Sunday, November 20, 2005

There's Always Room for Pie...

“Pumpkin pie, if rightly made is a thing of beauty and joy- while it lasts…with pastry light, tender, and not too rich, and a generous filling of smooth spiced sweetness…a perfect pumpkin pie, eaten before the life has gone out of it, is one of the real additions made by American cookery to the good things of the world.”—The House Mother.

I heartily agree with this anonymous House Mother’s sentiments. There really is no better treat, especially after a satisfying Thanksgiving meal, than a homemade pumpkin pie.

Many however, may be disappointed to learn that William Bradford and his not-so-merry band of Pilgrims didn’t have pumpkin pie at Plymouth Plantation’s first thanksgiving. While they did sit down to a feast that included, “cod, bass and other fish [probably oysters, lobsters, clams and mussels]” along with “waterfowl [ducks, swans, geese, and cranes]” a “great store of wild turkey, venison and etc…” But they didn’t have pumpkin pie.

Fear not, they did have a pumpkin pie like substitute. According to curators at Plymouth Plantation the end of first Thanksgiving was celebrated with a pumpkin pudding. Made from a large pumpkin that was hollowed out and drizzled with honey or maple syrup. The whole thing was then baked in the hot ashes of a fire until the flesh of the pumpkin was tender and pudding like. Some of the sources I consulted also said the pumpkins were filled with milk or cream in addition to the syrup and honey. This may be true for later harvest celebrations or festivals, but milk products, especially cows milk, would have been impossible to get in 1621. That said some suggest that the pilgrims did keep goats that had been brought over on the Mayflower so they may have had goat’s milk.

Pumpkin pudding though is a far cry from that smooth and creamy pumpking pie that we know. Where did it come from. More than likely this was an English standard that adopted native American ingredients. The first known recorded recipe for pumpkin pie was published in Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” in 1796. In this very popular cookbook Simmons offers two receipes for “pompkin” puddings (each needing a pastry crust, so they are actually pies), both of which call for seasoning with molasses or maple syrup if refined sugar was not available and nutmeg, cinnamon and mace. As she says in her introduction these recipes had been compiled from traditional colonial recipes passed down to her from friends and family in colonies. One can guess then that pumpkin pie was probably a staple of the colonies dating back to when regular trade opened with Great Britain and other European countries. This regular trade would have made spices and flour, affordable enough so that pumpkin pies would be common place.

Today pumpkin pie is as American as, well, as apple pie, baseball and rock and roll. Its popularity has made it an icon of the modern thanksgiving and a ubiquitous part of our holiday celebrations. Virtually all pumpkin pie recipes are the same, eggs (two), brown sugar (1 cup packed), milk or cream (1/2 cup), mashed pumpkin (roughly 2 cups), cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves and mace (or prepared pumpkin pie spice, here amounts differ by recipe but generally a quarter tsp. each works. Taste your filling to make sure) and a little salt. All of this is mixed together in a bowl and poured into a 9 inch pie crust, homemade of course, and baked at 450 degrees for 10 minutes and then at 350 for and additional 40 to 50 minutes. It couldn’t be easier.

The one question that remains is whether to use fresh or canned pumpkin in your pie. Most people automatically reach for canned pumpkin because they believe making fresh pumpkin puree is difficult. It’s really quite simple. The best type of pumpkins to use in a pie is the “sugar pumpkin,” which are available both at the various farmers markets around town and in grocery stores. One medium sized pumpkin is generally enough for a single pie. To make the puree start by roasting your halved pumpkin (seeds and strings removed) cut side down on a greased foil-lined baking sheet at 350 for roughly two hours (check after 45 minutes total time will depend on the size of your pumpkin). The flesh of the roasted pumpkin should be tender and lightly browned. Once cooled puree the pumpkin in a food processor, food mill or potato ricer. Your pumpkin is ready to use in any recipe calling for pumpkin puree.

Is all that preparation necessary for a great pie? I’m not sure it is. Sure it’s impressive and you’ll earn the respect and admiration of your foodie friends, but according to most chefs canned pumpkin works just as well fresh. In fact many chefs prefer the smooth concentrated pumpkin straight from the can because it’s consistent and often times richer than fresh pumpkin. If you do grab a can of pumpkin from the store shelve be sure it’s labled pure pumpkin not pumpkin pie mix. Prepared and canned pumpkin pie mix is bland and tasteless. So if you want to impress your gourmand friends, by all means spend the extra time, roast and puree your own pumpkin. Or grab a can mix up your pie and watch a little extra football. The choice is yours.

One last thing, although pumpkin is healthy and largely good for you there are certain side effects which women should be warned of. According to Alan Hirsch, MD, a neurologist and psychiatrist at the Smell and Taste Treatment And Research Foundation in Chicago, the way to a man’s heart my not be through his stomach but through his nasal passage. Dr. Hirsch and his group have found that “the scent of pumpkin pie” drastically increased feelings of sexual arousal in 90% of the men they tested. So while that pie might not increase the size of his belly it might increase the size of his…

Think about that while you, your friends and family have a happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Turkey for the Adventurous

One of my favorite columns. Originally published Nov. 2001 in the Grunion Gazette.

As Thanksgiving nears, you’re probably being bombarded by people who claim to have the best way to roast a traditional Thanksgiving turkey. I say, to hell with tradition, it’s time to add a little excitement and danger to your Thanksgiving meal.

This year forgo boring oven roasted turkey and try one of the more challenging and fun methods of cooking that bird: deep-frying, Cajun microwaving or grilling. All of these methods are good ways to get everyone off of the couch and involved in the cooking process. Fair warning though, this is extreme cooking at its finest and requires some specialized equipment and only those with the constitution of a daredevil and the willingness to risk both Thanksgiving dinner and their eyebrows should attempt these cooking styles.

What was once the providence of Southern Louisiana, deep-frying turkeys has become popular in almost every state in the nation. Deep-frying works best and should only be done with special outdoor deep-fryers (available at most home improvement stores and online).

The first step in this process is prepping the bird for its hot oil bath. For this you need to inject the thawed bird(using a large 60cc syringe a la Herbert West in The Re-Animator) with a potent mixture spices that will both flavor the turkey and keep it moist during cooking. Next, season the outside of the bird with generous amounts of salt and fresh ground pepper. Place the turkey, breast down, on the stand several minutes before you are ready to cook. Letting the turkey set in this position for several minutes helps to drain off any excess moisture and reduce "popping" oil when it is placed in the hot oil. Now the fun really begins.

The next few steps require both common sense and sobriety. As you place the raw bird into the hot oil (350 degrees) the excess moisture will cause a steam explosion and the oil will "boil up". This is not as bad as it sounds, especially if you lower the turkey a little at a time, lifting it slightly from the oil as it bubbles up until you have it completely submerged. If you try and lower the bird too fast the boiling oil and the sudden displacement caused by the weight of the bird could result in some volcanic action and perhaps a small patio fire (not that this has ever happened to me, he writes sarcastically). Getting the turkey into the oil is easy. Getting it out, without second-degree burns, is a bit of a challenge. Just be careful and follow the directions that come with your cooker. If done correctly a 12 lbs. bird will cook to perfection in about an hour. For the arithmetically challenged that’s roughly 4 to 5 minutes per lbs. This technique is both exciting and produces the best tasting turkey I’ve ever eaten.

Recently my Cajun Uncle has introduced me to another Southern Louisiana tradition, the Cajun Microwave (some call it the coonass microwave). This is definitely a non-traditional way of roasting your family bird. Here’s how it was explained to me. Inject your turkey with Cajun spices (as you would for deep-frying). A half an hour before cooking, start several batches of charcoal briquettes in chimney starters. While waiting for the charcoal to reach temperature, clear an area outside for a fire pit. Pound a hickory stake into the middle of the prepared ground so that at least 16" are above the ground. Stick your turkey through the body cavity on the stake, so that it's standing upright. Cover the whole thing with a new sturdy metal trashcan then pour the hot coals into the top of the upside down trashcan. The radiant heat from the coals and the metal trashcan will cook the turkey to a beautiful golden brown. If you can’t stomach the idea of cooking in a trashcan, you can purchase ready-made cypress Cajun Microwaves online (, these wooden roasting boxes cook the same way as the trashcan version, but they hold up to 250 lbs. of meat.

For the less adventurous who still want to play with fire, I’d suggest grilling your turkey. The trick here is to arrange medium-hot coals on either side of a large rectangular metal or foil drip pan. Once the fire is hot, you should be able to hold your hand above the grill for 3 seconds before you have to pull your hand away, place turkey, breast side up, on grill directly above the drip pan. This method of cooking (indirect heat) gives the turkey lots of smoke flavor without cooking it too fast on the outside. Cover the grill and cook the turkey for about 10 minutes per pound (any size turkey will work with this method) or until a meat thermometer inserted in thickest part of thigh reaches 165 to 170 degrees. You'll need to add more coals every hour or so and, of course, watch for any flare-ups, although the drip pan should eliminate this. Like deep-frying and the Cajun microwave, this technique is quicker than traditional methods and it also frees up premium oven space.

So this year, if the weather is nice, buck tradition and add a little excitement to the holidays.