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Photograph by Ari LeVaux
Custard's Last Stand: It won't last long in this delivery system.

Pumpkin Thai

A Bangkok street treat inspires a new take on the classic dessert.

By Ari LeVaux

I'M NO stranger to pumpkin pie. When I owned and operated a small pumpkin pie business after college, I experimented widely, trying countless permutations on the basic theme. I thought I knew almost everything there is to know about pumpkin pie. But walking around a night market in Bangkok, Thailand, recently, I had an experience that turned my concept of pumpkin pie inside-out.

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 between the sweet and starchy squash flesh and the 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.

Wash the outside of the kabocha, buttercup or sunshine 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-size squash (about 2 pounds), heat a cup of full-fat coconut milk and a half-cup of sugar. Palm sugar is the 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; it will make the custard foamy.

Combine the eggs and coconut milk and add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

Pour this mixture into your hollowed-out squash, leaving about a half-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. The custard should have expanded into the top opening. Insert a butter knife deep into the custard. Using the point of insertion as a pivot point, wag the tip of the knife back and forth, like a paddle. If the custard is set you won't be able to paddle, but if the custard is still soupy there will be little resistance against the moving knife blade, which will have a layer of slime on it when removed. Keep steaming, checking every 10 minutes until the custard is set. Turn off the heat and disturb the delicate squash as little as possible. Don't handle until it cools to room temperature. Then cut it 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 homemade custard-filled squash that I began scheming ways to make a savory custard to fill my next squash. I decided on "Bacon and eggs" custard:

Beat four eggs and mix with a half-cup coconut milk. Separately, fry one to four slices' worth of chopped bacon until crispy. Let pan cool completely. Add the bacon, along with grease if you wish, to the egg mixture. Fry two cloves garlic in the pan, stirring often, until it gets fragrant. Stir the garlic into the egg mixture. Pour into a hollowed-out squash and bake for one hour, until the knife test indicates the custard has set. Serve hot or cool.

With either one of these custard squash dishes, you will rule the autumn potluck. And if the spirit moves you, set up a table outside, and rule the street.

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