(not so) easy as pie

pumpkin praline pie

Ambivalent. That’s my primary emotion about Thanksgiving.

By most accounts, I should *love* Thanksgiving. After all, it is our one feasting holiday, this country’s only day devoted solely to food.

But it can be hard to get past the cultural politics, the complicated family dynamics, and the compulsory menu that has the culinary breadth of a bowling alley. Sure, you can have some fun with Marsala in the gravy, and maybe you’ll switch to wild rice dressing this year, or go a little crazy with the cranberry sauce. But in the end, you line up and chuck that ball at the same ten pins, year after year. When you consider the days of work that typically go into one afternoon’s meal, does it really pay off?

It’s not that I’m not willing to work. I love the idea of a week spent cooking for a single meal. But it had better be a spectacular meal. And no matter how you slice that heritage bird, Thanksgiving dinner is not spectacular. It is so overpopulated with must-have, deal-breaking dishes that your only chance for breaking out of the mold is in ‘the vegetable’. The. vegetable.

In the lead up, I agitate plenty to subvert Thanksgiving hegemony. I campaign for corn pudding and roasted winter squash salad. How about gorgonzola walnut gougeres? Chestnut soup? French pear almond tart? Sure, fine, make any of these, but they would not supplant the entrenched power structure. They would be additive, mere Thanksgiving day bench warmers, allowed at the table, but never into the game.

I have to admit my own hand in perpetuating the problem. Let’s face it, those foods that you eat just once a year are hard to give up. If not for Thanksgiving, when will I ever roast a turkey? Or eat stuffing, or cream gravy? Nobody made me put mashed potatoes AND sweet potatoes AND stuffing on the menu. Each one, lovely on its own, but together on the same plate? Guaranteed to cancel each other out in a big starchy null.

But you have to. People are passionate about these things. And they will not lie down and just let you take mashed potatoes off the menu because you thought you’d mash turnips instead this year.

Pumpkin pie is my Thanksgiving deal-breaker. Don’t speak of pumpkin trifle, pumpkin bundt, pumpkin fudge, pumpkin flan. Please, no pumpkin bread pudding, no pumpkin chocolate chip loaf, no pumpkin latte, no pumpkin souffle. And for crying out loud, no pumpkin cheesecake.

Any other day of the year, by all means, do anything you like with pumpkin. This pumpkin cake with caramel icing is one of my all-time favorites. I am crazy for Steve Herrell’s pumpkin ice cream with hot fudge. But on Thanksgiving? The only time in twelve months that pumpkin pie is guaranteed to appear?

Just the pie, please. But make it good.

pumpkin praline pie

Praline Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from Abigail Johnson Dodge’s recipe in Fine Cooking vol. 29

This Thanksgiving, everyone agreed that this is the best pumpkin pie we have ever tasted. This custard is ethereal, not overly sweet, and has just enough spice to let the pumpkin shine through. The gingery praline at the bottom imparts a mysterious caramelly heat and a delicious snap to the crust. This, I tell you, is THE pie, the pumpkin pie to end all pumpkin pies.

1 recipe Galette dough

for the praline
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and at room temperature
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger

for the filling
3-1/3 cups organic pumpkin purée
1 1/3 cups packed dark brown sugar
3 scant tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 large eggs
2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1. Using the method described here, roll out both disks of dough into 14-inch-diameter, 1/8 inch thick rounds. Line two 9 inch pie plates with the dough, taking care not to pull or stretch. Trim the overhanging dough to a width of 1 inch, tuck or roll under, and crimp. If you’re not sure how to crimp, this short video will help. Freeze for a half hour before blind-baking.

2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix the praline ingredients in a small bowl until well-blended, and set aside.

3. Line the chilled pie shells with parchment, and fill with pie weights. (Uncooked beans or rice work well, and can be used over and over for this purpose. I keep a large canister of them for this purpose in my pantry.) Bake on the center rack for 10 minutes.

4. Remove the parchment and pie weights. Divide the praline mixture between the two pie shells, crumbling it evenly over the bottom. Return the pie shells to the oven until the sides are golden brown and the praline is bubbling, about 12 minutes, checking periodically for bubbles in the crust. If they appear, lightly press them down with the back of a wooden spoon. Remove from the pie shells from oven and set aside to cool while you are making the filling.

5. Reduce the oven temperature to 325.

6. In a large bowl, whisk the pumpkin, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, and salt until smooth. Then add the eggs, cream, and vanilla and whisk until just blended. When the praline has hardened but is still warm, pour the filling into the crust.

7. Bake until the edge of the filling looks slightly dry and the center jiggles slightly when the pan is nudged, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on a rack. Refrigerate overnight to let the custard set and the flavors meld.

Makes two 9 inch pies, which is probably two too few.

As you may know, I am an all-butter crust die-hard, which doesn’t make for the prettiest single-crust pies. But it does make for the tastiest ones. A metal pie plate with a wide rim helps, as does freezing the crust before blind-baking.

It is a common mistake to overbake custard pies such as pumpkin and pecan, leaving them in the oven until they are completely set. To check the doneness of any baked custard, give the pan a gentle shove. If you see a jiggle, the custard is done. If you see a wave that rolls back and forth, it needs more time in the oven.

Please note that the oven temperature for baking the pie is 100 degrees lower than for blind-baking the crust – don’t forget to turn it down.


1 Response to “(not so) easy as pie”

  1. 1 Khyber December 25, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    What I’m so enamored with about your blog, Jami, is that a lot of people are adept at cooking, and a lot of people are adept at writing, but not a lot of people are adept at both and soar like you do. I hope your blog is reaching people out there who don’t know you, because it deserves a really, really wide circulation. Hell, you should have your own magazine like Oprah! As I read, I’m simultaneously wowed by the professionalism of your methods (pie weights!) and the creativity of your prose (bowling metaphors!). I love your take on Thanksgiving. And I give thanks for your honoring my pumpkin pie (and crust) request. I’ll let you know how it turns out. One question: Can I use a different gourd if that’s what I have on hand? Butternut squash? Acorn squash, even? What do you think?

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