There’s a Broadway theater named the Lunt-Fontanne—maybe you’ve seen it if you’ve walked through Times Square? Lunt-Fontanne was actually two people: Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, husband and wife, perhaps the biggest stars of the early to mid twentieth century. I could claim they were the Brangelina of their time, but that’s not quite accurate. They may actually have been bigger; their Broadway plays were invariably hits, they dutifully took them out on the road playing cities of every size (a/k/a, “the provinces,”) and they were pioneers of a natural, realistic acting style. One night while channel surfing I happened to catch a kinescope of a play they had performed live on TV in the late fifties. Even then, in their late sixties, they had timing, humor, and chemistry that would be considered contemporary today.
What in the world does this have to do with food?
It’s a stretch, but bear with me.
Anyway, during their down time, “The Lunts” lived on a farm (now a museum) called “Ten Chimneys” in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin (Lunt was a Wisconsin native.) While there, Alfred channeled his artistic talent into the kitchen, becoming quite skilled in that venue too.
I found this out a few years ago, and was amused enough by it that I decided to name one of my recipes in his honor, giving it an imaginary “back story,” and the aura of mystery that goes along with it. (Food geek? Me? Hi! Have we met?)
The question was: which recipe? Then Thanksgiving rolled around. After a quick tour through my recipe file, the answer became obvious. For many years I have been making a pumpkin pie with a chocolate cookie crumb crust. The original idea came from seeing the pre-made chocolate cookie crumb crusts stacked near the canned pumpkin in the supermarket. It was as easy as asking, “What if I tried those two together?”
One year, I couldn’t find the pre-made chocolate cookie crumb crusts, and realized I would have to make my own. That’s when I found Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers. You may have seen those: they are packaged in a cellophane wrapped yellow box. A plain, simple, dark chocolate cookie, they are more than just a bit addictive, and, after a spin in the food processor, perfect in a crumb crust.
(If you doubt me that the cookies are addictive, I’ll admit that more than once I have had to run out and get another box because I no longer had enough to make a full crust. Oink.)
Although I have never been able to find out why the cookies are called famous, pairing the most famous stage actor / cook of the twentieth century with a cookie named “famous” just seemed natural to me. Could there be a better match? That’s how “Alfred Lunt’s Famous Pumpkin Pie” was born. The recipe is all mine, but its cachet is borrowed.
So, now, to the pie itself. I have written in this venue about a tendency I used to have to over spice pumpkin pie, a nasty habit swiftly broken by my mother’s insistence that she wanted to taste the pumpkin in the pumpkin pie. So I tempered my recipe, putting the pumpkin center stage, and relegating the spices to supporting roles. The spices are all still there; in fact I used a kitchen sink approach, just in smaller quantities, sometimes as small as a pinch. A restrained twist of orange zest adds a spring to the pumpkin’s step.
To give the pumpkin custard a bit of complexity I used three different sweeteners: white sugar, and smaller doses of maple syrup and molasses. The maple syrup adds a bit of smoke, and the molasses makes the sugar less cloying, effectively keeping the whole thing with two feet planted firmly on the ground. If you’re a fan of using sweet potato instead of pumpkin (and why wouldn’t you be?) I suggest using a bit less of each sweetener, and give some thought to employing them in different ratios than you would with pumpkin. Perhaps a bit less of the sugar and maple, and a bit more of the molasses?
I use a light version of the classic pumpkin custard, omitting the egg yolks, and using fat free evaporated milk. The remaining egg whites are whipped to soft peaks, breathing a bit of lift into what is usually a very dense pie. Pumpkin is rich enough on its own, so the resulting pie retains its heft, but you’ll have room for all the other goodies that are sure to find themselves under your nose on turkey day.
Because the pumpkin mixture is so liquid when poured into the pan, it soaks the chocolate cookie crumbs slightly, but the result seems like providence rather than poor baking skills. You get a dark, dense, mildly chocolate crust that sets off the rusty pumpkin better than a predictable pie crust ever could. Contrary to the expectation that the chocolate might upstage the pumpkin, they actually work together in a well rehearsed banter.
This all reminds me that the holidays are a perfect time to bring some theater to the table. I bake this pie in a Springform pan. This serves two purposes: first, you pop open the pan and the pie is freed, easier to slice, and ready to do its job; second, the perfectly upright sides of the pan give each slice a pleasingly symmetrical discipline. Why not take the slices out of the pan and line them up on a rectangular platter, like a line of whipped cream-topped Rockettes ready to kick their way across your table. Ta da!
And the cachet? I’ll be telling folks that Alfred Lunt used to bake this pie every Thanksgiving at Ten Chimneys. So when I offer seconds, it is in the tradition of the man himself exhorting Noel Coward to, “…have another piece of pie, old boy.” You can make up your own story if it pleases you. That’s “thee-a-tah.”
Hmmm: I wonder what I did with that recipe for Kathie Lee’s Crab Cakes?
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