Do you remember last year when I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my host-family? So winsome, was I, so brutally innocent in the ways of guerrilla Khmer cooking and the presentation of new foods before recalcitrant Cambodians young and old alike. For all the sweat and awkwardness, all the delicate mélanges drowned in soy sauce, all the seeds sewn of that special disdain reserved for those who invade one’s kitchen, at the very least that day produced this, the most telling photo of mak ever to have been digitally preserved for the ages.
The actual food was practically an afterthought last year as the opportunity for cultural exchange with my host-fam and villagers took precedent. All these months later, however, and the fam and I find ourselves ch’ait daal kar (“full up to our necks”) of one another, thus… food could take the main stage this year, specifically that most distinguished of vegetable confections: pumpkin pie. Last year’s pie was a sham and a travesty, a cold, no-bake, wheat cracker-crusted abortion of sparkly jello-shot mix and condensed milk. This year’s pie would be a marvel and a sensation, a majestic marriage of silky sweet potato, duck egg, and sweetened condensed milk (because this is still Cambodia). Last year’s I slaved in the kitchen and sweat my stress into the yams despite Jacob and Sieklin’s heroism. This year my neighbor niece and the glorious French-Khmer couple (and their glorious and rare oven) were the pie-pillars without whom our dessert Parthenon would never have risen. And although last year I got to make it rain green bean casserole in the vill, I’m doubly replete in having shared this year’s pie in Takeo Province’s own town, surrounded by fellow volunteers. While of course I hope that other volunteers – whether here or in other countries of similar conditions – can use this recipe to spread the spiced squash love the world-over, a deeply honest look into the happy mayhem of making this devil of a pie is essential for anyone attempting this preposterous, delicious undertaking.
The Silkiest Khmer Pumpkin Pie with Coconut Cookie Crust
(heavily adapted from Smitten Kitchen, makes 1 12” pie)
Khmer pumpkin and orange sweet potato in a 3:2 ratio (about 1 medium pumpkin and 1 medium potato) well-washed, scrubbed, peeled, and chopped into large chunks
1 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
*juice of about 3 medium Pursat oranges, slightly tangy, gives the pie a tartness reminiscent of cheesecake
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon table salt
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 cups fresh milk, unsweetened variety (about 1.5 160 mL cans)
3 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks*
*duck eggs = silky, unctuous filling, chicken eggs = denser, custard-like
1 teaspoon vanilla extract – or – scrapings of one vanilla bean
¼ cup palm sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch
*Extra: While buying ingredients toss some shampoo packets in the mix to throw everyone in the market stall for a loop.
1 cup of sugar cookies, crushed into fine crumbs
1 cup of coconut, shredded
About ¼ cup of butter -or- equal mixture of margarine and veggie oil
*If making a gluten-free crust: substitute all the cookie for additional shredded coconut
Empty water bottles, a fine mesh sieve, a funnel, ice and a cooler
The borrowed helping hands of an eager young neighbor gal
The borrowed blender you’ve purchased for the health center’s cooking workshops
The borrowed oven of a kind French expat and his stunning Cambodian wife (Owners and chef of Le Petit Bistro Takeo, aka Fred’s, the only fine French-dining experience in Takeo Town).
- Weeks ahead of time: Search high and low through your provincial town or wherever you will be having your pie dinner for a kitchen or oven you can employ for an evening. Be rejected by the bakery (they bake everything offsite), the guest house (mom is travelling and we need her permission), and that one lady you know from a chance encounter on the road who lives around the corner (you kind of scare her). Briefly resort to scheming up ways you can cook this beast in a rice cooker but soon realize that – ubiquitous as they are – the idea horrifies your closest Khmer contacts and never would they let their rice cooker be so adulterated. Finally work up the courage to approach the tall, stoic Frenchman and his Khmer wife who own the only true Western (i.e. French) restaurant in Takeo Town. Clench your fists as you speak to his wife in Khmer who translates your entire proposed debacle to Fred, of Fred’s Bistro, in French. Feel faint when they both crack a smile and he waves a hand. “Of course! Pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving, oui oui!”
- Slowly digest the gracious – albeit tricky – terms the French gentleman has laid before you: the oven shall be yours for the evening and we can borrow several of their tart plates. But, while you are hoping to merely make the pie filling and pour it into one or two of their famous quiche crusts (which the sell daily), Fred makes it clear in an affected, gesticulate display that a savory crust for a sweet dish will be a plain disaster that no one will eat if it happens not to dissolve at its very conception. We can, however, buy butter, flour, and sugar should we need them. Smile and leave.
- A week out: Examine standard pie recipes online and make note of the ingredients for which will you need to find substitutions (done already in the recipe above, i.e. condensed milk for cream, palm sugar for maple syrup, etc). Settle for a simple crushed-cookie crust and a small, gluten-free coconut crust for your friend with an allergy. On the day you intend to shop with a friend in town for the trickier ingredients, discover that the ATMs are down for the afternoon and that you only have money enough or lunch. Commiserate over red bean dessert and then continue to window shop for ingredients. Be sure your companion is one adept at talking you out of paying exorbitant prices for imported butter cookies. Begin to bike home only to have the ATM attendant flag you down from the side of the road. Withdraw some cash and buy the ingredients in rapid succession across town. Bike home satisfied in the waning light.
- The day before baking: Wash and labor over the pumpkins and sweet potatoes during your downtime at work, removing the skins and hacking it into large 2” x 2” chunks while your coworkers give you the side-eye. Return home midday from work to find your host mother has gone to the rice fields for the day and locked you out of the house. Holler at your neighbors to please let you enter and hop their fence. Jokingly propose to your neighbor niece that she help you prepare the pie fixings. Jump when you return from your room and find her awaiting you in the kitchen. Have her help prep the crust: Ensure the cookies are well pulverized. Over a medium-high heat in a dry, clean wok, toast the coconut, stirring constantly until mostly golden brown and crunchy. Store separate from the cookie crumbs. Prepare the pumpkin/potato portion of the filling:
- Fail twice at starting a fire and finally concede to your host-dad’s method of lighting up a shredded section of old rubber bike tire and dropping it into the kindling. Combine the pumpkin, potatoes, orange juice, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Set, covered, over the flame. Stir every few minutes as the heat builds, but keep covered. Once bits begin to brown and stick to the bottom, begin stirring and mashing until a thick paste forms with few to no visible chunks of pumpkin/potato. Once smooth, keep stirring and spreading over the pot’s base to help cook out as much of the excess moisture as possible. Once thick, heavy, and difficult to stir, remove from the heat and let sit until fairly cool. (For quick cooling: Pour paste into an aluminum bowl and continue stirring with the bowl submerged in an ice bath.) Reflect that your niece has been playing with the dog for like, half an hour, and has been essentially zero help during that time.
- In the blender, combine the fresh milk, condensed milk, eggs, yolks, vanilla, palm sugar. Blend until well mixed and beginning to froth up. Catch you niece trying to first blend the “smoothie” without a lid and then attempt a taste test and admonish her for both, particularly the raw egg. In a small sauce bowl, slowly combine the cornstarch with about a tablespoon of the egg/milk mixture, a few drops at a time, stirring constantly, until a thin paste forms. Add this to the blender and give it another few spins. Once cooled, add the pumpkin/potato mixture a few hefty spoonfuls at a time until a deadly “smoothie” forms, about the consistency of pancake batter. Using a funnel to pour the mixture into several clean water bottles, strain it through a fine mesh sieve and use a spoon to scrape and push the thicker bits. Close the bottles tightly and store a cooler, packed tightly with ice. Fall asleep beside your niece as she studies.
- The day of: Bike to the provincial town with the bottles of filling, wrapped up cookie crumbs and coconut, the butter, a large bowl, and a spoon. Return the filling to the fridge immediately as you fetch the various tart plates from Fred’s where they graciously offer some parchment paper. At the hotel, line the tart plates with parchment paper, enough to come up the sides.
- Three or so hours before eating: Prep the crusts and induce cardiac arrest: Set the butter in the direct sun on a warm surface until well melted. Combine the coconut, cookie crumbs, and butter in the bowl and mix/mash until some large clumps form. Pour the mixture into the tart plates, scoop by scoop, and mash into a 1/8” thick crust, coming slightly up the sides. Enlist your incredible province-mates and visiting friends to help you deliver the crusts back to Fred’s where his wife has preheated the oven to 325 F. Bake the crusts for about 10-15 minutes until golden brown and crunchy around the edges. At some point be sure to yank the oven rack out in enough of a hurry that the largest pie plate tumbles to the back of the oven and crumbles to bits as your life flashes before your eyes. Freeze as the kitchen staff rush to your aid as you feel your heart in your throat.
- Once all is righted and the crusts are given a facelift, turn the oven to 350 F. Pour the filling into the crusts until only about a 1/8” of the plate’s rim is visible above the filling. Get ‘em in that oven. Bake about 20 minutes until a fork stuck in the middle comes out only slightly coated in filling. Let the pies sit and continue baking by carryover cooking, then cool enough in time to eat.
- When serving/eating: Nervously cut up the precious pie into equal parts for all your friends. Revel in the greatest of all atmospheres: one mostly quiet save for pleased eating sounds and the tinkling of silverware. Offer a few pieces to Mr. and Mrs. Fred so that she may jump in excitement and he may pretend to faint/die at the utter deliciousness of the confection. Serve up seconds and appreciate your incredible company over some complementary digestivs. Package up the remaining pie. Thank the Freds profusely as you head back to the hotel and enjoy many cold beers.
- The next day: Carry the remaining pie home to the village and attempt to interest your niece, granny, and host-father without success. Carry it to work and spend the morning fomenting interest a in 10 AM Pie Party among your coworkers. Spring a piece on your director and relish his cautious but pleased sample bites. Bask in utter joy of that moment when “Ehhhh…” turns into “YUM” as the remaining staff dive into it like savages, confirming that it is, indeed, more delicious than last year’s pie.
There you have it, Grampa, the surefire way to make a pie in rural Cambodia while also shaving a few years off your life from sheer stress. So many things about this pie had to come together just right and I feel incredibly lucky to have tasted a bit of home out here with many of my favorite people. May this tradition live on in Takeo and all other corners of Cambodia.
Love you all the time,