Butternut Squash Pie

October 8, 2009

After focusing on pie baking for the past few years I’m finally developing a more instinctual understanding of construction and the balancing of flavors. Last weekend I took a maple pumpkin pie recipe from my trusted book Pie by Ken Haedrich and modified it a little with great success.

Pumpkin has a monopoly on squash-centric desserts, which I suspected was probably unfair and I wanted to play around with other delicious varieties of winter squash. Butternut squash was the obvious first divergence without being too adventurous. It has a less pointed flavor than pumpkin while still boasting a strong, creamy taste. The recipe called for 1 3/4 cup puréed pumpkin but I used all of a medium-large butternut squash, about 2 1/3 cups. Coming home from Vermont two weekends ago, we picked up some strong, dark Grade B maple syrup which I thought would be great to give the pie a bold flavor profile. For the creation of the custard, the recipe called for three eggs and a cup of half-and-half or light cream. When my local Compare Foods turned out only to have heavy cream in one-cup cartons, I didn’t hesitate to make the substitution but was also wary of letting my love for dairy push the pie into too-rich, heavy territory. The last element in the recipe that I wanted to rethink was the spices. The recipe suggested ginger in addition to cinnamon and nutmeg. I omitted the ginger in favor of some beautiful allspice we’d just purchased in bulk from the Aphrodisia herb store in the West Village.

The pie turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever made. Though my modifications were modest, this pie encouraged me to trust my developing instincts in altering and creating recipes. The extra fat in the cream deliciously accented the creaminess of the squash, and I think adding the extra squash helped prevent it from tasting too heavy. The maple was subtler than I expected, but bolstered the squash’s taste in a really nice way, as if it were there to help out and not draw attention to itself. I loved how the allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg worked well in concert but weren’t lost individually, and I felt it was just the right amount of flavor to accompany the squash and maple. Refrigerating the pie enhanced everything, bringing out more of the spices and letting the creaminess excel as a flavor and not be simplified in the mind as simply a texture.

As my pie baking has matured, I’ve become less focused on choosing and planning which pie to create ahead of time, and more eager to explore what fresh, beautiful produce is on hand and how to most deliciously present it. The chefs I admire most are those who are only trying to create something worthy of the ingredients they use, and it makes me feel good to make small advances towards achieving that goal.

Update: See recipe below! Perfect for Thanksgiving, and since I think it tastes best served cold, you can make it the night before.

Maple Butternut Squash Pie (adapted from Ken Haedrich‘s Maple Pumpkin Pie)

1 medium to large butternut squash

3 eggs

1 c. heavy cream

1/2 c. Grade B maple syrup

1 t. vanilla extract

1/2 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar

1 1/2 T. all-purpose flour

1 t. ground cinnamon

1/2 t. ground nutmeg

1/2 t. ground allspice

1/4 t. salt

Crust

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour

1 T. sugar

a pinch of salt

1/4 c. cold unsalted butter

1/4 c. cold vegetable shortening

1/4 c. cold water (more/less as needed)

1. Prepare the crust. Put the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl and toss with your hands. Cut the butter into quarter-inch chunks and throw onto the dry ingredients. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until you have evenly sized crumbs. Add the shortening, also cut into small or quarter-inch chunks. Cut into the dough until it all looks even. (Recipes often say “pea-sized” but my crumbs are always smaller than this and the crust still comes out beautifully.) Add the water, a little bit at a time, and tamp down with a fork until all the crumbs stick together and the dough can be gathered into a ball. Flatten the ball to a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm (about an hour) or overnight.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the squash. Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place the halves face-down in a glass baking dish. Cover the bottom with an inch or so of water. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the flesh is tender and a fork will pierce it easily. Let the squash cool a bit, then scoop out the flesh and purée in a food processor.

3. Roll the dough out on floured wax paper until it’s a couple inches wider than your pie pan. (I use a 9 1/2-inch deep-dish ceramic pie pan.) To get the dough into the pan, either put your hand under the wax paper and invert it over the pan in one quick motion, or lightly fold the crust in half two times (so you have a folded quarter) and then unfold over the pan. Center the dough (and peel off the paper) and tuck into the side of the pan without stretching the dough. It helps to readjust the dough by letting it fall into the bottom, rather than pushing the dough down to make it fit. Sculpt the edge however you prefer (I like to do an upstanding ridge or fold the edge in towards the center) and redistribute excess dough where needed to make an even crust. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm the dough.

4. Prebake the crust. Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Tear off a generous piece of aluminum foil and tuck it into the bottom and side of the pan, hugging the dough as snugly as possible. Let the excess foil flare out over the sides, and don’t bend it over the edge of the crust. Fill the pie with pie weights or dried beans. Bake on the center rack for 15 minutes. Then slide out the rack and slowly lift the foil to remove the weights. The crust should look more or less set. Prick the bottom and sides generously with a fork, twisting a little to make the holes bigger. Lower the oven to 375˚F and bake for an additional 10-12 minutes. Keep watch and if the pastry starts to puff up, prick it with a fork to release the air. When you take it out, the crust should look just slightly golden. Mixing the filling won’t take too long, so you can keep the oven on, reducing the heat to 350˚F.

5. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs together lightly. Add the cream, maple syrup, and vanilla. In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, flour, spices, and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet. Add the squash purée, and whisk until everything is blended well. Pour into the cooled pie shell.

6. Bake the pie for 25 minutes, then rotate 180˚ and continue to bake for another 25 minutes, until the filling is set. The edge of the filling will look rounded and a little puffy, and the center should look slightly shiny (but should not be soupy).

7. Put the pie on a wire rack, let cool, and then cover with loose aluminum foil & refrigerate for the best and most complex taste. I think it’s creamy enough that whipped cream is a little redundant. Enjoy!

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