when she started writing these articles. (The "white notebooks" are where I put all my recipes. Many recipes are torn out of magazines and then put in sheet protectors in the white notebooks. Details on my method and madness later)

This recipe for her Nantucket Cranberry Pie from the November 1993 issue of Gourmet is my favorite of all of them. I'll quote from her words directly:

"When people feel they must make a REAL dessert they are usually looking for something simple and wonderful, two qualities often seen as mutually exclusive. I like a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result. Fortunately, such cakes exist and are generally found at someone else's home. You then purloin the recipe (because you have taken care to acquire generous friends) and serve it to other friends who in turn, pass it on to yet others. This is the way in which nations are unified and relationships are made solid.

My candidate for an easy, spectacular dessert is something called Nantucket Cranberry Pie, which is not a pie, but a cake. It was served to me in the country by a friend who lives on a dairy farm; she got the recipe from her mother, who can no longer remember where it originally came from. It is now a staple in their family, and the buck stops there.

In an effort to find the true roots of this cake I looked in The Yankee Cook Book by Imogene Wolcott, a classic tome that contains just about everything anyone needs to know about traditional New England fare. In the index was Cape Cod Cranberry Pie, but it turned out to be a real live pie. Our Nantucket Cranberry Pie is definitely a cake; furthermore, it is a snap to make, and, last but not least, it is delicious. If you wanted to try your hand at lily-gilding, you might put vanilla ice-cream, creme fraiche, or (if you have tons of time) custard on the side, but my friend serves it straight, which is, I agree, the best way.

Nantucket Cranberry Pie

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Chop enough cranberries to make 2 cups and enough walnuts to make 1/2 cup.

2. Put the chopped cranberries and walnuts and 1/2 cup sugar in a buttered 10-inch pie plate or springform pan.

3. Mix 2 large eggs, 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) melted and cooled butter, 1 cups sugar, one cup flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon almond extract. Stir the batter until it is smooth and pour it over the cranberry walnut mixture. Bake the cake in the middle of the oven for 40 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

There is something about the tartness of the cranberries and the smooth, sweet, buttery taste of the cake is irresistible. This dessert is so easy a child could make it, and so, if you happen to have a child or two around, I suggest you set them to work for your next dinner party."

Maili's Notes: I sometimes used a combo of brown sugar and white sugar. I often added a dash of ground cloves. I also added a little orange zest and tablespoon of orange juice to the cranberries. I think I also added vanilla extract instead of almond extract because I don't really care for almond extract (although I love real almonds!)

Sadly, Laurie Colwin died suddenly of a heart attack at the young age of 48. She wrote numerous novels in addition to her column in Gourmet. Her books continue to sell. As Anna Quindlen said below, only 1 in 10 food people had any idea who she was, but that one was ecstatic. I was clearly one of the ecstatic ones. I've said before that memories live on in recipes and Laurie's memory lives on in mind every fall when I make her cranberry pie.

Anna Quindlen is another favorite writer I'd admire. She wrote an article about Laurie after she passed away. For those of you with a further interest, here is the link to that article:


JoAnn said…
Every month or so, I do a GOOGLE search for Laurie Colwin, and am astounded that I often find new articles or blog posts being written about her, 17 years after her death. That is the impact she had on people. Amazing, isn't it?

I often wished that GOURMET would publish a compendium of all of her magazine articles, but now, with the demise of the magazine, I suppose that is a futile hope. Too bad.

Thanks for your post.
JoAnn, Colwin groupie!
JoAnn said…
If you have any more of Colwin's Gourmet articles and have time to scan them, I would just love to see them.

Betty said…
There are two published collections of Laurie Colwin's essays, Home Cooking -- Writer in the Kitchen (1988) and More Home Cooking -- A Writer Returns to the Kitchen (1993). In fact, I first saw the essay that includes the cranberry pie recipe in the latter book. To this day, it's my husband's favorite dessert!
denise said…
I have been looking for this recipe for years! When I was young we would pick cranberries in a bog in the middle of the road in Truro, MA on cape Cod.

We would freeze giant bags of them and pull them out throughout the year to make this pie.

I'm going to make it tonight.
thank you.
Magpie said…
Mmm, I love this cake/pie. And Laurie's writings in Gourmet had the same effect on me. I ripped most of them out - the voice was so pitch perfect. I didn't so much want to be her, as to be her friend and hang out with her.

(I just posted this recipe today; had to google to double check a measurement that I wasn't sure was right, and found your post.)
Anonymous said…
I, too, just love this recipe, and the comments that Colwin, wrote about it! I've made it, usually at Thanksgiving, for many years now. And, I've shared it with many friends and relatives--which is what now led me to your blog: I was hoping to get a direct link to the Gourmet column/recipe!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Pam M
Unknown said…
Hi- I just linked to this page on my blog. I hope that is ok. I am a Laurie fan and posted about this delish pie. Thank you very much Jo xx
Anonymous said…
Dee Korz Kilduff just panicked 11/27/13 looking for Nantucket Cranberry Pie recipe made for years since reading Colwin in Gourmet. I must have recycled the notebook I wrote it in long ago. So relieved to find it here - that and the Cranberry muffin recipe from my son's Oct 1997 Scholastic magazine from 2nd grade are my all time favorite cranberry recipes getting raves. I use whole cranberries after chasing them around the kitchen as I tried to chop - gives both that cranberry tang in spite of generous sugar in the recipes. Thanks so much for posting!
McRoos said…
I just revisited this recipe after many years of leaving it be, and it is even better than I remember it. Wondering how it would taste with another fruit instead of nuts, or with a different type of flour.
mvmaithai said…
I was going through some old Gourmet magazines when I found Laurie Colwin's Cranberry Pie recipe. I too enjoyed reading her articles and had tried her shortbread recipe which was very good. I love cranberries, and hope to make the cranberry pie soon!
Anonymous said…
I am so very grateful to you for posting the Nantucket Cranberry Pie recipe. I’ve been making it every year since it was published in Gourmet magazine. I’m away for Thanksgiving this year and left the recipe at home. For a few minutes I wondered if I would have to go without it, and for a few more minutes wondered if I could wing it. Fortunately for all, thanks to you, I can make it as I always have. I also appreciate what I’ve now learned about Laurie Colwin, and will read Anna Quindlen’s article as I too am a fan of her writing.

Again, in deep gratitude. Kathy Ann
Martha H. said…
As all my cookbooks were still in boxes this Thanksgiving (we just moved), I was worried about finding this recipe, which has become our family's favorite Thanksgiving dessert. I loved Laurie Colwin's food writing, and I remembered being shocked hearing of her death on the radio many years ago. As someone else commented, when you read her columns, you felt as if she was your friend. So her death was a loss of someone whose kindness, warmth and humor made her readers' lives a little more delicious. I still think of her when I use her recipes and my copies of Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are among my most treasured books.
ctgal said…
I adored her columns in Gourmet and even have read her novels, which I loved. I also still have copies of Home Cooking and More Home Cooking and read them when I need a dose of whimsy and escapism. I just made this again, for probably the 20th time since she published it. Regrettably, though, now I have to make it with gluten free flour, which breaks my heart. So, if anyone needs to know, I made it last time with Better Batter gluten free flour and this time with King Arthur Measure for Measure gf flour. Last time it was good but not exactly what I remembered tasting, and it's in the oven right now. We will see. Thank you for this piece on Laurie Colwin. I loved reading it, for the second time.

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