A Fine Addition to the Feast
A cross between pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie—but without the crust—cazuela de calabaza may be your new favorite fall dessert. This sweet, spiced custard is wrapped in banana leaves, which impart their subtle earthiness, and then baked in a cazuela, or casserole dish. This Puerto Rican dish, like its cousins pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie, tells a fascinating story about globalization.
All three of these sister desserts contain starchy vegetables, sugar, spices, cream, and eggs. The vegetables themselves are native to the Americas. Some estimates place the earliest cultivation of pumpkins and potatoes at 10,000 years ago!
But almost all the other ingredients required for these treats, including spices, sugarcane, eggs, and dairy products, did not reach the Americas until the late 15th and early 16th centuries during the first wave of European colonization. And most of them are originally from Asia.
Who was the first one to combine all of these ingredients, all coming from very different parts of the world, into one tasty treat? The first recorded recipe for cazuela de calabaza dates from the 19th century, but its history likely traces back further.
The first written recipes for both pumpkin custard and pumpkin pie are dated 1570, less than 100 years after pumpkins and potatoes first traveled from the Americas to Europe.
Though some histories of pumpkin pie cite English or French sources for the earliest recipes, an Italian chef, Bartolomeo Scappi, published the first recipes. His impressive, multi-volume collection of recipes includes instructions for pumpkin torte, pumpkin torte without a shell, and pumpkin-onion torte.
Cazuela de calabaza is not too different from Scappi’s original recipe for a crustless pumpkin torte. The essential elements are the same, including the primary spices—ginger and cinnamon.
But when did these dessert recipes cross back over to the Americas, where pumpkins and potatoes are native? Some of the earliest records are from written accounts of the first Thanksgiving celebrations of English colonizers in the early 1600s. These settlers cooked their custards inside whole pumpkins directly in hot coals since they didn’t have wheat to make a crust.
Like the first Thanksgiving pumpkin “pies,” cazuela can also be cooked directly on hot coals in just a plant-based casing with no need for a cazuela, or casserole, at all. But for most of us today, cooking cazuela in a shallow, oven-safe dish is more convenient. Another fun way to bake and serve cazuela is to wrap individual portions like Oaxacan tamales, encased in banana leaves instead of corn husks.
This recipe is dairy-free and gluten free.
- 6 whole star anise
- 3, 4-inch cinnamon sticks
- 8 oz ginger, in ½” slices
- 6 whole cloves
- 4 lbs. of sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in 1” cubes
- 4 lbs. of pumpkin, peeled and cut in 1” cubes
- 2 cups of piloncillo or brown sugar
- ½ cup of spiced water, reserved
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ to ¾ cup rice flour
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup coconut milk (full fat)
- 1 lb banana leaves, washed and dried
1. Make purées. Fill a large pot with water and add ⅔ of the spices. Boil on high for 10 minutes, then add sweet potato, and boil until a fork goes through each piece with almost no resistance. Remove sweet potato from water, and mash with a spoon in a large bowl. Strain purée in a sieve to remove excess moisture. Using the same pot and water, add remaining spices, and repeat the process with pumpkin. Combine both purées into a single large bowl, allow them to fully cool, and reserve ½ cup of the water.
2. Make syrup. Add piloncillo and ⅓ cup of reserved water to a small saucepan, and heat gently to soften the sugar, stirring continuously to break up sugar and avoid burning. As water evaporates, add additional reserved water 1 tbs. at a time so that the mixture does not burn. When sugar has fully dissolved, remove from heat and add salt and ½ to ¾ cup of rice flour to achieve your desired consistency. Allow syrup to fully cool before proceeding to next step.
3. Combine everything. Add syrup, beaten eggs, and coconut cream to bowl of purées, and stir until completely homogenous.
4. Bake. Pour the mixture into a shallow casserole dish lined with banana leaves, covering with additional leaves to help trap moisture, and bake for 60 minutes at 350°. Alternatively, wrap individual portions like tamales, place them on a tray, and bake for the same time and at the same temperature.
5. Serve. This dessert is good hot, cold, or at room temperature. Optionally, add a spoon full of coconut cream—if you have extra—on top of each serving.
Notes on ingredients
Banana leaves are more commonly available in the United States than you might think. They’re most often found in the frozen food section of specialty markets, though even some big box retailers carry them now, too. Whether you’re using thawed from frozen or fresh leaves, make sure you wash them very well and dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture and any remaining dirt.
Piloncillo, also called panela, is a kind of unrefined cane sugar usually sold in hard cones that must be grated or softened with moisture before it is added to most recipes. Other unrefined cane sugar products like jaggery are good substitutes. Brown sugar will do in a pinch. Since brown sugar contains so much moisture already, you don’t need to add water to create your syrup. Just heat it gently.
Rice flour helps thicken and stabilize the custard, and provides a smoother, less gritty mouth feel than wheat flour. However, you can use wheat flour, almond flour, desiccated coconut, or other thickeners you have on hand. ▼
Stephen Raskauskas is a Sussex County native who has produced content for radio, TV, digital, and print.