September 9, 2011

american as green pumpkin pie

Welcome to Reading in the Kitchen's first post. Every Friday, I will post a new recipe inspired by a book.

To kick off this series, I wanted to go with something fun and different. I racked my brain, asked friends for input and made lists. Noting the time of year, I remembered the perfect recipe, and one I never tried before.

Green Pumpkin Pie.

I know. I blew your mind. Unless you're a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. Then you're probably thinking, "Oh yeah. I always wondered what that would be like, but didn't know how it would turn out, and so I didn't make it."

In The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder an early frost leaves the Ingalls family without much of a crop to stock up their pantry before several months of blizzards. The ever practical Ma asks Laura to save one of the green pumpkins from the garden and bakes it into a pie. In addition to making the pie crust and slicing the pumpkin into thin, small slices — like for apple pie — she seasoned it, added a cup of brown sugar and poured vinegar on it (I imagine to help cook and soften the tough pumpkin).

Pa, who wasn't in on the secret ingredient, tried the pie and thought it was apples before the girls clued him in. Since reading the scene as a 9-year-old, I wondered what it tasted like. A fan of apple and pumpkin pie, I figured it was worth it.

Before I could begin, I needed a green pumpkin. I don't have a garden at home this year, and I knew my local grocery probably didn't have it in stock. I needed to think big to find the main ingredient.

I started with my inner circle. I texted a couple of friends with gardens. I posted to my Facebook. After these leads didn't pan out, I worried..

I did what I always do when facing a cooking query: I whined to my Mom. She suggested I call a local pumpkin patch, which in theory sounded like a good idea, but made me nervous. Most Nebraska pumpkin patches open in late September or early October, and I feared rejection.  I hate rejection.

Out of desperation and determination, I took Mom's advice and called Roca Berry Farm. Located about 10 miles south of Lincoln, I visited the farm often as a little girl and remember it fondly. After calling one number and getting a recorded message, which said the farm was closed until pumpkin season, I found another, which directed me to someone in the office. She encouraged me to call the owner, who would know more about green pumpkins.

I chewed nervously on my lip while the phone rang. I mean, who calls a pumpkin patch asking to buy an unripened pumpkin? How would I play this without seeming completely crazy? Straight-forward and honest seemed like the best approach, and I went with it.

"I have a strange request," I said, once I had the owner on the line. Then quickly rushed out, "I know you're not open yet, but I need a green pumpkin for a pie recipe I want to try. I don't have a patch of my own, or even know when pumpkins turn orange, so I wondered if your pumpkins are green and if I might be able to buy one from you."

"We have green pumpkins," she said. Then after a pause added, "I've never heard of a green pumpkin pie."

I explained my reasoning, and apparently not thinking I was a lunatic, she agreed to sell me one. She promised to pick me a green smaller-than-basketball-sized pumpkin and have it waiting for me in the main building

What a thrill. This was coming together.

I learned a valuable lesson, and I want to share it with you. Don't be afraid to ask for help — whether it's finding a green pumpkin or editing a story. The worst anyone can say is, "no," and the best will make your day when they say, "yes."

With the pumpkin situation settled, I needed to learn how to cook it. I reviewed cookbooks, read blogs, and even found a few suggestions from fellow LIW geeks like me, who tried it for themselves. I found a few interesting notes:
•  Ma used vinegar, but hard cider or homemade cider worked better than the vinegar in my cupboard.
•  The finished product tasted neither like pumpkin nor apple, but was pleasant enough.
•  A few bakers found the pumpkin tough and unpleasantly chewy after baking.

I jotted down my ideas for a recipe and made a trip to the store for a few ingredients and supplies I needed. Based on a co-worker's advice, I decided to make homemade pie crust. I don't like crust, generally, and never wanted to bother with it. When making pies I go with the frozen stuff or a more graham cracker-like crust. Still, if I was going to the trouble of finding a darn green pumpkin and develop a recipe, I might as well make my own crust.

I needed a few supplies, such as pie plates — I always used the tin that came with the frozen stuff — a rolling pin, sifter (though now I don't remember why), shortening and hard cider (aka booze).

On the way to the store, I called Mom, again. I described my ideas for the recipe, and she gave me a few pointers. For example, she told me to use shortening instead of butter, because she knew I like flaky crust better than the non-flaky. Lard would be better, but she assured me what I bought in the store wouldn't be like what Ma had in her kitchen.

"You know," she said when I described my planned process, "it sounds a lot like Ritz Cracker Pie."

OK. What is that? She tried to describe it, "It's a pie made with crackers instead of fruit." Interesting. You can look it up if you like, but I was too focused on green pumpkins to bother.

Yesterday, happily stocked up with the supplies I needed, I wanted to get my hands on that pumpkin. My friend Katie, the good sport she is, agreed to ditch our original lunch plans to join me for the 25-minute drive to Roca. Following the printed directions, on the way into the farm we passed a sign, which said it was closed for the season. We felt pretty VIP knowing we were allowed past the ropes, so to speak, despite the warning.

Katie happily enjoyed the farm's cuteness, and before we pulled up to the bar where my pumpkin waited, we decided to return for a visit when it opened in October.

I barely contained a squeal when I saw my pumpkin. It was green and beautiful. Having never seen an unripened pumpkin before, it appeared different than Katie and I imagined. We both expected it to be the same shade as a green tomato. Instead, it was more zucchini-colored, with orange highlights. At only $2.30 — one third the cost of the six-pack of hard cider I bought the night before — this wonderful pumpkin seemed like a bargain.

Like my friends and co-workers, the girl who helped us at the farm seemed amused and intrigued by my quest. I promised to let her know how it turned out.

Before continuing, I want to give a big shout-out to everyone at Roca Berry Farm. Thank you for your help, and you'll see Katie and I next month when we come to pick out our orange pumpkins.

Green pumpkin came to work with me. The drive to and from took our whole lunch break, and I did not want to leave that precious bit of squash in my car to rot in the sun. I earned a few laughs and jokes from my co-workers when I plopped it on my desk. I didn't care. I loved green pumpkin, and I won't hide that affection.

I faced a brief moment of sadness when Katie and I realized green pumpkin was still developing, and was not a fully mature adult. "It's like the veal of the vegetable world," I said. Wanting to give green pumpkin the best life I could, before he eventually met his pie plate, I did what I do to all my pumpkins. I decorated it. Without my typical acrylic paints, I settled on a Sharpie and stuck with the veal theme. Green pumpkin looked so handsome with a baby cow drawn on it.

I invited a two friends and my sister over for dinner to keep me company, and witness amazing awesomeness, while I baked the pies.

During the planning stages, I decided to make one pie as close to Ma's original double-crusted pie that I could, and the other with my own personal twist — streusel topping.

I made the pie crust first, and I'll admit I was a wreck. I called Mom to ask her to talk me through it. Sure I'd read the directions online, watched a tutorial and had her explain it to me the night before, but this was different. There was no dress rehearsal for this show, and the curtain was rising.

To make the pie, I followed a simple recipe. Mix the dry ingredients with a fork:
•  2 cups of flour
•  1 teaspoon of salt

Then, cut in 1 cup of cold shortening. I chose butter-flavored to keep the crust flaky, but still have that delightful taste.

OK, I was tense again. If I blew the pie crust, the rest of the project would be a disaster. I called Mom, again.

"Take two knives and slice across with the right and down with the left. Keep doing it until you have crumbles about the size of peas," she said.

Thanks, Mom. Those instructions worked. Her advice didn't stop me from taking a picture of the mixture and texting it to her to approve it before I began the next step. With her blessing, I added 1/2 cup cold water on spoon full at a time, mixing it lightly with a fork. Mom encouraged me to avoid using my hands as much as possible to prevent transferring heat from my hands to the mix.

I actually doubled this recipe, so I would have enough to make two pies and froze the leftover crust for a future dish. I split it into four sections and refrigerated while I messed with the pumpkin.

Oh, green pumpkin. You were so much harder to work with than I imagined.

I come from a family where we paint our pumpkins instead of carving, but I've still cut into pumpkins a few times in my life. You make sure your knives are sharp, have a safety briefing with your family and go crazy (but in a safe way).

A ripened pumpkin was so much easier than working with green pumpkin. The flesh was much harder and just cutting into it took longer than usual. Then, I enlisted the help of my friend Jacie to remove the guts. I'm sure there is a technical term for these, but in all seriousness, who uses it? Even getting the seeds and stringy stuff out was tougher, because it stuck to the firm flesh more than a ripened pumpkin.

Once we had it cleaned out, I ended up only skinning and dicing half the pumpkin to make two pies. At 7 pounds, this whopper had more to it than needed. I sliced the pumpkin's fruit into thin, 3- to 4-inch in length slices.

Then, because of the reports about the pumpkin being too tough, I put the pumpkin, 3/4 cup of hard cider (remember I was doing a double batch) and 2 teaspoons of pumpkin spice mix on the stove over medium heat.

While it simmered for about 10 minutes, I rolled out the pie dough. This was about as exciting as it sounds, so we'll move on. I lined the base of the pie with 1 cup of brown sugar, then placed the heated mixture on top of it. The pumpkin seemed more tender, and I took this as a good sign. I added 1 tablespoon of butter.

Then, I topped one pie with a second crust and the other with streusel.

Streusel is super easy to make. You use 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup softened butter and more pumpkin pie mix (which is basically cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg).

Not to let the new recipe outdo the other, I cut pretty slits out of the double-crusted pie, as instructed, and added leaf-like crust bits on top. Again, not sure what they're really called, but for a first timer, they didn't look too bad.

I put both pies in the oven, which was pre-heated to 425 degrees, and baked it for 15 minutes. I reduced the heat to 350 degrees and baked an additional 30 minutes. Be sure to check the crust for how it's doing, because you could take it out after 25 minutes if it looks done, or leave it in for 35 minutes if your oven cooks more slowly.

The original double-crusted pie turned out quite well. The struesel topping wasn't a total fail, but not as good as I imagined. The pie's filling seems more liquid-like than other pies I've made, and the topping sunk into it, some, instead of settling nicely.

We were still full from dinner and tired, because it was so late, but the four of us each took a generous bite of each to compare.

Here's what they thought about Ma Ingalls and Mama Chapman's double-crusted pie:

On the crust: "I feel like I'm eating crescent roll crust."
On the pie's appearance: "I expected it to be green. When you say you're making green pumpkin pie, I was thinking more like Green Eggs and Ham."

On the taste: "I was a little skeptical of how it would be, but I ended up enjoying the texture and the taste."

On the overall impact: "I was not impressed when the pumpkin was cut open, but now that I've actually eaten it, I have to say it was really good. It almost tasted maple syrupy. I really liked the consistency. It isn't mushy like regular pumpkin pie. I would like something like this a little better, actually."

As for the struesel topping, we all thought it tasted good, because the added sugar made it more caramel-like. Though it didn't look great, I still thought it had it's merits.

For my part, I enjoyed it, but don't know if I would make it again. The pre-cooked pumpkin gave it a great texture, and the taste wasn't bad, but I love regular old pumpkin and apple pies too much to want to mess with perfection. I'm glad I did it, though, because even if it might not be exactly like Ma Ingalls made it, I at least have an idea of what they were tasting.

Here is the recipe for those of you interested in trying it for yourselves:

See outtakes from the adventure here.

Check back next week for another book-cooking adventure. To learn more about Reading in the Kitchen, click here. Remember, if you have a suggested book and/ or recipe you'd like to see, let me know.


  1. A great way to start your "Reading in the Kitchen" posts! I love LIW - and all the food in her books.
    I always thought that Ma made it more like apple pie, using those seasonings, and just substituting pumpkin for apple; it was a new idea to me that perhaps she used pumpkin pie seasoning, but that makes sense.
    Thanks for sharing not only the process, but also the "reviews;" it's fun to see what others think about it.

  2. Thanks, Mama Hen! I also imagine Ma probably used apple pie spices, but I saw a few people suggest nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, so I went with pumpkin pie spice, because I had it in my pantry. :)

    One of my bosses, who didn't know the story, tasted it went I brought it to work today. He said, "It tastes like apple pie," which thrilled me, because that's what pa thought.

    I'm also a huge LIW fan, so you can expect to see more of those recipes sprinkled throughout this series.