Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Pumpkin Pie

One of the truest signs of the onset of winter is the presence of pumpkins and squashes in the markets. It is perhaps no surprise that pumpkins were part of the welcoming gift basket from Native Americans to the newly arrived English at Plymouth Rock in the 1620s, for the appearance of their curvy figures and cheerful colours are both inviting and comforting. While pumpkins and squashes look gorgeous on the mantelpiece, dining table or at the foot of a door, their creamy textures make for divine treats, such as pumpkin pie.

I have had an odd fascination with pumpkin pies since childhood. Their ostensible glow seemed to me symbols of unity and warmth in many of the shows I grew up watching, such as Sesame Street, The Cosby Show, and Peanuts cartoons. I was, however, always baffled at the idea that a dessert could be made from pumpkin, for my exposure to Cinderella's vehicle-in-waiting were smiling, boiled wedges. (To boil slices of pumpkin should be a culinary crime since they already contain so much water, which essentially displaces its mild sweetness and earthy flavours.) When I moved to the US just before Thanksgiving in 2001, I finally had the opportunity to try this practically mythologised pie, but the moment of eating a slice overpowered the actual eating of it - so much so that after I scoffed my portion of pie, I was not certain that I liked it.

What I have since found singularly surprising is that many pumpkin pies are made with butternut squash. Given the difference in natural and detectable sweetness, this makes sense. But a pumpkin pie made with butternut squash should still nod to the great Thanksgiving pumpkin, and I do this by using pepitas in both the pie crust and pie filling a la Martha Stewart.

Pepitas are hulled pumpkin seeds - oval and the colour of deepest jade. When ground they are a glorious mint green, fairy dust similar to fine powdered green tea. When I think of baking pies, I often look to add ground nuts or seeds to any crust, for it makes them taste more like the ingredients they contain. If, however, you are making a pie whose principal ingredient does not have nuts or seeds, then use nuts or seeds that complement the principle ingredient (for example, almonds pair so well with cherries, though having said that, grinding a few cherry kernels is not impossible, if you can be botherd to smash them).

I have followed Martha Stewart's recipe for Pumpkin Pie with Candied Pepitas before, and while gorgeous, I have since adapted it to suit my proclivities. I am not huge on cloves - her recipe begs for but a pinch, but I find it too overpowering, preferring instead to use cloves sparingly in braised dishes or mulled wine. You can reduce the amount of spices by 1/4 if you prefer, but I find that without the overt presence of spices, pumpkin pie tastes odd - it just does not quite sell me as a dessert. Having said that, if you leave the pie for one day, the profound nature of the spices will permeate the filling, adding gorgeously subtle notes to every bite.

Pumpkin Pie with Candied Pepitas
(Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, November 2006)

For the graham crust:
2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup ground pepitas
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup (113g) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed

1) Combine flours, pepitas, salt, and cinnamon (either with a whisk or in a food processor).
2) Add butter and sugar and proccess and rub fat in until mealy (you can also do this with a food processor).
3) When dough comes together, press it into a 23cm/9" or 25cm/10" springform pan or single-crust metal pie plate, then freeze for 15 minutes.

For the filling:

1 small butternut squash (approximately 3/4 kg/ 1 1/2lb)
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon corn starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk

1) Slice butternut squash in half and roast at 220 C/425 F, cut-side down, for 50-60 minutes.
2) When cool enough to handle, discard the seeds from the cavity and puree the flesh. You need about 1 1/2 cups packed butternut squash puree for this recipe.
3) Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).
4) Bake crust (after it has been in the freeze for 15 minutes) until dry and golden brown - about 20 minutes - and then let cool completely.
5) Reduce oven temperature to 170 C (325 F).
6) Whisk pumpkin and eggs in a bowl.
7) In a separate bowl, combine brown sugar, cornstarch, salt, and spices.
8) Whisk dry ingredients into the pumpkin mixture.
9) Whisk in evaporated milk.
10) Tap firmly on counter to release air bubbles *you can let it stand for 20 minutes to ensure this as well).
11) Pour filling into graham crust; tap to release air bubbles.
12) Bake until set, approximately 50 minutes. I like to leave it in the oven for an extra couple of minutes to encourage a caramelisation to occur on the surface of the pie, lending a burnished shade that contrasts with the rich and bright orange of the pie filling.

For the candied pepitas:

1 1/4 cups pepitas
5 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg white, beaten
pinch of coarse salt, plus more for seasoning
pinch of ground ginger
pinch of cayenne pepper

1) Preheat oven to 180 C (350 F).
2) Stir ingredients together in a bowl.
3) Spread mixture in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
4) Bake until pepitas are golden and slightly puffed, approximately 10 minutes. 5) Season with salt.
6) Stir gently, forming some into clumps.
7) Let cool completely in a bowl before storing in an air-tight container for up to three days. Sprinkle a small handful over pumpkin pie (the remainder of which makes for sweet snacking).

The colour and aromas of this pie are so enticing that they beg to be enjoyed in the company of good friends and family. The pumpkin pie's understated yet celebratory appearance make it a perfect feature for every holiday table, or at this time of year when one is tempted to break in the pumpkins and squashes of the season but is not quite ready for their savoury elements. The comforting glow as a slice on a plate is a culinary refuge when looking out at the gloomy skies on the other side of the window panes.

(And happy birthday to the stylish and effervescent Ailene!)

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I think I have only made pumpkin pie once and cannot remember it so well - it seems a bit mythical to me too but I sometimes think of trying again. And when I do I would love to try these candied pepitas - they look amazing!
Johanna ~ Pumpkin pie always looks so lovely and inviting, and it is a surprising offering in New Zealand and Australia because it is so closely associated with American cooking (although there are some very old French and British variations). The pepitas add flavour to the crust, interest to the overall presentation, and great snackbites.
I love pumpkin, but it tends to have such a long growing season that fresh, local produce doesn't come to market until the traditional U.S. Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays. Come to think of it, I can't recall seeing trucked pumpkin during the off months, either. Canned pumpkin (very convenient, though not technically pumpkin at all), works well, but I like sweet potato or yam desserts while I wait. Shaun, candied pepitas are a lovely, novel change from walnuts.
Sadly over here, pumpkin is still though of as 'pig swill'. Butternut squash is slightly more acceptable, but still nt all that. I personally love them both and cook with them whenever I can. Your pie looks yummy!
Susan, lovie ~ I am always disappointed by pumpkins here - they are always too watery. I was only too glad to reach for a butternut squash for my "pumkin" pie. It is no wonder that the canned "pumpkin puree" is really a puree of butternut squash - more value for money. Anyway, this is a delicious dessert, and the pepitas in the crust and candied on top are delightful.

Anthony ~ The public perceptions of both pumpkin and butternut squash are interesting. In NZ, pumpkin is basically a kitchen stand by. I hear less about people making use of butternut squash. Anyway, I'll make this for birthday next May. I'd best freeze chunks of butternut squash now ;-)





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