Here in San Francisco, summer often begins in September and ends in November. Yes, you read that correctly. Summer. That’s of course not counting the teaser heatwave we have every February in which we put on sundresses and drink mimosas out on the sidewalk, rejoicing the end of winter. Before another six months of gloom set in and dispel this myth.
So anyway, along comes October with its winter squash and sweet potatoes and apples, and there you are at the beach, gorging on juicy peaches and heirloom tomatoes. You think, Apples? What are you doing here? And you know they’re gravensteins and your boyfriend’s mom’s tree is practically buckling under the weight of them, but instead you eat raspberries from the farm stand down the road. Finally it gets a bit chilly mid-November, the plums and strawberries peter out, and before you know it, you’ve missed the miniscule Pumpkin Dessert Window.
The Pumpkin Dessert Window lasts from the first chilly day of fall (usually about one week before Thanksgiving), through Thanksgiving. It’s not that pumpkins aren’t around anymore, in fact you’ve even got a can/jar or two of puree in your cupboard/refrigerator which you never got to. It’s just not pumpkin dessert season anymore. You know it, everyone around you knows it, even your CSA, which continues to send you butternuts and acorns every week, knows it.
So you make a pumpkin tart in January, feeling a little like a fourth-grader dancing to Vanilla Ice in your school talent show when all the cool kids know it’s ‘so last year’. And it’s a good one (the tart, that is, not the Vanilla Ice song. Or your dance, for that matter). It’s Cook’s Illustrated’s new recipe (at least it was two falls ago) in which you cook pumpkin and sweet potato purees on the stove to condense them, whisk in eggs, milk, cream, sugar and a touch of spices. You bake it in a sweet tart shell, and eat it with maple-sweetened whipped cream.
But for some reason, it’s not quite the same as it would have been on that first brisk week of fall, when the leaves on the ginkgo trees turn fluorescent yellow and you wear a scarf not only because it looks good but because you will freeze your ass off it you don’t. Maybe it’s the newly planted strawberry and fava bean starts in the community garden down the street hinting that spring is on its way. Or that wearing a scarf (and longjohns, legwarmers, sweater, jacket, hat and gloves) no longer seems like a fun novelty but a cumbersome burden. Or that you find yourself gazing with increasing nostalgia at the unworn capris/flip-flops taking up space in your closet/shoe tree.
I may have to make this tart again during the Pumpkin Dessert Window of 2010 to give it a fair trial. Not that my ambivalence as to whether it deserves the title of ‘great pie’ or ‘greatest pie’ has stopped half of it from disappearing in one day, mind you. In fact, I think I’ll have another slice right now, just to refresh my memory.
This tart is meant to be lightly spiced, but I found the fresh ginger a bit too assertive. Next time, I want to try heating the dairy with vanilla bean, cinnamon sticks, coins of fresh ginger and freshly grated nutmeg, steeping the mixture for half an hour to infuse it with the flavors of the spices. Also, this recipe calls for sweet potato as well as pumpkin to create a denser texture, but you could just as easily use a dense-fleshed winter squash, such as kabocha or hokkaido, in place of both. If your squash is dense enough, you can probably skip the cooking-on-the-stove step, which is kind of a pain. Finally, I think the tart could be less sweet, using only 3/4 cup of sweetener instead of 1 full cup, and the the salt could be reduced to 3/4 teaspoon.
Somewhat Fussy Pumpkin Tart
Makes 1 hefty 10″ tart, about 10 servings
Update: I finally made the perfect pumpkin pie! Get the recipe here.
Sweet Tart Dough
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Dorie Greenspan
Makes one rather thick 10″ crust, or (probably) two thinnish 8″ crusts
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat or whole spelt flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup powdered sugar
9 tablespoons (4 1/2 ounces) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes
1 egg, lightly beaten
In a food processor, pulse together the dries to combine. Scatter the butter chunks over the top, and pulse several times until the butter is somewhat incorporated, with some pea-sized butter lumps remaining. Pulse as you add the egg a little at a time, then continue to pulse (does that sound dirty, or is it me?) until the dough comes together in large clumps. Don’t overmix.
Turn the dough out and press into a ball. You can either flatten it into a disk, chill it for half an hour or so, then roll it out and so on. Or you can lazily press the unchilled dough into the pan, working it outwards and up the sides, making it as even as possible. Try to maintain the crumbly texture of the dough, this will make for a tender crust. Dock the dough all over with the tines of a fork.
Chill the tart shell for half an hour, then freeze for at least 20 minutes while you preheat the oven to 375º. Place the tart pan on a rimmed baking sheet. Place a sheet of parchment paper in the shell, then fill with pie weights (or clean pennies, or dry beans), pressing the weights into the corners of the crust. Trim the edges of the paper so they don’t burn in the oven. Tip: I store my pie weights in a cheesecloth bag which I place directly on the parchment. This makes them easy to move around.
Place the baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the sides are set and the bottom looks relatively dry when you remove the weights and parchment. Remove the weights and parchment, and continue baking the crust another 10 minutes or so, until the bottom just begins to brown.
Creamy Pumpkin Tart Filling
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated
Makes enough to fill one 10 or 11″ tart shell, or one 9″ pie
2 medium sweet potatoes
1 cup winter squash puree or canned pumpkin
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
3 large eggs
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon brandy or bourbon (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400º.
Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork, place on a baking sheet and roast in the oven until very soft, about 1 hour. Let cool, scoop out the flesh and puree smooth. You should have a scant 2 cups.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the sweet potato, pumpkin, sugar, maple syrup, spices and salt. Puree smooth. Transfer to a medium saucepan and cook at a sputtering simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 15-20 minutes. The mixture should be thick and shiny. Remove from the heat.
In the food processor, whiz together the dairy, eggs, yolks, vanilla and booze until combined. Gradually whisk the dairy mixture into the pumpkin mixture. Strain the whole deal through a fine mesh sieve. Give it a last whisk, and pour into the warm, parbaked tart shell. (If you have extra custard, pour into ramekins and bake once you’ve reduced the oven temp to 300º).
Place the tart, still on the baking sheet, in the 400º oven. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temp to 300º. Bake until the edges of the tart are slightly puffed and set and the center wobbles like jell-o when you jiggle it, 20-35 minutes. It should not be soupy. An instant read thermometer should register 175º when inserted in the center.
Remove the tart and let cool at room temperature 2-3 hours. The tart is still baking from residual heat, so don’t try to chill it in the fridge, or it will not set properly.
Serve cold or at room temperature, with a dollop of maple sweetened whipped cream, and a grating of fresh nutmeg, if desired.