Thanksgiving, for me, has never been about the turkey. An hour or two into the gluttonous feast, when most people are groaning in pain and rubbing their distended bellies, I’m just starting to look forward to the best part of the meal: dessert.
Growing up, my family always had two types of pie for Thanksgiving — Dutch apple pie (my sister’s favorite) and pumpkin pie (mine). Our tradition with pecan pie was to omit it entirely: We hated the sticky-sweet goop. These pies of my youth were nothing fancy. They were the frozen kind, the type that somehow never got baked off quite early enough to be fully cooled once dessert rolled around. Even so, the crumbly, sweet-salty topping of the apple pie and the creamy, spicy filling of the pumpkin pie were pure perfection. Most of the time, after all the guests had left and we’d finished washing the dishes, we’d go for seconds. The next morning, any remnants would make another appearance as our breakfast.
This year, horrified yet inspired by the idea of the “cherpumple” — a terrifying tower of frosted, cake-covered tiers of cherry, apple and pumpkin pies — I set out to develop a combination dessert of my own. While it might lack the distinctive moniker of the aforementioned monstronsity, spiced kabocha pie bars with a pecan meal crust and streusel topping sure sounded good to me. My goal was to fuse together the best elements of my most (and least) favorite childhood pies in an easy-to-serve way.
Rather than baking in a pie plate and having to deal with irregular wedges, I decided to go with a 9-by-13-inch pan and make squares instead. In lieu of traditional pie dough, I opted for a short bar cookie-type crust that incorporates ground pecans as a nod to tradition. The trick was to save a portion of it to form the backbone of the streusel, which would include more butter, sugar, pecans and rolled oats.
Instead of opening a can of Libby’s, whose proprietary pumpkins taste more like butternut squash anyway, I opted for slow roasting and pureeing a beautiful orange-skinned Sunshine variety of kabocha squash. The dry heat of the oven intensified the sweetness of this orange-fleshed, hard-skinned winter squash and transformed the texture into dense, rich creaminess. After a go-around in the food processor, all this purée needed were the staples of a good, old-fashioned pumpkin pie: an ample amount of warm spices, dark brown sugar for a deep caramelized flavor, vanilla, and dairy (a combination of evaporated milk, heavy cream, and eggs) to form the custard base.
The secret to getting the streusel to stick to the filling without sinking into it like quicksand was simple: baking the pie until it was mostly done, sprinkling the streusel on top, then baking it more until the filling set completely. Next came the most difficult part, one that I had never been good at as a child: waiting a few hours for the pie to cool before cutting into it and digging in.
Kabocha Pie Bars With Pecan Streusel
Makes 20 squares
For the filling:
For the crust and streusel:
- Preheat an oven to 400 F. Place the squash flesh-side up on a foil-lined baking sheet. Brush the flesh side of the squash pieces with butter. Roast until flesh is tender and easily pierced with a fork, 50 to 60 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle, about 30 minutes.
- Lower the oven temperature to 375 F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan.
- Prepare the crust: Add the flour, ½ cup of the brown sugar and the salt into the bowl of a food processor; pulse until combined. Add the softened butter and ¼ cup of the toasted pecans and pulse until the mixture is moist and sandy. Transfer 1 cup of the mixture to a medium bowl; set aside.
- Pour the remaining flour-pecan mixture into the prepared baking pan and using the bottom of a dry measuring cup, press firmly to form a crust. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. To the reserved flour-pecan mixture, stir in the oats, the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar, and the remaining ⅓ cup pecans. Add the 1 tablespoon melted butter and squeeze with fingertips until mixture clumps into a coarse streusel. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Prepare the filling: Using a spoon, scoop the flesh out of the squash; discard the peel. Place the squash in a food processor and process until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Transfer the puree to a large bowl and whisk in the brown sugar, milk, heavy cream, eggs, yolks, vanilla, spices and salt until well combined. Pour into the warm crust. Bake until the filling is just beginning to set, 40 to 45 minutes, then scatter the streusel evenly on top and continue to bake until the filling is completely set and the streusel is golden brown, about 20 minutes longer. Let cool completely on a wire rack before cutting into squares.
Sandra Wu is a San Francisco-based food writer, editor and recipe developer who currently works as a test kitchen cook at Williams-Sonoma’s corporate headquarters.
Photos, from top:
Kabocha pie bars.
Credits: Sandra Wu