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.

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