Monday, January 11, 2016

baking a pumpkin pie from scratch (not about tea)

This is a clear violation of tea-blog scope, writing about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with tea.  I wanted to write a bit about cooking in a food group I'd been spamming with tea blog links when the two subjects seemed to overlap, and then thought why not break form and write it here.  If I don't post links to it anywhere then it will be a little like it never happened anyway.

So all this is about a very normal thing for me, making a pumpkin pie from scratch.  It's really not worth mentioning how to do it, in a sense, because it's so easy a child could do it, and everyone should already know how, it's just normal food preparation, but I'll run through it anyway.

Japanese pumpkin is orange; brown- green Thai version

To begin, we bought a pumpkin travelling in Isaan, North-East Thailand, on a trip to Khon Kaen.  They kept selling interesting an inexpensive fresh vegetables so we came back with a lot of corn, that pumpkin, a watermelon, and a lot of one type of yam.

The pumpkin is a Japanese pumpkin, different than the type one sees in America or the Thai pumpkin, which looks more like a strange version of a squash, with a green, odd-textured exterior.  Thai pumpkin tastes more like a squash too, with the Japanese style in the middle, not so different than the one you see America, but not the same (on the left in this picture).

Isaan!  Looks like the country anywhere, but a little tropical

I'll keep it simple, just how I made it, resisting the urge to ramble on and on about tangents.

Roast the pumpkin:

Of course, right.  One would cut up the pumpkin into manageable large sections, take out the pulp and the seeds, and keep the skin on, then put the pumkin in a covered pan with water in it for something like 45 minutes to an hour, around 350 or so (but I'm on Celcius here, so 175 C = 350 F).  Really I used around 200, close to 400 F, but it will take the pan and water and pumpkin awhile to reach temp, so it may work well to go with 400 for 20 minutes then back that off to 350 for another half an hour.

roasted pumpkin (slightly less orange)

It's really not a recipe if someone keeps saying "about, roughly," right?  A real recipe can talk you through it, but for me it's best to just wing it a bit, and then fix the glitches next pie.  Betty Crocker can give you more input on measured ingredients, though, and Google must have more on roasting pumpkin.

You know when the pumpkin is ready when it's soft.  If it has a little more texture than you think it should that won't matter, because the pie still needs to cook, but if there's a raw layer near the skin you won't be able to make it work out.  Once the pumpkin is roasted you'll still need to take it out, let it cool a little, then scoop the pumpkin flesh from the skin.  I'm using the skin to eat separately; yesterday I roasted some with butter, and some of that with a yellow curry powder added, broiled at high heat for about 15 minutes in a toaster oven.  For God's sake don't throw it out; think of the nutritional value, must be lots.

another way to roast it

This is a good time to mention I made the whole thing in a large toaster oven.  Thais don't generally have ovens, and we don't (I live in Bangkok).  At a different time in my life I practice baking in a normal small version; you can, but the extra space helps.  It absolutely won't work without a temperature setting, though, so if yours just toasts it's too much of a stretch.  The oven we have isn't like a normal toaster oven, it's a larger version for baking, with two different rack levels and an option to use an extra fan to help distribute the heat differently for some types of cooking.

Ordinarily you wouldn't cover a pie, I mean with foil, and it will throw off the top texture if you do in this case, but I'd at least consider it for a toaster oven because it's just not set up for baking like that.  One really should cover the pumpkin for the roasting step.

Toast the seeds

Maybe optional, but come on, do it.  As a child we made them with just salt added, but this time I added a good bit of oil as well.  It works a lot better with the American version of a pumpkin, with smaller seeds and a thinner seed shell, but the ones I just made are tasty.  I'm not going to be as much help as I should be about temperature and time, and mine went a little extra brown this time, so about three minutes less than I cooked mine would be better.  Just keep an eye on them!  Again maybe 350 would work, maybe only 12 to 15 minutes, but it's easy to check, just eat one.  They should start to tan a little but not get brown.

a little less dark would be as well

Prepping them takes some doing; it takes some meticulous work separating them from the mushy pulp, but that roasting step gives you an hour to mess with.  I'd give them a really good wash too; all that pumpkin mush could throw off the final crispy-skin texture a little.

Salt level is critical, not too much, not too little, but just don't go crazy with it and you'll be fine.  Someone else might think about spicing, doing a curry here too, but for me I like the plain taste.

Make the crust

Easy!  Melt butter to a soft but not liquid state, cut in enough flour so that it gets a bit clumpy, then add water chilled with ice to get it back to a dough consistency.  Ok, so maybe that's not so easy.  My mom used a pastry cutter, hard to describe, it looked like a handle with a half-dozen thick wires making a part that worked like a giant fork.  You can mix it with a fork, or a wooden spoon; I used a metal tablespoon this time.  It only needs a touch of salt, or not if you are using salted butter, but I add a little of whatever spice I feel like, usually cinnamon and something else.  I didn't feel like grinding the sticks and was out of the powder so I did the unthinkable and made this pie without any.  As I recall I put a little nutmeg and ground cardamom in the crust this time.  Vanilla would be nice but if using liquid one would want to be careful about texture.

They advise careful rolling and folding the crust, then some edge fluting, which is a nice approach, but I mashed handfuls of the dough into the pan to give an even depth coating.  Function over form!  Some purist would say I've lost some of the lightness of texture by hand-warming and over-working the dough, and that's right, it's not as flaky as it would have been, but I honestly don't care.  I don't want a light-structured pie crust any more than I want a machine-processed pie-filling consistency; I want it to seem like a person made it, not a machine.

Make the pie filling

Tricky stuff!  Mash the cooked pumpkin, mix in spicing, sugar, spices, eggs, and milk.  Here you might want to check on that link I mentioned for Betty Crocker's version to back me up.  I used four eggs this time, when I'd initially planned to go with three, but the pie was kind of big (non-standard; more on that later), and I decided to use palm sugar disks, and needed to dissolve those in water to work with them, and the mix was a bit thin looking.

They say to use evaporated milk, in that version.  I guess; why not.  Or whole milk really would work, or cream, or half and half.  It's your pie; go with your own instincts, just plan to make another at some point in the future that will turn out even better once you see what works.  Evaporated milk has a nice flavor balance and texture, the right elements for ingredient purposes, but half-and-half would be about the same, and nice that it's a bit less processed.

This is where things gets strange:  I don't measure, anything, ever (ok, maybe for chocolate chip cookies, those things are touchy).  Even stranger:  I would taste the mix to see if it's right, even though it tastes way different when cooked versus raw, and that risks sudden death with raw eggs in it (or maybe not, really).  So for sugar you've got me how much to add, or even what type.  That Betty Crocker version requires a half-cup of white sugar, but really why wouldn't one go with half white and half brown instead.  I used all palm sugar, which is a long story related to how that differs, so hard for me to really say.  So I'll say something that's partly right and perhaps a little wrong; it's closer to a less processed cane sugar.

Spicing:  let's check back in with that "original" recipe, what "pumkin pie spice" really is:

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Not bad, for a start.  It's essentially a fruit based custard, so as well to add just a little vanilla as well.  I would also throw in a dash of nutmeg, and ramp up the ginger and clove level a little.  I added cardamom to the version I just made, and as I mentioned I didn't use any cinnamon, but that is crazy.

Next someone might think of how to push this further; fresh vanilla pod would add a lot of flavor, and if someone had easy access to a juicer using a bit of fresh ginger juice instead of a powder would work out better, just good to be careful or the pie would turn out spicy, maybe not in a good way at some level.  Someone that's been making a lot of masala chai might think "why not black pepper?" but that wouldn't cross my mind.  I usually skip it for that tea too, but to each their own.

Bake it

Betty Crocker says to use 425 for 15 minutes and go down to 350 for another 45.  I kept this one in for about an hour close to 400, because it really did take a long time.  For this step I would give the standard recipe a close read to see what they say about checking temperature, and consider the bit they mention about covering a fluted edge with foil to keep it from over-browning.  It that happened the pie would still be worth eating, it's all just about little details at some point.

About the picture of a pie here, someone might notice it's square (OMG!).  Round is more ideal, but it fits in the toaster oven space that way (really a larger baking oven version of a toaster oven, but not so different).

And the top isn't right; not dark and carmelized, because I made it covered.  That can actually affect taste just a little, but not much, so probably as well to leave it uncovered right at the end, but only right at the end if burning it when cooking in a smaller space than a normal oven is a concern.  The crust did stick a bit, too, due to that lapse in method I'd mentioned.  This is not so difficult to work around by not pressing it in the pan, and using a light flour dusting on the outside of the rolled dough.  Or not; that part doesn't affect the taste, just presentation.

For all the rough-edges in approach, I'll go ahead an offer my opinion of how it turned out compared to the standard version, using canned ingredients.  I think much better, which is kind of amazing given that I didn't use cinnamon.  Part of that was luck, since I'm out of practice (I've made this two or three times in the last 8 or 9 years).  Getting the spice balance right without measuring is a stretch; same for level of sweetness.  Even if it wasn't so great this is my pie, my own creation, and I enjoy cooking a lot more for my own input being part of the process.

If I were in the US I'd say I could just buy a store-bought pie if I wanted the completely standard version, but here I really can't.  There are pumpkin pies out there, somewhere, in specialty grocery stores or very expensive niche bakeries, but walking into a normal grocery store to get a normal version isn't an option.  I'm confident that this is one of the best pumpkin pies in existence in this city of 10 or 12 million people right now.

Now I just need more people to appreciate it.  My kids will eat a little but they're much happier to eat little handfuls of the whipped cream instead, all the more so since I cut that corner and bought the can of automatically whipped cream that they would love to make a meal of.

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