You need chef Zeb Stevenson’s papaya squash pie on your Thanksgiving table

Squash is the new pumpkin

Squash and cornmeal pie
Squash and cornmeal pie

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Phil and Patricia Bennett of Green Ola Acres in McDonough work hard to preserve heirloom varieties of vegetables, some of which are endangered. The Bennetts grow all sorts of squash, from butterpie to autumn crown, La Estrella to Tahitian melon, Queensland blue to moranga, chirimen to Canada crookneck. Chef Zeb Stevenson, formerly of Watershed, says a chef’s relationship with Green Ola Acres is more than merely transactional. “Patricia will come to chefs multiple times a year and say, ‘What do you want me to plant for you?’ Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But we have that partnership.” He recalls bringing her chili seeds from Mexico, which she nurtured and grew for him. He dried the chilis and used them to make mole negro.

Stevenson relies on Green Ola Acres’s papaya squash as the foundation of a savory pie that’s perfect for Thanksgiving. Although you can use different varieties for this recipe, papaya squash has the right amount of sweetness, complexity, and water content, and its distinct nuttiness makes it perfect for a pie. You can find Green Ola’s papaya squash at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market. If you can’t source papaya squash, Stevenson says delicata and butternut are solid substitutions.

SquashSquash and Cornmeal Pie
by Chef Zeb Stevenson

(Makes two crusts and filling for one pie. Double the filling recipe if you’d like.)

For the pastry crust:

  • 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons chilled pork lard (or vegetable shortening, if you must), cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 6 tablespoons chilled butter (preferably unsalted cultured butter), grated on the coarse side of a box grater and kept in the freezer
  • ¼ cup very cold water (plus another tablespoon if needed)
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Place the flour, salt, and lard in a food processor and pulse until it has the texture of coarse grits (about 20 seconds). Then add the cold, grated butter and process again for about 10 seconds.

Transfer to a bowl and add the cold water. Mix with a fork until the dough holds together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and, using your hands, fold the dough over itself four times.

Cut the dough in half and roll into two balls. Wrap the dough balls with plastic wrap or parchment paper and let rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Lay one of the dough balls out onto a lightly floured surface and roll to about ⅛-inch thickness. Work quickly so the dough doesn’t warm up too much and become difficult to work with. The other half of the dough can be frozen indefinitely if wrapped tightly.

Carefully lay the dough in a pie pan, pressing it into the corners. Crimp the edges to form a raised lip and trim the excess. Lay a sheet or parchment paper or aluminum foil in the shell. Pour dried beans or rice into the parchment/foil to weigh down the dough and bake  for 16 to 20 minutes. The edges should be very lightly browned, and the dough in the center should look firm and just barely cooked.

Set your shell aside to cool.

To roast the squash:

  • One large or two small papaya squash (about 1 pound)
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Turn down oven to 325 degrees.

Cut the squash in half lengthwise, leaving the seeds in the squash. Brush the cut side with butter and sprinkle with salt. Wrap in aluminum foil, place them cut-side down onto a sheet pan, and roast for 30 minutes. Cool the squash, then scoop out the seeds (which can be saved for roasting) and peel off the skin so that you’re left with just the flesh.

For the filling:

  • ½ cup extra-fine cornmeal
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon quatre épices
  • 3 cups roasted squash, mashed to a thick paste
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup butter (softened)
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or one scraped vanilla bean if you’re really fancy)

Combine the cornmeal, sugar, and quatre épices in a large mixing bowl and whisk together. Separately whisk together the remaining ingredients and then pour into the dry mix. Whisk until no lumps are left. (In the restaurant world, we would pass this mixture through a very fine sieve. You don’t have to go to all that trouble, but it will make for a smoother, silkier filling.) Rest the batter for 20 minutes to allow the cornmeal to hydrate before pouring into your cooled pie shell.

Cover the edges of your pie shell with foil and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the center is set. You’ll know it’s ready when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean or when a gentle shake causes the center of the pie to just barely wiggle. Do not bake it to the point where the center is cracked or develops dark brown spots.

Let the pie cool fully before cutting. A minimum of two hours is necessary, but six is best.

Serve with a spoonful of soft, unsweetened whipped cream.

This article appears in our November 2018 issue.