Uncertain pies (AKA the search for the green pumpkin)

There are a few things on my Little House Bucket List that I didn’t get to write about in the book. One of those was making a green pumpkin pie like the one Ma Ingalls makes in The Long Winter. In Chapter 3, an early October frost kills the garden, and Ma, perhaps thinking of ways to make the most of their tiny harvest, improvises a mock apple pie from an unripe pumpkin and surprises Pa with it that night.

I wrote about that chapter this past January on the Beyond Little House blog because the green pumpkin pie has always fascinated me. Back when I first read the books I thought green pumpkins had a sort of vague magic to them, or that Ma knew some wacky science-fair kind of trick that could turn pumpkin bits into apples just by pouring vinegar on them. Who wouldn’t want to try to make a pie that changes the laws of nature? Since The Little House Cookbook by Barbara Walker has a recipe for the pie, I was sure that I’d be able to make one for the book.

Except I couldn’t score an unripe pumpkin last fall. Barbara Walker warned me that it would be tricky to find one if I didn’t grow my own pumpkins, and by the time I started asking vendors at the farmers’ market, I was too late—it was October and all the pumpkins had turned orange. Stupid nature!

So this year I started earlier. I took weekly morning walks in September over to the Lincoln Square farmer’s market and found a produce stand guy who said he’d bring me a green pumpkin. Wait about two weeks, he said, but I went back the next week just to remind him.  Finally, the week after that, in mid-September, he hauled out a green pumpkin and sold it to me for a price that would surely dismay Ma.

Green pumpkin

It was so big I had to take it home on the el, at about 7:30 am, on a train filled with morning commuters. (Nobody cared.) It was a glorious sight.

Green pumpkin It was only Tuesday, and I wasn’t planning on making the pie until the weekend. I began to worry that it would continue to ripen, so that night I cut it open and sliced it into small, thin, apple-like bits.

Slicing it thin It didn’t have that slightly rank, squashy smell that pumpkins tend to have at Halloween carving time, which was a good sign. There was way more pumpkin than I needed, so I stored a big container full of the cut bits, enough to make two pies, and reluctantly threw the rest of it out.

As my luck would have it, that weekend, I had to attend an all-day conference on Saturday, a party the same night, and then a column to write on Sunday. It was a heck of a time to have to make the pie, but of course you have to gather ye green pumpkins while ye may, as the saying goes.

Crust

For the pie crusts, I made the Little House Cookbook recipe from scratch bought some pre-made crusts, the kind you only have to unroll and tuck into the pan. I know, Ma would disapprove of all this store-boughten fanciness. But it’s been years since I made pie crust. I had only a couple hours on Saturday evening to make the pies, and I worried that the whole thing would be a disaster if I tried to make everything from scratch. And based on the accounts of other people who’d made green pumpkin pie, I was expecting mixed results.  Life is too short to make crust for uncertain pies, I thought, as I unrolled the dough. Maybe I’ll stitch that on a sampler someday when I’m not so lazy.

I filled the crusts with the pumpkin bits, brown sugar and spices, and poured a little Newton’s Folly hard cider over it all. Barbara Walker claims hard cider is more like 19th-century vinegar than other kinds of vinegar. (It was one of the few ingredients that I already had on hand.)

Assembling the pie

The pies smelled amazing while they baked and turned out much better than I expected. The filling didn’t have the squashy taste that others had reported from their experiences. The pumpkin pieces cooked down nicely and were tender and sort of translucent.

Out of the oven

And yet, it didn’t taste like apple pie, not really—just some kind of cinnamony-spicy concoction.  It was also a very wet pie, really a puddle with a crust. It was definitely edible, though, if on the bland side. But if you were Pa Ingalls and likely hadn’t had an apple since about 1874, you’d probably really dig it.

I brought one of the pies to the party that night—a gathering at a bar for a friend’s birthday. There were a lot of people there and I tried to warn everyone about the pie’s experimental nature.  One friend said, “As an apple pie, it’s disappointing, but for what it is, it’s pretty good.”

I decided that if it had tasted exactly like apple pie it would have been pretty creepy. I was also relieved that there wasn’t a massive blizzard the very next day, the way there was in the book.

In the end, I concluded, everything was as it ought to be. Apples were still apples, pumpkins stayed pumpkins, there were no October blizzards, and I’m still too lazy to make my own pie crust.

Kind of a messy pie

For more photos of the pie-making (and other Little House stuff to come), I’ve set up a Flickr site for the book.

Also, The Wilder Life is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Indiebound and elsewhere. (Also, it’ll be an audio book! Don’t think I mentioned that before, but more on that soon!)

FYI to feed subscribers

Last weekend I paid a genius to redirect Poundy.com to WendyMcClure.net and merge the RSS feeds, and it appears to have worked beautifully. However, if you read the site through something like Google Reader, you may have noticed a few older entries showing up as new posts. Just in case you were wondering how on earth I could be going to LauraPalooza AGAIN.

More soon.