Essence of Autumn: Pumpkin

It's Fall, finally. Although today was in the 60's, our misguided October of 2010 has determined to let the leaves linger mostly on the trees while we soak up the rapidly shortening days in relative comfort. Traditionally, our October is a cold and often mean month, saturated with rain and requiring me to lament over the lack of a coat I can never seem to buy. (Oh, I have a huge parka, comfort rated by L.L. Bean to like 50 below zero, but I have no "stylish, walking around in usually sweltering stores" coat.)

I often feel so fortunate that we have 4 seasons; I couldn't even tell you my favorite if you asked. The brink of each brings it's own unique set of loves and enjoyment - I doubt I'd be so excited to garden and mow the lawn if I never saw the barren and bleak snow covered yard for what, at the time, seems like an eternity.

Our circle of seasons reminds me of life on a more specialized scale. Lately, and more specifically, my experiments with fermentation seem to echo life and our seasons - first with spurts of growth and then the maintaining, next a slowness created by increasing chill and, finally, inevitable death if not cared for properly (and sometimes even if cared for properly). Seasonal living really is extraordinary, and worth appreciating as often as I think of it. And, while I don't crave it in the Spring and Summer, some things are just inherently Autumn and the Autumnal onset brings with it my cravings for pumpkin and the endless tweaking of the classic pie.

Pumpkin pie is probably one of my top loves. It is home. It requires a modicum of beforehand thought since it takes a long time to bake, and an even longer time to cool down before that first slice can be wedged out and properly plated with appropriate amounts of ether whipped heavy cream or ice cream. I hardly know a person who doesn't love it, and if you hate making a pie crust, filling a supermarket readymade cheat will also provide nearly as much gustatorial enjoyment as the olfactorial treat you get when the whole house smells of spiced pumpkin. (Never mind if I'm introducing new words to the English Language here, I just get excited about pumpkin!)

My first pies of this season were not actually pies, but rather miniature tarts that I stole from Heidi at 101 Cookbooks. Any time I read over a recipe and see that coconut milk has been substituted for something, I get pretty excited. I also took a nod from my Mother, and decreased the amount of said milk, since it produces a richer, more custardy version - and Heidi's addition of an extra egg or two also help with that. Heidi also includes a layer of hazelnuts - boosting that Autumnal feel of this dessert sevenfold. It's good. No, it's Love.

Of course, you can use whatever pie crust you like - I opted for Dorie Greenspan's Pate Sablee. I mixed it up in the food pro, and pressed it into the 4 inch tart tins. For each tin, I used 1/2 c. plus 2 T. of crumbly dough, and a single recipe of her pastry perfectly fills 5 shells.

Pumpkin Custard Tarts (adapted from 101 Cookbooks)
makes 5 4 inch tarts, or 1 9 inch pie
  • 2 c. hazelnuts
  • 1/2 c. dark brown sugar
  • 1 T. pumpkin pie spice (I slightly altered the 101 Cookbooks one, and listed it below)
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 T. cornstarch (or arrowroot)
  • 1 can (1 1/2 c.) pumpkin puree
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • half a can of coconut milk (about 6 oz. If doubling the amounts for two pies or 10 tarts, use a whole can (13+ oz.) of coconut milk)
Preheat oven to 350.

Puree 1 1/2 cups of the toasted hazelnuts in a food processor until they turn into a hazelnut paste, past the 'crumble' stage. I added a teaspoon or so of maple syrup to help it along. Set aside. Chop the remaining 1/2 cup of hazelnuts and set aside to use as garnish.

To make the pumpkin pie filling, whisk together the brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice blend, salt, and cornstarch (or arrowroot). Stir in the pumpkin puree, and vanilla, then stir in the eggs and coconut milk until just combined. Set aside.

Before filling the pie crust, crumble the hazelnut paste on top of the pie dough into the pie plate, quickly and gently press it into a thin layer across the bottom creating a layer of hazelnuts that will sit between the dough and the filling. Fill the pie crust with the filling. Fill the tins fairly full - (it will puff up a little as it bakes, then fall slightly as it cools, ) and bake for 35-40 minutes (up to 50 minutes or so for the pie). For the 4 inch tarts, I used a heaping 1/3 cup of filling in each... and then baked off any remaining pumpkin custard in ramekins. The center of the pie should just barely jiggle when you tap the pans, the edges should be set, and a thin knife inserted at the centers should come out cleanly.

Let the tarts cool fully before digging in. I like to think that it lets everything "marry" nicely. Of course you can eat them how you wish. Serve plain, or with barely sweetened whipped cream and a sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts, or with ice cream.

Pumpkin Pie Spice (adapted from Kathy FitzHenry, via 101 cookbooks)
  • 1 T. cassia (Saigon) cinnamon
  • heaping 1/2 t. allspice
  • 1/4 t. cloves
  • 1 1/2 t. ground ginger
Dorie's Pate Sablee: (Baking: From My Home to Yours)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar (powdered sugar)
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk
Put the flour, confectioners' sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine.

Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in--you should have some pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas.

Stir the yolk, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is in, process in long pulses--about 10 seconds each--until the dough, whisk will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. You may need to add a tiny bit of ice water if the dough doesn't stay together when pinched.

(You can gather the dough up into a ball, and gently knead it out into a disk, then roll on a floured surface like a traditional pie dough. But, it also works to simply pat it out into the tart shell.)

I'm a glutton for Cassia cinnamon. I first tasted it's spicy, red hot related flavor at the Spice House, and ever since I have to stock both "True Cinnamon" and Saigon Cassia Cinnamon in my spice pantry. It is so addicting, a fully unique cinnamon experience. I made these tarts a couple of different times this week, and dusted some with extra cinnamon, as my Mom also does, for looks and for extra spicy cinnamon kick.

I'm sure these are just the first of the pies to take me through to the new year. I have a couple of pie pumpkins that need the roasting and puree treatment, something I generally leave to Libby's since I actually really like the flavor of canned pumpkin.

It's not too often that I like some prepared and out of a store-bought can, but canned pumpkin is one of those things, and as this FoodinJars post reminds us, it isn't advisable for home canning in any form anyway. So, go ahead and add a sauteed leek or onion, maybe some celery and a carrot, (chile flake of course) and in mere moments your can of store pumpkin can turn into a lovely soup. Pancakes and muffins too, all perfectly accepting of a can of pumpkin. I like the cheat once in a while, and with the brevity of Fall in full swing, I'll be sure to indulge frequently.