I know what you’re thinking. This does not look like the basis for a better-than-pumpkin pie. I wish someone would explain to me how this funny, pot-bellied, green-and-white-striped squash has heretofore escaped my food bank. Or why it has not overtaken pumpkin in the pie category. It is really that good.
My farmer, Stacey Roussel, is a Louisiana girl. She first mentioned this squash to me when I was interviewing her for an article. Stacey’s grandmother cooked by the seasons, so a cushaw squash pie will forever take Stacey back to her grandmother’s kitchen, in a house surrounded by Louisiana sugar cane fields. Any squash that stirs that kind of memory is one I want to try, so when I spied this beauty at the Sugar Land Farmer’s Market, I scooped it up, aching arms be damned. (Any suggestions for a portable cart?) If I’d have known then just how great it would be, I’d have risked shoulder dislocation and bought them all.
So what exactly is this cushaw? Also known as a kershaw or a Tennessee sweet potato squash, it is a crook-necked member of the Cucurbitaceae family. It is very heat tolerant, so much so that it can also be planted in the spring. It has a long history with the Native Americans and later found its way into the kitchens of the south, especially in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi. You can still find cushaw pie as a menu item in some New Orlean’s restaurants.
I have nearly chopped off my hand cutting up a butternut, yet I sliced through the cushaw with ease, almost like slicing through a summer squash. This was a relief. Hacking away at a hard, unbalanced object is not my favorite part of cooking with winter squash. Despite this softer skin, it surprisingly keeps a very long time if kept in a dark, cool place. Yet another reason I will buy a bunch at one time if I see them again! I might even try planting them, but my history of success in gardening is rather sketchy (remember the ‘pretend’ in my moniker?)
There are several different ways to prepare winter squash for recipes but I really have only two ways I like to make it. If I am going to use the squash in baking or soups, roasting is the way to go. If I want the squash to hold its shape, say in a pasta dish, salad, or quesadilla, grilling is my choice. Both methods bring out the rich taste of fall, but steaming, microwaving, or boiling really do nothing to enhance the squash, and even dilute the flavor, in my opinion.
For the pie, I searched for recipes and finally adapted one I found from Chickens in the Road. I was attracted to her recipe because she had already done the leg work of finding one best suited to the flavor of the cushaw. Regular pumpkin pie recipes called for too much sugar, which would drown the cushaw flavor. I did make a few changes though, like using heavy cream instead of evaporated milk (which I have a hard time trusting…and besides, why use anything else when you have cream?) Bewarned…this recipe will be of a softer consistency when you use cream. That is something I accept and even prefer, but if you are looking for perfect slices of pie that don’t slouch when cut, you may want to use the evaporated milk. [UPDATE: This Thanksgiving, I actually took the time to let the extra water drain from the puree in a strainer. Forget the above comments about evaporated milk. The cream version was perfectly firm...I am a dedicated fan of the strainer now.]
I found this pie to be so much better than pumpkin, that I’m afraid that I have ruined my taste for the Libby’s classic. Only one kid out of five said that pumpkin pie was better. There is so much depth to this pie. Rich spicyness, perfectly squashy, balanced sweetness…I just can’t imagine why this is not more widespread. Here’s to heirloom growers!!!
Better-than-Pumpkin Cushaw Pie (adapted from Suzanne McMinn)
Prepare your favorite recipe for pie crust. My pictures don’t show any crust. I usually only go to the trouble of making a gluten-free pie crust at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The reward of flavor/texture aren’t equal to the time and expense, in my opinion. When I do make crust, I’ve had the best success using the King Arthur recipe for Gluten-Free Pie Crust.
Preparing the Cushaw:
Preheat oven to 375 F. Wash and cut the cushaw, spread out on a roasting pan, cover and bake for an hour or so, checking for tenderness. Cushaws will shred even when well roasted, much like a spaghetti squash, but don’t worry. A quick swirl in a food processor will puree the cushaw to a lovely consistency.
You will have enough cushaw to enjoy a few chunks straight from the oven with just a little butter and a sprinkle of salt. Even my three-year old couldn’t resist. If you’ve ever choked down an acorn squash just to be polite, I promise, this is a completely different experience.
This next step is optional. I didn’t do it because I am impatient, but if you like a tighter custard filling, you can take your puree and pour it into cheesecloth suspended over a bowl. Drain the puree until thickened. Think canned pumpkin consistency and you’ll know when it’s ready.
Turn your oven to 375 F.
2 cups prepared cushaw squash puree
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups heavy cream (oh yeah…)
pastry for single-crust pie
Combine cushaw squash puree, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, salt, nutmeg, and cloves in the bowl of a stand mixer or a medium sized bowl. Add eggs and vanilla then beat lightly with the whisk attachment or with a hand whisk. Stir in heavy cream. Mix well. Pour into a pastry-lined pie plate. Bake on the lowest oven rack at 375-degrees for 50-60 minutes (until a knife blade or toothpick comes out clean). Chill before serving to firm up. Or if you’re like me, you can eat it warm and soft. It is said that pumpkin-y pies taste better the next day but with seven eaters in my house, we’ll never know.