The proof, and tradition, is in the pie

Pie, like the holidays it is a staple of, is steeped in tradition, synonymous as it is with ideas of legacy, patriotism and even a certain folk aesthetic. Pie is homey, warm and unintellectual.

Without a doubt, my Grandma has informed my central ethos about pie. She always made our Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, with its well-done shade of charred brown, as far back as my memory extends. While it’s true that my grandmother, who cut her teeth in the kitchen during the 1950s cooking for four girls and an outlandishly picky husband, tended to consider burned-ness as a requisite doneness, this did not belittle the profundity of her baked offering. Her pie was not good, but it was still the paragon of our Thanksgiving spread.

 After she passed away last Christmas, I endeavored to take on my Grandma’s duties and don the apron of chief pie maker. And though I have attempted to give one here, I must admit that recipes, with their “measurements” and “steps” are not the ideal method of conveying the art of pie construction. It is more like a mythos and a legacy, shaped — like that tender crust itself — by the hands that inherit it.

But as the latest forbearer of this storied pumpkin pie, I also chose to add a bit of myself in the form of certain additions that I felt would elevate the formula my Grandma herself had undoubtedly built upon. The fact remains that when she died and her role came to me, the recipe ceased to be completely hers (if it ever had been), and became partly mine — a realization whose poignancy was not lost on me as I set to work.

Concerning Crust:

Contrary to popular belief, the most laudable quality of any piecrust is not flakiness, an attribute that is ancillary. Rather, it is a superlative butteriness that makes a remarkable crust, one that smells like freshly churned cream. If you aim foremost for the ethereal richness of puffed pastry, a tender crumb will inevitably follow suit.

The other secret to an outstanding piecrust is vodka (I like Tito’s), an ingredient that was recommended to me by Michael Twitty during his campus visit and corroborated by the infallible Cook’s Illustrated, a publication known for its methodical research and dedication to food science. Here, the alcohol adds moisture while also guaranteeing a suppleness to your dough that mere ice water cannot provide.

Finally, be sure to use your hands. A food processor, with its automated efficiency, seems to sap the rustic quality out of hand-formed crust. Dig into the flour with your fingers, making sure to leave visible striations of butter as you gently work the dough. Use your nose and sense of touch to detect when the mixture is ready. This is how you make pie, with observation and inexactitude.

A Luscious Filling:

Unlike the crust, which requires patience and a certain element of workmanship, the pie filling is essentially a vehicle for spices and cream, all bludgeoned together along with the pumpkin. This is because the primary function of any sort of squash pie is to broadcast the autumnal notes of clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Feel free to experiment with black or white peppercorns — I also use ginger and vanilla beans. In either case, be sure to toast and grind your own spices for maximal flavor.

Lastly, don’t be conservative with the cream or eggs, two ingredients that are crucial to the creation of a pillowy custard. Search out unpasteurized heavy cream and farm fresh eggs with large, yellow yolks.

The “recipe”:

For the crust:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 2 sticks high-fat, European style butter (like Plugra), cubed

  • ¼ tsp coarse salt, ¼ tsp sugar

  • a mixture of vodka, ice water, apple cider for moistening

For the filling:

  • cubed, cooked pumpkin or winter squash of your choosing (roasted in butter, brown sugar and/or maple syrup) — yams could also work

  • 3 fresh, large eggs

  • 1 cup heavy cream

  • 1 cup dark brown sugar

  • A glug or two of maple syrup

  • ½ tsp coarse salt

  • the innards of one vanilla bean

  • finely grated fresh ginger

  • ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove

  1. Assemble the crust: Refrigerate bowl, vodka mixture, butter before use. Whisk together flour, salt and sugar. Now, incorporate butter into dry ingredients until it is reduced to medium sized chunks. Sprinkle in some of vodka mixture, kneading as you go until dough is just moist. Do not overwork. Shape into disk and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

  2. Make the filling: Toast and grind spices, roast squash. Place together in bowl with other ingredients and mash relentlessly. Taste and season mixture accordingly before adding eggs. Fully incorporate yolks.

  3. Roll dough/Bake: Liberally flour working surface, rolling pin and dough. Roll out dough to desired thickness, then place in buttered pie pan and crimp edges. Poke holes in dough and fill crust with parchment or wax paper and uncooked lentils. Bake it for 20 mins or so at 425 F. Then, remove paper along with the lentils and pour in pumpkin custard. Bake at 350 F for 45 mins – an hour until done. A knife should be able to glide cleanly through.

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