Alternatives may be the wrong word. For me, classic pumpkin pie is irreplaceable—a prerequisite for any up-to-par Thanksgiving table. But, while I'm not off looking for pumpkin pie substitutes, I still welcome any opportunity to sample a new squash dessert (preferably for breakfast).
As such, in the past month I've experimented with a couple of more avant-garde pumpkin recipes, just to test the waters. The first is from Pichet Ong, and to my mind it's enough to catapult him into pastry immortality:
This kabocha squash pie feels like a hybrid dessert—part pie, part cheesecake. (The 10 ounces of cream cheese, I suppose, place it decidedly in the second category, but they don't hijack the experience.)
It all starts with a walnut-graham cracker crust, which I highly recommend you dog-ear and export for future cheesecakes. It's genius (lime zest!), and, coupled with the slight twang of the pie filling and (to gild the lily) a generous drizzle of ginger-butterscotch sauce, totally addictive. I'll be honest, Mr. Ong nearly made me reconsider my no-pumpkin-pie-substitutes dictate.
The second specimen is a little harder to wrap my mind around, in part because it represents my greatest baking failure—aesthetically and emotionally—to date. Made with fresh sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and coconut milk, it's called Cazuela Pie, and Regan Daley (whom I generally trust) claims that it’s a personal favorite. (“It beats the pants off regular pumpkin pies!” she writes.) Oh, that I might say the same.
See that horrible fault line slashing down the left side? The soupy bog that's formed in the center (a refrigeration error on my part)? Those are just the start of my grievances—they don't account for the miserable 45 minutes spent sieving sweet potato (food mill, where art thou?); or the distracted moment in which I mistook cumin for ginger (don't worry, I fished it out...I think); or repeated botched attempts to cover the crust with tinfoil.
I naively hoped that, despite these mishaps, the pie would end in success. And it did, sort of. Texturally, once you got past the cosmetic issues, it was excellent. But I'm not 100% sold on the flavor. Cazuela was missing the classic spice profile I've come to desire in a pumpkin dessert, and the coconut milk was perhaps a little too sweet?
That said, seconds were had by many. And two people said they preferred this to classic pumpkin pie. Maybe you will too? For me there's a bit too much baggage here to be objective—this pie will forever serve as a reminder of my shortcomings. Approach it with an open mind, and a food mil, and I suspect you may feel differently.
Kabocha Squash Pie
Adapted from Pichet Ong
If you're not up for breaking down a kobocha, substitute 2 1/2 cups of canned pumpkin. I promise it will still be delicious.
For the filling:
1 medium kabocha squash, about 3 pounds or 2 1/2 cups of canned pumpkin
10 ounces (1 1/3 cups) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg (about 1/4 of a nutmeg)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons brandy
2 eggs at room temperature
For the crust:
3/4 cup (2 ounces) walnuts
1/2 cup, packed, light brown sugar
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs (about 7 crackers)
Grated zest of 1 lime
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (2 ounces) butter, melted
Crème fraîche or whipped cream, for serving
Ginger butterscotch sauce, for serving (see recipe)
For pie filling, bring an inch of water to a boil in a large covered pot fitted with a steamer basket or rack. Put in squash, cover and steam, replenishing water as needed, until fork tender, about 1 hour. Turn squash over halfway through steaming. Set squash aside until cool enough to handle.
Heat oven to 325 degrees. For crust, place walnuts on a baking tray, and toast in oven, stirring once or twice, until fragrant, about 15 minutes. Let cool. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.
In a food processor, combine walnuts with a few tablespoons brown sugar and pulse a few times, until nuts are coarsely ground. In a large bowl, whisk nuts with graham cracker crumbs, remaining brown sugar, lime zest, spices and salt. Pour melted butter over this mixture, and mix with your fingers until butter is distributed. Press evenly into a 10-inch glass pie plate. Bake crust until lightly browned, about 12 minutes, then set aside. Keep oven at 300 degrees.
When squash is cool, cut it in half and scoop out seeds and pulp. Scoop squash flesh into a measuring cup until you have 2 1/2 cups.
In a food processor, process cream cheese with sugar, spices and salt until light and smooth. Scrape down bowl, add squash and process until smooth. Mix in brandy and then eggs, one at a time. Finish mixing with a rubber spatula.
Place pie plate on a baking sheet and scrape filling into crust. Bake until just set in center, about 1 hour. Let cool before serving, topped with whipped cream or crème fraîche and drizzled with butterscotch sauce.
Ginger Butterscotch Sauce
Adapted from Pichet Ong
1/2 pound dark brown sugar
1 1/4 ounces (about 2 inches) fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced into coins
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, pulp scraped
5 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, cubed
1 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Place sugar, ginger and vanilla pod and pulp in a heavy pot set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar is molten and fragrant with ginger and vanilla, about 8 minutes. (It won't melt entirely but will be somewhat crumbly.) Add butter (stand back, it will foam up), and stir until melted and smooth, about 2 minutes.
Pour cream and salt into pot, stirring, and bring to a simmer. Let sauce bubble until thickened, about 8 minutes. Let cool for at least 1/2 hour, then strain out ginger and vanilla pod. Warm sauce before serving. [This sauce will keep for up to 2 weeks in refrigerator.]
Adapted from In The Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley
Make sure the pie shell is thoroughly chilled to ensure the pastry won't over-bake during the long cooking time needed for the dense filling. If necessary, cover the crust with aluminum foil to prevent burning.
2 unbaked and well-chilled pie pastries, used to line 9 1/2 -inch glass pie dishes
2 1/2 pounds orange sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 1/4 cups water
1 large cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
5 whole cloves
1 star anise, crumbled
1 1/2 -inch-long piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
4 cups pumpkin puree
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons tightly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup good-quality canned coconut milk (stir the contents of the can well before measuring)
Whipped cream, to serve
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place the sweet potato chunks in a single layer in one large or two medium shallow, ceramic baking dish(es). Add the water, dividing it between the two dishes if necessary. The water should be about 1/2 inch deep; add more if the level is lower than this. Scatter the pieces of cinnamon stick, cloves, pieces of star anise and ginger slices among the sweet potatoes. Cover the baking dishes securely with aluminum foil and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are very tender when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.
Remove the potatoes from the dishes and force them through a ricer, food mill, or sieve. Let cool. Strain the baking liquid, discarding the solids, and measure. You want about 1/2 cup of liquid; if you have less, add enough fresh water to make 1/2 cup; if you have more, simmer the liquid in a small saucepan on the stove over high heat until it is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Let the liquid cool. [The pumpkin, sweet potato and spiced liquid can all be prepared up to 3 days ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator. Bring each to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.]
Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the pumpkin and sweet potato purees and stir to blend well. Beat in the eggs, then stir in the melted butter and reserved spice liquid. In a separate bowl, stir together the granulated and brown sugars with a wire whisk. Sift the flour and salt over the sugars and stir to blend. Add the sugar-flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture and stir well until there are no pockets of sugar visible. Blend in the coconut milk.
Scrape the filling into the two chilled pie shells, dividing it evenly and smoothing the tops. Place the pies in the lower half of the preheated oven and bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, turning the pies several times so they bake evenly. The point of a thin-bladed knife should come out clean when inserted into the center of the filling, and the surface should be unevenly cracked. If the edges of the pastry seem to be darkening too much before the filling is cooked, cover them with strips of aluminum foil. Transfer the pies to wire racks and cool completely before serving with lightly sweetened whipped cream.