I'll just start this post by saying that, after taking a few bites of this squash pie last night, my friend Andy put down his fork and said, "This is the best dessert I ever ate." He then picked up his fork again, and through bites said I could quote him, in fact that I must. So there you have it, readers. This pie blew Andy's mind.
It's pretty darn good, I'll say. I was going to make it for Thanksgiving, but my father took one look at the cream cheese in the ingredient list and put the kibosh on it right quick. (Who knows - he's a bit of a mystery.) So instead I saved it for the dinner party we had last night and it was a resounding - nay, stunning - success.
The recipe comes from the now-defunct The Chef column that used to run in the The New York Times. I miss that column. You too? I got so many good recipes from it, like a chicken liver sauce from Judy Rodgers and a Breton butter cake from Gabrielle Hamilton. (I'm still waiting for Gabrielle's memoir with recipes to be published, by the way. This year, I think!)
Pichet Ong, he of P*ONG and The Sweet Spot, delivered the recipe for the squash pie. It's thick with cream cheese, flavored strongly with cinnamon and nutmeg, and nestled in a completely addictive crust that you should commit to memory for any number of other things, like cheesecake or banana cream pie or key lime pie (though I still think this Grape-Nuts crust version via Gemma takes the cake (groan) for that).
The pie is silky and creamy and really, really easy to make. A crumb crust is a joy to make, an uncomplicated antidote to all those hand-rolled pie crusts of the holiday season. Plus, it means you'll end up with a few extra graham crackers knocking around in your cupboards, which is a very good thing indeed.
Also, though the recipe calls for a Kabocha squash to be steamed and peeled and pureed, canned pumpkin works beautifully here. Yes, Kabocha would have been lovely, all sweet and dry and tasty, but Pichet himself says that butternut squash and cheese or sugar pumpkins (which is what are usually found in those cans - remember to only buy the "pure pumpkin" ones, not the cans that are labeled "filling"!) are a good substitute, so cut those corners, come on.
Lastly, with no brandy in the house (I know! A crying shame. But you might not have any either, so let's be brandy-less together.), I substituted a splash of pure vanilla extract. It perfumed the pie ever so subtly.
Whatever you do! Make sure you serve this with creme fraiche. (You like how I did that, told you how to make your own, and then told you how to use it all up? You're welcome! A pleasure, really.) The cold, slightly sour cream cuts the sweet richness of the squash pie just perfectly and rounds out the flavors a bit. I'd say, honestly, that the pie just isn't right without it.
So serve up the pie, let your guests do the dolloping, then sit back, put your feet up, and let the compliments just wash over you. After all, wouldn't you, too, like to be responsible for the best dessert someone ever ate?
For the filling:
1 medium kabocha squash, about 3 pounds, or 2 1/2 cups of canned pumpkin (skipping the steps below for roasting and pureeing the squash)
10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg (about 1/4 of a nutmeg)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons brandy or 2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract
2 eggs at room temperature
For the crust:
3/8 cup (2 ounces) walnuts
1/2 cup packed, light brown sugar
3/8 cup graham cracker crumbs (about 7 crackers)
Grated zest of 1 lime
3/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
3/8 teaspoon salt (I'd use less salt next time, just 1/8 of a teaspoon)
1/4 cup (2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
Crème fraîche, for serving (optional)
1. For pie filling, bring an inch of water to a boil in a large covered pot fitted with a steamer basket or rack. Put in squash, cover and steam, replenishing water as needed, until fork tender, about 1 hour. Turn squash over halfway through steaming. Set squash aside until cool enough to handle.
2. Heat oven to 325 degrees. For crust, place walnuts on a baking tray, and toast in oven, stirring once or twice, until fragrant, about 15 minutes. Let cool. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees.
3. In a food processor, combine walnuts with a few tablespoons brown sugar and pulse a few times, until nuts are coarsely ground. In a large bowl, whisk nuts with graham cracker crumbs, remaining brown sugar, lime zest, spices and salt. Pour melted butter over this mixture, and mix with your fingers until butter is distributed. Press evenly into a 10-inch glass pie plate. Bake crust until lightly browned, about 12 minutes, then set aside. Keep oven at 300 degrees.
4. When squash is cool, cut it in half and scoop out seeds and pulp. Scoop squash flesh into a measuring cup until you have 2 1/2 cups.
5. In a food processor, process cream cheese with sugar, spices and salt until light and smooth. Scrape down bowl, add squash and process until smooth. Mix in brandy and then eggs, one at a time. Finish mixing with a rubber spatula.
6. Place pie plate on a baking sheet and scrape filling into crust. Bake until just set in center, about 1 hour. Let cool, then serve topped with crème fraîche.