The most farcical Thanksgiving I ever spent was in Bologna, Italy ten years ago. My best friend and I were studying abroad, and though neither of us were particularly patriotic nor sentimental, we got it into our heads to put together a dinner with our fellow Americans.
I was in charge of mashed potatoes, and made a veritable vat in my tiny downtown apartment kitchen. Unfortunately, I hadn’t considered the fact that I’d have to hike a 20 pound pot full of mashers across town. As I considered how best to do this, I received the following text from my best friend: Help, turkey does not fit in oven!
When my aching arms and I arrived, she had crafted a clever solution: the turkey’s appendages had been severed and baked separately. Thanksgiving was saved.
I’m excited to share today’s recipe for several reasons. Not only does this tart contain most of my favorite fall flavors – maple, bourbon, pecans, oats, spices, and “pumpkin” (actually roasted red kabocha squash) – it is also gluten-free and contains no refined sugar.
Each component gets its judicious sweetness from a different source. The crust contains unrefined muscobado sugar (I love Alter Eco’s toffee notes and soft texture). The pumpkin pastry cream filling uses maple sugar. And the bourbon whipped cream is spiked with maple syrup.
The crust, made from ground pecans (or walnuts – I tried one with each) tastes like a cross between an oatmeal cookie and buttery shortbread. Its melt-in-your-mouth texture comes from feathery ground nuts and cornstarch, and its earthy flavor from unrefined muscobado sugar and toasty oats. I have no problem with butter, but some may be happy to learn that the crust contains a mere 3 tablespoons. The crust gets whizzed together in a food processor, pressed into the pan, frozen, and baked without the need for weights. (The fact that it stays up on its own I consider a Thanksgiving miracle.)
As for the filling, I drew inspiration from this Martha Stewart recipe. I roasted and pureed a red kabocha squash, whose flesh was dense, sweet and bright, then cooked it into a stove-top pastry cream flavored with warm spices, vanilla bean and maple sugar. The maple’s blonde color helps preserve the orange hue of the custard, and its neutral flavor plays well with the others here. Organic cornstarch, a bit of butter, and a single egg thicken the pastry cream, creating a filling that’s firm enough to slice cleanly, but soft and creamy on the palate.
As I learned after a lazy first try, it’s very important to let the custard boil for a full minute or it will remain soft and ooze everywhere when you slice it. (Jay described it as “slug-like.”)
Luckily, the only slug you’ll find in the pie itself is a slug of bourbon in the maple-sweetened whipped cream topping. Both are, in my opinion, always welcome partners for pumpkin. A grating of fresh nutmeg adds a topnote of peppery flavor, and it looks pretty, too.
This is a handy recipe to have in one’s repertoire for Thanksgivings where oven space is at a premium (say, when filled with a disembodied Franken-turkey). The crust can be baked in advance, and the filling made earlier in the day. A further bonus to the silky-smooth stove-top custard is that you needn’t worry about over-baking the traditional pie, which can end up grainy and broken. (Though if you follow my favorite recipe, adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, you won’t have to worry about that, either.)
And if you lack an oven altogether, skip the crust completely, pour the custard into individual serving bowls, and when chilled, top each with a dollop of cream, a grating of nutmeg, and a few toasted pecans.
The custard filling in this tart needs to set for at least 3 hours in order to be sliceable. The tart is best eaten the day it has been filled for the crispest crust. Leftovers are still tasty up to three days later, just a bit softer and more delicate. If you lack the sweeteners listed here, feel free to substitute brown sugar in the crust and granulated sugar in the filling and topping.
Making your own squash puree will result in an even more delicious pie than using the canned stuff (though it should do just fine in a pinch). To do so, cut a smallish winter squash in half (I love red kabocha, but butternut, red lantern, hubbard, and blue hokkaido squash are all delicious, too). Leave the seeds in; they’re easier to remove post-baking. Place the squash, cut-side down, on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and roast in a 375º oven until tender and collapsing, around 45 minutes. Let the flesh cool, then scoop out and discard the seeds and strings. Scoop the flesh into a food processor and puree smooth. Extra puree will keep in the fridge for up to a week, or it can be frozen for up to several months.
Makes one 8″ tart, 8-10 servings
Pecan Oat Crust:
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup raw pecan halves
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup unrefined muscobado sugar (such as Alter Eco brand)
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, in 1/2″ pieces
Pumpkin Pastry Cream:
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup maple sugar, divided use
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 large egg
3/4 cup winter squash puree
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Maple Bourbon Cream:
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bourbon
freshly grated nutmeg and toasted pecans, for garnish
Make the crust:
Butter the bottom of an 8″ tart pan with removable bottom. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 375º.
In a food processor, whiz together the oats, pecans, cornstarch, sugar, salt and cinnamon until the mixture looks like coarse meal or polenta. Add the butter pieces and pulse until the mixture begins to clump together and the butter is incorporated.
Dump the crumbs into the prepared pan and use moistened fingers to press them first up the sides and then into the bottom of the pan. Take the time to get the crust as even as possible, moistening your fingers with just a bit of water when they begin to stick. Freeze the crust until firm, 30 minutes.
Place the crust on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in the oven until toasted and puffed, 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and use the back of a spoon to press the crust gently down and, if it has slipped, back up the sides of the pan. This will keep the crust from being overly-crumbly one cooled and filled. Let cool completely.
Make the pumpkin pastry cream:
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the milk, vanilla pod and scrapings, salt and spices. Heat the mixture, swirling occasionally, until steaming and bubbles form around the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat, cover and steep for about 15 minutes. When the mixture has steeped, add 1/4 cup of the maple sugar to the milk mixture. (Adding the acidic maple sugar while the milk heats could cause it to curdle.)
In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup of maple sugar and the cornstarch. Whisk in the egg to combine. Whisking constantly, slowly dribble the hot dairy into the egg mixture. Whisk in the squash puree, and return the mixture to the pot.
Place a mesh strainer over a medium, heat-proof bowl and set aside.
Bring the mixture to a slow boil over medium heat, whisking constantly with a whisk that is narrow enough to get into the corners of the pot, and alternating with a heat-proof silicone spatula to scrape the bottom and corners. The mixture will begin to thicken on the bottom first, then the whole thing will turn the consistency of lightly whipped cream. The mixture needs to boil for a full minute in order to set properly, so when the mixture has thickened, stop stirring for a few seconds to see if a large bubble or two pop. Keep whisking, then pausing for a few seconds, until you see a few slow bubbles, then set the timer for 1 minute and continue to cook, whisking the dickens out of it.
Immediately scrape the custard into the strainer and work it through with the spatula. Whisk in the butter pieces one at a time. Pour the custard into the cooled shell, spread even, and cover with a piece of plastic wrap pressed directly onto the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming. Chill until firm, about 3 hours.
When ready to serve, make the cream topping:
Whip the cream to soft peaks, then add the maple syrup, vanilla and bourbon. Whip until the mixture holds firm peaks. (If you accidentally over-whip and the mixture becomes grainy, no need to worry: just fold in a few tablespoons of additional cream to loosen it back up.)
Remove the ring from the tart by setting the tart on a large can or small, inverted bowl or ramekin with a flat bottom, and gently easing the ring down. Place the tart on a cutting board.
Cover the pie with the cream, and top with a little grated nutmeg. Cut into wedges using a large, sharp chef’s knife wiped clean between cuts. Serve the tart with a few toasted pecans for garnish if you like.
The tart is best the day it has been filled, but will keep, refrigerated, for up to three days.