Starting from scratch
I thought I would try something a little different as a prelude to Thanksgiving. Photography is a poor substitute for great food in eliciting so many wonderful memories from childhood or in creating so many future fond remembrances with friends and family. Before Halloween, I had so much fun carving the various varieties of pumpkins available in California and found the prices on these fruits were so low that I couldn't resist making a pie out of one of the "fairytale" pumpkins. These are fat, flat and deeply ridged pumpkins with a very bright orange flesh and a bronze exterior. Uncooked, the fruit's flavor is something between a carrot and a musk melon. There are a lot of tutorials to be found online about how to make pumpkin pie and I won't bore you with explicit details but will instead give the basics of how I did this with the hopes that it helps someone out there create a new tradition and fond Thanksgiving memory. So here it is - pumpkin pie starting from a real pumpkin:
Prepping and roasting the pumpkin flesh.
I picked a relatively small pumpkin for this pie - something in the 5-7 pound range. I say relatively small because this pumpkin was purchased just before Halloween and therefore it was part of a batch of larger pumpkins destined to become Jack-o'-lanterns. In the pie-pumpkin world this thing was a hulking juggernaut. The sugar pumpkins you are likely to find in the supermarket now are considerably smaller and probably sit in the one pound range. I still have three quarts of pumpkin puree in my freezer and although this mass will certainly do service in future pies and in pumpkin soup, it will also serve as a cautionary tale for anyone else looking to turn a gargantuan pumpkin into pie. Before roasting you need to wash the outside of the pumpkin, slice it in half and scoop out the pulp and seeds:
Next, quarter the pumpkin and cut these quarters in half again until you can fit all the sections into a roasting pan, casserole, baking sheet or dutch oven:
Set the oven to 350F and place the pumpkin in the middle for anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours. Times will vary widely on the basis of how much pumpkin you've placed in the oven. This huge batch took nearly two hours. So, you ask, "how will I know when it is done?" When you can stick a spoon into the flesh without resistance and then scoop out a mass of orange goodness, it is done.
You'll notice the skin has browned a bit but retained its shape and strength. This makes scooping the flesh really easy. Once it has cooled enough to handle comfortably, scrape all the roasted pumpkin flesh into a food processor, potato ricer or (my favorite tool for the job) a food mill:
This is one of these wonderful kitchen tools with which we've lost touch in the age of store bought everything. This is a one-tool-fits-all-solution for making tomato sauce, apple sauce, preserves and about 1000 different kinds of soups. It also makes the creamiest mashed potatoes possible and is relatively inexpensive and easily found at a restaurant supply shop or even (sometimes) Crate and Barrel. The reason this tool is so good for making pumpkin puree is that it physically separates the grainy and starchy fiber from the fleshy puree just as it separates the skins from roasted tomatos and apples. After I had milled all of this pumpkin flesh the grate on the bottom of the food mill was full of a huge mass of fiber which would have made the final pumpkin pie taste less creamy and more fibrous. If you don't have a food mill, the potato ricer is your next best option. Failing that, a food processor will yield some wonderful puree.
I next placed some of the pumpkin puree into a coffee filter (cheesecloth would have been even better) to drain some of the excess liquid. Precisely how much liquid is present in your puree will determine whether or not you need to do this. I would rather drain as much as I can and add specific liquids and flavor back into the pie than use a puree that is too wet. While it drains, make the pie shell.
Your favorite crust.
Here I punted to my wife who uses a basic pie crust recipe derived from one published from Martha Stewart. This is a typical butter crust that has just enough saltiness and sweetness - the trick isn't in the recipe but in the careful prep of a pasty dough that isn't fully homogenized so as to allow flakiness to develop during baking. Use your favorite recipe and modify as you see fit to produce the right profile of sweet, buttery, salty and flakey. The trick is to keep everything as cold as possible to keep the butter solid - you don't want to freeze anything but you do want to work with a chilled bowl (here we are using the food processor), refridgerator temperature butter that has been cut into small cubes and ice-cold water. You want to pulse the butter, flour, sugar and salt just enough to get things mixed and dribble in a bit of the water until you generate a sandy texture. Stop adding water and pulsing before the dough forms a solid mass - this takes experience (i.e. I don't know how to do this and punt every time). You'll see in the photographs below that the mixture has small pieces of butter that have not been homogenized. The pastry dough should form a solid mass if pinched. Place onto plastic wrap, press into square and refrigerate for a bit before rolling out.
To make the pumpkin pie filling I mixed about 2 cups of the pumpkin with four eggs, one quarter cup of heavy cream, three quarter cups brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and vanilla to taste. Whip this mixture with a whisk. Roll out the pie crust, pour in the good stuff and bake at 325F until a knife, inserted into the center of the filling, comes out clean. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that this was the best pumpkin pie I have ever tasted. It is amazing how little pumpkin flavor is present in the store-bought pies and in the cans of pumpkin pie filling we so often use. Sure, it could have been that I had spent so much time and energy in making the puree that it was bound to taste sweeter, but I think if you make your own from scratch you'll agree. Moreover, if you have the time, being one step closer to the source of our food is alway as a step in the right direction.