Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Let's have it at orange

There was a long period of time when I decidedly disliked pumpkin pie. Rather, I was extremely bored by it. At holidays, it just kind of sat there, sad and dull colored. A blob of whipped cream rarely helped the matter.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that pumpkin was very healthy. Vitamins and whatnot - or so the Superfoods book told us. I tried my hand at an easy pumpkin pudding a few times, but again, something was lacking. Perhaps it was just too healthy. Or maybe the lack of crust and interesting texture had something to do with it. Then there was the time I made the pudding and forgot to add the sugar (my aunt's kitchen, Cardiff by the Sea, cooking with my cousins...I wish I could remember the details of that afternoon and what distracted me so much that I forgot this key ingredient).

Danny, Joanna (my cousins) and I all pushed huge spoonfuls of the stuff into our mouths and then quickly spit it back out again. It was awful. I believe the dog enjoyed it though.

This ruined me for a while. My pumpkin senses were so tainted the desire was completely gone for anything orange or Cinderella related.

Since then, I've regrown a soft spot in my heart for the pumpkin cupcake with cream cheese frosting. But that's easy to love. It was last night's pumpkin pie that won back the game for good.

The triumph was three-fold: fresh pumpkin, spectacular crust, and grated nutmeg.

I split a bright orange pumpkin from our garden, rained on and slightly scarred but still perfectly eligible, down the center. Scooped of their innards, the two sides sat, rounded like little full bellies, on a roasting pan, sagging as the minutes ticked on and the orange flesh softened into something scoopable.

The crust was born with Inez. My go-to crust for sweet and savory, it's forgiving and doesn't mind being torn apart and patched back together haphazardly. In fact, I think this makes the crust better than one of those perfectly smooth options - there are more corners and crags and nubs to turn golden and crisp in the oven.

And the nutmeg: who would have thought that the grating of this little brown seed would be so much more potent than the stuff found in a jar? Who would have thought that the scent would ride through the room on the heat waves emanating from the pie, torturing us as we waited?

Out of the oven, the pie taunted us (we are five in the house at the moment) as we ate dinner. It radiated heat as we did the dishes. It screamed as we tried to satisfy ourselves with figs and grapes to let the pie cool a bit longer.

After Laila had planted herself next to the pie for a long enough time, staring at it willfully, I gave in. Sliced, it held the perfect amount of warmth. Soft like a fluffy custard, spicy but not too sweet, the pumpkin balanced perfectly with the crispy, flakey crust.

With my marmalade and now the pumpkin pie, along with a few steps in between that haven't made it here, the month of October seems to be turning as orange as all those candy wrappers and horrible decorations showing in the stores right now. It's funny how that works.

Spiced Pumpkin Pie
adapted from Bon Appetit magazine
note: BA used a phyllo crust in their recipe. I'm sure it would be delicious, but alas, I had no phyllo. If you are a phyllo fan, they may have the recipe listed on their website.

for the filling:
1 2lb sugar pumpkin, halved and seeded (my pumpkin was bordering 3 lbs. also, the recipe suggests using butternut squash - this intrigues me.)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup loosely packed brown sugar
3 eggs
6 tbsps canned evaporated skim milk
1 1/2 tbsp heavy cream or half and half
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt

for the crust:
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick butter, cold, cut into smallish pieces
1/4 ice water

1) Preheat oven to 375. Place pumpkins cut side down on roasting pan and bake until very soft and easily pierced with a fork, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Cool slightly.

2) Meanwhile, make the crust. Stir together flour, sugar, and salt. With a pastry cutter, cut in butter until pieces are the size of peas or smaller. Dribble in ice water, stirring gently. You may need a bit less or a bit more. When you press a handful together, it should stick to itself but not be so sticky that it sticks to you. Wrap loosely in wax paper, then press into a disk. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

3) When pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh and put in a blender. Puree till smooth. Add cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Puree. Add sugar, eggs, milk, cream, cornstarch, vanilla, and salt. Puree.

4) Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Roll out pie crust. Don't worry if it's not perfect. Patch it and love it. Fit crust into a 9 inch pie pan, taking overhanging pieces and adding it to the top edges to make them thicker. Pour filling into crust.

5) Bake for ten minutes, then reduce temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 40-45 minutes, until filling has set. Cool at least twenty minutes (!), then grate nutmeg over it and serve warm.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

in the name of rotting fruit, eat it!

I was waiting to talk about figs. How much I love them, how we buy them by the flat in my family, how every fig season I gorge myself by the fistful and never look back....

I experimented with figs this year - pickles, sweets, etc. It was all good, but nothing was, well, extraordinary. Nothing was as good as a fresh fig, so ripe the pink seeds inside are coated with that sticky syrupy goodness. I've tried, and this year, I've decided: fresh is best for the fig.

So what to do?

I went to Fresno.

I've never found a reason to go to Fresno in my life, and honestly, I don't know if I'll ever find a reason to go back again. But my college pal Jayme is staying there for a while with her family, so I thought I'd escape for a weekend and discover what Central Valley farmland was all about.

Jayme's dad grows grapes and citrus, amongst other things. Ironically, her family doesn't really eat any fruit, or many vegetables for that matter, I suppose since after seeing something every day in the fields one doesn't really want to go home and see it on the kitchen counter or on the dinner plate.

I was fine with all this. I've come to understand (after the trials of Scotland) that everyone has their own style of eating, and it isn't necessary kale-focused. What I wasn't fine with were the kumquats beginning to rot on the tree in their backyard.

In fact, I was practically traumitized. Free! Beautiful! Fruit! Growing in your backyard! But none of the six immediate family members were remotely interested, and even made faces when I suggested the consumption of these little colorful gems.

I picked every single one I could salvage, climbing through the spider webs and showing that tree more love than it had seen in a while.

Jayme's 94 year old grandmother was eating marmalade that morning. And, shabam, it came to me: I would make kumquat marmalade.

Minus a few refreshing citrus bursts on the 5+ hour ride home (what made me think it was three hours?) plus a google search later and I had found my perfect recipe: sugar, fruit, and a little something special in the name of Earl Grey tea.

Since the tea is often scented with bergamot, a type of asian citrus, the kumquat and Earl Grey seemed a serendipitous match. And the results? Amazing. Spectacular. Thin ribbons of tangy peel suspended in the tea scented syrup was almost too much to bear. Maybe even better than a ripe fig?

Wonderfully sour and sweet, with a hint of something unusual as the tea lingers on the tongue, this stuff is good. And that doesn't even address the color: a brilliant orange that is so optimistic in those little glass jars it's hard to wonder why I'm enjoying the preserving process so much.

Kumquat Marmalade with Earl Grey
adapted from The Gothamist

1 1/2 lbs kumquats, sliced thinly, seeds reserved
4 cups water
3 1/2 cups sugar
two bags of Earl Grey tea

Tie the seeds in a piece of cheesecloth (this will be your pectin). Put sliced kumquats, seeds, and water in a large pot, cover, and let soak overnight or for 24 hours.

The next day, add the tea bags to the mixture, then bring to a boil (do not remove seeds). Let boil gently for 35-45 minutes, until quite thick, removing the tea bags after 5-10 minutes, depending on how strong you like it. Then, stirring constantly, pour in the sugar. When sugar is all stirred in, cook another 10-20 minutes, until mixture sheets off the back of a spoon.

Pour into sterilized jars and refrigerate, or process in a boiling water bath.

Fills 5 8-ounce jars, with a little extra to taste