The days grow short, winter’s bite sharpens the air, and pumpkin spice latte is every coffee shop’s special. I pour through food magazines, reading recipes for pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin bundt cake, pumpkin flan, brandied pumpkin cake, pumpkin crème brulee, and the gazillion other iterations of Thanksgiving dessert that are this year’s must-trys for home cooks.
I inspect them with interest, and then, always, make my mom’s pumpkin pie.
Like Pavlov’s dog, only I am triggered by frosty mornings and the smell of dying leaves to follow her recipe.
Then the inevitable happens: I’ll be somewhere in the multi-stepped baking process — scraping the gooey seeds from a gourd, rolling out the crust praying I don’t rend the delicate dough, or pouring the filling in, careful to avoid bubbles — when the thought pops into my head.
Whoever coined the phrase “easy as pie,” I think, is full of s@#%.
Binging on Breaking Bad is easy. Procrastinating is easy. My mom’s pumpkin pie, however, is decidedly not easy.
Baking this pie is a two-day process at minimum, and that’s just kitchen time. Its creation also hinges on the vagaries of the summer weather, the success of a pumpkin patch an entire state away, and the 500-mile transport of an orange globe.
But whew, is it sublime. And more than that, it has evolved into an expression of love and celebration of my family that’s almost compulsory, a nonnegotiable holiday tradition.
Why do I believe in it so ardently?
Because it begins in the soil. Each summer, Miriam grows a small patch of French pie pumpkins in the corner of her backyard in Wyoming. As long as the weather or the deer don’t get them, these gourds come off the vine like the Marilyn Monroe of the pumpkin world: beautiful, voluptuous, radiant, and just the right size. They seem to glow from within like koi fish or blazing aspens.
After she harvests them, she makes sure to get at least one to my kitchen. Often she drives it down to southern Colorado on a fall visit. But she’s not afraid to package it up and ship it.
Ever received a pumpkin in the mail? Your co-workers will look at you funny.
One fall day when I have a few hours on my hands, I process the pumpkin: digging out the gloppy seeds, carving the gourd into chunks, roasting them until a fork slides easily through, and scraping the flesh into my food processor, where it is transformed into a puree as strikingly orange as a grove of maples in the fall. It takes most of a day and makes a hell of a mess.
And only then is it time to start the pie.
There’s nothing revolutionary about the recipe. A crust made of fat, flour, and water. A filling comprised of sugar, milk, eggs, pumpkin, and spices like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. But each time I press the crust into the pan, I am filled with deep satisfaction, and each time I mix up the filling, I feel like I’m blending magic in a bowl. It turns into a creamy, sweet liquid, muted gold in color, and when I pour it into the crust and set it in the oven, the aromas that waft out nearly make me swoon with pleasure. Whipping the cream — the final step, done with a bit of sugar and allspice — is meditative and transfixing.
There’s nothing fancy about the presentation either, but what it lacks in style, it makes up for in flavor. In the grand scheme of pies, I would venture that this one is on the upper end of the taste scale. The custardy filling spiked with the warmth of fall spices, the flaky crust studded with real lard (Miriam insists), the topping of cold airy cream. Each bite a mix of home and comfort. Thanksgiving bliss, worth every ounce of work.
Of course, my love for this pie goes well beyond the mix of sugar, fat, and pumpkin. It’s a way to honor my mom’s roots as the child of German-Lutheran farmers, her abiding belief in from-scratch baking and the way she turns growing and cooking into an expression of love. It’s about Wyoming dirt, the coziness of her kitchen with its stenciled baseboards and homemade rugs, the traditions she learned from her mother.
As time passes, work schedules and poor weather make travel difficult, and the number of Thanksgivings spent without my parents stacks up — has it really been a decade? — the more essential, urgent even, it becomes to bake her pie each November.
Maybe “easy as pie” isn’t about the making of a pie after all. Maybe it refers instead to the ability to love it.
Miriam’s Pumpkin Pie
1 pie crust shell, made fresh and by hand
1 ½ cup fresh pureed pumpkin *
1 ½ cup half and half
2 tablespoons flour
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground allspice, plus extra for serving
Whipping cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Line a large pie pan with your favorite pie crust dough. I use the flaky pie crust dough recipe from “Joy Of Cooking,” dividing in half for the shell.
In a bowl, beat the eggs. Mix in pumpkin, half and half, sugar, and dry ingredients. Beat until sugar is dissolved.
Pour into pie shell. **
Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake for 50-65 minutes. Bake time changes with moisture content in the pumpkin; the pie is done when the center of the pie is set. It should no longer look wet on the surface and small bubbles will appear on the surface. A knife inserted into the filling should come out clean.
Cool completely. Serve with cold cream whipped mixed with allspice and a dash of sugar.
*To use process pumpkin: Cut pumpkin into quarters or halves. Scrape out seeds and loose material. Arrange chunks in a 9×13 inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees until outside of pumpkin is fork tender. Remove from oven and cool. Scrape pumpkin flesh from shell and puree in food processer or blender. The puree can be frozen and used for up to a year.
**When the filling is ready to pour into shell, open the oven, slide the rack out and place the empty pie shell on it. Using a spatula or spoon to guide the filling without splashing, pour into the shell, filling it to ½ inch short of the top. Carefully slide the rack into the oven (I use the door), avoiding sloshing the filling out of shell.