Halloween may be done, but pumpkin season rolls on! And it's a welcome fact of life for a pumpkin lover like me.
I'm a fan of traditional American pumpkin pie, of course, but I also know that pumpkin is versatile, and I thought I might be able to internationalize it a little, too. This recipe, which reflects the influence of Thai cuisine, is a good example. It stars Thai staples like kaffir lime leaves and coconut milk, and complements them with fat-free evaporated milk.
I used to think that Thai food owed almost all of its Thai-ness to lemon grass. But that was before I learned about kaffir lime leaves. When I was finally introduced to them, I was knocked out by the intensity and richness of their scent and taste, and impressed by their ability to improve both sweet and savory dishes.
I like to use them to infuse sugar syrup, then add it to lemonade or iced tea. You can find kaffir lime leaves in Asian grocers, online and often at natural foods stores. You can find them fresh (they freeze and store well), or even thinly sliced and jarred.
This recipe calls for canned pumpkin, an ingredient at which I used to turn up my nose. Happily, I figured out after a while that pumpkins, like tomatoes, don't suffer from canning. They're harvested at peak ripeness, then cooked and canned immediately, which ensures that both flavor and health benefits are retained.
Besides, who has the time to cut up, seed, cook and puree fresh pumpkin, especially when fresh pumpkin can be watery and lackluster? Still, be sure to read the label. You want "solid pack" canned pumpkin with no added sugar, salt or other additives.
Deliciousness aside, pumpkin is a smart choice for dessert. Canned or fresh, it's full of carotenoids and fiber, and it boasts more potassium than a banana. And a cup of canned pumpkin has just 80 calories.
We use fat-free evaporated milk because it has a lovely creaminess. Combined with the coconut milk, as it is here, it delivers the kind of creamy texture that defines a custard... without all the fat and calories. In the end, nobody will suspect that they're digging into custard "lite."
THAI PUMPKIN CUSTARD
Start to finish: 7 hours 30 minutes (20 minutes active)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup packed brown sugar, preferably dark
1/2 cup lite coconut milk
5 ounces fat-free evaporated milk
2 teaspoons finely minced Kaffir lime leaves (or 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated lime zest)
1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup pumpkin puree
Chopped crystallized ginger or toasted coconut, to garnish
Heat the oven to 350 F. Bring a kettle of water to a simmer.
In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the eggs. Add the brown sugar and beat just until any lumps have dissolved. Add the coconut milk, condensed milk, lime leaves, lime juice, rum, if using, vanilla seeds or extract, salt and pumpkin puree. Beat just until smooth.
Divide the mixture between six 1-cup ramekins. Set the ramekins into a rectangular baking pan (such as a lasagna pan), pour enough simmering water into the baking pan to come half way up the sides of the ramekins.
Carefully transfer the baking pan to the oven's middle shelf and bake until a knife inserted at the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and cool on a wire rack. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, about 6 hours. Serve each portion topped with some of the crystallized ginger or coconut.
Nutrition information per serving: 170 calories; 30 calories from fat (18 percent of total calories); 3.5 g fat (1.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 90 mg cholesterol; 26 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 23 g sugar; 6 g protein; 170 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."