Food & Entertaining | The Dish | November 2013
Baking pie from scratch may not seem like the best way to lighten the Thanksgiving to-do list. According to chef Millicent Souris, however, that’s the best way to your best pumpkin pie and, really, she assures, it’s not as laborious as it sounds. Souris, author of How to Build a Better Pie: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Flaky Crusts, Toppers, and the Things in Between (Quarry Books, 2012), has offered some of her expert advice for the would-be baker along with a recipe that puts a new spin on the old classic.
What makes a “perfect” pumpkin pie?
Pie is an intersection of crust and filling and baking, so it’s about all three being harmonious.
Where do most people go wrong with their pies?
People overwork their crust so it ends up being chewy, rather than flaky and tender. They don’t use enough salt, in general, to flavor the filling or the crust (salt informs flavor). Pies are generally underbaked and people use criminal amounts of cinnamon and nutmeg.
What are your secrets for making your own crust?
The best crust, hands-down, is half unsalted butter and half leaf lard. The butter adds that lovely richness that only butter owns (sorry, vegans) and leaf lard, the holy grail of pastry fat offers a clean flavor and tender flake. Shortening was invented to mimic leaf lard, but Crisco is evil.
Certainly all lard or all butter work, or any variation of. Handle the crust the least. Don’t overwork it. Make it with your hands for the most control. Be quick – every motion should have a purpose.
Do you prefer real pumpkin or canned?
I think canned pumpkin is where pumpkin pie gets gross. Using pumpkins is not a big deal — buy one. Turn your oven on 400 degrees. Cut the pumpkin into big pieces and take the seeds out. Toss with some olive oil, sprinkle with salt, add some aromatics like cinnamon stick, star anise, nutmeg, a vanilla bean husk – these lightly inform the flavor. Roasting food brings out lots of flavor. Roast the pumpkin until it is done (when a butter knife slides through easily). Scrape the pumpkin from the skin. Mash or put through a colander.
We think all this stuff is hard, but it’s not. You can prep the pumpkin days before you need it.
Do you have any suggestions for those looking to “spice up” their pumpkin pies?
That’s where the praline comes in [see recipe in sidebar]. I also think nuanced seasoning, such as using whole spices, changes the game. Nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, allspice – everything should be balanced. I like to add fresh ginger to brighten it, along with lemon zest and juice. A shot of whiskey never hurt anybody or anything.
How far in advance would you recommend baking your pumpkin pies before Thanksgiving?
Ideally the same day, but Thanksgiving is a tough one. Everything can be prepped, the filling can be made ahead of time and the crust can be pre-baked the night before. If you must, bake it the night before, and just let it cool down and stay out at room temperature overnight. Room temperature is the best way to serve food; you get the entire flavor. If you refrigerated it, warm it a bit to take the chill off.
Bake from scratch without stress with a few simple suggestions
Variation On a Theme:
Sweet Potato Pie with Sesame Praline
(Editor’s note: Pumpkin may be substituted for sweet potatoes and pumpkin seeds for sesame seeds but in all cases, the author recommends using fresh ingredients over canned.)
Single Pie Crust, chilled
2 pounds sweet potatoes or 3 cups roasted and put through a sieve
2 large eggs, room temperature
3⁄4 cup heavy cream, room temperature
3⁄4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄8 teaspoon ground mace
1⁄8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg (about 15 grates)
1⁄8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1⁄2 tablespoons fresh ginger, zested across a grater
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Shot of bourbon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons packed brown sugar
6 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3⁄4 cup sesame seeds, toasted
1 egg white
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Roll out your chilled piecrust to 1⁄8-inch (3 mm) thick and about 15 inches in diameter. Place in your pie pan and trim the edges so there is no more than 1⁄4 inch of overhang. Lift and crimp the overhang along the rim of the pie pan. Chill your crust in the freezer for at least 15 minutes or chill in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes. It is important for the crust to be very cold and the fat to re-form and firm up.
Pull your pie plate out of the refrigerator and place your foil in it. It should sit flush with the plate, come up along the rim, and fold down to cover the edges. This foil protects the crust from overbrowning, but do not press the foil to the edges. Place your baking beans in the bottom and level them out. Put the crust in the oven.
Bake the crust for 20 minutes at 425 degrees F. Then pull out the crust, lower your oven to 375 degrees F, and carefully lift the aluminum foil by the edges off your crust with the beans in it. Put your crust back in the oven for 15 minutes. Check at 7 minutes and turn it 180 degrees F.
Check your crust. The edges may be a little darker than the rest, but it should be set and very light in color. The bottom is more than likely a little bit bubbly and looks shiny. Let it cook a bit more, 5 minutes at the most, if the bottom is more shiny than matte. Then take the crust out and let it rest for 10 minutes. Lower the oven to 350 degrees F.
Roast your sweet potatoes (as much as 3 days in advance). When the potatoes are still warm, slip them out of their sleeves and push through a medium-size colander. If you have a high-power blender or food processor, use that, but in lieu of said equipment, push the sweet potatoes through a colander with a wide wooden spoon. This is an essential step, because the texture informs the loveliness of this pie.
If you have a blender or a hand mixer, pull it out. If not, wield your strongest whisk and your dominant hand. Don’t use the blender or hand mixer on the first step of ricing the potatoes; they don’t have enough horsepower, and you’ll just end up with a gluey mess.
Mix together your eggs and cream until homogenized. Add the 3 cups of sieved potatoes and mix until it’s all together. Add the sugar, salt, spices and bourbon. Mix until smooth.
Pour your sweet potato mixture into your cooled, partially baked piecrust. Put it in the oven. At 30 minutes turn it 180 degrees F. Check the pie at 45 or 50 minutes. This takes about an hour to cook. The best way to check it is to put a butter knife in the middle or give it a shake. If the knife comes out pretty clean, it is good. For the same measure, if it’s only the very middle of the pie that is jiggly, the pie is done. Pull it and let set for at least an hour. See steps 6 and 7 below to add cooled praline.
Yield: 1 pie (8 servings)
To make the praline, melt your unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar when the butter begins to bubble and whisk them together. Watch your heat, you don’t want this to burn, but you want the brown sugar to dissolve into the butter, to cook together.
Add the heavy cream in a steady stream, whisking the whole time.
Stop whisking and let this bubble a bit to come together. It’s done when it ceases to taste just like butter, sugar and heavy cream, it’s still raw. It will taste like a creamy caramel, about 5 or 7 minutes.
Add the salt to finish and whisk. Finish with the sesame seeds.
Mix the sesame seeds in so everything is well dispersed.
It is very important to let this praline sit and cool a bit. If you pour on the pie hot it will spill over the sides. Pour the cooled praline over a cooled pie. Let it firm up a bit, about 30 minutes.
It should coat the entire top.
Recipe reprinted with permission from “How to Build a Better Pie: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Flaky Crusts, Toppers, and the Things in Between” by Millicent Souris (Quarry Books, 2012).