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How to make perfect pumpkin pie
An American classic we really should import, or something best left on the other side of the ocean?
The British have never really got pumpkin pie, although cookbook writers have been trying hard to make us like it for over 300 years – long before the first recipe appeared in Cucubita pepo's native America. Jill Dupleix quotes a 1932 letter to the Times in which a gentleman marvels at the prodigious growth of the pumpkin in his garden – but adds doubtfully, "Whether it is a food worth eating remains to be seen."
The idea of having something so vegetal for pudding freaks us Brits out slightly, as anyone who's ever baked a courgette cake for the bring and buy sale will no doubt attest – even carrot cake took a while to catch on this side of the Atlantic. This makes pumpkin pie perfect for Halloweenparties, but I reckon, with a little love and attention, this Thanksgivingclassic could be a genuine seasonal hit: autumnal, colourful, and packed with the sweet spices long beloved of British cooks, it's really nothing to be scared of.
To make a pumpkin pie, you need a big orange Halloween-themed vegetable fruit, right? Well, not necessarily – America's most popular pumpkin comes straight from a tin, for the very good reason that most fresh pumpkins are watery, stringy, and best left tojack o'lanterns, or whatever we call them here. The ubiquitous Libby's pumpkin puree is actually made from something called a Dickinson's Select, which most of us would recognise as a squash, rather than a pumpkin, although the distinction between the two is somewhat hazy.
The Famous Pumpkin Pie pushed on the Libby's label calls for a can of the purée mixed with 225g sugar, ½ tsp salt, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, ½ tsp ground ginger, ¼ tsp ground cloves, 2 large eggs and 410ml evaporated milk, then poured into a 9 inch unbaked deep dish pie shell.
The latter is even harder to come across than the pumpkin puree itself, so I make my own, using the Leiths Baking Bible recipe for shortcrust pastry, then try the recipe, baking the pie at 220C for 15 minutes, then 180C for another 40. It's exactly how I remember pumpkin pie: deep orange, sweetly spiced and slightly custardy – and a wee bit dull. Surely there has to be more to America's signature dish than this?
Perfect pumpkin pie
For the pastry:
170g plain flour
1 small culinary pumpkin or medium butternut squash
1. Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Cut pumpkin or squash in half or quarters depending on the size, and scoop out the seeds and fibres inside. Place skin-side up in a roasting dish with a couple of tablespoons of water. Roast for about half an hour, until tender.
2. Keeping the oven on, take the pumpkin out and leave to cool slightly, then peel off the skin, and scoop the flesh into a food processor. Whizz until smooth, then put into a fine sieve or piece of muslin suspended over a bowl and drain for at least an hour.
3. Meanwhile, make your pastry. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl, stir in the salt, then grate in the butter. Rub in using your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs, then stir through the sugar. Mix the egg yolk with 2 tbsp iced water, and sprinkle half over the mixture, then stir together with a knife until it comes together in a paste – add a little more liquid if necessary.
4. Bring the mixture together with your fingertips, and then roll out on a floured surface to the thickness of a £1 coin. Use it to line a 20cm tart tin. Cover with clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.
5. Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans. Put in the oven for 15 minutes, then remove the paper and beans, and bake for another 5-10 minutes until the base is pale golden. Remove from the oven. Turn the oven down to 180C.
6. Meanwhile, put 250g pumpkin purée in a large bowl, discarding the excess liquid, and stir in the maple syrup, rum if using, and spices. Taste for sweetness, then mix in the eggs. Gradually stir in the evaporated milk until you have a thick, creamy consistency – you may not need it all. Pour into the pastry case.
7. Bake for about 40 minutes, checking from half an hour onwards, until the filling is set, but still slightly wobbly in the centre. Allow to cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before serving.
Is pumpkin pie an American classic we really should import, or something best left on the other side of the ocean? If so, what do you like to eat it with? If not, which squash do you think is the best for cooking?