How to create a traditional panang take on the seasonal sensation.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
When I owned and operated a small pumpkin pie business after college, I experimented widely, trying countless permutations on the basic theme, and tweaked my way to some fantastic pie. But walking around a night-market in Bangkok, Thailand, recently, 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 vendors are extremely clean and detail-oriented, and their food is protected from urban grime by layers of stainless steel and plastic. The treasures that await the street-walking 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.
I was taking in the brightly colored jellies, tapioca balls and syrups of a dessert vendor when I noticed the inside-out pumpkin pie, waiting patiently for me in a bowl next to some bags of steamed bananas. It was a squash that was sliced to reveal its bright-white custard filling. I bought a slice and was rewarded with a tasty juxtaposition of 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 pies made from any type of winter squash, of which pumpkin is the poster child. 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, like curry pork custard. I’ll explain how to make both.
Wash the outside of the squash and then 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-sized squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), heat a cup of full-fat coconut milk and a half-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 five eggs – but don’t overbeat them, which will make the custard foamy.
Combine the eggs and coconut milk and add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. (Vanilla here is a common and perfectly acceptable substitute for pandan leaf, which is 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 a tablespoon of its green juice into the mixing bowl instead of vanilla.)
Pour this mixture into your hollowed-out squash, leaving about half an inch of space below the cut-out rim. Don’t put the top back on. Steam it 45 minutes to an 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, open the lid and peek inside. Insert a knife deep into the custard, and see if it comes out clean and dry. If there’s sliminess on the knife, steam another 15 minutes and check again. When the knife comes out clean, remove the squash by removing the surface it’s sitting on, rather than picking up the squash itself – it may be fragile.
Let it cool to room temperature, cut 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 just look at it.
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 home-made custard-filled squash that I began scheming ways to make a savory custard to fill my next squash. I decided on pork panang curry custard.
Cut a pork chop into 1-inch cubes and pan-fry until they brown. Stir in some chopped garlic and a teaspoon of fish sauce, stir-fry a minute, and add a can of coconut milk, a quarter cup of panang curry paste (or the curry paste of your choice) and half cup of water. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the mixture thickens, then remove from heat and let it cool to room temperature. Beat four eggs and combine with the curry. Pour the mixture into the squash and steam as before, for an hour.
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.
With either one of these custard squash dishes, you will rule the autumn potluck, Thanksgiving party, or any other holiday gathering. And if the spirit moves you, set up a table outside, and rule the street.