- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The perfect pumpkin pie. Rich, simple, delicious — that’s how I would characterize the nearly 200-year-old recipe of Lydia Maria Child. Child was the ultimate multitasker, best-known as author of “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go ….” She was an abolitionist, a human rights activist and a journalist. She wrote novels, books on etiquette and a history of world religions. She also wrote a cookbook.

“The American Frugal Housewife” likely was written from firsthand experience, as her husband, a Boston lawyer, apparently was a charming dreamer with “irresponsible ways.” Child herself comments laconically in the subtitle: “a fat kitchen maketh a lean will.” Published in 1829, “The American Frugal Housewife” was an instant success, going into more than 30 editions before 1850.

Lydia Child has many helpful things to say. “It is a great improvement to the flavor of Pumpkin Pies,” she notes, “to boil the milk, stir the sifted pumpkin into it, and let them boil up together once or twice. The pumpkin swells almost as much as Indian meal (cornmeal) … the taste of the pie is much improved.” She is so anxious to instruct that her thoughts tangle into knots. In the middle of her measurements for the pie filling, she diverges into three versions of pies — family, rich and simple (a matter of adding more or less egg). In her eagerness to explain how best to cook pumpkin, she forgets to give its weight.

Don’t worry: In the recipe below, I’ve made decisions on the cook’s behalf, and the result is an archetypal, luscious traditional pumpkin pie. The pumpkin is lightly set, the spices blend without dominating. You can use your favorite pie pastry, firm or rich and crumbling as you prefer. Child offers dizzying flavor choices of molasses or sugar, a spicing of ginger, with or without cinnamon and a “nice” grating of lemon. Excellent information, but confusing. Much to my surprise, after testing pies sweetened with molasses and brown sugar, I prefer the less forceful sweetness of the brown sugar, which allows the pumpkin and spices to shine through. Autumn on the plate.

Just for fun, I tried the recipe with zucchini, and it works fine. I used two pounds of zucchini, cut in 1-inch chunks with the skin, and cooked them in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then drained them and rinsed in cold water to set the color. Then I pureed the zucchini, cooked it in milk and baked it as described. The only change was to cool the zucchini-and-milk mixture over ice so as not to lose the color. To my surprise, the filling thickened nicely and baked to be pleasantly spicy and a pretty green. Try it for a taste of history, using the full amount of sugar for a dessert pie, or half for a savory side for pork chops or roast duck.

Pumpkin or squash pie

Despite the recipe title, Child focuses on pumpkin, on the presumption that other common winter varieties of squash, such as acorn, butternut and turban, behave the same way in the kitchen. So make this versatile pie all year around.

Makes two 10-inch pies

1 medium sugar pumpkin (about 3 pounds)

4 cups milk

3/4 cup dark brown sugar, more to taste

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon, more to taste

1 tablespoon ground ginger, more to taste

Grated zest of 1 lemon, optional

3 eggs, whisked to mix

2 10-inch pie shells

2 10-inch pie pans

To cook pumpkin: slice skin from top and bottom of the pumpkin. In a curving motion, cut remaining skin in segments from the sides, working from top to bottom. Cut flesh in half, scoop out and discard seeds and cut the flesh in chunks; they should weigh about 2 pounds. Put pumpkin in a saucepan with water to cover base of the pan. Add the lid and cook over medium heat, stirring often, so pumpkin steams until it can be crushed easily with a fork, 30-45 minutes. Crush it with a potato masher or puree in a food processor until smooth.

Chill the pie shells. Heat oven to 400 degrees and put a baking sheet low down on a shelf to heat. For filling, heat milk in a large saucepan. Stir in pumpkin puree and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, so the mixture thickens slightly, about 20 minutes. Let cool to tepid, then stir in sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger and lemon if using. Taste and adjust sweetness and spice. Stir in eggs.

Transfer filling to pie shells. Set pies on the heated baking sheet and bake in the oven 15 minutes. Lower heat to 350 degrees and continue baking until pies are firm but slightly wobbly in the center, 40 to 50 minutes more. Serve at room temperature.

• For more about Anne Willan and her cookbooks, go to www.lavarenne.com.

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