I am not an American snob, believing that all things American are somehow superior. When it comes to food, however, I must admit a prejudice for true American classics. I can trace this prejudice back to the time I spent in Europe, trying to convince classically European trained chefs that American food was, in fact, more than cheeseburgers. As a professional pastry chef I have long felt that that most quintessential of American desserts, the humble pie, often gets short shrift. Pies appeal to me in a way that few other pastries do. And although I have felt their siren pull for years, I have always been hesitant to admit it for fear of ridicule. But now it is pie season, (for what is Thanksgiving if not a feast of pies?), and I am left to rethink my relationship to pie, this most American of desserts.
I consider pies to be the perfect expression of who we are as a country. They are a simple yet elegant, no frills, take me as I am treat. Pies were born of a desire to make something special from what was at hand. No fancy puff dough filled with butter and carefully laminated for hours. No siree, give us some good ol’ lard, a couple of handfuls of flour, some salt and ice water and we are good to go. Equipment? Bare hands and a few minutes of rubbing fat into flour and you are done. Fillings? Pies are truly low maintenance, asking for only the simplest and most at hand ingredients. Pies are not elitist, fruit in or past their prime will do just fine. Original pie fillings were the dried out, last year’s apples from the root cellar. And while they would love the fresh apples from your CSA, they will quickly adapt to the slightly shriveled fruit in the bottom drawer of your refrigerator. No fresh fruit at hand? Then toast some nuts, add dried fruit and liquor, an egg or two, fill, bake and enjoy.
While pies connect us to our country’s past, they also serve to link past generations within a family. Like many classic dishes, pies bring with them their own special and unique memories. For me, pies will always be my great Aunt Emma. She was tall and regal, with powdered cheeks and a wrist full of jangling silver bracelets. I spent many childhood afternoons in her kitchen, carefully learning the art of the pie crust, the magic of the perfect filling. More importantly, I learned how to combine raw ingredients and love into something delicious and utterly memorable. Aunt Emma was famous for her Thanksgiving pies. Her pumpkin pie was served with mounds of sweetened whipped cream (a luxurious switch from the cool whip our family ate the rest of the year), and carefully dusted with chopped peanut brittle chunks. Somehow it is the peanut brittle garnish I remember most of all. That simple candy transformed her work into something grand, something unforgettable. Her pumpkin pie is a family classic; even today it is the pie to which all future endeavors are compared. Although it has been more than thirty years since I have had Aunt Emma’s pumpkin pie, I can still taste it.
Thanksgiving may be a feast of pies, but it is also a feast of thanks. It is a wonderful time to gather up family and friends and share a meal. Take a dish, or a pie, and present it with love to those about whom you care the most. So go ahead, make a classic, make something this year that will spread love and wonderful flavor throughout future generations. I won’t be making Aunt Emma’s pie this year, I have reinvented her classic and have made one of my own; a freshly roasted pumpkin pie with curry, in a ginger crust served with brown sugar and bourbon Chantilly cream, garnished with candied ginger. My family and friends will eat it and think of me. I will eat it and think of my Aunt Emma and of how truly memorable a simple American classic can be.
Amy’s Roasted Pumpkin Pie with Curry in Gingersnap Crust1 3-pound baking pumpkin or 2 cups pumpkin puree 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces 1 cup sugar 1/4 cup bourbon 1 tablespoon molasses 3 eggs and 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten 2/3 cup milk 1-2 teaspoons curry powder (more or less to taste) 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Set the oven at 350 degrees. Halve the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds and fibers. Place the pumpkin, cut sides down, on a baking sheet. Bake the pumpkin until tender when pricked with a fork, about 40 minutes. While still hot, scoop the pumpkin flesh into a food processor and puree until smooth. (Make sure to save the pumpkin seeds. Rinse off and dry, lightly toss with a small bit of olive oil and sea salt. Roast on a sheet pan in a 350 degree oven until golden brown. The seeds make a great accompaniment to the pie, to a salad or just ‘as is’ as a snack!)
Transfer 2 cups of pumpkin puree to a large bowl and stir in the butter so it melts. Whisk in the sugar, bourbon, molasses, eggs and egg yolk, milk, curry powder, nutmeg, salt, and vanilla until smooth.
Carefully pour the pumpkin mixture into the partially baked crust. Take care not to pour it too high or it will flow over the edge of the crust. (You might have some custard remaining; pour it into a ramekin and bake until set, 25 to 30 minutes and serve with Thanksgiving leftovers.) Bake the pie until the center is just set, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool the pie on a rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Gingersnap Crust1-1/2 cups gingersnap cookie crumbs 3 Tbsp. sugar 1/2 tsp. ground ginger 6 Tbsp. melted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine all ingredients in medium bowl. Press into greased 9″ pie pan. Bake at 350 degrees F for 10 minutes, until crust is set. Remove from oven and cool completely before filling.