Friday, November 16, 2007

Pumpkin pie.

My mother is a pie baker of the first rank. She was the one who told me the key thing about pie crust, which is that you don't over handle it. Also, by her example I learned to tell an excellent pie from an inferior one--again, it's all about the crust. Her pies are not only delicious, they are beautiful. She's an organized and meticulous cook, so her food never looks or tastes hasty or slapdash. Everyone in my family loves going to my folks' house for dinner because of this.

When we were kids, my mom and dad formed a dinner group. They all subscribed to the same cooking magazine, Cuisine, which sadly folded long ago--I honestly don't think any other cooking magazine is or was as good, had the lovely blend of good writing, enough pictures, interesting features. Not even the Ruth Reichl-edited Gourmet, in my opinion. What the dinner group would do was divvy up the recipes for the spectacular dinner featured in that month's issue. Then one couple would host, and they would eat and talk the night away. I remember an Indian meal that no one was too fond of. They were ahead of their time.

Anyway, I learned from watching my mom that you could teach yourself to cook. She taught herself how to dip chocolates, and no one in the world makes better dipped chocolates than my mom. When she married my dad, the story goes, she knew how to make cornbread and how to open a can of soup. (I might be making that last part up--she may have had another recipe in her repertoire.) From that humble beginning, she has turned into a woman who can throw a big party, plan many a celebratory family dinner, bake like no one's business. Also, she fries chicken according to the ancient method, and if, as a mostly faithful vegetarian, chicken weren't a real problem for me, I would sit down and happily eat her fried chicken dinner (rice, pan gravy, steamed broccoli, five-cup fruit salad) once a week for the rest of my life.

However, this post is supposed to be about pumpkin pie. Not everyone in my family loves pumpkin pie, though the pumpkin pie of my youth, made with canned pumpkin and evaporated milk (if I'm not mistaken) was mild, smooth, and delicious. Here are the things I taught myself about pumpkin pie, once I was on my own and I was responsible for the pies:

1. Pumpkin, which is spicy looking, is actually mild though sweet. Another way to approach pumpkin pie is to make it spicy. The recipe I use has lots of spices; one version of it adds crystallized ginger, which makes it even spicier. Spicy pumpkin pie is deeee-licious.

2. Fresh pumpkin makes a difference. Once you know that you have to get a sugar pumpkin--the little, round pumpkins--then roasting it is easy. Some people say to cut it open first, but you can pierce the skin and roast them whole, thus sparing yourself the ordeal of cutting a hard fruit with a big dangerous knife. Once it's roasted--and basically, you can tell if it's done by if it's soft--you can cool it a little, cut it open without threatening life and limb, puree it, and you're on your way.

3. I believe in an all-butter crust, which just means you have to start cold, keep things cold, and get 'em cold again in order to prevent butter-related sogginess (pre-bake a very cold crust), slumping (hook the crust over the edge of the pie plate, and put it in the freezer before pre-baking), and non-flakiness (use very cold butter and a minimum of very cold water).

After having spoken with great confidence about this all-butter pie crust, I am hoping very much that it turns out as delicious as I have talked it up to be, because I am bringing the pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. I am also baking a pumpkin pie for a party tonight. I usually only get to eat pumpkin pie once a year, so this is a double treat, assuming that the crust doesn't let me down.


  1. As I'm finishing up my pie for the party tonight, I'm thinking I've bragged too much about my pie skills and everyone will think I'm a fraud.

  2. Erg. This pie-lessness status I'm holding is freaking lame. I need the recipe when you return with pumpkin pie response. To reiterate. Erg.

  3. i've never read a more concise set of instructions on pie-crust success than your get-it-cold-and-keep-it-cold item. i may have to photocopy that for all my relatives.

    but i don't love pumpkin pie. for me, pumpkin is a dinner food, not a dessert food. i'll spice it up until it weeps as long as there's garlic and salt involved.

  4. I owe much of my pie making skills to you... but seriously, is flaky a bad thing in a crust?

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  6. Of course I realize that it is long gone now, I really want a piece of that pumpkin pie. I didn't used to like it at all and it has been years since I have had a piece. I think I must be getting older or something, but right now I crave it. A deep crave. If you can manage to save me a piece of the next one I will give you autumn. And the Aurora Borealis.

  7. What a lovely insight into Grandma's cooking life. I love learning more about her.



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