Every now and then an idea will pop into my head to try something I haven't done before. I know that my local farmers market has tons of pumpkins right now, so I thought I'd take a crack at making pumpkin pie from scratch. And Chef Jerry Pellegrino, I am proud to say I nailed it the first time out.
The first thing to come to grips with is your choice of pumpkin. Technically speaking, any old pumpkin will do, but to be fair about it, the big Jack O' Lantern varieties are too watery, too stringy and too low in sugar to be useful. (And you certainly cannot re-purpose a cut up Jack O' Lantern which would most certainly make you sick.)
Across the centuries, farmers have been breeding much more appropriate cultivars for eating. Inevitably they are smaller, often not much bigger than a softball, with good consistency in the flesh, and high sugar levels for flavor. In colonial times, a tasty pumpkin would be hollowed out and filled with milk, spices and honey then cooked in the embers of the fire. This dish, called "pompion," sounds suspiciously like a recipe for modern pumpkin pie filling.
Today some of the best know varieties are Jack Be Little, the dark orange fleshed Jarrahdale from New Zealand, the heritage variety Long Island Cheese, the popular Sugar Babies, and the one I used: the Rouge Vif d'Etampes, better known as the Cinderella (it looks exactly like Cinderella’s Pumpkin Coach, a little flattened out, with brilliant red-orange color.)
I was steered to the Cinderella by my farmer friend Billy Caulk of Pine Grove Farm. Billy is an expert in melons, gourds and pumpkins and he has a reason for bringing each variety to my Saturday market. The 10 pound Cinderella I bought would be good for at least two, maybe three pies. I was in business.
I needed a tutorial before I started cooking, so I went to YouTube. There were dozens of videos explaining what and how and how much, but they all said the same thing about getting out that lovely orange flesh. To make one pie, select a single small variety like the Sugar Baby. Otherwise, just use a portion of a bigger variety like the Cinderella.
Do not attempt to peel the skin with a knife. You'll only hurt yourself. Instead, cut the pumpkin into quarters, or chunks, rub them up with olive oil, and place them on tinfoil in a baking sheet with sides. Bake for 60 minutes, more or less in a 400° oven, and that will do the trick. Poke the skin with a fork, and if it goes in easily, you're done.
Let the pumpkin quarters cool down, then scoop out the flesh with a good stout spoon. Place batches of the cooked flesh in a strainer of some kind, and press down to squeeze out water. All pumpkins will be a bit watery, so this is an unavoidable step.
Place the flesh in a food processor and process until a rough purée forms. Do not use the purée button, which will very quickly over-process the pumpkin and make it more liquid than it needs to be. After processing, drain again in a fine meshed strainer, and pour into a large ceramic bowl.
The rest of this recipe is for one pie.
For sweeteners you have a broad choice of ingredients, but I think simple brown sugar is all you need. If you're watching your sugar intake, the product called Splenda works very well for these purposes. Stir a cup of the sugar into the pumpkin and then you'll want to get an electric hand mixer out.
You will be adding you spices: traditionally cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and ground cloves. You can do them individually, but as Jerry has pointed out, it's easy to get a bottle of pre-mixed Pumpkin Pie Spice that works perfectly well. About 2 tablespoons will do the trick. If I wanted to emphasize one particular spice it would be the ground cloves which in this case gives the flavor a deep zing. But go easy. One last spice that works far out of proportion to the amount used is a half-teaspoon of ground black pepper. It has the quality of amplifying all the other spices without much influencing the flavor.
You'll need a useful liquid to thin the mixture, and a can of sweet condensed milk works perfectly. Add two whole eggs and a heaping tablespoon of cornstarch and you've got all the thickening you need. Fire up the beater and mix everything as thoroughly as you can. You will end up with a big bowl of a very liquid looking filling. Don't worry because the eggs and cornstarch will be activated by the baking. Also, allowing the finished pie to set up over a couple hours will guarantee the creamy smooth texture you're looking for.
Whatever crust you want to use, home-made or store-bought, you of course only need a single crust. It's a good idea to blind bake it, however. To do this effectively, form your crust in the pie tin, and make your decorative edges. Chill it in the fridge for an hour so that it will be firm going into the oven. Line the interior of the crust with tin foil and weigh it down with, say, rice and dried beans or purpose made ceramic balls. Bake in a 400° oven for 15 minutes so that the resulting crust will just start to crisp up and be watertight.
I baked my pie for a little more than an hour at that same 400°, having taken care to cover the edge with tinfoil.
Coming out of the oven, it was a thing of beauty. The filling was pleasantly swollen up, and as lovely a brown/orange as ever you'll see. Not a crack in the filling at all, which is regarded as a small triumph. We let it cool overnight, then had it during the 4th quarter of the Ravens' game. Quite simply, I've never tasted a better pumpkin pie. Thank you Princess Cinderella!
AL'S PUMPKIN PIE
Single pie crust
1. To prepare the pumpkin: wash it thoroughly, then cut into quarters.
Using a soup spoon, remove the seeds and ALL of the stringy membrane.
Sprinkle on a little olive oil and place on a lined cookie sheet with sides.
Bake in a 400° oven for one hour, or until fork tender.
2. Remove the baked pumpkin and allow it to cool. When it is cool enough to handle, use a large sturdy spoon to scoop out the flesh. This will be easy if the pumpkin has been well cooked.
3. Place the scooped flesh in a colander and press as much liquid as you can
out of it. Transfer to a food processor and mix until a fairly fine purée forms.
Do not use the purée setting, as this will make too fine a texture. Pour the processed pumpkin into a fine sieve, and shake over the sink, releasing more water.
4. Place the processed pumpkin into a large bowl. It should be smooth, and liquid, but with a little bit of finely chunky texture. Add the sugar, and stir in thoroughly.
5. Add the spices, salt and pepper, cornstarch and stir in.
6. Using an electric hand beater, incorporate the eggs and condensed milk. Make
sure the entire bowl has been uniformly blended. The mixture will appear to be quite watery but it will thicken because of the corn starch and the eggs. It can stay in the kitchen while you prepare the pie crust.
7. Roll out the crust to fit your pie dish. Pat it into place and decorate the edges.
Place the pie plate and crust in the refrigerator for at least one hour to firm up.
8. Blind bake the chilled crust: preheat the oven to 400°; line the interior of the crust with tinfoil; weigh down with pie crust weights (rice and dried beans work
very well) and bake the crust in the oven for about 15 minutes.
9. Remove the tinfoil and pie weights, and set the crust aside to cool. When it is, poke several small holes in the bottom with a tooth pick.
Pour the pumpkin pie filling in, bringing it up about 3/4 of the way.
10. Bake for 1 hour in 400° oven, then turn the heat off, and continue to bake in the cooling oven. Poke the middle with a clean knife. If it comes out wet, bake in the 400° oven for an additional 10-15 minutes.
11. When the pie is finished, remove and set aside on a rack to cool for several hours. During this time the filling will set up and become firm.