If you want to bake a really good pie, get up early. I mean insomniac early, before light and birds and traffic, when the house and anyone in it, including the dog, are asleep.
Put on the tea kettle and some music or the news in Europe and measure out your ingredients. Because making pie dough is, and I’m hardly the first to point this out, more a state of mind than a fixed recipe. So is pie, for that matter, particularly holiday pie, when that ceramic pie plate is filled as much with memory and tradition as it is actual spiced pumpkin custard.
There’s a reason bakers keep strange hours, and it’s not only production schedules and the time-elapse required of rising dough. It’s a lot easier to think then, and to think about what you’re doing in the kitchen.
When I was in graduate school, I got a job making desserts at a restaurant — after it had closed, when the line cooks and even the dishwashers were gone, and I was the only one there, in the back kitchen, making chocolate terrines for the good citizens of Iowa City at 3 a.m. I wrote outlines of my thesis on the back of old restaurant menus spilled with raspberry sauce and pastry flour. You can think, or you can not think too much, and you can eat Valrhona in peace.
The engines are quiet then, except for the stove and the oven, and it’s more fun to mix the dough and to realize that a good pie crust is about restraint more than precision. Sure, you need to get the right proportion of flour to butter to liquid, but the rest is mostly about having a light touch and not overworking things, any more than you sometimes need not to over-think things. Let the dough barely coalesce, the butter stay bits of butter. You should be able to see it, marbled in the dough as you roll it out, in patterns like a William Morris print on your counter.
Pre-dawn baking is also cooler, so both dough and butter stay cold — which is important — more than it would at, say, 5 p.m., when the kitchen can be filled with people or dinner or both. (If the dough gets fussy, just toss it in the refrigerator for a bit. Make more coffee. Pet your dog. Get the paper? Maybe so.)
As for all that rolling and primping, whole-grain doughs, especially those with all whole-grain flours, are more delicate than the white-flour-and-shortening pie crusts of our childhood. So just don’t bother. Roll out the dough a little, then just press the stuff into your pie plate, half pie crust, half tart dough. If it were not necessary to fill the pan with pumpkin pie filling, the best thing is to just make a free-form galette on a sheet pan and fold it over fruit or whatever.
But this is Thanksgiving, the one time of the year when you need a real pie, preferably pumpkin, the custard laced with a happily inordinate amount of spices — lots of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, some turmeric and, in my kitchen, a dose of cayenne.
Parbake the crust (because soggy pie crust will not make anyone happy), fill it up and bake your pie until it’s as dark as you can bear without burning it. Rye flour and lots of spices, by the way, mean a dark palette already, so watch it instead of just setting a timer — you can also tell a lot by the aroma, so maybe just sit there with your coffee and smell your kitchen until it seems done too.
The other benefit of insomnia baking? Your pie is cooling on a rack, the kitchen clean, the stove ready for breakfast — or the rest of the holiday cooking — by the time the outside world gets up.
Spiced Pumpkin Pie
1 1/2 hours, plus chilling and cooling times. Serves 8 to 10.
Rye Pie Dough
1 1/4 cups (5.5 ounces) whole grain rye flour, preferably from Grist & Toll
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 1/2 ounces (1 stick plus 1 tablespoon) chilled butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until flour is coated but some coarse, visible pieces of butter remain.
Break the egg into a small bowl and whisk to break apart. Add it to the flour/butter mixture, drizzling in only enough to bind the mixture and make it cohesive; gently mix until the dough comes together when gently pressed. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out into a 12-inch circle. (If the dough warms too much and is too hard to handle at any point, refrigerate it until it firms up.) Place in a 9-inch pie pan, crimp the edges as desired, then refrigerate for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Parbake the crust: Line the bottom of the crust with foil or parchment paper and weigh down with pie weights, rice or dried beans. Place the crust in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the weights and bake until the crust is lightly colored with no damp spots, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. If not filling right away, the crust can be stored at room temperature for up to a day before baking.
Coconut Whipped Cream
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
1/2 cup coconut milk (1/3 of a 13.5-ounce can; save the remainder for the pie), chilled
1 tablespoon sugar
Whip the cream, coconut milk and sugar until gentle peaks form. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
Spiced Pumpkin Pie
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
1 cup coconut milk
3 eggs, plus 1 yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon maple syrup
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
Prepared pie crust
Candied ginger, minced, for garnish
Prepared whipped cream, for garnish
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the ingredients until blended and smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into another bowl, then ladle into the pie shell. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees. Rotate the pie, and cover the edge of the crust with foil if it begins to darken too quickly. Continue to bake until the pie is set (it should jiggle only slightly in the center), 30 to 40 minutes.
Take the pie out and cool to room temperature, then chill overnight. Serve chilled with minced candied ginger and whipped cream.