Sunday, November 27, 2011

My "Charlie-Brown" Pies

by Ruth
I agreed to make pumpkin pie for our big 'city wide' Thanksgiving meal. It was a last minute decision, so I headed out late last night to buy some pumpkin. Ok, so actually it was only 7pm, but it was already completely dark outside and I am hardly ever out after dark post-baby. Thus as I biked to the nearby vegetable market, dodging the hordes of students heading out for Saturday evening fun, it felt like a late night outing. Half of the large road in front of the vegetable market was transformed into a parking lot – literally. The actual parking areas are far too small, so cars just stopped and parked in the road, along with dozens of taxis waiting for fares. Pedestrians swarmed across the street while bikes and motorbikes swerved through and honking cars inched their way through the road-turned-parking lot.

Street vendors were out in mass, selling all manner of fried foods and unidentifiable objects on sticks. I wasn't even sure if the vegetable sellers were still around at night. Some had covered their vegetables with cloths and headed home, but a number were still open for business. I picked out a couple of small pumkins and headed home (after picking up some tofu-filled egg-burritos and spicy skewered vegetables for our dinner.

I often made pumpkin pie as my Thanksgiving contribution when I was younger, but I had never made it from fresh pumpkin before. I had also never made it in China, which, as you know if cook in China (or other non-western countries), can be a little different experience.

Step one: slice and cook the pumpkin. I didn't really know how long to cook the pumpkin, so I set the oven on some medium temperature and came back every few minutes to stab pieces with a fork. By the end they had taken quite a beating. Some of the pieces were a little green looking, so I wasn't sure how that would work out either. Eventually all the pieces were pretty soft, so Kevin scraped the meat out of the rind while I worked on the pie crust. That was pretty easy except when I was ready to roll it out, I realized my rolling pin was moldy. But I covered it with plastic wrap and used it anyway.

Step two: Mash the pumpkin. After mashing and beating the pumpkin with eggs, we were left with a mixture of pumpkiny liquid and hard pumpkin chunks. Fortunately a little blender action solved the problem of the chunks.

Step three: Mix in other ingredients. I didn't actually have all the ingredients. Evaporated milk can apparently be bought in another part of the city about an hour away, but that wasn't going to happen. Kevin looked for sweetened condensed milk at the supermarket but they stocked only blueberry or strawberry flavor. Not going to work. So I settled for a powdered milk and water substitution my mom found online and added extra spices because it seemed like a good idea.

Step four: Bake the pie. Since I don't have an actual pie pan, I used a round cake pan instead. Our small toaster-oven is pretty nice for China but definitely smaller and more finicky than a real oven. I converted the baking temperature from Fahrenheit into Celsius and then the Celsius into “I wonder what temperature the oven will actually be” degrees. I generally go for about 25*C lower than called for, but it kinda comes down to what kind of mood the oven is in on a given day. The only way to really keep things from burning is to watch them closely, cover with foil, and make the baking time about 10-20% less than the recipe says. Good thing I looked in on the pie because about 5 minutes into cooking I realized the top burner was on instead of the bottom one!

Step 5: Keep baking the pie. I guess I turned the temperature down too low because I kept checking and kept checking and it was still a jiggly mess. After the third knife slice, the clean line had turned into a big gash down the middle of the pie.

Finally the pie was finished, and it actually looked good (other than the big gash). Except it looked awfully small. There were going to be 20 adults and 10 children at our Thanksgiving feast, and this was an 8” pie. I still had just enough shortening left to make another pie crust, so I thought maybe in the morning I would run out and get some more pumpkins or maybe some sweet potatoes and make a sweet potato pie.

Finally I decided I should make a pecan pie! It would be perfect. I didn't have any corn syrup, like most recipes called for, but thanks to “don't want this ingredient” search, I found one using sugar instead. The only other slight problem: I didn't actually have pecans.

I did, however, have some walnuts left over from my amazing sweet potato casserole. Walnuts are definitely no pecans, but they work as a China- substitute. I made up another pie crust and covered my moldy rolling pin once more before throwing it out. There was just enough crust left over to make a few pretty leaves to cover the ugly gash in the pumpkin pie. Success!

I arranged from walnuts prettily on top of the pie, and they immediately sank halfway into pie liquid. Oh well. Into the oven, double checking the correct burner was on this time! I checked the pie about 5-10 minutes into cooking only to find the top was already burning! Seriously? I covered it with foil and kept checking on it. After a while I decided this burnt top was not going to do, so I pulled the partly-cooked pie out of the oven and used a knife to scrape of as much of the burnt as I could. The pretty was all gone, but at least it wouldn't taste burnt (I hoped). Then I put the pie back in to finish cooking, not really sure how that little cooling interlude would effect it.

After the initial burn, I kept checking the pie frequently, but even after exceeding the called-for baking time, the pie was still pure liquid. I tried testing it with a knife and struck a submerged walnut instead, creating a fissure instead of a smooth cut. It was becoming a trend. I poked around at several walnuts, trying to scoot one over the hole. Several knife stabs and 15 or 20 minutes later, the pie was finally “set” enough to take out. The pretty walnut design was completely obliterated, but it didn't really look bad, considering.

This afternoon I took the pies to our celebration and the verdict was... Success! The pumpkin pie tasted just like it should, and we were even able to buy some whipped cream from a local bakery for the top! The non-pecan pie was pretty good too. I mean, a walnut is never going to be a pecan, but otherwise it was good! And it didn't even taste burnt at all. The pumpkin pie was quickly eaten and half the walnut pie was gone (because after all, some people don't know what pecan pie is all about).

Sadly, we didn't get any pictures before they were eaten up! The pumpkin pie ended up looking pretty cute with those little pastry leaves and the walnut pie looked perfectly respectable, but now you'll just have to take my word for it.


Anna said...

I'm glad that they turned out okay. =) Although you had a bit more challenging time than I did... But leaves to cover up gashes are always good too. I generally do a leaf pie-crust, but I was too tired this year. Last year I included a nice variety of leaves - oak leaves, maple leaves, pot leaves...

Melissa said...

glad it worked! i've never heard of leaves on a pie, but it sounds like a good idea.