pie today, pie tomorrow

Let me tell you: this pie was torture. This pie was the second circle of Hell. I hated making this pie. And yet. As much as it pains me to admit it and though I fully concede that hellish processes do not always lead to breathtaking results, they often do — and this falls squarely into the “breathtaking” category. This is a pumpkin pie and a half: light as air and perfectly spiced, and for someone who does not love pumpkin pie, that is Saying Something.

I can explain the torture-quotient in a few points. First, I started the process, from crust inwards, before the sun came up. It was 7:30 in the morning; sure, by “come up,” I mean the lawn wasn’t bright and sunny green yet. It wasn’t pitch outside, but let’s let this one slide. Point being, I hadn’t had coffee yet, or even a nub of bread to chew because I am a Serious! Pastry Chef!, and pretty soon the heady scents of all that butter and pumpkin and canned yams in anonymous syrup made my stomach rather unpleasant company. (I know I am a weakling with first world problems, but I come bringing pie, so let’s be friends?).

The second point has to do with appreciating the difference between a fine mesh strainer and a medium mesh strainer. One will literally fish your sanity, your composure, your domestic goddess grace from the garbage disposal, elbow-grease it back to new penny shine, and set it on the crown of your head with a deferential bow and a wink of “I knew you could do this.” The other is going to kill you. It is going to reduce you to a two year old in full-fisted tantrum mode, you will be tempted to pitch the entire orange-colored puree out the window and in the unlikely event that you do not, you will need a nap afterward. To say nothing of a proper cup of coffee.

Um. Here’s the third reason. Well, no, let’s call it a Really, Self, Are You Serious?. It’s a little silly. A little embarrassing. But this is a circle of trust, so tell me what that pan looks like to you.

It is a cake pan.

Yes, I made a pie in a cake pan.

I am calling it piecake. Though it’s a little more like a shallow cheesecake. Anyway.

Had I but known, or more aptly, “had I believed Smitten Kitchen’s warning of the asterix-inspiring fine mesh strainer,” I would have hopped in the car, pajamas, dark sky and all, and high-tailed it to Target for a medium-mesh compadre — but I don’t regret the pie for one second, and you won’t either. And while I would trade pumpkin pie for apple or pecan (to say nothing of the Times’s new, nutso ideas), Boyfriend would not, and since he is the one staying in Iowa through the holiday to study for exams and is rather partial to pumpkin, pumpkin he gets.

Let’s talk about crusts, baby. I am a firm subscriber to the “No Fear!” kitchen policy, and I think you should be, too. Don’t fear the crust. You can do it the old fashioned way, with a pastry cutter. You can do it like them whippersnappers, with a food processor. I tend towards the latter, because I am a lazy child of the Eighties who craves instant gratification. Either way, this is what you do.

  1. Cube your fats (butter or shortening, I use both) into a large dice and stick ’em in the freezer while you complete steps two and three.
  2. Measure out your flour and salt into a large bowl OR the bowl of your food processor. Mix to combine.
  3. Put some ice cubes in a small bowl and fill it with cold water.
  4. Haul out them fats! Either cut them into the flour with the pastry cutter, or PULSE them together with the food processor. You want the butter/shortening to be the size of LARGE peas. Do not go smaller. Repeat: do not go smaller.
  5. If you’ve been using a FP, do the rest by hand! If you have been using a pastry cutter . . . you already are doing it by hand, good job! Tablespoon by tablespoon, add the ice water, combining well after each addition. When the dough holds itself together in a ball, stop with the water. You’re done.
  6. Plop the dough onto some wax paper, flatten it into a disc several inches thick, and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes, and up to three hours. (You can also freeze it well in advance. But since Thanksgiving’s tomorrow, you probably won’t.)

That’s it! Bravo! You’ve made pie crust!

Mine isn’t going to win any beauty pageants. But it’s flaky. Let’s go by that standard, okay? Another question: why the Arctic temperatures? Because visible peas of butter = flakiness. If you let things get too warm — either the fats are warm, the water’s warm, you roll it out warm — then the butter will melt. And you pie crust won’t be flaky. And you don’t want that, do you? Keep it cold. Get a medium-mesh strainer! And make this sit-down-and-shut-up, this stand-up-and-be-counted, this delectable pie for your wonderful Thanksgiving table.

Pumpkin Pie

For the crust

(From James Beard)

  • 1 cup sifted all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 Tbsp + 2 tsp butter
  • 1/4 cup vegetable shortening
  • several Tbsp ice water

Make the crust as described above. Go on, I’ll wait.

After refrigeration, roll out crust on a well-floured board, moving the dough constantly to prevent from sticking. Go about 1/4 inch farther than the edge of the pie pan. Gently lift up and transfer to the pie pan. Push the dough gently into the sides. Trim overhang to 1/4 inch beyond lip of the pan. Tuck under, and crimp around the edges. Refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes.

Line the pan with aluminum foil and weigh down with pie weights (or dried beans, or pennies, or . . . ). Bake in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes. Remove weights and foil, rotate pan, and continue baking for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden.

For the pie

(From Smitten Kitchen, via Cook’s Illustrated)

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk (I used 2 cups of half and half instead of one cup each of cream and milk)
  • 3 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
  • 1 cup drained candied yams from 15-ounce can (I used something called “yams in syrup,” which I am guessing is comparable and, more to the point, worked fine)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tsp grated fresh ginger (I skipped this entirely)
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp table salt

While pie shell is baking, whisk milk and cream (or half and half, in my case), eggs, yolks, and vanilla together in a medium sized bowl. Set aside.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine pumpkin puree and yams, sugar, maple syrup, spices, and salt. Bring to a sludgy simmer over medium heat, about 5 to 7 minutes. I pulled out my potato masher here, though a wooden spoon would work, too: start breaking down those yams against the pot sides and bottom. Continue cooking, stir-mashing all the while, until mixture is thick and shiny, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat.

Slowly whisk in cream-egg mixture. Strain through a medium-mesh strainer, pushing solids through as best you can with the back of a ladle. Breathe. You will finish.

Whisk strained mixture together once more and pour into pie crust.

Bake in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes, then lower heat to 300 and continue baking for 45 minutes to an hour, until center is set but still jiggly. Jiggly but not soupy.

The pie will continue forming up outside the oven, at room temperature, for the next couple hours.

Serve with whipped cream and a much-deserved pat on the back.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Pies are stressful to make sometimes but soooooo good in the end


  2. Oh wow your pie looks really stunning! The filling looks so creamy and rich! I am really inspired by this 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!


  3. Natalie! I’m in the process of making *three* of your pie crusts for my Thanksgiving pumpkin and apple pies tonight! I must admit, however, that I am not making my own pumpkin puree! I’ll try that next time 🙂

    Will you be out in California over Christmas break?

    xo Lauren


    • Posted by iowasthinking on November 25, 2010 at 1:57 pm

      Hi Lauren! Good luck with those pie crusts! We have two, one pecan and one apple, happily ensconced in that pastry. I cannot wait for dessert. And yes, I will be in California, I think Jan 3 – 8?? See you then! Happy t’giving!


      • Natalie, they turned out wonderfully! Buttery and flaky and lovely. My mom declared the pumpkin pie the best she had ever eaten! So glad you’ll be out here in January, we’ll have to plan something. Hope your Thanksgiving was delicious!


  4. Been there. Nothing makes me more impatient than pushing pumpkin solids through a mesh strainer. It takes like thirty minutes, but it’s *so* worth it, so it has to be done. Sigh…


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