Along about late August in our garden we begin to count pumpkin pies: one pumpkin, one pie, with a little to spare for pumpkin bread, waffles, or pancakes. Pie pumpkins-'New England Pie' (same as 'Small Sugar') and 'Baby Pam Pie'-are hard to detect at first, eventually easier to find when they signal us in orange.
We store ripe ones, in early American fashion, in a cool, dry space-actually in an upstairs bedroom of our woodstove-heated house; a cellar is simply too damp for them. Periodically I check them for small soft places, or telltale black spots, and use that pumpkin before it collapses in a dejected, mushy heap. The cat keeps away mice who might gnaw undetected into the luscious insides.
Like most modern American families, ours has a fairly limited use for pumpkin compared with the many ways settlers used it 200 years ago. Pumpkins and squash were New World plants introduced to English colonists along with corn and many kinds of beans. Housewives observed that when cooked, pumpkins and squash behaved like apples. Colonist Sarah Kemble Knight, traveling between New York and Boston in 1705, ate pumpkin as a vegetable side dish with roasted beef and Indian (corn) bread. John Josselyn, in his New England Rarities Discovered, noted that pumpkins cut up and stewed steadily all day "will look like bak'd apples." Housewives, he said, put "Butter to it and a little vinegar, with some spice, as Ginger ... which makes it tart like apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with fish or flesh."
The Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm, traveling in Pennsylvania in the 1740s, witnessed settlers eating baked pumpkin with butter, as well as pumpkin boiled with milk for a porridgelike dish. In the early 1800s, Lydia Maria Child in American Frugal Housewife recommended mixing cooked pumpkin with cornmeal batter for an enriched cornbread, as well as using it in the familiar pies and tarts.
Squash and pumpkins seem to have been interchangeable in the North, and southerners added sweet potatoes to the list for puddings and pies. Pies often had a sturdy, raised crust. Tarts had a thinner crust and were frequently open-faced; puddings were a filled pastry tied up in a cloth and boiled. But there was also a pudding-pie, an 18th century term that endured in the Middle Atlantic and southern states into the early 1800s, while in the North, Yankees just called it pie. The pie made of pumpkin was an indispensable part of Thanksgiving dinner-one-third of the requisite apple, mincemeat, and pumpkin triad, but eaten at any meal as long as the pumpkins held.
Early recipes, while perhaps a little too vague for modern comfort, teach us that there is a great deal of flexibility to creating a good pumpkin pie. The egg, milk, and pumpkin ratio determines how custardy the pie will be. Mrs. Child claimed that one egg to a quart of milk "makes very decent pies ....The more eggs, the better the pie; some put an egg to a gill [1/2 cup] of milk."
Don't be afraid to be flexible with the sweetening either. Our family doesn't like very sweet pumpkin pie, so taste the filling in the following recipe and add more sugar if you like. Either dark or light brown sugar will do. You can use all molasses if you like the taste, but I prefer a mix.
If there is any secret to making a pumpkin pie from scratch it is making sure the freshly cooked pumpkin is well drained. Plan to finish cooking the pumpkin at least an hour before you assemble the pie. We use our trusty pressure cooker, let it get up to pressure for 10 minutes, then turn if off, let it coast to a stop, then drain the pumpkin. Otherwise, steam the pumpkin in a pot with a tight-fitting lid.
For one 9-inch pie, I cut up one pie pumpkin, cook it until tender, drain it, then put the flesh through a food mill. You can also push it through a colander, or mash it with a potato masher. Drain it further in a sieve until practically no more water drips out. If you have more than 2 cups of cooked pumpkin, you can freeze it in a freezer bag or container for pumpkin pancakes or bread.
Pumpkin pie has a sturdy enough flavor to stand up well to a whole-wheat piecrust. My favorite is from the Tassajara Bread Book (Shamhala Publications, 1970). During the holiday season, leftover eggnog makes a good substitute for the milk used in these recipes. If you like a more custardy filling, you can use another egg and more milk or cream. And use freshly grated nutmeg if possible; the flavor is unbeatable. Feel free to spice the pie more or less generously, according to your taste. Don't worry being exact with the amounts; this great tradition has evolved through years of experimentation.
Best-Ever Pumpkin Pie
Pie dough for one crust (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 425° F. Line a pie tin with one crust. With a mixer or wooden spoon, mix pumpkin, milk, eggs, sugar or molasses, spices, salt, and flavoring. Pour into a 9-inch pie shell, and bake for 15 minutes at 425° F., then reduce the heat to 350° F. and bake for 45 minutes longer or until center jiggles slightly when pan is shaken. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Pie Dough for One Crust
Toss the flours together in a broad bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender, two knives, or better yet, your food processor. Blend until mixture looks like coarse meal. Add ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing flour and shortening mixture with a rubber spatula after each addition until a ball of dough begins to form. Add only enough to make the dough cling together. Chill. Roll out to fit a 9-inch pie pan.
Nutritional Analysis per 6 Ounce Serving: 250 calories; 12 grams fat; 32 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 180 mg sodium; 60 mg cholesterol.