The History Dish: Automat Pumpkin Pie

A pumpkin pie with sweetened condensed milk. Can I get a hell yeah?

If you are going to be in NYC anytime in the next month, be sure to stop by the New York Public Library to catch the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit.  It’s free and cute and you’ll learn a lot of fun facts about food.

The coolest part of the exihibit is the installation of  a functional automat.  Automats were the precursors to fast food; meals were made from scratch at commissaries all around the city, then shipped to the automat restaurants.  The food was placed behind little windows, and after dropping a few coins in a slot, you could open the doors and retrieve you treats.  A new automat opened, and closed, on St. Mark’s street a few years ago.

Horn & Hardart, the company that innovated the automat concept, was just as well known for the quality of their food as their unique way of delivering it.  At the Lunch Hour exhibit, you can play with their automat machine, opening the doors and such.  You won’t find any mac and cheese or baked beans inside, however–but they did thoughtfully include recipes of all the restaurant’s most famous dishes.

Horn and Hardart’s automat, from Lunch Hour NYC.

One of the recipes I grabbed when I visited was Hron & Hardart’s recipe for pumpkin pie.  I had a pie pumpkin hanging out in my kitchen; it had been a Halloween decoration, and I decided it was time for it to go to a better place.  Inside me.  I roasted it, which is an easy way to process pumpkin–see how here.  I also made a crust from scratch from this recipe, which is my go to pie crust.

The filling was easy to mix up and the pie doesn’t bake for long.  The recipe tells you “Insert a silver knife into the filling about one inch from the side of the pan.  If the knife comes out clean, the filling is done.”   I’ve never read pumpkin pie instructions so specific–a silver knife?  Using this method, the center comes out underdone and extremely creamy.  I’m not sure if I liked it though, being used to a firmer pie.

But the wildest thing about this pie is I realized I made a HUGE mistake when I baked it that turned out to be wonderful.  I only just now noticed that the recipe calls for evaporated milk NOT sweetened condensed milk, which is what I used.  But holy moly, have you ever made a pumpkin pie with sweetened condensed milk?  It’s astounding.  The caramel-ee flavor of the sweetened condensed milk really comes through in the final product.  Creamy, burnty sugary, pumpkin…awesome.

God pumpkin pie is great.  Why don’t we make it year round?  I guess something about it just doesn’t feel right in the summertime.

11 Responses to “The History Dish: Automat Pumpkin Pie”

  • I love pumpkin pie. My go-to recipe is the one on the “one-pie” pumpkin can, which is very liek this one, except that it uses molasses for some of the sugar, and is a little more heavy handed with the spices. This recipe looks delicious!

  • Just in case you want to try another historical recipe…we tried Mamie Eisenhower’s pumpkin chiffon pie for Thanksgiving and it was ridiculously good.

    • Oh my, it looks so fluffy! Any idea what naval base the recipe was published for? And do you often cook historic recipes?

      • It was fluffy! Unlike many other pumpkin pies I’ve had…or made. And the link at the very bottom says it was taken from the Mare Island cookbook, so that must be the naval base.

        I don’t often cook historic recipes, other than my own’s grandmother’s. But this was part of a series from the Washington Post about presidential Thanksgiving recipes, so I thought I’d give it a try. You can see the whole series here:

        Sadly, I did not try to recreate Grover Cleveland’s Parsnip Fritters.

        Also, have you heard of America Eats? It was a pop-up restaurant in D.C. that went along with an exhibit on food at the National Archives. It’s closed now, but the website still has the menu——really fun to look through.

        cheers—and thanks for the intriguing blog!

      • I can’t find the New Year’s cake you mentioned to my cousin, Laureen Fredella. Would you be kind enough to email me a link to the history of it? Thanks. I’m not real computer savvy with blogs but I do use Facebook if that’ easier to post a link. Happy New Year!

        Marie Fredella

        • Marie, here’s the recipe!

          New Years Cakes
          Adapted from the recipe of Maria Lott Lefferts (1786-1865) as it appears in Food, Drink and Celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch by Peter G. Rose

          4 cups all-purpose flour
          1 cup light brown sugar
          1/2 teaspoon salt
          1 tablespoon caraway seed
          Grated zest of 1 orange
          8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1-inch pieces
          1 egg, lightly beaten
          1/2 cup whole milk, plus more if needed

          Whisk together flour, sugar, orange zest, caraway seeds and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry cutter or fork, cut in butter until the mixture forms balls the size of chickpeas. In a small bowl, beat together the egg and milk, then add to flour/butter mixture. Knead the dough with your hands until it holds together, adding more milk if needed.

          Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly flour a counter or board. Divide the dough into small sections, and roll out to about a 1/4 inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters, or use a cookie mold to stamp out cookies. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake until pale brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Make about 6 dozen, depending on size of cookies.

  • This Horn and Hardart recipe for pumpkin pie has more than satisfied many happy family and friends this time of year. This recipe was obtained by my aunt when Horn and Hardart closed in NY, this is the recipe my whole family and extended family have enjoyed for years. I am always the hit of the party when I bring this pumpkin pie to a gathering! Life is grand!

  • Hello folks,

    My dad was a District Superintendent with H&H in the late 50’s into the 60’s and had 7 mid-town Manhattan restaurants in his district. He did create some of the recipes used at H&H. I know the pumpkin pie was made from hubbard squash and not pumpkin although the 2 kinds of winter quash are very similar in taste, texture and size. The seasonings for the pie are correct though. Good luck and thanks for the research on the automat recipes.

  • In Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, Guy Woodhouse says the best dessert is Horn and Hardart pumpkin pie. Devilishly good?

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