“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual.” - Henry David Thoreau
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Recently, I went a little gourde-crazy. It being autumn, markets are jam packed with a dizzying array of pumpkins and squashes. Turning these tough but tasty fruits into fall comfort food takes a little work, but it’s worth it. Best of all, this is the season when it’s easiest to get fresh, flavorful gourdes and skip the canned stuff entirely. That’s why I want to wax rhapsodic about pumpkin pie.
Eating produce that’s in-season isn’t just about flavor or food snobbery. In fact, eating locally produced fruits, vegetables and nuts in the season when they naturally grow is objectively better for your health. In 2007, food-focused researchers at the University of California, Davis found that many products lose anywhere from two to seven times more vital nutrients like Vitamin C after being frozen or canned for long periods than they do when they’re fresh. For me, that’s a good enough excuse to make pumpkin pie from scratch.
Edible gourdes are packed with nutrition. They’re excellent sources of fiber, zinc, potassium, iron, a slew of vitamins and many other wonderful things. That said, when it comes to pumpkins, it pays to be choosy. The big, heavy pumpkins we prefer for jack-o-lanterns make great decorations, but fall short in the flavor department. For pie, soup and other food applications, the sugar or “pie” pumpkin is the best bet. Pie pumpkins are small, nicely round and typically smoother than their decorative cousins. They’re easy to find this time of year at most farmers’ markets and some grocery stores.
Prepping gourdes for cooking doesn’t require a large, serrated knife, but it certainly makes life easier. For pumpkins, it’s best to bisect them with an arm-straining saw down the middle. Then comes the messy part. It’ll take a sturdy spoon or an ice cream scoop to dig out all of the seeds and pulp, leaving a smooth, yellow-orange inside. Those recently cleaned halves go cut-side down into a 350-degree oven until a fork can poke through them with little resistance, which usually takes 30 to 45 minutes.
While still hot, the juicy flesh of the pumpkin will separate from the tough rind effortlessly. Save any run-off juice and simmer it until syrupy. The lot goes into a blender or food processor for a quick puree. That puree, combined with two beaten eggs, a half-cup of sugar and six ounces of evaporated (not sweetened condensed!) milk, makes a pie filling.
Now, let’s take a moment to talk spice. A lot of the flavor in a pumpkin pie comes from spices, but exactly which spices and in what amounts is up for debate. In the end, it comes down to taste, but the main players are cinnamon, clove, allspice, nutmeg and, in some cases, mace. Some prefer to include ground ginger, and there’s something to be said for adding orange zest to the mix. Personally, I’m no purist or classicist in this department. Spice your pie to your own tastes; pinch or tablespoon, exotic or old-fashioned, picky or inclusive.
As for what kind of crust should cradle a pumpkin pie, that depends on what kind of experience it’s supposed to create. Because this particular pie recipe is from fresh ingredients, I like to let the pumpkin take center stage instead of playing second fiddle to sugar and spice. That means that my pie doesn’t fare so well in a traditional flour crust that’s salty enough to make the whole dish veer awfully close to savory. That contrast can be nice in a sweet pie, but for mine I prefer to use a graham cracker crust. For the uninitiated, that’s two cups of finely ground graham crackers, a liberal drizzle of melted butter, 1/3 cup of sugar and a dusting of cinnamon, combined and lining a pie pan to be pre-baked for 7 minutes at 375 degrees.
With the filling at rest in the crust, a pumpkin pie benefits from 15 minutes at high heat (425 degrees), then a long rest at 350 degrees for at least 45 minutes. Don’t be put off if the filling doesn’t darken to the color of store-bought pumpkin pie. A lot of factors contribute to how dark your pie is, from the degree of caramelization in the initial raw pumpkin bake, to the amount of spice that you use, to the age of the pumpkin itself. If a knife comes out clean after being stuck into the center of the pie, it’s time to kill the heat and let the pie cool on an iconic windowsill.
I’m not going to pretend that pumpkin pie from fresh isn’t a lot more work than the out-of-the-can version. I can’t promise it’ll taste exactly like grandma’s or that it’ll be perfect on your first attempt. What I, by biological fact, can guarantee is that turning a real pumpkin into dessert is much healthier than anything processed. In this season full of giant meals, big bags of discount candy and the inexplicable practice of putting butter into a glass of hot rum, a more nutritious pie is practically a hero.