I am a connoisseur of pumpkin pie. And I think it’s not boasting to say that I make a damn good pumpkin pie. I am not a purist (I don’t mind if you want to substitute other squashes or if you prefer pumpkin cake or pumpkin cheesecake or pumpkin chiffon pie) but I do prefer to make pumpkin pie from a pumpkin (and I usually grow my own, too). As many of you may remember, a few years ago I had a run-in (well, run-through) with a pumpkin that did not want to go down without a fight, resulting in a pie that may have contained trace amounts of human blood and the permanent loss of sensation in the end of my left thumb. I was understandably reluctant to duke it out with a large, angry squash for a while after that – no matter now delectable.
But this morning I have proved incapable of resisting the lure of Sunset Magazine’s swirled pumpkin-cream cheese bars (drool) and, better yet, perfectly capable of slaying an innocent pumpkin with my former mastery.
I highly recommend making anything pumpkin-flavored from an actual pumpkin as opposed to the canned stuff. I guarantee that everyone you serve your pumpkiny goodness to will cock their heads, go glassy-eyed, and ask (in a slightly inebriated tone) “what is your secret?” The addition of real pumpkin purée is not obvious to the palate; it adds a certain je ne sais quoi (in both flavor and texture), but everyone notices and everyone raves.
Here’s the trick:
- Procure a pumpkin. Most major grocery stores have pie pumpkins (usually called sugar pumpkins) this time of year, although they may hide them in the jumble of “decorative gourds” that stands untouched in the corner of the produce section from the first to the thirty-first of October. If you can’t find one there, check the local produce stand. Failing that, get a carving pumpkin. Count yourself lucky is you have access to a swanky farmer’s market where someone sells heirloom pumpkins (like my beloved ‘Winter Luxury’ variety or the reddish French ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes‘ or impressive ‘Amish Pie’ with its 5 inch-thick walls). Otherwise, don’t fret. As far as I can tell any pumpkin sold as a carver tastes the same when roasted as the ubiquitous ‘Small Sugar’. The only drawback is size: your average ‘Small Sugar’ (6-8” in diameter) makes enough purée for 2-3 pies depending on your recipe. A small carver (10-12” in diameter) will make enough purée for a small army.
- Whack it in two around the equator using a large, heavy, sharp knife. Don’t thwack it on the counter if the knife gets stuck – this is how most pumpkin pie-related injuries occur (not mine, though). If the knife won’t go through straight try rocking it. Usually, in these cases, the handle end will push through the squash and the pointy end acts as a pivot point.
- Scoop out the guts and seeds with a sturdy spoon.
- Place the halves cut-side down on your cutting board and stab the knife through from the outside in at least twice per half, rocking it carefully to pull it back out. This, friends, is where I screwed up on that fateful day: I didn’t want to dirty a cutting board so I was holding the bleeping pumpkin halves in my bare hands over the sink and stabbing a scary-ass butcher knife through. It stuck, I pushed hard, and voilà! The pumpkin flesh was not the only flesh that was slashed.
- Assuming that you don’t have to stop here to drive to the hospital with a bag of frozen rhubarb tied to your spurting digit, your next step is to place the halves cut side down on a foil-lined cookie sheet in a 400 degree oven for 50 minutes. You may need longer for thicker-fleshed varieties, but the walls of carvers and ‘Small Sugar’ are both usually around an inch thick, so this time should work for both.
- When the squash emerges it should be tanned to a nice chestnut color. Grab hold of the stem (using Handlappen) and peel away the rind. It may tear but it should come away easily – it shouldn’t even be touching the flesh anymore. Do the same to the other half by sticking a fork or knife into one of the steam holes and starting a tear in the rind. If it sticks anywhere put it back in the oven for 10 minutes. If it still sticks, give it another 10 minutes until the rind falls away easily. (Anywhere it sticks is a spot that isn’t thoroughly cooked and won’t purée.)
- Let it cool, then purée. You can purée in a food processor or in a bowl by hand with a potato masher. If the pumpkin was fully cooked it should mash up easily either way.
- Measure out however much you need and bake away!
One last note: Once cooked, pumpkin is best used quickly. You can keep purée in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer for just a month. After that it will (if you’re lucky) get watery and bland, or (if you’re not lucky, like me) it comes alive, bubbles and spits and pushes the lid off its container and oozes out over the sides and all over the place. It’s kind of freaky. I’m sure it’s just a fermentation problem, but it reminds me of something from one of Calvin’s lunches in Calvin and Hobbes. Unbaked, but otherwise fully-prepared pumpkin pies can be frozen for up to three months. (Omit cloves if they are in your recipe, as their flavor grows exponentially in the freezer for some reason.)