The 10 Days of Pumpkin

Day Four:  Sweet Dumpling Tartlets with Maple Custard
If pumpkin is the flavor of coming home, what does that mean when you've lived all over, when your family is scattered?
Where, exactly, is home?
My mother just passed away, peacefully in her sleep, after a long illness. She and my dad had been married 66 years. My sister and I gravitate between crying and then laughing at stupid family stories. We know we were lucky to have her as long as we did. Even though we knew she was very frail, we still weren't quite ready to let her go. 
But she is going home to join loved ones who made that same journey long before. That's what I want to believe. 
The last time I wondered about the idea of home was when my son left for college and I was an empty-nester. The theme of home threads through a cookbook I was writing at the time, Prairie Home Breads

Now I think that home is in the flavor of something baked, something that can lift your spirits when you need that most. 
And as The Cake Therapist reminds me, 

spice is the flavor of grief because it's the flavor that lasts longest. As friends and family have shared their own losses, I am beginning to understand that there are some things you just don't ever get over. And it's okay if you don't.
Friends who have lost a parent tell me that even years later, some little thing will trigger a memory and the grief will be fresh all over again. I believe it.
I've always thought that food is another way to tell a story. Although I didn't want this particular story, this is the one I have right now, about comfort in a time of sorrow and finding new meaning in the world home.  
I'm putting my cookbook, Bake Happy, into practice and missing my mom.

Sweet Dumpling Tartlets with Maple Custard
Adapted from Bake Happy by Judith Fertig.
A tart shell is meant to be sturdy enough to encase a filling during baking, yet attractive on its own. But who says a tart shell has to be pastry?   If we like desserts that make their own sauces, then how about a vegetable that turns into a sweet tart, complete with its own shell? Sweet Dumpling squashes (in the pumpkin family), with their striped exterior and a sunset-colored interior, are too beautiful to chop into oblivion, so let them be the star of the show. Boiling down the maple syrup first helps intensify its flavor in the custard filling. 

Serve the squash “tartlets” on dark green or brown dessert plates for the best effect—or line your white plates with autumn-colored cocktail napkins first.
Makes 4 tartlets
1/2 cup (164 g) real maple syrup, preferably Grade B
4 rounded Sweet Dumpling squash, or acorn or other small winter squash
21/4 cups (550 ml) half-and-half
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons gluten-free or other spice cookie crumbs, for garnish
In a small saucepan, bring the maple syrup to a boil over medium-high heat. Let the syrup cook until it reduces to 6 tablespoons, about 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a 9 x 13-inch (23 x 33-cm) baking dish with parchment paper. With a sturdy knife, remove the top section of each squash so the squash stands about 2 inches tall; discard the top sections. With a spoon, remove and discard the seeds and stringy pulp from the inside of each squash and discard. Place each cleaned squash shell in the prepared dish. Trim the bottoms, if necessary, so the squash sit evenly in the dish.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, egg yolks, egg, and salt together until well blended. Whisk in the reduced maple syrup.   

Divide the filling among the squash shells.
Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the tops of the squash are tender when pierced with a paring knife. Remove the dish from the oven and dust each squash “tartlet” with cookie crumbs. 

Serve hot or at room temperature. Dig into each squash, getting some of the tender flesh and creamy custard in each bite.
And be comforted.


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