Seldom does a cookbook come along that makes you not only want to spend hours in the kitchen preparing its recipes but also read its pages from cover to cover like a novel. Patricia Tanamihardja's Asian Grandmothers Cookbook caters equally to our sentiment and appetites with a thoughtfulness and deep cultural understanding presented as 130 beautiful, traditional recipes, along with heartfelt profiles of the Asian grandmothers who have created them for decades. The grandmothers' tales are seamlessly woven into a platter of diverse Asian dishes--Clay Pot Lemongrass Steamed Fish (Pla Nueng Morh Din), Layered Vegetable Stew, Mochiko Chicken, Marbled Tea Eggs, and Pumpkin Coconut Custard. The recipes depict food not just as a series of ingredients, instructions, and measurements, but as customs and traditions, family ties, and community. Plus, this cookbook is a great cooking resource, beginning with The Asian Pantry, an extremely useful glossary of authentic ingredients you'll see throughout the book like Thai palm sugar, ajowan seeds, and dried pancit canton and simple recipes for rice and soup stocks. Some of these recipes hadn't been in writing, so the author visited each grandmother's home with not only her cooking utensils (for taking precise measurements), but also her camera and a notebook. And that's why these stories and recipes have reached our tables. Go pick up a copy and share it with your family this holiday season and try this pumpkin custard as a special holiday treat.
Pumpkin Custard (Num Sang Khya L’peou)
Hollowed-out pumpkins are filled with coconut custard in this delightful dessert that Phiroum Svy learned to make from her grandma in Cambodia. Traditionally, larger pumpkins are used, but Phiroum likes to make this recipe with miniature ornamental pumpkins like We-Be-Little, Jack Be Little, and Sweetie Pie available in the fall. When they’re not in season, use kabocha squash; it’s sturdy and doesn’t fall apart easily when steamed. When the pumpkin is cut, each wedge shows off the creamy yellow custard contrasting beautifully with the orange pumpkin flesh.
Time: 1 hour (20 minutes active) plus chilling
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Four 3/4-pound miniature pumpkins (3 to 4 inches across) or one 2 1/2- to 3-pound kabocha squash (6 to 7 inches across)
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup sugar
Wipe the pumpkins with a damp cloth to remove any dust or dirt.
Insert the tip of a sharp paring knife diagonally into the top of a pumpkin until it pierces through the skin and flesh and into the cavity. Make short cuts in a zigzag or hexagonal pattern around the stem in a circle to make a hole large enough to insert a teaspoon (1½ to 2 inches in diameter). With a smaller pumpkin, it might be easier just to slice off the top straight across.
Lift off the lid and scrape out the seeds and stringy bits with a teaspoon. Repeat with the remaining pumpkins.
Set up your steamer. Fill the steamer pan half full of water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium until you are ready to steam.
In a medium bowl, whisk the coconut milk and sugar together. Crack the eggs into the bowl and whisk until just incorporated. Place the pumpkins in the top tier of the steamer with the pumpkin lids on the side. Using a ladle, carefully pour equal amounts of custard into each pumpkin cavity to only about three-quarters full (since the custard will rise and pouf up). Try not to spill any custard over the sides of the pumpkins. If you do, wipe clean with a damp cloth.
Return the water in the steamer to a rolling boil. Set the steamer basket or rack on top of the steamer pan. Cover and steam over medium heat for 30 to 45 minutes (1¼ to 1½ hours for kabocha squash). The custard is set when it doesn’t jiggle when shaken and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Don’t steam for much longer than 45 minutes or the miniature pumpkins will fall apart.
When done, turn off the heat and wait for the steam to subside before lifting the lid. Lift it away from you to prevent scalding yourself and to keep condensation from dripping onto the pumpkins. Carefully remove the steamer from the heat and let the pumpkins cool to room temperature. They will be quite fragile, so don’t remove them from the basket until cooled. Refrigerate for 10 to 12 hours to let the custard set. Don’t worry if the custard falls a little.
Cut each pumpkin into 4 to 6 wedges and serve cold or warm (heat it up in the microwave). Use a spoon to scoop up some pumpkin flesh together with the custard, making sure you get a little of each with every bite.
Pat’s Notes: This recipe makes about 2½ cups of custard. Pour any excess into ramekins and steam for 10 to 15 minutes.