Don't overdo the cream.
A huge number of new-school pumpkin desserts that have found their way into Thanksgiving recipe compilations—flans, crème brulées, mousses, and cheesecakes—try to make pumpkin lighter in texture and richer in mouthfeel by piling on the cream and eggs. I made as sophisticated a pumpkin cheesecake as possible (from cake guru Rose Levy Berenbaum's new book, Rose's Heavenly Cakes), but as elegant as the texture was, I felt the pumpkin was lost in all the unctuous dairy—the squash was essentially a sunny food coloring. I tend to prefer pumpkin desserts that have at least as much pumpkin as cream in them—like Claudia Fleming's pumpkin clafouti. (When I made it, I actually goosed the quantity of pumpkin puree by another one-third of a cup.) It has an old-fashioned vibe that seems right for the potbellied squash.
Sugar, on the other hand, is good.
Pumpkin preserves are a little-explored territory, but they are among my favorite ways to get a sweet autumnal flavor hit. I cooked up a couple of jars of French pumpkin-lemon jam, which pits tiny cubes of pumpkin against the bright tang of lemon zest, flesh, and juice. (Mine was from an old French cookbook, but similar to this recipe.) In a darker mode, there is a Mexican spoon sweet made with pumpkin, raw sugar (piloncillo), and anise seeds, which is dark magic served over ice cream. (If you don't feel like cooking it yourself, you can find a similar flavor in arrop, the Spanish pumpkin preserve.)
In general, don't drink pumpkins (with one exception).
American microbrew drinkers seem to go nuts for a seasonal ale, and I tasted three pumpkin beers over the course of the week (this Elysian one was my favorite, if you can call it that). While I didn't hate any of them, they had a sort of tinny vegetal backnote that turned me off (and I found the inevitable spices a little distracting). But the pumpkin brews were nectar compared with my one and only pumpkin latte from Starbucks, a sweet, frothy, orange affair that tasted sugary and pinched at the same time, like a potable scented holiday candle. There is one exception to my liquid pumpkin rule: It actually works in smoothies. I tried a commercial pumpkin protein drink after a long run and didn't hate it, despite my historic disdain for sports beverages. Even better was the one I made for myself out of canned pumpkin, plain yogurt, maple syrup, milk, and a whisper of nutmeg.
Pumpkin bread will change your life.
OK, that may be overstating it, but for me, pumpkin shines most in a slightly sweet bready environment (including cakes). I whipped up this teacake/bread recipe from a terrific Seattle bakery, and it was so good—really squashy, just the right amount of sweet indulgence, and lots of crunchy nuts and seeds to glam it up. I also loved slightly sweet, yeasted pumpkin dinner rolls from one of my all-time favorite cookbook authors, Bert Greene. (Here's a similar recipe.) Fortified with pumpkin, a dash of whole-wheat flour, and maple syrup, they had a more muted pumpkin presence, but they were jolly, fragrant, and warm. They are such an inessential but delightful little treat that they might be the ideal gift-in-hand for the Thanksgiving host who has taken on the rest of the meal unassisted.
Don't overlook the seeds or oil.
Toasted pumpkin seeds bring green color and crunch to granolas, breads (like the ones above), soups, or an empty snack bowl. I recently had a spectacular pumpkin danish at New York's Bouchon Bakery that fairly bristled with seeds. And loden-green pumpkin seed oil is a fancy Austrian specialty that adds a distinctive brooding nuttiness to salads or bread.
Don't take pumpkin too seriously.