The Pumpkin Pie Project
It is around holiday time when the kitchen often becomes a gathering space: for cooking, planning festive menus and good conversations. The warmth of companionship and the aroma of food cooking, spiced with the anticipation of festivities, create a special mood.
Cooking together makes the work more enjoyable; we accomplish more and faster (although this is often not the case when we cook with children), we bond over shared tasks, over old family recipes or new ones created on the spot. When we cook together, the goal becomes more encompassing. The end product is not the sole focus; the process itself gets a new meaning and importance. Many years from now, the taste of the festive dish may become a vague memory for the children, but they are likely to recall the mixing, chopping, kneading, or setting the table together, the holiday mood, atmosphere of home, the family togetherness, and the feeling of being safe, cared for, and loved.
Whether you are preparing a festive holiday feast or just crave something sweet on a lazy weekend afternoon, pie is a good choice for a fall dessert. Rustic or refined, pies have freshness and wholesomeness that distinguishes them from other desserts. As opposed to cakes, fruits or nuts don’t play the second fiddle in pies; they take the lead. Pies are also much easier to make than cakes. Pie making usually has a higher success rate, creates less frustration and mess, and fewer opportunities to mess up. Simply put, they are a perfect family project. Plenty of tasks could be delegated or shared with children. Small mistakes or little deviations from the recipe usually don’t ruin the treat. When pulled out of the oven, our delicious homemade pie may not look picture perfect, but that’s fine. We just call it rustic.
The seasonal circle of pie baking starts in spring with strawberry rhubarb, then peaches, berries, and citrus take the lead in the summer; fall tastes of pumpkin, apples, pears, nuts, and cranberries. At my house, chocolate cream pie is always in season.
The origin of the fall classic, the pumpkin pie, goes back to the sweet pumpkin pudding of early American colonists. The pumpkin was cut in half, filled with a mixture of milk and spices, and baked. The result was a custard-like treat; the predecessor of pumpkin pie filling.
Depending on how much time you can devote to the pumpkin pie project, there is the option of using a canned pumpkin puree or one could choose the more time consuming route of starting with a nice winter squash. Most of the time, our pumpkin pies are usually squash pies. Squash spice latte anyone? Well, pumpkin spice sounds just so much better, and in this case, the FDA doesn’t care. Pumpkin and winter squash are close relatives. No one is breaking the law when they call a canned butternut squash puree pumpkin puree on the packaging.
The reason for using winter squash is simple: it is less stringy, less watery, often sweeter, and some varieties have a more vibrant color than pumpkin.
So what is the best type for pumpkin pie filling? Sugar Pumpkin does a good job, but many types of winter squash (Butternut, Hubbard, Kabocha, Red Kuri Squash, Honeynut, or Pink Banana Squash) do it better. Butternut squash is the easiest to find, even outside pumpkin season, and the easiest to handle. Of course, choosing a beautiful squash or pumpkin of an unusual color or shape on the farmer’s market is much more interesting. This is where the fun with children could begin. After the squash or pumpkin is carried home (not a small task if you are getting a 15+ lb. one) and cut in half, it’s the kids’ turn: getting out the seeds and the stringy insides of the pumpkin. Seeds freed from the sticky, slimy strings can be dried and then roasted in the oven. They make a dangerously addictive snack.
If your pumpkin is an heirloom (not a hybrid), feel free to save some raw seeds for planting in late spring. Pumpkin and squash are easy to grow. There is a good chance that you will have your own pumpkin harvest next fall.
When it’s time to roast the pumpkin, parents are back in charge. One could steam pieces of cut up pumpkin, but roasting brings out the flavor and saves us from the challenging job of peeling the raw pumpkin. A three-pound squash will yield about 1 ½ cups of puree or what is needed for one pie. Roast it on 400 F for 30-45 minutes. Leftover puree from a large squash can be frozen for future pies.
When the puree is ready and cold, the baking can begin. Family members that enjoy measuring out the ingredients, examining spices before adding them to the recipe, and mixing everything up, could be responsible for making the filling. Those who don’t mind getting some pastry dough on their hands and tend to pay attention to detail could be in charge of the pastry dough for the crust. For them, the most important thing to remember is that the pastry dough has to be kept cold at all times. This ensures a flaky, crumbly crust.
The family pumpkin pie will surely be worth the effort. A fresh homemade pie is always wholesome, comforting, and familiar; just like an afternoon spent with family and friends in the kitchen.
Maple Pumpkin Pie
For the Crust:
6 tablespoons butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
3-5 tablespoons ice cold water
For the Filling:
1 ½ cups fresh or canned pumpkin puree
¼ cup maple syrup
¼ cup brown sugar
1 cup milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon of ground clover, ginger, and nutmeg
pinch of allspice
Combine flour and salt in a bowl. Add butter cut into small pieces. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
Sprinkle little ice water over the crumb mixture; stir the dough with a fork or your hands. Continue adding small quantities of water until the dough holds together without being sticky. Form the dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (or up to 1 day).
Preheat oven to 425 F.
Combine pumpkin puree, maple syrup, brown sugar, and spices in a bowl; mix well. Add eggs, cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons of milk, and the rest of the milk. Stir until well blended.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface. Line an 8-inch pie plate with the rolled-out pastry and trim it even with the edges of the pie plate. Finish the edges by creating a fluted edge. If this seems intimidating, simply decorated the edge using a fork: press the rim with a floured fork along the edge of the pie plate.
The pastry trimmings could be used for cutting out leaf shapes. These should be baked separately and put on the pie before serving.
Pour the filling into the prepared crust and bake for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 375 F and continue to bake for about 35 minutes or until the crust is nicely browned and the custard set.