Ode to the Great Pumpkin [Pie]: Speak, Memory*

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

~ John Greenleaf Whittier, “The Pumpkin,” 1850

Some people moan and descend straight into mourning with the first frost. Not me. You’ll find me in my kitchen, with clanging pans and steaming windows, eager to put aside the perpetual salads and raw cucumbers of summer.

Yesterday afternoon, I baked my first pumpkin pie of the season.

Yes, I confess: I basically follow the recipe on the label of the Libby’s can of pumpkin purée. Just to show you that I don’t slavishly follow recipes, I add a 1/4 t. of vanilla and use heaping spoonfuls of all the spices, as well as big hit of freshly grated nutmeg. Sometimes I use cream instead of evaporated milk, something that actually isn’t so out of line, because some vintage cookbooks of the 19th century mention using milk or a mixture of cream and milk.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

And yes, I know that making your own purée is much more earth-friendly. I’m all for that. But since I cannot find those nice little sugar pumpkins and other types for sale right now the recipe, I use the “traditional” method, as I know it. My mother never used anything but Libby’s. I am sure my grandmothers struggled with the food mill method of creating purée from boiled or roasted pumpkin.

Interestingly enough,  Libby’s now recommends mixing the ingredients somewhat differently from a label I pasted into a notebook years ago. Mix the sugar, salt, and spices together first, and then add this mixture to another bowl with another mixture of eggs and pumpkin. Pour in the milk/cream. This new method requires using two bowls instead of one … . I’m not sure it saved much time, but it seemed easier than measuring out each spice and adding the ingredients in order, according to the old instructions.

But regardless of the mixing method, some things simply don’t change when it comes to pumpkin pies. The smell of the pie baking brings back all sorts of memories. In autumn, special foods appeared on the table at my house. My mother never bought butter except for holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. During the rest of the year, she put slippery cubes of margarine in the butter dish, a telling testimony to her frugality born of the Great Depression.  Because of their rarity, the sweetness of whipped cream and the richness of real butter forever engraved their tastes on my tongue. You’ll find real butter on my table now, every day. But I swear that  each time I smear butter on a slice of bread and take that first bite, childhood taste memories of eating butter briefly flit through my subconscious.

Other ingredients do the same thing for me.

I don’t know about you, but I nearly swoon when I catch a whiff of Saigon cinnamon. I try to restrain myself and not dump too much to the custard. The rich aroma of freshly grated nutmeg pump up the flavor of the pie, too, not to mention cloves and ginger. The medieval overlay of these spices causes me to think about the ties to my own cultural past. Because of that, I strongly associate autumn with the aroma of these spices.

I’m intrigued by the fact that I’m standing in my kitchen in Virginia – one of the first areas settled by English men and women from 17th-century England, some of whom were my own ancestors – and I’m baking a dish based on flavors and techniques dating back to those days. And even longer, of course. Baked puddings abound in traditional English cooking. Yes, pumpkin pie is basically a baked pudding, even though it goes by the name “custard pie” these days and wears a crust.

Served with whipped cream – and I like it whipped until one more smack with the whisk would make butter – pumpkin pie surely stands up there other iconic cultural foods like foie gras and  wiener schnitzel.

It’s not only for dessert any more, either. Just like many people in the past, I find pie to be  a great breakfast food. Cold cereal just doesn’t cut it for me these days, not that I ever really thanked Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg for their contributions to American cuisine in the form of extruded cereals.

I’ll probably make another pie very soon. For some reason, I see just a small sliver left in the pie pan … .

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

*With thanks to Vladimir Nabokov.

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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2 comments

  1. David Kirkpatrick

    Please tell us how you make the crust… the real secret to pies, according to some. Need not be really flaky but not soggy or too dry. Oil vs butter, freezer or not, etc. My first season pumpkin pie was a slice with two scoops of Caliche’s (see Las Cruces NM) frozen custard for s sunday with the cherry. Dave

    • Hi Dave,

      Your first of the season sounds great!

      I use Martha Stewart’s recipe for two-crust pie:

      2 1/2 cups flour
      1 t. fine sea salt
      1/2 t. granulated sugar
      1/2 cup cold shortening (8 T), cut into small pieces
      1 stick cold unsalted butter (8 T), cut into small cubes
      1/2 cup (preferably less) ice water

      Put flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of your food processor. Whirl it to mix. Sprinkle the pieces of shortening and butter over the top of the flour. Pulse 10 times to mix – it should look like coarse meal. Dribble in 1/3 cup of the water and check to see if the mixture feels dry. If it does, add more water – 1 T. at a time, checking after each addition. The dough will almost come together into a ball and should feel cool and only slightly damp. Gather the dough gently into a ball on a cutting board, cut the dough in half, flatten each half into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Place disks into a ziploc freezer bag. Refrigerate if you’re going to us the same day or freeze until later. I usually freeze one and use the other one right away. But I like having pie crust ready to go in the freezer, so I usually make a double batch of dough and luxuriate in knowing I have those extra disks in reserve. You can keep the disks frozen for about 3 months.

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