Tuesday, November 23, 2010

This year's pie

This pumpkin’s journey began in a scenic field beside the Housatonic in Connecticut and will end on our Thanksgiving table in Virginia. It weighed nearly 20 pounds, and my Disney-addled daughters eyed it expectantly, as though it might blossom into a full-sized princess coach, throwing off neon sparks as it morphed. I was sorry to inform them that the transformation wouldn’t be quite so magical–but it would be delicious.

For a year I’ve been looking forward to reprising last year’s dessert success at the Thanksgiving stove…except, after holding onto this pumpkin for two months and feeling its particular heft, and watching the light play on its waxy skin, I realized the thought of hacking it apart was causing me pain, and that I had grown way too attached to a vegetable.

So I dispatched with the unpleasant task swiftly, aiming my biggest knife through its heart and feeling, as I yanked downward, that special resonance
very large pumpkins give off when split. It was a juicy one this year, full of dense, ropey pulp and fat seeds, and shocking tangerine-colored flesh. A long way from the vine, yes, but still somehow coursing with life. I actually felt the same mixture of resolve and regret that had gripped me on my first fly fishing excursion, on a stream high in the Rockies, when faced with the sickening moment when I had to put a brook trout out of its misery.

As with the trout, I offered up a silent "thanks" to Mother Nature and vowed to do the pumpkin justice–to make an even better pie than last year's, which managed to turn the pumpkin pie naysayers among us into yaysayers.

I’ve always been a pumpkin pie person, but for the longest time I labored under the delusion, shared by many, that only canned puree will do–because somehow it’s smoother or sweeter or cures during its stay in the can. But it turns out that an even better pie–lighter and brighter and more subtle tasting–is to be had from a freshly made puree, and why shouldn’t that be the case? It’s all about choosing the right pumpkin, but even then, I've heard, quality can be uneven among single varieties. I will say I’ve found that anything bearing a resemblance to a Halloween pumpkin is disappointing in flavor–and that the sugar pumpkins I’ve tried have been anything but sweet, and fibrous to boot. The variety I’ve been using these past two years is a Long Island cheese pumpkin, so named for its squat, round, wheel of cheese shape. Its faded-looking tan exterior conceals a brilliant flesh that cooks down sweet and even-textured. 
Some other varieties you might try are anything labeled a "pie pumpkin," as well as Cinderella, Rouge Vif d'Etampes, Jarrahdale, hubbard squash or even butternut squash–which is actually what's in those cans, and is a close relative to the cheese pumpkin. Turning a large pumpkin like the one above into pulp can be a laborious process, what with all the hacking, roasting, and whirring, but if you make a lot the pulp freezes beautifully for plenty of soups, bread, baby food, and–yes–pie filling to last you the winter. 
As for the pie recipe, it's the pumpkin that makes it, and the crust is a nice buttery, flaky one. But the crystallized ginger garnish is really the secret weapon here–the crunchy bursts of sweet spiciness add nice little bits of texture and heat, so don't skip that part. 
After I navigate the Jersey Turnpike and the quirks of my parents' kitchen (including my mom's electric mixer, which was a wedding gift in 1968), I'll offer up a couple of these pies as my contribution, since we'll be making merry with a large gathering of family and friends, all of whom will bring something to the table (my daughters, I hope, will not be bringing the germs this year). There are hunters among us, so we'll enjoy whatever roasted game birds they've bagged. I'm told many dozen Chesapeake bay oysters have been ordered by our hostess, Perry, to get us started–and all of this is on top of the traditional fare. Thankful? Yes, but I'm already hurting just thinking about the feast that lies ahead.
Happy Thanksgiving, readers! Be grateful, be well. 
Pumpkin Pumpkin Pie
Ingredients for the puree:

  • 1 large pumpkin, such as cheese, Cinderella, hubbard, Rouge Vif d’Etampes

Instructions for the puree:
Preheat oven to 375º. Cut pumpkin into chunks roughly 2”–leave skin on. Arrange them in casserole dish(es) so there’s space in between, cover with foil and poke holes in foil. Roast for about a half hour, then remove foil and continue roasting, about a half hour more, until any liquid has evaporated from bottom of pan and pumpkin is very soft. Cool, cut off skin, and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. If the puree seems watery, place it in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl, for an hour or so, to drain off excess liquid.

Ingredients for the crust: 

Makes 2 crusts–you may double pie recipe or freeze the extra 
Adapted from David Lebovitz, Ready for Dessert
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour (about 1 ½ lbs, or 350 grams)  
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 6-8 tablespoons ice water
Instructions for crust: In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, and salt to combine. Add butter and pulse a few times until butter pieces are broken up and incorporated. Continue pulsing as you dribble in a little water at a time, until mixture just begins to come together–you don’t want dough to be too wet. Remove from machine and divide into two pieces, press into disks, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Have a 9” pie pan ready. Remove dough from refrigerator and allow to soften at room temperature for 10 minutes or so. On a floured surface, roll dough out into an even circle about 12" in diameter, then carefully drape over pan and press dough onto the surface. Trim the dough around the outside rim, then either crimp edges or press onto rim with your fingertips. Prick bottom with the tines of a fork, and freeze for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375º, to pre-bake the pie shell. Take pie pan from freezer, line with foil, and pour in dried beans, rice, or coins to weight. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until crust begins to turn golden. Remove foil and weights and back uncovered for about 10 more minutes, until bottom is beginning to color lightly. Cool.

Ingredients for the filling:
  • 1 ¾ cups pumpkin puree  
  • 3 large eggs  
  • ½ cups heavy cream
  •  ½ cup light brown sugar  
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon  
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger  
  • ¼ teaspoon ground allspice  
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg  
  • Crystallized ginger to top
Instructions for filling:  
Using an electric mixer, beat together all ingredients until combined and smooth.

Assembling pie:
Preheat oven to 350º. Spread filling into pie crust and bake for about an hour, checking just before then, until center is just set. Remove and cool. Just before serving, sprinkle with chopped crystallized ginger and serve with whipped cream. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pear and Honey Cake

This time of November, on colorless days when a certain kind of wind whips a mist off the river and rips the leaves from the plane trees, I find myself swept back to a place very different from Brooklyn, New York. It could be the special cocktail of weather that does it, or maybe it’s the rootless feeling such gusts can conjure, but suddenly, for a second, I’m 23 again and in the Camargue.

At the end of my post-college gap year (which was closer to two), my Mom flew over so we could take one last little trip together–and the month being November, we were celebrating our respective birthdays, even though neither one was of any consequence. I had been living in Paris, dodging real responsibility as a not-so-legal worker there, a cigar box my bank. Earlier fall had seen me kneeling in vineyards, picking grapes (and drinking) in Burgundy–the logical conclusion to a year pouring (and drinking) in a wine bar. Now it was time for me to head back to the States and start sculpting something of a grown-up existence out of my dissipated youth. My mother, upon landing, appraised my sparse collection of tired black t-shirts, gypsy skirts, and the inevitable array of scarves, sighed, and concluded: “I think we need to get you some decent clothes.” She whisked me off to buy my first interview suit and a presentable pair of heels, because soon I would be scraping together my resume and begging people in New York City
to interview me.

Beyond the trauma of staring at a pinstriped version of myself in a shop mirror, it was a cocoon-like pause in my life, a happy distraction from the reality of leaving a place I loved and leaping into the unknown. Truffle season had begun, and after a few decadent dinners in Paris and Lyon, my Mom and I set off for the Camargue, that marshy area at the bottom of France where the Rhone empties into the Mediterranean. It’s a wild little corner just south of Arles, untouched by the Côte d’Azur glitz, a world apart even from the quaint hill towns of Provence. The region is famous for its red rice, bulls, mosquitoes, and, further south, the salt flats where fleur de sel blooms and flamingoes fan out overhead. The horses are all white and the bulls all black. It’s desolate compared to the sunny, intimately-stacked villages nearby, but there’s stark beauty in the expanses of flat, scrubby grassland and windswept trees.

the only surviving photo from the trip
We stayed at the Mas de Peint, a dignified and comfortable farmhouse with a handful of rooms, owned by a family–the Bons–whose patriarch (now deceased) was a swashbuckling character with a bushy white moustache and black cowboy hat. A cattle rancher born and raised, he was always dressed the part, and impeccably. He and his wife, Lucille, were warm and charming hosts, treating us like long lost friends as we took our meals in their kitchen and delighted in whatever was on offer that evening; it was always delicious. And since the sky outside dripped and blustered for most of our trip, the kitchen was the place to be, as close to the stove as possible, huddled over a soupe de potiron (pumpkin soup), a daube of the region's flavorful beef, and always expertly prepared vegetables from their garden. The one night we ventured out in the gloom, we lost ourselves on the meandering roads but eventually, on a tiny back lane, found the table d'hôte we had been seeking–literally, a small table in someone's modest kitchen, where that someone and her daughter prepared and served the meal, and fawned over us to make sure we were happy. I'm pretty sure their dog was roaming the kitchen, too, which we didn't mind at all. If memory serves, that dog even brought us our check at the end of the dinner. We ate some of the freshest and most delicious whole-cooked fish I had ever tasted, a vegetable gratin, maybe, and a homey dessert–and for the first time I realized how transcendent very simple food can be.

The sun emerged a few times and we rode white horses through the marshlands, drove down to see the salt flats and flamingos, and got lost a few more times before it was all over. It restored me to see an unfamiliar landscape, to smell new air. I felt warm and coddled. And the good, wholesome food, all straight out of the region we were exploring, built me up for the next adventure. I don't remember any of the desserts, just that they were simple, with fresh fruits (I'm sure Mom has it all written down somewhere); it would have been the time for pears. This dessert may have nothing to do with the ones we sampled there, but it reminds me of something we would have, that combination of flavorful pears and honey, suspended in a delicate cake. The recipe is adapted from one in the lovely Ducasse: Flavors of France, which was written around the same time of our trip, and given to me for Christmas by my parents the following year. If you make this–and you should–try to find lavender honey…it will complete the feeling. Enjoy it as breakfast or dessert on a blustery day.
Pear and Honey Cake
Ingredients for cake batter:
  • 1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 3/4 cups confectioners' sugar (powdered sugar) 
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • pinch sea salt
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted 
For the pears
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 1/4 pounds pears, such as Bartlett (not Bosc)–about 4 large pears
  • 2 tablespoons delicately flavored honey, such as wildflower or lavender
  • 1/4 cup pear liqueur (eau-de-vie)
For cake batter: 
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and confectioners' sugar until smooth. Beat in the baking powder and salt. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the flour and mix thoroughly, until smooth. Cover the bowl and let rest at room temperature for an hour. 
For the pears: 
Preheat oven to 400º. Butter and flour a large loaf pan (9x5" or 10x5") 

In a large skillet, melt half the butter over medium heat, and add half the pears. Cook for a few minutes, turning occasionally, until lightly caramelized on the outside. Add half the honey and turn to coat, then add half of liqueur. Cook for a couple more minutes, then transfer pears to a large bowl to cool. Repeat with remaining pears.

Once pears are cool, fold them gently into batter. Spoon pears and batter into prepared loaf pan and bake at the center of the oven for about 10 minutes, or until a crust forms on top. Using a sharp knife, cut a slash down the center of the cake. Lower oven temperature to 325º and continue baking for approx. another hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. 

Allow to cook for about 10 minutes before removing from pan, then cool on a rack or plate completely before cutting into it.