My dear friends, there are many fabulous food writers in the blogosphere who post entries that are immensely superior to this one in many ways. Their recipes are tasty twists on old favorites, their directions are full of truly helpful tips, their text is supplemented by colorful, beautifully-lit photographs.
I suffer under no delusions that this post will look anything like what is described above. This story is more about my stubborn (idiotic?) determination than about baking. Though if, after reading, you really want to recreate what I’ve done here, that’s fine by me. I just may consider you even more stubborn (idiotic) than myself.
It all started with a brilliant plan. Thanksgiving is coming up! Let’s use this classic American holiday to teach my students about characteristic American ideals and activities (read: family, food, and football). Turkey and pumpkin pie have come to represent the Thanksgiving table, and I decided to share pumpkin pie rather than turkey, primarily because I’ve spent the last 10 year of my life as a vegetarian and don’t know the first thing about preparing turkey.
Truth be told, I didn’t know the first thing about preparing pumpkin pie either, and as the day rolled closer, I grew quite nervous about baking enough pumpkin pies to feed 130 people. But I had secured a recipe which including directions for making your own pumpkin puree (remember: no canned pumpkin here), and I consoled myself with the knowledge that if I just followed the recipe, all would well. I would like to note here that while I did carefully inspect the recipe beforehand to ensure I would have all the necessary ingredients, I did not look very closely at the directions themselves.
The anticipated-baking-day arrived, and I brought my computer down to the kitchen in Krisz-pont. I have less students in Beregszasz than in Péterfalva, so this first endeavor only needed to produce pies for 30 people. I pulled up the recipe online, turned on some Nickel Creek, and got to work.
Roasting your pumpkin is quite simple. Oh good! Cut the pumpkin in half horizontally. Turn the pumpkin halves cut-side-down on a cookie sheet and roast for 30-40 minutes at 400 degrees. Hold it right there. The oven I’m working with is not only a gas oven, but it has no thermometer. The dial only gives me setting numbers, not degrees. So, I guess. Hmmm, a 6 or 7 is probably about 400 degrees.
The pumpkins (which, I think, are not actually pumpkins but a different variety of squash) take forever to roast. A 6 or 7 is probably not 400 degrees. Nevertheless, the pumpkin/squash is finished, and I let them cool while I run out to fetch the rest of the ingredients from a helpful English teacher and the grocery store.
Let the pumpkin cool and scoop out the insides. Process the pumpkin innards in a food processor until smooth. I have not a food processor. Nor a blender. Nor even a hand mixer. I have a fork. And my arms. I am woman, watch me beat this pumpkin to a pulp.
The pumpkin is still a little stringy, but I decide that if I am ever to actually finish making is pie, stringy it will remain. Next up: pie crust. In the bowl of an electric mixer or food processor, pulse the butter, flour, salt, and sugar until the butter is the size of peas. My dearth of electronic mixing devises has already been mentioned, but luckily I remembered an old trick from cookie-baking with my mom. I used a fork and a knife and a variety of angles to chop and slice that butter/flour mixture into respectably pea-sized clumps. Add the water, one tablespoon at a time, while mixing on low. When the dough just barely starts to come together, turn off the mixer and stop adding water. I think it worth noting at this time that I did not, in fact, have a tablespoon measurer. Or a cup. Or even measuring cups and spoons of European gram equivalents. For some reason, neither Krisz-pont nor the Péterfalva school find it necessary to measure anything. I had no standard measurements. This is no problem for me when I am cooking. I don’t really like to measure anything anyway. But baking is another matter. I have long harbored an irrational fear of baking exactly because precise measurements are required to produce anything other than inedible goop.
Here is what my measuring equipment looked like:
I figured as long as my measurements were consistent, it didn’t much matter how much I was actually putting in. I used one large spoon for all my tablespoon measurements and two identical cups for all my cup measurements.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead briefly until the dough is cohesive. Flatten the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for 30 minutes. This I could mostly perform as stated, though I had to forgo the plastic wrap and settle for placing the dough on a plate. Honestly, though, I don’t think the crust suffered from this concession, and the world’s landfills were saved from unnecessary plastic additions.
Preheat the oven to 375. You are already aware of the difficulties surrounding temperature. Roll out the pie crust and place in a 9-10 inch pie plate. Not only is Thanksgiving a uniquely American holiday, but pie is a uniquely American food, and pie pans/plates/baking accouterments are nigh unheard-of. A kitchen without measuring cups certainly does not have a pie plate. I settle for a low-ish rimmed pot/dish/thing and hope for the best. Fill with aluminum foil and add pie weights on top of the foil. Did I mention that Hungarians don’t bake pies? And frankly, I have never heard of pie weights. At the time, I was chatting online with my friend Kirsten. Sometimes we chat about yurts, communes, and our opposite tastes in music. Sometimes we chat in haiku. Sometimes we chat about pie crusts.me: also … have you ever heard of a pie weight? my pie simply won’t have one …. I don’t even know if there’s a pie pan here … Kirsten: haha ya i haven’t heard of that me: apparently you put it on your pie crust when you’re pre-baking it Kirsten: that’s weird me: that’s what I thought also I’m supposed to strain the egg and cream mixture before I put it with the pumpkin through a sieve Also not happening Kirsten: hmm ya that seems dumb me: I’m not going to lie – I’m very worried about the outcome of this first pie and all the subsequent pies. Kirsten: hehe are u doing one at a time? me: well, I’m starting with just one so that I can learn from my inevitable mistakes. Kirsten: ya that would be my suggestion me: Hmmm, I’m beginning to see why I needed that pie weight. Kirsten: haha me: Crust is getting awfully puffy. Kirsten: hmm can u improvise? or pop the bubbles? me: I was thinking about putting a pot on top of the pie … but at this point I think I will have to pop the bubbles. Kirsten: hmm ya, is this gonna be under the pumpkin stuff? me: yes looks don’t matter here or really anywhere Kirsten: haha me: I’m going for taste I think I’m going to have the thickest, puffiest pie crust in the history of pies especially since I had to use a smaller pan. Kirsten: hehe nice u could just say that’s how americans like it 🙂 me: Exactly. However it turns out will be exactly how Americans/my family/my great-grandmother’s recipe says it should be.
The pumpkin filling required heavy cream, which I could not find (having been allergic to milk for the past 10 years, I’m not even sure what it is), so I substituted 25% fat sour cream, which worked just fine. I mixed all the filling ingredients together and poured the filling into the crust. Bake at 350 for 30 to 40 minutes. The lack of temperature gauging devises was a bit tricky at this point. I would have been perfectly happy with Celsius thermometers – I can do math. As it was, I checked by pie obsessively, worrying that it would burn. Perhaps it was all that opening of the oven door that made the baking take forever …
The result of my first pie attempt is pictured above. I cannot convey to you the immensity of my relief when I ate that first slice and found it to be a rather tasty concoction. It certainly had a different texture and color than other pumpkin pies of my acquaintance. But it was not a gooey mess, it was not a stringy failure. It was a pumpkin pie.
That first pie was sacrificed to the curiosities of my Beregszasz roommates as well as Nasstasja and Marielle, who stopped by to say hello. None of them had ever eaten a pumpkin pie. “Nagyon finom,” they told me. Very delicious. Though one guy who was visiting did examine his piece quizzically and ask, “It’s made from what?”
That was one pie down. Four more to go.
Remind me again why I didn’t roast a turkey?