Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pumpkin Time

There is probably no fruit or vegetable as evocative of harvest time as the pumpkin.  (Sorry, apples.)  Of course, the big pumpkins are used in ornamental displays or to carve up as Jack-O'-Lanterns. But pie pumpkins are for eating.  Especially, and always, in pies.

Pumpkin pie is the classic for Thanksgiving.  And like all Thanksgiving classics, it has to be made the way we have always had it, with the recipe my mother used.

People often make pumpkin pie with canned pumpkin.  This is sad, because it is so easy to use the real thing.  Simply cut the pumpkin in two (many people save the seeds and process them by salting and roasting as a snack) and put the two halves on a baking sheet.  Bake at 300° for about half an hour or until your finger can easily dent the fruit wall into the soft inside.  Cool, scrape and mash, and you have really fruity-tasting wholesome pumpkin.  It can be measured and frozen for future use.  (Pumpkin bread is another good use if you should get tired of pie.)

Memory is an important part of taste for traditional meals like Thanksgiving.  My mother began baking from the Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book 50 years ago (the paperback version came out in 1961).  She wore it out; I found a reprint which I have now reduced to single pages.

Many of the recipes are still good classic treatments and I use several of them.  It does show its vintage in certain directions.  For example, this recipe calls for "top milk".  That is a remnant of the days before homogenized milk and it means rich milk that is partly cream.  I simply add some cream to the 2% milk I usually drink.

I often use a full 2 cups of pumpkin.  This makes a very fruity pie.  For a firmer custard, use 1 1/2 cups.  I also use a counter-top mixer (Mixmaster) to make the pie.  If you don't have one, use a handheld.

Pumpkin Pie
modified from Ann Pillsbury's Baking Book

Have ready an unbaked pie shell.  Set the oven at 450°. 

In a mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs slightly.  Add the dry ingredients, mixing as you go.

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 T flour
1/2 t salt
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/2 t ground allspice
1 t ground cinnamon

Then mix in 1 1/2- 2 cups cooked pumpkin.
Heat but do not boil 1 1/2 cups milk (part cream); add slowly to mixture, mixing thoroughly.

Pour into pie shell.  Cook for 10 minutes at 450°, then turn down oven to 350°.  Bake for 40-50 minutes. I usually choose the 50 minutes because I use more pumpkin.  The pie will set up more as it cools, but should not still be liquid in the center when you remove it.  Cool on a rack before cutting.

I don't use the pie crust recipe from Ann Pillsbury.  True to its time, it relies on good old Crisco, which made a fine crust but we now know is loaded with trans fats.  After I threw away my Crisco can, I experimented for a while with all-butter crusts but they were failures.  Finally, thanks to a friend's food blog, I learned how to make a crust that has good manners and tastes good, too.  (And it freezes well, future pies on hold.)

A note about fats in pie crust:  There are many options, but you do need a fat that is solid at room temperature, not a liquid oil.  A blend of fats works well because you get the virtues of each kind.  I use a mixture of butter and lard.  The shelf-stable lard in big tubs at the grocery store is hydrogenated (trans fats again).  Try to find some rendered lard at a good butcher, or learn to render it yourself (not really hard if you can find the pig fat).  Keep this in the refrigerator or freezer.

Originally, this recipe called for volumetric measurements (cups).  But measurement by weight is easier and more reliable if you have a kitchen scale.

Another note: use Mark Bittman's advice and refrigerate the dough at various stages, including just after cutting and before rolling out.  Also, don't overcut.  (Don't use a food processor and reduce it into granules!)  The fat pockets from irregular pieces are what make for a flaky crust.

Gramma Bayer's Never-Fail Pie Crust
with thanks to Kim Bayer and her grandmother

Mix 3 cups of flour with a dash of salt.
Cut in (a hand pastry blender gives you the most control)
1/2 lb unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1/4 lb lard

Refrigerate briefly.

Whisk together:
1 egg
1 T vinegar (apple cider is fine)
5 T cold water

Mix this into the flour and fat mixture with minimal handling.  Use a small amount of flour on the working surface if needed.  Refrigerate.

Cut into three equal parts.  (Weigh them, if you will.)  Each one is a single pie crust.


Roll out and fill. Freeze unused portions in a plastic container or bag.