The table designated for room-temperature local produce at our little San Juan Food Co-op is starting to overflow with colorful winter squash, including diminutive, “sweet pie pumpkins.”
When making pies, most people usually take the easy route and opt for the canned pumpkin puree, but fresh pumpkins add an entirely new flavor dimension. And other than a bit more time consuming, a pie with fresh pumpkin is really quite simple to prepare.
Slice the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds. (By the way, the seeds make a nice snack when cleaned and roasted with a little olive oil and salt.) Place the halves cut-side down in a baking pan and cover with foil if you don’t have a lid for the pan. Bake at 350°F for 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the size of the squash, until the flesh is soft. Then scoop out the flesh from the rind and puree it in a blender or food processor, or even with an immersion blender; it’s important to get it smooth. Now it’s ready to use the same as canned puree, or it can be frozen for later use.
But do heed this note of caution: When you’ve pureed the pumpkin flesh, if it seems watery, let it sit in a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight to let some of the water drain off. You can use the water as the liquid replacement in cookies, cakes, muffins and other baked goods; (if you’ve got a Labrador Retriever, the dog would probably lap it up with relish.)
Pumpkin varieties vary as to flavor, texture, sugar and water content, so try to find “pie pumpkins” for best results. A 6-inch pie pumpkin will typically make two shallow 9-inch pies or one 10-inch deep dish pie plus a bit extra.
Now, if you don’t want to mess with making a crust, you could try cooking the pumpkin as the pilgrims supposedly did: according to the University of Illinois Extension, they hallowed out the pumpkins and filled with them milk, honey and spices (when available), then baked them in hot ashes. (Don’t ask us how long; we’ve never done it.)
In fact, the pumpkin pie that we love to think of as quintessentially American probably made its first appearance in France, in a cookbook called Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois (The True French Cook) by Francois Pierre la Varene in 1651. What’s Cooking America has a great history of pumpkin pie, including the famous French chef and author’s recipe for Tourte of Pumpkin: “Boile it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.”
So whether you make a traditional “American” pie or try something more exotic, make this year the one that you use a local pumpkin. And, of course, be sure to save room for dessert after all your effort!