Flash in the Pan 

It's still pumpkin pie to me

Pumpkin pie is misunderstood in many ways. To name a few: it doesn't need to be sweet, it isn't only for the holidays, and as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't even have to exist.

As much as I love pumpkin pie, I've been making pumpkin pudding more often. I say this carefully, knowing full well that in some circles an argument against pie is an argument against America. But there's no denying pumpkin pudding makes more sense, much of the time.

When most people hear "pumpkin pie" they understandably think "pumpkin." But pumpkin is only one of many similar-tasting types of winter squash that all make great pies. Anything you could say about pumpkin pie you could also say about pies made from buttercup, hubbard, acorn, butternut, red kuri, delicata, sunshine and any other squashes that may still be kicking around the root cellar this deep into winter. And almost anything you could say about pumpkin pie you could also say about pumpkin pudding.

The difference between pie and pudding is crust, the very presence of which changes its contents from pudding to pie filling. Crust is a container in which to present, portion, and serve individual allotments of pie filling, allowing you to avoid the messy job of scooping dollops of pudding into amorphous piles.

If you can make a good crust, good for you; I hope somebody notices. But in my experience, crust is more liability than asset. The greatest crust won't rescue a bad pie, but a failed crust can embarrass an otherwise respectable one. On more than one occasion the thankless and messy task of crust making has dissuaded me from making pie altogether. It's one thing to mix some stuff in a bowl, and voila, there's your pudding or pie filling. But if I attempt to make a crust, it means flour and dough are going to coat the kitchen. And the pie will probably break apart as I try to serve it, which is less impressive than just serving pudding.

The only reason I had pie last night was because I found some organic frozen crusts, two for $3, at Whole Foods. Barring those pre-made crusts, and special occasions when I pull out the stops, I've been following the path of pumpkin pudding with no regrets.

Making pumpkin pie in early springtime is a great example of how you don't need to have a stocked root cellar in order to cash in on being in tune with the growing season. Somewhere at a store near you, a produce manager is trying to get rid of some aging squash.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Tapioca, chocolate, and coconut milk may not be typical ingredients in pumpkin pie and pudding, but they've been working great for me. I got the tapioca idea from Shorty's mom, who puts it in her apple pie. The idea to put chocolate in pumpkin pie came from a New Orleans cooking class I took long ago. And since coconut goes well with chocolate, tapioca, and squash, it was a no-brainer as a substitute for cow milk.

I start by cutting open a squash, using a spoon to scrape out the seeds, which I clean and bake separately. I bake the squash in large pieces on a baking pan at 350 until it's totally soft—about an hour—and then let the squash cool, and scoop out the soft flesh. Two cups of squash will make a good-sized tapioca pumpkin pie. Blend the squash with two eggs, a half-cup of coconut milk, and sweetener to taste.

If I plan on adding chocolate chips, I usually don't sweeten the pie with anything else. If I'm not using chocolate, then maple syrup goes well with squash. Otherwise I use sugar. Vanilla is worth adding, sparingly. So are traditional pumpkin pie spices, if you care to. I'm most partial to nutmeg and mace. Taste. Adjust. Repeat. And remember, if it tastes good in the mixing bowl it will taste good when it comes out of the oven. But make sure to use good eggs if you plan on tasting the mix, since they will still be raw.

For the tapioca, boil a cup of water per pie, and add three tablespoons of granulated tapioca to the water, stirring vigorously until it all breaks up. Kill the heat and wait about five minutes for it to cool. You don't want to do this step too far ahead of time because the tapioca might glob up. Stir the tapioca into the squash filling. If you're using chocolate chips, stir them in last—half a cup, or to taste.

You can also go in a savory direction with your pudding. A tablespoon or two of red chile powder—from the mild, paprika end of the heat spectrum to the burning flames of cayenne powder, depending on your needs—will go well with crushed garlic and freshly fried bacon bits. The possibilities of savory puddings are many.

Add your pudding to an oiled dish, and bake at 300 for about an hour and a quarter per 2 inches of thickness. If using chocolate chips, I give the pudding or pie a swirl with a spoon after about 15 minutes, to smear the chips around. You can also cook your pudding faster at 350, keeping a close eye on it. When it's done the top will be dry, and a knife stuck in the center will come out dry as well.

Whether you go sweet or savory, and whether or not you mess with crust, any of these variations on pumpkin pie will help you take advantage of the end-of-squash season. It doesn't matter if you're a pragmatist shopping seasonally for the best deals on vegetables, a locavore with a name for every squash in your root cellar, or just some guy who likes pudding. Or pie. Whatever you call it, it's worth a try.

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