I recently came upon another food blog touting a pledge to go “Unprocessed” for October. As in – do not use processed food. The author starting doing this a couple of years ago, and he noted how much his taste changed. Not as in whether or not he liked a nice purple shag carpet or not, not that kind of taste. Taste as in the sense. The thing that happens when food hits our tongue. Honestly, this was not news to me. I largely eschew processed foods in favor of the real deal. Of course I have the occasional day where I just want to crack open a box of Annie’s Mac and Cheese or a nice box of Zatarain’s Jambalaya, but here’s the thing… the more I endeavor to avoid processed foods, the less I have that nostalgic reaction to them, and the less they hit that junk food sweet spot. It’s quite remarkable, actually. If you veer away from processed food, with its overload of sodium, even in the most “benevolent” organic brands, with its random bouts of chemicals and strange additives that allows them to be on the shelves for months at a time, you really do start to taste differently. You start to actually taste, well, food.
And so I decided to take this pledge. No, it will not be a cakewalk for a crazy cooking person like me. I am a freelancer who occasionally bounces four different jobs at a time, and I am actually human and don’t always make everything from scratch. I do think cooking delicious food for yourself from whole ingredients is easy, even though I am often eyed suspiciously by people when I burst out with “no really, homemade marshmallows are easy!!!” followed by a description illustrated with excited hand gestures. And of course in my head I was sort of being a jackass, saying to myself “well dried pasta is processed, you going to make all of your own? Are you going to go squish some grapes and make wine?” Well of course not. That would be ludicrous. But I am going to stop eating out for this month and make a more concerted effort to make sure I have my homemade granola around for breakfast rather than a box of cereal. Or a nice loaf of bread and homemade Nutella. I eat out mostly because it is a social thing, and living alone, it is nice to go share a meal with someone. But for this October… maybe I’ll have to invite people over. And figure out more things that might be more easily construed as, well, easy! And yes, this pretty much guarantees that dinner some night will be a glass of wine and some popcorn popped on the stovetop. And it will be glorious.
I kicked off the month a hair early with a pumpkin bourbon pie. It wasn’t going to happen this way. But we are still in farmer’s market season, and I am an easy mark for those flirtatious vegetables and fruits you just cannot find in a grocery store. I was strolling the aisles, innocently enough, and there it was. Oblong, pale green with a hint of blue, slightly mottled flesh, shrunken stem curling out of the top like a set piece from a Tim Burton movie. I had to ask. It was an heirloom squash known as the Sibley squash. The woman behind the table said it was good for pie, being slightly drier and richer than a pumpkin. It was 4.5 pounds. It had to be mine. And so it was. And by god I was going to make a pie.
I know, I know, this is where people give me that wary look when I say “it’s easy!!!” And technically it is easy, but it is definitely more complicated than opening a can of pumpkin. Not that a can of pumpkin is bad, but the point of this was to get as close to the ground up as possible. And trust me, you can definitely taste the difference between fresh and canned squash. If you are thinking of going for the can of pumpkin pie filling… don’t. I swear you can do this without roasting the squash like I did. I can also tell you that you will use way more dishes than you possibly think you could in the making of a pie. Seriously. Find someone to be your dishwasher. Bribe them with pie. It usually works.
I grabbed the squash and went at it with my biggest knife. Every time I go after a squash, I briefly consider purchasing a circular saw. It would be one hell of a lot easier. But eventually I got through it, scraped out all the seeds (which I of course rinsed, tossed with olive oil and salt, and roasted for future snacking needs.) I pondered my heirloom squash from the Ark of Taste. I imagined the molecules of all the flavor compounds, marching two by two up the DNA strands in the squash, riding along in the seeds to hopefully pass on their legacy so this variety of squash did not die out. The whole point of the Ark of Taste is to preserve biodiversity, which is key to the future of the food chain. The potato famine in Ireland was due to the excessive planting of just one type of potato. The blight hit that variety, and swept through all the crops. There were no other potato varieties planted that might have had a resistance to it. We know from our recent history that we have lost a lot of food diversity in this country. I didn’t know there were more types of lettuce other than iceberg and romaine until the late 90s. I am sure I am not the only one like this. So of course this was the perfect squash to start a month of going unprocessed.
If you make a pumpkin/squash pie from scratch, you will definitely have a moment of asking why you just don’t go buy one from the store. It will likely be cheaper in the end. But this is all about taste, and tasting real food. Have you ever tasted a real pumpkin pie? With actual roasted pumpkin? It will be lighter than you have ever experienced, and it will have this freshness you can inhale, almost transporting you to a lovely rural pumpkin patch deeply breathing in the crisp cool fall air. Have kids? Get them to scoop out the seeds before you roast. Most kids love getting all goopy. Think it’s going to take forever? It’s definitely going to take longer than cracking open a can, but it’s not going to take you hours of hanging out over the stove. And what grocery store pumpkin pie has BOURBON in it? Bourbon is a natural pairing with squash, what with the lovely brown sugar flavor base. So why not give it a whirl? Roast a pumpkin. Make a pie. Invite others over to revel in your pie prowess. And then do it all over again. Because it is delicious.
Pumpkin Bourbon Pie
Makes one 9” pie
If you are going to roast a squash/pumpkin, find a pumpkin around 4 pounds, cut it in half, scoop out all the seeds (and of course save them for roasting later,) then roast in a 350 degree oven on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper until it gets all soft and starts collapsing in on itself, about an hour. When it is cool enough to handle, scoop out a little over 2 cups of filling and set it in a mesh sieve to drain for about 15 minutes. Squash have water in them, more than the canned stuff, so it’s good to let it drain a bit. If you don’t want to go through this step, just buy a can of good organic canned pumpkin. There is a method we will be using gleaned from America’s Test Kitchen that will help make it taste more like a real pumpkin.
6 oz. or about 1 ½ cups all purpose flour
4 oz. butter, cut into small pieces, as cold as possible
2 oz. ice water (quantity may shift, dependent on prevailing weather conditions)
generous pinch salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
Combine flour, salt, sugar, and butter, using a pastry cutter or your hands until you have a conglomeration of smaller fat globs and pea-sized chunks. Add about half the water and toss together with a fork, Add just enough water to form a cohesive dough. Knead only a few times, form a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll out the pie crust, drape into a 9” pie plate, pinch the edges of the crust to make a nice fluted border, prick some holes in the bottom of the crust with a fork, then line gently with aluminum foil. Fill with pie weights or dried beans (I used the latter,) and slide into the oven. If you haven’t already guessed, we are pre-baking the crust. You bake the crust a little before adding in the filling. So bake the crust for 25 minutes.
While the crust is baking…
The filling (a slight twist on the America’s Test Kitchen version)
2 cups cooked pumpkin/squash (or one 16 oz. can of pumpkin)
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. fresh grated nutmeg
scant 2/3 cup heavy cream
scant 2/3 cup whole milk
¼ cup bourbon
In a food processor, combine pumpkin/squash, sugar, and spices. Process until smooth. Transfer to a heavy 3 qt. saucepan and heat, stirring constantly, until it just starts to bubble, and keep cooking for 5 minutes. It will get super glossy. If you are using canned pumpkin, this is the part that somehow magically makes it taste more like fresh pumpkin. Add in the heavy cream, milk, and bourbon and whisk until thoroughly combined. Heat just until it bubbles at the edges, but do not let boil. Back in the food processor, blend together the four eggs until frothy. With the motor running, slowly add about ¾ cup of the hot filling from the saucepan into the food processor. Then pour the egg mixture back from the food processor into the saucepan and whisk thoroughly. Keep stirring until it thickens slightly. It will take no time at all. And I always like to do the back of the spoon test, since this is basically a custard. Just dip in a metal spoon, and if it evenly coats the back, you are good to go.
The final assembly
Remove the pie crust from the oven and carefully remove the foil and pie weights. Pour the hot filling into the crust. You might not be able to fit it all, don’t worry about it. The filling will settle a little after 5 minutes, so you can add more in. It might ruin the sanctity of a perfect Martha Stewart appearance, but it will still be tasty. Besides, it looks more rustic.
Move the oven rack to the lowest position and carefully slide the pie in. Bake until just jiggly in the center, 25 minutes. It will not look like it is done. It is. Keep an eye on the crust. The par-baked ones like this tend to burn. I bought a fancy little silicone pie crust ring designed to sit on the pie crust rim and protect it from this. Best $12 I ever spent. If you don’t have one, fashion one out of tin foil. Remove from the oven and set on a cooling rack. Let sit for at least one hour. While you are waiting, have a little tipple of bourbon. You deserve it.