How Not to Make a Pumpkin Pie

November 20, 2009 · 11 comments

The Wrong Pie

I don’t bake pies; I am explicitly forbidden from doing so by article seven, section four of the non-alignment treaty I signed with She Who Must Be Obeyed when we were married. Crisps, refrigerator pies, tarts: all of these are permitted under section five, but I’m not allowed to prepare and bake a true pie crust.

I’m comfortable with the arrangement. She Who Must Be Obeyed is a much better baker than I am, and I’ve had no inclination to bake a pie for 25 years, when I witnessed how a simple idea — “Let’s make a pie!” — could go horribly, horribly wrong.

It was October of 1984. I lived in a house with three Harvard grads, but on the weekends the place was usually overrun with friends since we had huge attic space we had dedicated to gaming. Walt (housemate 1) thought it would be a good idea to have an official Halloween party at which we served desserts. After a bit of discussion, I decided to make Julia Child’s bombe aux trois chocolats, a chocolate cake dome filed with bittersweet chocolate mousse and glazed with chocolate ganache. Walt had figured out how to work with plain and chocolate sugar cookie dough to make a log that would bake up into pentagrams when sliced into individual cookies. Rick (housemate 2) was a medical resident, so he offered to contribute to the expenses.

Not to be outdone, Russell (housemate 3) said “I’ll make pumpkin pies!” It sounded like a good idea, but we advised him to use frozen pie crusts in order to eliminate any kitchen angst. Even though Halloween was on a Wednesday that year, we scheduled the party for the following Saturday so we’d have a week to prep and bake. I had the bombe completed on Wednesday, Walt had the cookies rolled and ready to cut on Thursday (to be baked a la minute Saturday evening), and Russell… waited until Friday night to begin his pie making.

If I filed for a special exemption and was granted a one-time permit to bake a pumpkin pie, I would expend most of my effort on creating a good crust and use high-quality canned pumpkin puree as the base for the filling. Relying on the quality of fresh pumpkins could be a recipe for disaster.

You can imagine our surprise when, gathered around the kitchen table, eating dinner (I don’t remember what I cooked), we saw Russell burst in through the back door. At least we thought it was Russell: his hat peeked above and his legs protruded below a huge pumpkin that he cradled in his arms. He plopped the pumpkin on the floor and dragged in a few shopping bags with the rest of his mise en place.

There is a variety or size of pumpkin referred to as a “sugar” pumpkin that is ideal for baking. It has a thicker, softer wall and a higher sugar content that your garden variety jack-o-lantern pumpkin, which has been bred for low interior volume and durability. It was clear that Russell had bought a massive example of the latter.

While we ate, he fired up the oven to blind-bake the frozen pie shells. He was in a hurry, however, so the shells didn’t thaw completely before he threw then in the oven. After the prescribed baking time, he had two shells that were crisp on top but scorched on the bottom. “No problem,” he said, “the filling will hide the burnt spots.” With the shells out of the way, he turned his attention to the pumpkin.

I will now reproduce, in its entirety, the pumpkin pie recipe from The Joy of Cooking, the 1974 Signet two-volume paperback printing of the Revised and Enlarged 1964 edition that sat on the shelf over the kitchen table Russell had commandeered:

About Pumpkins

To cook pumpkin, wash and cut in half, crosswise. Remove seeds and strings. Place it in a pan, shell side up, and bake it in a 325° oven for 1 hour or more, depending on size, until it is tender and begins to fall apart. Scrape the pulp from the shell and put it through a ricer or strainer.

Pumpkin Pie

Prepare: A baked Pie Shell, page 296

Mix in the top of a double boiler and cook over, not in, hot water until thick:

1 1/2 cups cooked pumpkin or squash

1 1/2 cups undiluted evaporated milk or rich cream

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup white sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1/8 teaspoon cloves

4 slightly beaten eggs

Cool slightly and add:

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pour the mixture into the baked pie shell

That’s it: make a pie crust, cook the pumpkin, make a seasoned pumpkin custard, pour it in the shell, let it set, then serve. The pie crust had already failed, now we were all curious to see how the pumpkin cooking would fare.

Russell cut up the pumpkin, scraped out the strings and seeds, and filled a large roasting pan with huge canoe-shaped sections that comprised only a third of the entire pumpkin. After an hour in the oven, he checked for doneness by poking the pumpkin canoes with a large metal spoon. On contacting the pumpkin, the spoon made the same sound that a knife makes when cutting into a watermelon. “That doesn’t sound done to me,” I suggested. “It needs to be much softer.” An hour later it was clear that the canoes were still not cooked all the way through, but Russel was growing impatient: “I’ll just scrape off the soft stuff from the outsides; that should give me more than enough.” So, using the metal spoon, he proceeded to scrape off the “soft stuff,” which separated from the sections in huge stranded bundles, not unlike what you get after roasting a spaghetti squash. He filled a large mixing bowl with the strands, which began to ooze, leaving a pale orange puddle at the bottom of the bowl.

He looked at the recipe and asked “What’s a ricer?”

“It’s kind of like a scaled-up garlic press, but we don’t have one. I suggest you push the pulp through a strainer with a wooden spoon.”

I handed him my coarse-mesh strainer and watched him have at the pumpkin. After half an hour he hadn’t managed to push his first handful of strands through the strainer, although the pulp that was produced seemed to have the proper consistency. The impatience kicked in again: “This is taking too long. What else can I try to get more pulp?”

Walt said “You can try my blender.” Russell filed up the blender carafe with more strands and hit the “pulp” button (between “chop” and “liquefy,” I believe). The strands immediately got tangled in the blades and spun around in the carafe without breaking up. Russell’s impatience quickly became frustration.

Before he could ask, I offered my food processor: “It has a bigger bowl and a sharper blade, you might have more luck with it.” More strands went in, same result: madly spinning stuff, no pulp. Russell’s frustration was now turning into rage.

It was Walt’s turn again: “I suppose we could try the meat grinder attachment for my mixer.” Five minutes later, Russell was pushing the rest of the strands through the coarse-grind plate of Walt’s Kitchen Aid mixer/meat grinder. At long last he had a bowl full of oozing, pale orange, coarse pulp.

With the pumpkin cooking out of the way, it was time to make the custard. The recipe recommends using a double boiler as insurance against curdling, but my double boiler wouldn’t hold the doubled proportions needed for two pies. I advised Russell that he could make the custard in a larger pot, but that he’d have to stir it constantly at low temperature to make sure the eggs didn’t curdle. He added the eggs, cream, and spices to the pot, and then scooped three cups of pumpkin out of the mixing bowl and added it to the pot, but didn’t attempt to press out any excess water, which was still oozing out into the bowl.

After an hour the custard showed no signs of thickening and had acquired a nasty grayish color, probably due to the less-than-fresh spices and some oxidation of the pumpkin pulp. Again, his impatience surfaced: “This is taking too long. I’m going to increase the heat and see if I can cook off some of the excess water.”

“Give it a shot, but keep stirring or you’ll screw up the eggs,” I reminded him.

After another half hour, he decided that the custard was ready. He poured it into each of the two pie shells, only to discover that the pumpkin pulp had settled to the bottom of the pot. He had to spoon it out into the shells and stir the messes together to produce a semblance of a homogeneous mixture. Thus assembled, the pies went into the oven in an attempt to cook off more moisture.

Our kitchen floor was so out of level that the feet on the stove couldn’t be adjusted enough to compensate. Walt and I had taken to wedging rolls of foil under pans in the oven and using a level to ensure even baking, but Russell couldn’t be bothered. After an hour in the off-plumb oven he declared that the pies were done and removed them to a cooling rack on our table.

A pumpkin pie is supposed to look like this:

Pumpkin Pie

There can be variations in color and doneness of the crust, but it would be safe to say that the Platonic ideal of pumpkin pie requires tan-to-golden crust and filling that falls in the orange-to-yellow range of the visible spectrum. What sat on our table met neither of these requirements. The crust was either white (dry) or black (burned), and the filling was a sickly grayish yellow. In addition, the pumpkin pulp had pulled away from the edges and massed in the center of the shell, leaving a liquid moat around the perimeter.

When the pies had sufficiently cooled, Russell smoothed out the filling as best as he could, then placed the pies on the bottom self of our fridge. Which is where I discovered them the next morning, quivering malevolently, still not quite set.

The party that evening was a smashing success. Our guests marveled at Walt’s pentagram cookies, my bombe resulted in my being offered two marriage proposals (I had not yet met She Who Must etc.), and the pie… sat on the table, ignored by all. Russell, clearly jealous of the praise being heaped on Walt and me, loudly announced “I’m going to have some pie!” We all watched him cut a small slice onto his plate, then waited for him to take a bite, all thinking go on, try a bite, I dare you. He took a bite, said “This is great!,” then walked around for a while, plate still in hand. Half an hour later I found the plate ditched behind a speaker, with only the one bite taken out of it.

The cookies and the bombe were gone by the party’s end, but the pie — with one slice missing — was returned to the fridge where it sat next to its mate for another week. Eventually both pies took on a greenish cast, and soon after that they disappeared.

We didn’t have good pumpkin pie, but I had an awesome pumpkin pie story. My friends made me tell the story to anyone who hadn’t been at the party. I got really good at telling it, joking that I intended to make it part of the family oral tradition, something to be passed down from generation to generation.

Coda:

Almost a year later, while at a gaming convention, Robin, a friend from Maryland who had heard the story, told me she had a surprise for me. She made me wear a blindfold and sit in a chair in the middle of a room full of our friends. I heard her say “open our mouth,” which I refused to do, not wanting to be the butt of a practical joke.

“Okay, but keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them.” I felt her remove the blindfold, then heard her pull up another chair in front of me. “Open your eyes.”

She was sitting in front of me, holding a grayish, malevolently quivering pie. It looked exactly like the former denizen of my fridge. “I made a pumpkin pie for you, using Russell’s method. Don’t you want a taste?”

I wouldn’t try any until someone else tasted it first. When he didn’t run off to the bathroom after five minutes, I relented and tried a bite. And it tasted just the way a pumpkin pie should taste. I wound up eating a whole slice.

Robin explained: “To make the pie lumpy I stirred in walnuts and marshmallows. To create the cracks and fissures I scored it with a knife before cooking it. Oh, and I lightly brushed the edge of the crust with butter so it would be blackened after baking. And, of course, assorted food colorings to make it gray.”

So that’s The Pumpkin Pie Story, a tale that will be passed down to He Who Will Not Be Ignored, and maybe someday to his children. I know that I wouldn’t make any of the same mistakes if I attempted a pumpkin pie, but why violate a treaty that’s been observed faithfully for 16 years?

11 comments

Aimee November 20, 2009 at 11:00 pm

I agree, canned pumpkin is just ducky. However, I always think that the real secret to making good pumpkin pie is to start with butternut squash. Much less watery, better flavor, etc.

David November 21, 2009 at 12:12 am

Yup, squash is the way to go. It was the dirty secret behind Toscanini’s pumpkin pie ice cream: no pumpkin at all.

Merryl November 21, 2009 at 2:37 am

When I was a teenager, we went off to some sort of “youth retreat” for a weekend. (Yes, even secular humanists do this to their teenagers.) One night all of us had to make dinner for the group, and I was assigned to the pumpkin pie team. We had to make pies out of pie crusts and pumpkins, and none of us had ever done it before. I am so SO happy to say that our pies turned out better than that. Not actually GOOD, but much better than THAT. *shudder*

David November 21, 2009 at 10:40 am

If your pies didn’t quiver when poked, they were automatically better than what I witnessed.

Terra November 21, 2009 at 9:01 am

The successes are better to eat, but as I’m learning, the failures are always more fun to talk about.

I was wondering if the “men who can cook and own their own kitchen gadgets effect” would be canceled out by the “we had an attic space dedicated to gaming” effect. Guess not….

David November 21, 2009 at 10:41 am

Russell didn’t cook, didn’t own any kitchen gadgets, and didn’t contribute any games to the gaming room, so he’s an outlier on the Venn diagram you’re attempting to construct.

Jamie O'Keefe November 21, 2009 at 10:11 am

wow, just wow. great story.

David November 21, 2009 at 10:43 am

I have another “cooking in a house full of geeks” story coming soon.

Elsepth November 22, 2009 at 12:24 am

I had so totally forgotten that. Worse, I didn’t hear the story of the great pumpkin pie that wasn’t until the day Robin served you with hers . . . and you told it to me to explain what it was she had given you. Now I find that you’d told everyone else that story, everyone else but me. I think I’m going to sulk.

On the other hand, you tell the story even better now than you did then.

David November 22, 2009 at 12:39 am

The only people who had heard the story prior to Robin’s pie-baking were those who had been invited to the party, and Robin still lived in Boston back then. You were the first non-resident to hear the story, so quit yer sulking.

Elsepth November 22, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Trust me, sulking isn’t my style, especially over something that happened 22 years ago.

You reminded me of the scene of Robin presented you with the pie as if it was yesterday. She grinning, and you recoiling with a look of absolute horror when the blindfold was taken off. All I remembered of the story was that it had to do with the process of someone baking a pie so gruesome you’d hoped to never see it again.

The actual story is funny beyond belief: it had me shaking with laughter. Thank you for telling it!

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