Pumpion Pie

By | Friday, January 08, 2021 Leave a Comment

Introduction

For several months I have been watching the YouTube channel, Tasting History with Max Miller. It's great. His mix of humor and ingredients strikes just the right tone, and he manages to make both a recipe and a history lesson entertaining without being overly long (a fault of which I am clearly guilty.)

Just before Thanksgiving he did an episode on 17th C. “Pumpion Pie”, aka pumpkin pie. I made one, and it was delicious. Everyone that tasted it wanted more. But, making it was something of a pain. At the very least, it was much more work than a modern custard-based pie. I wanted to come up with a recipe that produced a result that was the same, or comparable, with less effort. I’ve been cooking pies and experimenting with this ever since. I think I finally have a delicious, easier to make, pumpion pie, which I share at the end of this post.

Miller also skipped a few factoids that I think are worth mentioning. He obviously can’t discuss every last thing about a recipe or else the segments would be too long for anyone but the most diehard to sit through. I have no such problem here. If you don’t care about these extra notes, jump ahead to the recipe😊

Note: though I am including a set of historical notes, the recipe I present is intended to be easier to make than Miller’s recipe, but it is not intended to be historically accurate. If you want to make the most authentic redaction of the recipe, stick with Miller’s excellent video

Not all pumpkins are smooth, spherical, or orange.

Words for pumpkins and squashes

I am going to make several references to “pumpkins”, and also to what are more broadly called “winter squashes” (though “pumpkins” are, in fact, winter squashes.) Note that, “the term pumpkin has no agreed upon botanical or scientific meaning, and is used interchangeably with ‘squash’ and ‘winter squash’.” (source: Wikipedia). Pumpkins are like obscenity – I can’t define them, but I know one when I see it.

The Annotated FRENCH GARDINER, Part One, The Kitchen Garden, 1658 by Nicholas de Bonnefons, translated by John Evelyn, edited and annotated by William Rubel

Pumpeons are raised also upon the hot-bed, and are removed like the former, but for the most part upon plain ground: being placed in some spacious part of your Garden because their shoots and tendrells straggle a great way before they knot into fruit.

The pumpeon of this work refers to winter squashes in general, including our pumpkin. It could have been a Cucurbita pepo, C. moschata, or C. maxima. [Annotation by William Rubel.]

For clarity, I will use “pumpkin” to refer to the spherical orange winter squashes that modern Americans (and many others) would call a “pumpkin”, as well as pumpkins like jarrahdale, porcelain doll pink, tiger, and dozens of other squashes called "pumpkins" which aren’t necessarily orange, nor particularly spherical. I will use the phrase “winter squash” to refer to hard-skinned, late season squashes such as butternut, kabocha, buttercup, etc., but not including squashes previously defined as “pumpkins.” Finally, I will refer to specific varieties of winter squash or pumpkin by name. 

The original recipe

Miller provides us with a recipe by Hannah Wooley from The Queen-like Closet, 1670. Page 256 (recipe CXXXII)

To make a Pumpion-Pie.

Take a Pumpion, pare it, and cut it in thin slices, dip it in beaten Eggs and Herbs shred small, and fry it till it be enough, then lay it into a Pie with Butter, Raisins, Currans, Sugar and Sack, and in the bottom some sharp Apples; when it is baked, butter it and serve it in.

However, the same book has another, rather different, recipe (XCIII), presented on page 235, some 20 pages earlier.

To make a Pompion-Pie.

Having your Paste ready in your Pan, put in your Pompion pared and cut in thin slices, then fill up your Pie with sharp Apples, and a little Pepper, and a little Salt, then close it, and bake it, then butter it, and serve it in hot to the Table.

You may find it odd that the book contains two recipes with the same name which are not presented together as two versions of the same thing. There is a surprising reason why this might be the case. For much of the history of publishing, copyright laws were non-existent or ignored. [Copyright law came into existence in England in 1710.] It was common for authors, or publishers, to fill out short books with sections lifted from other books. In fact, there are books that are nothing more than a combination of sections from different pre-existing books with no original content whatsoever, and without any credit to the originals. Indeed, plagiarizing entire books was not uncommon. So, while Wooley may have included two different “pumpion-pie” recipes of her own, it is equally likely that one of the two (or both?) came from some other source and was added to give the book heft.

In any case, the other version (XCIII) is interesting to consider - the differences in ingredients and method are significant. It is vastly simpler, consisting of nothing other than pumpkin and apples, plus salt, pepper, and butter. This version of the recipe is practically just sliced pumpkin baked with apples; it hardly matters that they are baked within a pie shell – they could easily have gone into the oven in a baking dish. This may harken back to a time when crusts were used to contain filling, but were not intended to be eaten.

Another contemporaneous “pumpion pye

Yet another recipe, published two years before The Queen-like Closet, presents some additional clues about pumpion pies. I assume this is the other recipe to which Miller alludes.

The Compleat Cook, Expertly Prescribing The Most Ready Wayes, Whether Italian, Spanish Or French, For Dressing Of Flesh And Fish, Ordering Of Sauces Or Making Of Pastry, written anonymously and published in 1658:

To make a Pumpion Pye.

Take about halfe a pound of Pumpion and slice it, a handfull of Tyme, a little Rosemary, Parsley and sweet Marjoram slipped off the stalks, and chop them smal, then take Cinamon, Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves, and beat them; take ten Eggs and beat them; then mix them, and beat them altogether, and put in as much Sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froiz*; after it is fryed, let it stand till it be cold, then fill your Pye, take sliced Apples thinne round wayes, and lay a row of the Froiz, and a layer of Apples with Currans betwixt the layer while your Pye is fitted, and put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it; when the Pye is baked, take six yolks of Eggs, some white−wine or Verjuyce, & make a Caudle of this, but not too thick; cut up the Lid and put it in, stir them well together whilst the Eggs and Pumpions be not perceived, and so serve it up.

* BritishFoodHistory.com tells us “A froiz is something that has been fried, usually with beaten eggs like a Spanish omelet”. Photos of froiz look very much like a frittata.

 

The king of the pumpkins receiving homages from his subjects
Autumn Sketches, 1865

Pumpkins or “pumpion

Winter squashes were brought to Spain in 1492, but it appears that they did not arrive in England until sometime later – possibly a lot later. In William Rubel’s annotations to The French Gardiner, he notes that the use of the word “pumpeon” could have referred to winter squash or pumpkin, so presumably pumpkin was being grown in English gardens by that date, but so were other winter squashes. So, while Wooley certainly had access to pumpkins, she could have been referring to other winter squashes. 

Currans or Currants

In modern English, the word “currant” refers to either the fruit of the currant bush (Ribes) (red, black, or white), or to completely unrelated small raisins (often referred to as “Zante currants”).

Currant bushes (Ribes) have grown in northern Europe since time immemorial and have probably been eaten by humans since homo sapiens arrived in the area. The little raisin, “Zante currant”, dates to at least Rome of the first century CE. So, both would have been known and available in England in the 17th C. As a result, we can’t definitively say which one Wooley meant, but there are some clues. “Zante currants” at the time were generally referred to as “currans” without the “t”, as she does. Also, she is using dried fruit (raisins) in the recipe, so another dried fruit is reasonable.

Side note: Other than those used for Zante currants, seedless grapes did not exist at this time (there may have been some seedless mutations here or there in the world, but they weren’t commonly available.) The Thompson’s seedless grape, now used for most raisins consumed in the US, was introduced in the mid-19th C. Thus, if you wanted seedless raisins (and who doesn’t), you would have needed to pick out the seeds before drying the fruit. The exception was the grape used for Zante currants, making them a much easier ingredient to produce. So, one might ask why she didn’t skip the raisins and use only currants - they are similar and would have been easier to make.

Herbs

Wooley refers simply to “herbs shred small”. Miller imagines this as “2 handfuls” of rosemary, parsley, and thyme. This is a reasonable guess. The Compleat Cook uses this trio (plus marjoram and spices.) But Wooley’s pumpion pie could have included any set of herbs, any number of different herbs, and in any quantity. 

Apples

Granny Smith apples did not exist in the 17th C. They are a relatively new cultivar. So, both Miller and I are stepping away from authenticity by using this apple (though it does work brilliantly in this pie.)

About my recipe

My recipe differs from Millers in several respects: intention, ingredients, and method. 

Intention

This pie is so delicious that I think it should be resurrected as common fare – at Thanksgiving or any time of the year. Thus, my intention is to make it as easy as possible for modern cooks to enjoy it, regardless of historical accuracy. If my result is comparable to the original, but easier to make, then I have succeeded. If I may be so bold, in addition to ease, I believe my creation is more delicious than the original on which it is based. 

Ingredients:

Pumpkin/squash

In most parts of the United States (and, indeed, the world), pumpkins seasonal availability is brief. Butternut squash is available almost year-round and is generally cheaper than pumpkin, making it an ideal substitute.

To add injury to unavailability, pumpkins aren’t the easiest winter squash to work with. Their skin is tough, and the seed cavity is large. [Kabocha squash, while delicious, can be even more of a pain.] In his video, Miller shows a smooth skinned pumpkin which he peels with a vegetable peeler. All the pumpkins I have found for sale have had ridges, as well as defects, making such treatment impossible and requiring a good knife and good technique. [Note: if you are cutting away the skin of a pumpkin with ridges, the easiest tool is a serrated knife, not a chef’s or paring knife.] Even Miller admits almost cutting himself while working with pumpkin.

The kind of pumpkins available in my area. Rough and ridged.
Conversely, butternut squash has softer skin and never has ridges. It is easily peeled with an ordinary vegetable peeler. Also, it has a smaller seed cavity that is easier to scoop out. Lastly, to my palate, butternut has a finer texture than pumpkin, and a more pleasing taste. Not only that, but when cooked, butternut squash has a deeper, redder color than pumpkin.

[Side note: Many canned “pumpkin” products are made from other winter squashes, especially butternut. Thus, if you are used to canned “pumpkin”, you may have been eating butternut squash all along, and, to you, it may taste more like pumpkin than pumpkin!] 

Currants

As noted, Wooley is probably specifying Zante currants, which are just tiny raisins. Zante currants tend to be a little bit sweeter than many other raisins, and they have a somewhat different texture, but, after baking in a pie, the difference is minor. So, while it is not terribly difficult to find Zante currants in grocery stores, raisins are more available, cheaper, and people are likely to already have them in their pantry. After making several recipes with both, I dropped the currants and doubled the quantity of raisins. If you have Zante currents on hand, use them. Otherwise, standard raisins work out fine.

[On one occasion I made a pie replacing the currants with dried cranberries. That was a delicious edit, which I suggest as an option.]

Eggs

The Queen-like Closet has us dip the squash in an egg-herb mix, and then pan fry. The “pumpion pye” from The Compleat Cook, has similar instructions, but directing that it should be made like a “froiz” - comparable to a Spanish omelet. I cannot figure out why either method is called for. First and foremost, cooking the squash like this in a pan takes a long time and requires active attention. Wooley wastes a lot of egg and herbs that drip off the slices as they are dipped. Finally, dipping the slices in egg precludes other cooking techniques for the squash.

Cooking the squash uncoated while adding eggs and herbs directly to the pie (along with sugar, butter, sack, etc.) produces a result which is different than the original version, but, no less delicious. This allows us to cook the squash by any method we desire. 

Herbs

Personally, I like rosemary and thyme with the squash, but not parsley. Though I like parsley in general, in this context I found it unpleasant. Thus, I substituted sage. This is 100% personal taste. Also, I am not certain what Miller means by “2 handfuls”. I provide specific quantities that I feel balance well with the other flavors. 

Butter

The 6 tbs of butter makes this dish rich and yummy, but I found it excessive. Not cooking the squash in a pan (see Method below) removes 2 tbs, and I don’t see much value in adding butter on top after cooking,. This leaves just 2 tbs in the pie - healthy pie!

Pie crust

I love a great pie crust. A well-made pâte brisée is a wonderful thing. However, the standout feature of this pie is the filling. The crust isn’t terribly important. Once they taste the pie, even your most finnicky friends will forgive a store-bought pie crust.

[Warning: Standard commercial pie crusts are very shallow, and smaller than 9” in diameter. Commercial “deep dish” crusts are about the height of a standard pie dish, though still often smaller in diameter. Take this into account when determining quantities for your pie’s filling.] 

Method

The big effort and time killers are peeling, seeding, and slicing the pumpkin, and then pan cooking the egg-dipped pieces. As noted, I took care of the first issue by substituting butternut squash. The pan cooking is an even greater hassle, requiring monitoring, moving, and flipping the squash slices. I found it to be a very troublesome process. To make matters worse, one either needs a very large pan, multiple layers of squash which demand even more active sautéing, or cooking them in multiple batches, which expands the time considerably.

Ultimately, the goal of pan cooking the squash is simply to par-cook it before finishing cooking in the oven, and to set the egg. Since these ingredients are all going into a pie which will be baked in the oven for close to an hour, a lot of sins can be hidden. The squash could be par cooked by any method you prefer – boiling, baking, sautéing, or microwaving. Yes, microwaving. I have found that this is the quickest and easiest way to par cook a bowl of squash. Its vastly faster and does not require much attention. Even knowing that this dastardly deed has been perpetrated on innocent ingredients, I challenge you to detect it in the result. You would be surprised how lewd and crude you can be with ingredients that end up baked in a pie.

I am also slicing the squash thicker than Miller calls for. I found that gave a toothier texture and even more attention to the squash, being in pieces rather than pureed.

In his video, Miller appears to be adding a whole 2Tbs pat of butter to the filling. I cut up the butter for better distribution. 

Unattractive burned raisins

Lastly, Wooley's recipe calls for adding the raisins to the mixture. However, I have found that they don’t get very well distributed, and many end up on top. The ones on top tend to burn, which is unattractive. So, I layer the raisins with layers of squash mixture, (as in The Compleat Cook) attempting to have squash on top with few raisins exposed directly to the heat of the oven. 



Andrew’s Easier Recipe

[Note: In his YouTube video, Miller appears to be making a deep-dish pie. The recipe below is for a standard pie. It is even better as a deep dish, because, hey, more pie is more pie. Nonetheless, the quantities and times below are for a standard pie. If you want deep-dish, adjust the recipe accordingly. This is left as an exercise for the reader.]

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 Nine-inch (23cm) pie crust (homemade dough, store bough dough, or store-bought crust)
  • At least 2 lbs. (.9kg) Butternut squash (about 1.5lbs (.7kg) after peeling, seeding, etc.)
  • ½ Granny Smith, or other sharp baking apple.
  • 1 Egg beaten
  • 1.5 rounded tsp each, finely minced fresh rosemary, thyme, and sage
  • 2 Tablespoons (30g) salted butter, cut up
  • 1/2 Cup (100g) sugar
  • 1/4 Cup (60ml) sherry or sack
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt (or to taste, with extra if you are using unsalted butter)
  • 1/2 Cup (75g) raisins, or 1/4 cup (35g) raisins and 1/4 cup (35g) currants

METHOD

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C)
  2. Peel and seed the squash.
    Note: Peel deeply enough to remove all of the shell. Otherwise, the slices will have tough edges.
  3. Quarter lengthwise and cut into ¼”- ½” slices (6mm – 17mm)
  4. Put the squash in a microwave safe bowl with about an inch (2cm) of water and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the squash is soft, but not mushy. The time will vary widely depending on the age of the squash and your microwave’s strength. You may want to stir the slices halfway through the cooking. My apologies for not being able to provide a more precise time.
    4a. Alternatively, if you can’t stand the idea of using a microwave oven for this, you could cook them in a pan with water, or bake them with water (the water keeps them moist and speeds cooking.)
  5. Chop herbs fine, beat egg lightly in a large bowl.
  6. Add herbs, butter (cut up), sugar, salt, and sherry or sack to the egg. Mix.
  7. Peel apples, slice into 1/8” (3mm) slices. Line the bottom of the crust with the apples. Preferably do this ala minute to avoid oxidation.
  8. When the squash is ready, drain any water or use a slotted spoon to add to egg/herb/etc. mixture. Stir.
  9. Add layers of raisins on top of the apples, then squash mixture, layering, attempting to top off as much as possible with pumpkin.
  10. Put the pie on baking sheet, as it is likely spill over.
  11. Bake for 20 minutes at 425°F (220°C), then reduce heat to 375°F (190°C) and continue to cook an additional 40 minutes, or until the top of the pie is bubbling and the crust is brown.
  12. Remove from the oven and set a on a wire rack. Cool completely before serving.

VARIATIONS:

  • Choose other herbs, potentially adding “pumpkin spice”, e.g., nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, etc.
  • Substitute cranberries, or other dried fruit, for some or all of the raisins.
  • Try using sweet potato instead of squash.
  • Mix chopped apples into the filling, rather than lining the shell with slices.
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