I'm no stranger to pumpkin pie. I owned and operated a small pumpkin pie business after college, where 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, 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 streetwalking 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.
Walking around a night-market in Bangkok, Thailand, I had an experience that turned my concept of pumpkin pie inside-out.
I was taking in the brightly colored jellies, tapioca balls and syrups of a dessert vendor when I noticed what looked like an inside-out pumpkin pie waiting patiently for me in a bowl next to some bags of steamed bananas. In reality, it was a squash that was sliced to reveal a bright-white custard filling. I bought a slice and was rewarded with a tasty juxtaposition between sweet and starchy squash flesh and 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 any type of winter squash, of which pumpkin is the poster child, pie-wise. And there’s no pastry “crust” on this pie. 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. I'll explain how to make both.
Wash the outside of the squash and 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-size squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), heat 1 cup of full-fat coconut milk and a 1/2 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 overbeat them. You don’t want foamy custard.
Combine the eggs and coconut milk, and add a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. (Vanilla is a common and perfectly acceptable substitute for pandan leaf, which is what’s traditionally used. Pandan leaf, also called screwpine, has a subtle, exotic flavor and a sweet, comforting aroma. If you can get it fresh, mince, blend or crush it with a mortar and pestle, and squeeze 1 tablespoon of its green juice into the mixing bowl instead of vanilla.)
Cut the squash into wedges like a pie.
Pour this mixture into your hollowed-out squash, leaving about 1/2 an inch of space below the cut-out rim. Don't put the top back on. Steam it for 45 minutes to 1 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, check on the “pie.” 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. If the custard is still soupy, there will be little or no 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. Then turn off the heat, and don't disturb the delicate squash until it cools to room temperature.
When it’s room temperature, cut the squash into wedges like a pie, and serve. The juxtaposition of bright orange flesh and white custard is striking, and if it weren't for the flavors awaiting you, you might be tempted to simply look at it and stop there.
One thing that's so 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 than I began scheming ways to make a savory custard to fill my next squash. I decided on pork panang curry custard.
Cut 1 pork chop into 1/2-inch cubes and pan-fry until they brown. Stir in 2 cloves’ worth of chopped garlic and 1 teaspoon of fish sauce, then stir-fry for about 1 minute. Add 1 can of coconut milk, a 1/4 cup of panang curry paste (or the curry paste of your choice) and 1/2 cup of water. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the mixture thickens, then remove from heat and let it cool.
When the curry has cooled to room temperature, beat 4 eggs and combine with the curry mixture. Pour the mixture into the squash and steam as before, for 1 hour, until the knife test indicates the custard has set.
The savory pork curry custard comes out light and rich and full of spicy curry flavor, which mixes nicely with the earthy side of the squash's flavor profile.
Or try a "bacon and eggs" custard: Beat 4 eggs and mix with a 1/2 cup coconut milk. In a separate frying pan, fry 1 to 4 slices bacon (depends on how bacon-y you like it) until crispy. Set the bacon aside to cool, then crumble it into to the egg mixture. In the frying pan with the bacon grease, fry 2 cloves garlic, stirring often, until they get fragrant. Stir the garlic (and the grease, if you wish) into the egg mixture. Pour into a hollowed-out squash and bake for 1 hour, until the knife test indicates the custard has set.
With these custard squash dishes, you’ll rule the autumn potluck, Thanksgiving party or holiday gathering. If the spirit moves you, set up a table outside—you’ll rule the street, too. Thai-style.