Flash in the Pan 

Variations on a pumpkin pie

It’s been scientifically proven that one can live for weeks on a diet of only pumpkin pie. The study, heretofore unpublished, was conducted about 10 years ago. I was the lead researcher, as well as the primary subject/guinea pig. I was also the lab-tech, along with my two business partners.

Leading into our first post-college autumn, some friends and I started a pumpkin pie business. The plan was to save up enough money to go to Fiji.

We never made it even close to Fiji. But we did make a lot of really good pumpkin pies, many of which we sold. Amid the bounty of rejected and prototype pies, I made my scientific discovery. It hit me one afternoon that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten anything but pumpkin pie.

When I say pumpkin pie, what I really mean is winter squash pie—winter squash being the general category of which pumpkin is a member. Although pumpkins and squash (not including spaghetti squash) are virtually interchangeable in the context of pie, the non-pumpkin squashes tend to be sweeter and often starchier.

There are an astounding number of squash varieties to experiment with. Red kuri, carnival, sunshine and buttercup squashes, to name a few, make pies that eat like a meal. More pedestrian varieties like acorn or butternut can make a good pie, but who cares? In the true pumpkin category, the winter luxury variety comes highly recommended. But to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever even made a pumpkin pie with real pumpkin.

With an open mind you can stray far from the well-worn path of pumpkin pie convention. Mom’s pumpkin pie is, of course, a fabulous symphony of flavors, but that doesn’t mean you always have to add cinnamon, nutmeg and mace. Perhaps one or all will fit into the motif of your pie of the day, perhaps not.

Last week, for example, I cut open a blue hubbard squash, scraped out the seeds, laid it face down on a baking pan with a quarter-inch of water in it, and baked at 350 degrees until it was pudding-soft, then removed it and let it cool.

While the squash baked I took out a deer shoulder to thaw, and rehydrated some dried morels in chicken stock. Then I made two crusts—an art unto itself that needs its own column to explain, so in the meantime you should consult your favorite cookbook. I put my two crusts into two pie pans.

For my first pie, I put two cups of blue hubbard flesh in a food processor. Since I had only three eggs, I decided to use two of them and save the third for my next pie. Eggs, like many pumpkin pie ingredients, are flexible. More eggs make it custardy, fewer make it earthier.

Then I added a token amount of sugar, maybe a quarter cup. In other pies I’ve used maple syrup, but not today. The James Beard recipe that I was occasionally glancing at (which, incidentally, called for six eggs!) suggested using heavy cream, which I remember using back in the day. But since I didn’t have any, I used high-fat Greek Style yogurt and the remainder of a can of coconut milk I opened the other day. Then I added a little piece of minced ginger and whizzed it up. But it wouldn’t whiz because the squash was too dense. So I gave a nice pour from my coffee cup (El Salvadoran extra-dark with milk and sugar), which added the penetrating lubricant I needed to whip that pie filling to a smooth consistency. It tasted great, so I gave it no further modifications (nothing wrong with modifying here, though). I poured it into my pie crust, and for kicks I tossed in a handful of chocolate chips.

While it was baking at 350 degrees, I began my next pie by browning some deer shoulder chunks in oil. Whenever it started to stick, I added water (or vinegar or wine) before it started to smoke, stirring often. When it was nicely browned, I put about an inch of water in the pan and cooked with the cover on until that water was gone. Then I added some chopped bacon, onion, carrot, butter, nutmeg, sage, rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper and the morels. When everything was nicely cooked I added some chopped garlic, stirred it together, and poured it into crust #2. Then I put a cup of cooked squash into the food processor with salt, pepper and chopped garlic. Again, too thick to blend, so I added vinegar from a jar of pickled peppers, which loosened everything nicely and added good tang. I scooped this savory squash puree upon the savory items in my crust, and put it in the oven to bake, simultaneously removing my sweet pie, which I assessed was done based on the browned crust and solid feeling I got when I pressed on the pie’s center.

Yum. Perhaps now you can see how I can live on pumpkin pie.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Cloved for the winter

Dear CBA,

I can’t believe it’s already November. I’ve been meaning to plant my garlic since September, and now I’m afraid it’s too late. Say it isn’t so!
—Behind the Bulb

Dear Behind,

Garlic, as you know, is usually planted in fall and then harvested in summer. Many on-the-ball farmers did indeed plant their garlic in September, while others did so only a few weeks ago in mid-October. Then there’s me. I don’t have much to brag about in the gardening department, but if I had to pick one thing I’m okay at, it’s garlic. And you’ll hopefully be comforted to know I got mine in only last weekend.

The most important thing is that you get your garlic in before the ground freezes. At that point, of course, you can’t plant it because the ground is frozen. But keep in mind, the ground around here doesn’t just freeze once and stay frozen until spring. It could freeze this week and thaw next week, giving you many opportunities to sneak those cloves into the ground under the winter wire. When you do, plant it scab-side down, with the tip about an inch below the surface.

If you don’t see any rain on the horizon when you plant, you should consider irrigating it, since you want those cloves to send out roots before the ground freezes for real. On the other hand, if very cold days are about to hit, then hold off on the irrigation until the next warm spell. You don’t want to turn your newly planted cloves into Popsicles. On that note, once you get them planted, you should lay down a nice layer of straw mulch to give the little cloves some insulation against the coming cold.

Good luck!

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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