The importance of pumpkin pie cannot be overemphasized. The care with which it is prepared, therefore, is primary. In fact, making pumpkin pie is a more important skill than any type of carpentry, any aspect of interior decorating, and all fiction writing. The skills and knowledge involved in making pumpkin pie are more important than many other activities as well, but those three are examples of what the world can do without, long before it can do without properly made, specifically seasoned, and longingly loved pumpkin pie.
So, ready to begin? Great.
Now, I know the first question usually is, “Pastor Weber, will I need an apron?” My answer is, “No.”
First, get a pumpkin. A 15 pounder, preferably. Drive around the countryside in northeast Ohio, southern Indiana, or south-central Pennsylvania until you see a pleasant, uncluttered farm. (You’ll need to be way off the Interstate to do this properly, so go ahead and get off at the next exit and turn right. That road, any road, will get you where I’m describing if you keep your eyes open.)
Now, look closely at that farm- drive slowly. Are there curtains on the windows? If there are, keep driving. We’re looking for a farm owned by a particular order of Amish- the ones with no tassles on their buggies and no curtains on their windows. Those are the Amish who don’t believe in gaudiness or showiness of any kind. And the Amish who don’t cotton to gaudiness are the Amish who raise the best pumpkins- the very pumpkins, in fact that we want in our pie. When you find that farm, pull off to the side of the road, and out of respect, walk up the driveway to the house.
Now, I know you’ve seen the movie “Witness.” Don’t worry about that old guy who hovers in every scene waiting to scold, answering the door, maybe carrying a scythe. The chances are almost certain that it will be a teenaged boy who opens the door. He will already have a 15 pound pumpkin in his arms because he saw you coming and knows you wanted either a pumpkin or a place to hide for a couple weeks. Whichever it is, he knows you’ll buy the pumpkin. Give him whatever he asks. $10? Fine. $100? Pay it. Be happy he is an Amish teenager and not that young guy who hangs out behind the gas station in town looking surly.
Bring that pumpkin home now. Set it on the kitchen table and whisper to it a prayer of gratitude. “Thank you, pumpkin. Thank you for your orangeness and your- what shall we call it? Meat? Amen”
Now take a carbon steel knife- 8 1/2″ blade only- hold it in your hand and note the fine sharpening job you should have already had professionally done, if you were following my earlier shared instructions. If it has not been sharpened according to my specifications, then I’m terribly disappointed in you. Nonetheless, we’ll proceed.
Cut the pumpkin up. Throw away the inside stringy stuff and the seeds. It’s very messy, yes, just get through it. Don’t cut yourself. When you’ve got it all cut up, carefully pare the skin from the-yes, we will call it- meat. Carefully, I said! When the tough orange outer skin is all off, dice the pumpkin pieces into 1″ squares and triangles (but no parallelograms, that’s too time-consuming).
Take a five quart stainless steel sauce pan, rub the inside of it with a clean paper bag (don’t ask), and fill it 1/3 full with spring water. Or distilled water. Turn the heat onto medium and when the water is just about ready to begin boiling, add
1 teaspoonful of extra virgin olive oil (use metal measuring spoons only)
1 chai teabag
2 tablespoons of sugar
Add the pumpkin meat and bring to a boil. Let it boil, let it boil, let it boil, let it boil, speaking words of pumpkin, let it boil. Let it boil. 4 minutes. Stop.
Drain as much water as possible into a separate container. When it cools you will be giving this water as a gift to your houseplants. Give it to them just before you eat the pie, which will only enhance that impending, incredible experience.
Now, with a fork, begin mashing the pumpkin. I know you want to use your food processor or mixer but think back to the Amish kid. You saw how healthy he looks, right? Did you see his four little sisters looking around the corner at you and his two older brothers out by the barn with their dad and two uncles? All healthy, none fat, And Mom, who you didn’t see because she was out in the grandmother’s house helping out, doesn’t, hasn’t ever, will never own a mashing device other than a fork. So if a fork is good enough for the ten pumpkin pies she will make before next Sunday, it’s good enough for the one extraordinary pie you’re working on.
Add a tablespoon of oh so slightly warmed Pet milk here and there as you mash until you’ve got maybe 5 tablespoons of milk mashed into the now almost creamy mashed pumpkin. When you think you’re done mashing, add a half a stick of room temperature butter and a half cup of cane sugar (not beet, not corn) and mash for another five minutes. It helps to sing- a lullaby or a work song, doesn’t matter. Pretend you’re on the porch with that Amish mother and her mother come up from the grandmother’s house and you are all singing and mashing. Five minutes will fly by that way and the pumpkin is now beyond perfect for what comes next.
This is the still point in the dance of the pumpkin pie. Everything that has preceded this moment, from turning off the Interstate to singing with the women on the porch, has led to this moment. Everything that happens from this point forward, including the tear which forms at the corner of your eye when you bite into a piece of this finished pie, is dependent on these moments of quiet and stillness.
Breathe deeply. You are preparing mentally to slather the mashed pumpkin into a ceramic bowl, preferably American-made sometime before 1950. The seasoning of the mashed pumpkin cannot be done in the metal pan in which it has been mashed. It just can’t.
Slather the pumpkin mixture slowly, sensuously with a wooden spoon. No plastic has touched this pie and it won’t. Not starting now. Not ever. Slather, Caress, If you want to use your finger on that last little bit, go ahead. There should be about 3 cups of cooked, mashed pumpkin in the bowl.
Now, the can of room temperature evaporated milk which those several tablespoonful came from- pour the rest of it into the bowl. Don’t mix it in; just pour it in on top of the pumpkin. The slightly off white evaporated milk against the golden cinnamon/pumpkin color in the abstract forms of chance and chaos will make you, if you are not awakened already, moreso. Just look, and don’t think. Nobody on earth, ever, in all of history has seen such a melange. This picture is yours and yours alone. No, you don’t need a camera; you will never forget this.
Other perfect forms: 2 medium eggs (need I say, room temperature?) Maybe you had the foresight to buy a dozen of these from the Amish lad. Good for you for remembering because i forgot! These will be eggs born in the chemical free gullet of the chicken- a free range metamorphosis of nutrients, pure proteins and chlorophyllic, photosynthetic fire.
Hit each egg sharply against a flat hard surface so the shell cracks, but not all the way through, Now open the egg with hands by separating in two parts the broken shell. The yolk has not been broken, see?
1/2 Cup sugar (again, cane only)
1 tablespoon of Cinnamon
1 teaspoon of Nutmeg
3/8 teaspoon Cloves
Where you get these spices is less important than their freshness. Remember that thousands of people in history have died opening up the spice routes from the East, and from being enslaved by the kingdoms which grew as a result of the riches those spices made possible. The Turks loved their cinnamon! The English loved their teas! It’s easy for us to buy spices anywhere but when you hold that red and white can of McCormick’s Cinnamon/Nutmeg/Cloves, you yourself are now the stillpoint of history. Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Muhammed, and Vasco de Gama are all going to be a part of this pie, too. Through you, through these spices. They are. They just flat are. Everything that follows the addition of these spices is contained in the 5000 year pregnancy of these moments!
Stir, counter-clockwise at first. 100 swirls. How fast? This fast:
Go to sleep you little baby
Go to sleep you little baby
Your mama’s gone away and your daddy’s gone to stay
Didn’t leave nobody but the baby
Go to sleep you little baby
Go to sleep you little baby
Everybody’s gone in the cotton and the corn
Didn’t leave nobody but the baby..*
Now, 100 clockwise strokes. Just count, Fast, fasterfasterfaster..
This is necessary as millions of molecules of air are being captured in the mixture. Molecules of air that have existed in ten thousand forms in the millions of years of their existence. Some breathed in by Jesus, others given off by the flowers in the gardens of Versailles. It’s true, look it up. The pie is the history of the universe and so are you, but that’s another part of this same story. For another day.
Catch your breath now. Set the bowl aside. Have a cup of coffee. Because next, the crust.
Here is the best crust I know:
The crust is vital so you don’t want to trust it to..me. I might embellish, or exaggerate, or omit something in the interest of alliteration or hyperbole. I can’t be trusted in the heat of anticipation, in the charged atmosphere of sumptuous smells that are about to fill the kitchen, then our souls.
The rolled crust is ready to be placed into- not stretched onto- a 10″ glass pie plate. First, turn the oven on to 425 degrees. Now,
gently, gently, gently
pour.slather, slather/pour the pumpkin into the crust, up to within a quarter inch from the top, Relax, I know there is still a lot of pumpkin juice- call it pumpkin liqueur- in the ceramic bowl. I am going to give you a gift in a few minutes that you will thank me for the rest of your life, but- first- the pie. The surface tension should be showing a slight rise in the center of the pie. Yes, it is so beautiful and you are about to make it even better.
Put pinches of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg on piece of paper. Now call the youngest child in the house. If there are no children, then you remember as young as you can, and let Mommy pour the spices from the paper into your open hand. If there’s a child there, do that now. Let her or him look at it a minute- if h/she spills,..so what? Load her/him up again. Or you. Him/her or you, now..sprinkle the spice over the top.
It won’t be perfect, yet- it will. Y’knowwhatI’msayin? If the little one is there make sure they know that’s the best job of spice-sprinkling you’ve ever seen. If it’s you that is doing the sprinkling, it’s a work of art, isn’t it? I mean, really, it is!
Now open the oven door and you are going to oh-so-freaking carefully lift the pie to the middle rack and gently sliiiiide it into place. Gently, everything..tiptoe, quiet, slooooowly. Now close the stove door. Check again that the heat is at 425 and set the timer for 15 minutes. For fifteen minutes, you and the child can play a game of checkers or draw a picture of turkeys with your hands. And if there is no kid there except you then you can pile checkers up into various aesthetically pleasing piles or draw a picture of a turkey with your hand. (It’s something I do every year, kind of like a mandala: I draw it, it’s pretty and evocative, then I lose it.)
There’s the buzzer! Turn the heat down to 350 degrees. Don’t open the oven door. Just turn the heat down and set the timer now for 45 minutes.
I don’t know what you might like to do for 45 minutes but if you can trust yourself to do something outside the sound of the oven timer, then my recommendation is to go outdoors. But first, get a clean glass from the cupboard. Remember the bowl partially full of the pumpkin liqueur? Pour the glass 3/4 full of it- full all the way would prove to be too much. Now put it to your lips and taste. “Oh what a foretaste of heaven divine,” the hymnist wrote. Now you know what he was drinking when he wrote those words, yes?
Take the rest of the glass outside with you. Contemplate while you are standing or sitting or walking around there, the drive to the Amish farm, the sound of no machinery there, the feel of the pumpkin in your arms as you carried it down the driveway to the car. Without naming the names of everything that is filling your memory right now, just let the images of pumpkin, ceramic bowl, golden/cinnamon colors, lullabies, wooden spoons, and a child’s hand full of the riches of Marco Polo, fill your mind.
Sip. Savor. Serenity doesn’t come in blinding flashes or claps of silent thunder. It comes in glances, whiffs, bumps, and..sips. Savor.
And now it is time.
As you step back in the house the smell fills your nose your face your brain your torso your being and transcends into all that is and the smell wraps itself around through over and above you you are a part of the smell you are the smell and the completion of who you are at this moment is happening as you open the oven door and like a mirror the pie is you and you are the pie yes yes yes yesyuesyes and
with oven mitts you reach, and so gently again now as gently as you would care for yourself and that is what you are doing now, you lift the pie to the cooling rack and you are praying now and you didn’t know you could pray or to Whom or What but you realize you are and in awhile, in just a little while..about an hour, the prayer is answered and you and the child and the child in you and me, please me if I am near,
eat slices of the pie from ceramic plates using silver forks. And it is so good that good is not a word, it is a word that gets in the way of what the pie really is, but it is so good, that we must now move away from it because to succumb to the desire to live forever within the smell of the pie the liqueur of the pumpkin, and the taste of the pie would be to die too early for another piece, another day..
@David Weber November, 2010