Tuesday, November 25, 2008

where's the cranberry sauce, Chuck? Where's the pumpkin pie??

Lowdown and blue, that's PQ today. Maybe it's the weather, gray and lowering, gloomy and misty, without either stay-in rainy coziness or crisp autumn-y sunshine. Or maybe it's everyone winging back to see their families, while I'm here with the waifs and strays. OK, not really--I've got a very nice invite to join Shifra and Stephen at their Berkeley apartment for Thursday turkey. But what I'm craving is coffee in flannel bathrobes, family chaos and bustle and that sense of inclusion, not lonely crust-rolling by myself in this dim Bernal kitchen.

Well, anyway. Last Thursday was Farmie Thanksgiving back down on the farm, and what a thanksgiving it was. Since my old farmie pal Hollywood was in town from Durango, I even got to skip the crawly-slow train n' bus and ride down with her in style. And when of one of his many Santa Cruz meetings got cancelled, S. even came up to join all the wide-eyed farmie types, dirt on their boots and innocence in their hearts, for turkey, stuffing, kale salad, infinite bowls of greens, and many pies, some made, you will not be surprised to hear, by PQ herself.

Yes, I had pies on my mind at the farm. It was a stunningly clear autumn day, warm and bountiful, with all the chard and straw-mulched flowers glistening under a deep blue sky. Hollywood and I cruised the farm for pie timber, filling bags with late Granny Smith apples from a tree by compost row, an armful of fresh rhubarb stalks, and a few butternut and red kuri squash from the field's onion/potato/squash stash. Then she went off to hike to the ocean through Wilder Ranch and I headed to the Up Garden chalet, to roll and bake all afternoon. The final production:

One apple pie
One pumpkin (actually squash) pie
One crustless pumpkin custard (aka the leftover pumpkin-pie filling, baked in a bain-marie, and much appreciated by the wheat-free guests)
One pink and pretty rhubarb lattice pie
One apple crisp

All in all, a lot of very nice pie, all made with farm produce, which was very satisfying. I roamed through the Up Garden, picking more Braeburn, Granny Smith, and Pink Lady apples, along with some oranges, lemons, and peppers, all in lush abundance.

The real stunner was the rhubarb, though. Not just because there was rhubarb--not a usual November harvest--but because it was slim, smooth, and juicy, and a ravishing deep pink inside, like a Pink Pearl apple. I made the pie with nothing but rhubarb, sugar, and a little flour for thickening, and it was amazing--full of clear, tangy rhubarby goodness. I think cornstarch works better as a thickener for rhubarb, giving a better, clearer set to the pink juices, but this was pretty darn good just as it was.

The pumpkin pie was pretty swell too--the recipe was based on one from Williams-Sonoma 's Pie and Tart book, only I doubled the amount of squash and used evaporated milk instead of the called-for milk and cream. And so can you.

First, roast a couple of your favorite squash. I'd recommend butternut, red kuri, kabocha, or blue hubbard (in which case you'll just need a piece, since those babies are huge). Nix to delicata (not enough meat) and acorn (too pasty and fibrous). Split, scoop out the seeds, and place face-down on a lightly oiled or parchment-papered cookie sheet. Make sure the sheet has at least an 1/2" high rim, as squash can release a lot of liquid while baking. Bake at 350F until really soft and collapsing. Take out and let cool until you can scrape out flesh from peel. Discard peel and dump flesh into a colander in the sink or over a bowl. Let drain for several hours or overnight. Then, mash the squash through a fine-mesh strainer, or spin through a food mill (much easier, with smoother results). Buzzing in a blender or food processor is not really an alternative; the point is not just to mash the squash but to make a velvety, string-free puree, and this only happens via a method that leaves the strings on top and the puree below.

Why all the bother? Because it's nice to use fresh squash in all its multicolored, stripey cuteness, and because a fresh-squash pie has a springy fluffiness that rescues it from the usual heavy-custard stodge.

OK, so you've got your squash puree. Measure out 2 cups, and put away the rest for use in a tasty pumpkin bread or pumpkin pancakes.

Make a single crust the way you do. Line with foil or parchment and pile in the pie weights. Blind-bake for 8-10 minutes at 375F, then remove foil and weights, and bake for another few minutes, until crust is set, dry, and pale blond, like Cindy McCain. Set aside to cool.

In a big bowl, mix up 2 eggs, 1 can evaporated milk (or 1 3/4 cups of a mix of milk, heavy cream, and/or half-and-half), 1 tsp pumpkin/apple pie spice (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves), pinch of salt, 2/3 cup brown sugar, packed, and 2 cups squash.

Pour pumpkin mix into shell and bake at 375 until custard is just set, 30-35 minutes. Let cool on a rack.

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