I'm no stranger to pumpkin pie. When I owned and operated a small pumpkin pie business after college, I experimented widely, trying countless permutations on the basic theme, and tweaked my way to some fantastic pie. I thought I knew most everything there is to know about pumpkin pie. But walking around a night-market in Bangkok, Thailand recently, I had an experience that turned my concept of pumpkin pie inside out.
Street food in Bangkok is a universe unto itself, a sweet and savory maze of seemingly infinite culinary creativity. The high quality and consistent freshness of the food seems out of place in a street setting, but the Thais are extremely clean and detail-oriented, and their street food is protected from urban grime by layers of stainless steel and plastic. The treasures that await the street-walking gastronaut include curries, noodles, soups, fried fish and skewers, as well as strange eats like fried bugs, steamed pig blood and half-formed eggs from the entrails of slaughtered ducks.
I was taking in the brightly colored jellies, tapioca balls and syrups of a dessert vendor when I noticed the inside-out pumpkin pie, waiting patiently for me in a bowl next to some bags of steamed bananas. It was a squash that was sliced to reveal its bright-white custard filling. I bought a slice and was rewarded with a tasty juxtaposition between the sweet and starchy squash flesh and the creamy coconut custard. It had the flavors of a pumpkin pie, and similar ingredients, but completely different texture and presentation.
When I say pumpkin pie, I'm referring to pies made from any type of winter squash, of which pumpkin is the poster child, pie-wise. The Thai-style custard-filled squash, called sangkaya, is typically made with kabocha squash, which is dense and starchy. Most squashes, including pumpkins, are too watery for sangkaya, but buttercup and sunshine varieties will work. And while sangkaya is traditionally made with a sweet custard filling, it can also be made with a savory filling, like curry pork custard. I'll explain how to make both.
Wash the outside of the squash and then cut a ring around the stem, like you're carving a jack-o-lantern. Remove the top and scoop out the seeds and inner goop.
For a medium-sized squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), heat a cup of full-fat coconut milk and a half cup of sugar. Palm sugar is most authentic, if you can get it, but regular sugar or brown sugar will work. Stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved, and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Separately, beat 5 eggs—but don't over beat them because that would make the custard foamy.
Combine the eggs and coconut milk and add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Pour this mixture into your hollowed-out squash, leaving about a half-inch of space below the cut-out rim. Don't put the top back on. Steam it 45 minutes to an hour in a basket steamer. You might want to set the squash in a bowl for extra support as it steams, so it doesn't collapse when it gets soft.
After 45 minutes, open the lid. The custard should have expanded into the top opening. Insert a butter knife deep into the custard. Using the point of insertion as a pivot point, wag the tip of the knife back and forth, like a paddle. If the custard is set you won't be able to paddle, but if the custard is still soupy there will be little resistance against the moving knife blade, which will have a layer of slime on it when removed. Keep steaming, checking every 10 minutes until the custard is set. Turn off the heat and disturb the delicate squash as little as possible. Don't handle it until it cools to room temperature
Let it cool to room temperature, cut into wedges like a pie, and serve. The juxtaposition of bright orange flesh and white custard is striking (see photo), and if it weren't for the flavors awaiting you, you might be tempted to just look at it.
One thing that's special about winter squash is how well it lends itself to both sweet and savory applications. Back in my days as a pumpkin pie tycoon, I dabbled in savory pies, adding meat, greens, garlic, herbs and other mixings to unsweetened pie filling. Old habits die hard, because no sooner had I licked my plate after devouring my first homemade custard-filled squash that I began scheming ways to make a savory custard to fill my next squash. I decided on bacon and eggs custard.
Beat 4 eggs and mix with a half-cup of coconut milk. Separately, fry 1–4 slices worth of chopped bacon until crispy. Let the pan cool completely, then add the bacon to the egg mixture. Fry 2 garlic cloves in the pan, stirring often, until it gets fragrant. Stir the garlic into the egg mixture. Pour into a hollowed-out squash and bake for one hour, until the knife test indicates the custard has set. Serve hot or cool.
With either one of these custard squash dishes, you will rule the autumn potluck, Thanksgiving party or any other holiday gathering. And if the spirit moves you, set up a table outside, and rule the street.
Ask Ari: Hangin' meat
Q: Dear Flash,
It's hard to find a consistent answer to the question of how long to hang wild game. Some say don't hang it at all, some say two weeks. My brother claims hanging eight to 10 days prevents him from farting. At our camp we eat the tenderloins the day of harvest (with no "stinkies") and it's as tender as could be (sliced thin).
As for the "stinkies," what are your thoughts?
—Smells Like A Rose
A: Dear Rose,
Let's disentangle the "stinkies" from an otherwise enjoyable discussion on meat hanging. I'm skeptical that the hanging time has any affect on your brother's farts. If you can confirm that he does—and I don't particularly want to know how you confirm this—then I'd be happy to do some research. In the meantime, lets stick to the meat of this issue.
There's no question that hanging wild game for a week or two in sub-40-degree weather will tenderize it. On the other hand, meat that's cut up and thrown directly into the freezer will tenderize in the freezer after a few months. So both beliefs are correct.
You can also actively manage your meat's aging by freezing and thawing it repeatedly. According to studies at the University of Pennsylvania, meat can be thawed and refrozen more than 10 times without adverse effects. For best results, they say, refreeze the meat at the "sherbet" stage of thaw, when it still has some ice crystals in it.
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