I’ve enjoyed plenty of pies made from canned pumpkin purée and evaporated milk. They are perfectly smooth and mild and custard-like, and they make everyone happy. This pie is not that pie. At least, not anymore.
This is that pie after it left home and learned some things. This is that pie come back with secrets and scars and stories to tell. It tastes familiar, like sugar pumpkins smoothed out with dairy and set with eggs, but it’s more complex and delicious than ever.
The recipe (see below) comes from Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie in Detroit. She doesn’t fear this year’s looming canned pumpkin shortage because she makes the filling from a bunch of different winter squash, split and roasted in her bakery’s kitchen. Between September and November, the mix changes depending on what’s good, from delicata and butternut to buttercup and hubbard.
A little cream infused with floral cardamom pods loosens up the mixture, which Ludwinski pours over an almost jammy spread of cream cheese that’s been blitzed with toasted walnuts and tahini, the peanut-butter-like paste made from sesame seeds. That thin layer of soft, pleasingly salty tahini-walnut spread is what makes this pie sing.
“There’s a large Middle Eastern population in Detroit, and I’ve been really influenced by the brightness of Middle Eastern flavors,” Ludwinski said over the phone. “Also I have a total obsessive love for tahini.”
One of Michigan native Ludwinski’s earliest memories is of her parents taking her to a Cinnabon and seeing the magic behind the scenes. “I will always remember watching people put the cinnamon into the dough, the slicing and the icing,” Ludwinski says. It’s no coincidence that at Sister Pie she designed an open kitchen, too. Anyone walking in for a cup of coffee and some shortbread can see bakers scooping cookies, sealing hand pies with a fork, or rolling out dough by hand.
Ludwinski moved to New York in 2006 to pursue a career in theater, but she was sidetracked by the food scene. At Momofuku's Milk Bar, where she worked for Christina Tosi, she developed a taste for low-moisture, high-fat Plugra butter, which Ludwinski now uses for all her doughs. “You’ve got to use it every time,” she says, “because the flavor is so different, and so clear.” She picked up the habit of adding a splash of apple cider vinegar to the dough at Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where Ludwinski spent a year making pies. Ludwinski says this gives the crust a bit of extra flake and a mild tang.
This Thanksgiving will mark the shop’s first holiday since its opening back in April in Detroit's West Village, and Ludwinski is planning to stay open until noon to sell locals fresh pies like sweet potato-marshmallow, brandy-pecan, and salted maple pumpkin. “It just seems kind of silly for a pie shop to be closed on Thanksgiving,” she says.
Ludwinski’s mother has already ordered pies for the family’s holiday meal from Sister Pie, and her grandmother will supplement the dessert spread with her own pumpkin pie. That one will be made according to the directions on the side of the can, using ready-made pie dough, and it will also be gone before the end of the day.
Sister Pie is at 8066 Kercheval Ave., Detroit, MI 48214; +1 (313) 447-5550 or sisterpie.com.
Note that if you're not up for doing everything from scratch, you can follow a side-of-the-can pie recipe and just add that bottom layer of Ludwinski's lovely sesame-walnut paste for a delicious twist.
Cardamom-Tahini Squash Pie
Adapted from Lisa Ludwinski of Sister Pie, Detroit
For the pie dough
2 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsalted butter, chilled and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1⁄2 cup ice water, with a splash of apple cider vinegar
For the tahini-walnut paste
5 tablespoons toasted, ground walnuts
2 1⁄2 tablespoons tahini
2 1⁄2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 1⁄2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
Pinch of salt
For the squash purée
2 winter squash (such as butternut, buttercup, or hubbard)
1⁄2 cup canned pumpkin purée
2 tablespoons butter
For the cardamom cream
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon cardamom pods
For the pie filling
1⁄2 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornmeal
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon powder
1⁄2 teaspoon cardamom powder
1⁄2 teaspoon grated ginger
1⁄2 teaspoon allspice powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup cardamom cream (see below)
2 1⁄4 cups squash purée (see below)
To assemble and finish
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon black and white sesame seeds, toasted
1. Prepare the pie dough: In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour until it’s in coarse pieces about the size of peas. Add the ice water a tablespoon at a time and begin to gather the dough together with your hands. Pat the dough into a 1-inch-thick square and wrap in plastic to chill for a couple of hours in the fridge (or at least 30 minutes).
2. Roast the squash: While the crust is chilling, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Using a sharp knife, halve the squash and hollow out the seedy center with a spoon. Place squash cut sides up on a baking sheet and brush with butter. Bake for about one hour, or until the flesh is soft and cooked through. Once it's cooled, scoop out the flesh and add to a food processor with the pumpkin purée and mix until smooth. (If the squash is very wet, place in a cheesecloth and press to get rid of any excess moisture.) Set aside.
3. Make the cardamom cream: In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring cream and cardamom to a gentle simmer. Turn off heat, cover, and steep for 20 minutes. Strain and set aside to cool.
4. Mix the filling: In a medium bowl, whisk together light brown sugar, spices, cornmeal, and salt. In another bowl, mix eggs with cardamom cream, squash, and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Slowly pour egg mixture into sugar mixture and whisk until combined.
5. Prepare the pie crust: Flour your work surface and place the unwrapped dough in the center. Roll out, keeping it moving with your hands and throwing on more flour as needed to prevent sticking, until you have a disk of even thickness that’s about 12 inches in diameter. Invert your pie tin or dish onto the circle, and cut a circle that is about 1 to 2 inches larger than the tin. Place the folded dough into the pie tin and gently press it in. Roll up the extra dough hanging over the edge toward the center of the pie, creating a ring of dough, then crimp it all around. Put the crust in the freezer for at least 15 minutes.
6. Blind bake the pie crust so that it holds its shape and is cooked through in the finished pie: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees with a rack on the lowest level. Remove the pie crust from the freezer and place a square of aluminum foil over it. Fill with dried beans and place on baking sheet. Bake in oven for 15 minutes. Cool for 6 minutes, then carefully remove foil and beans. Turn heat down to 325 degrees.
7. Fill and finish the pie: Brush the crimped edges of pie crust with a little bit of egg wash, then spoon all of the tahini-walnut paste onto the bottom of the crust and spread evenly (you can use your fingers to gently press it down). Pour the squash filling over the paste and carefully transfer back to oven. Bake pie for 40 minutes to 1 hour, until the edges are puffed up and the center is only slightly jiggly, then remove from oven and sprinkle lightly with sesame seeds. The pie should rest for at least 2 hours before slicing, and can also chill for a couple of hours in the fridge after it’s cooled if you like to serve it cold.