For the past several years, I’ve made pies for Thanksgiving, a task that I secretly love. There’s just something about a homemade pie. If I make my living off of cakes, then I get my kicks out of pies. (Get your mind out of the gutter. This is a family-friendly blog.)
What’s more traditional at Thanksgiving than pumpkin pie? Mess with the original, tweak it into pumpkin cheesecake or pumpkin flan or whatever the hot pumpkin recipe is at that moment, and your newfangled dessert will likely be met with jeers from the purists at your holiday table. Those jerks never want to try anything new. Don’t twist my words though – I love the standard pumpkin pie; cool, silken custard flecked with fragrant cinnamon, cloves and ginger in a crisp buttery crust. With a little (or a lot) of sweetened whipped cream, it’s one thing that I’ll always want to have on Thanksgiving, and if that makes me one of those jerks, then so be it.
Most pumpkin pie recipes involve canned goods. At the very least, the pumpkin puree is canned, and many use canned evaporated milk, too. Have you ever wondered how canned pumpkin stacks up to fresh in a pie? It was damn near keeping me awake at night, so I dug out my favorite pumpkin pie recipe and baked up two pies: one from canned pumpkin and one from pureed organic sugar pie pumpkins that I roasted at home. Other than the pumpkin, the ingredients, method and, baking time were identical.
What were the differences and which pie reigned supreme? When I was whisking together the fillings, the spices seemed to incorporate and suspend more evenly in the canned pumpkin custard. Cinnamon and cloves clung to the sides of the bowl of the roasted pumpkin filling, even after repeatedly scraping the sides. Perhaps the water content of the roasted pumpkin was higher than the canned, making it harder for the spices to cling? There was no visible difference to the consistency of the pumpkin purees, and I'm not water scientist, so I can't be sure. Both pies looked identical, with the pumpkin custard baking to a muted color dotted with spices. Texturally, they were also the same; smooth and silky. There was an understated vegetal taste to the roasted pumpkin pie, the true taste of the gourd coming through. It was also markedly less sweet, an uncontrollable variable due to the differences in sugars from pumpkin to pumpkin. So, which did I prefer overall? Without sweetened whipped cream (gulp – don’t judge me here), I actually liked the sweeter taste of the canned pumpkin pie. The flavors were rounder. Adding just a tiny amount of sweetened whipped cream elevated the roasted pumpkin pie to the next level though, balancing out the simple flavor of the pumpkin and adding just enough sweetness to make it shine. Boom! Winner.
It doesn’t take much effort to roast a pumpkin. Just cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and most of the nasty stringy bits, place flesh side down on a sheet pan and cook in a 400°F oven for 45 minutes or so, until it is fork tender. Once the pumpkin halves cool, the skin peels away easily and the flesh can be pureed in a food processor before being pressed through a sieve to achieve a creamy, smooth consistency. If you’ve never made a pumpkin pie without the can, it’s worth the small extra effort to see if you prefer the flavor. Will you try roasting a pumpkin this holiday season? If pumpkin pie isn't your thing, what do you prefer?
Classic Pumpkin Pie
Pastry dough for 9 in. pie (this is my favorite)
2 cups pumpkin puree, from one 3 lb. sugar pie pumpkin, roasted or one 15 oz. can
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
2 large eggs
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1-1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
On a lightly floured surface, roll out pastry dough into a 14 in. Fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Crimp edge decoratively and piece bottom all over with a fork. Freeze 10 minutes.
Move oven rack to lowest rung. Preheat oven to 375°F.
Line pie dough with foil and fill with dried beans, dry rice, or pie weights. Bake in middle of oven for 20 minutes. Remove beans/rice/weights and foil and bake shell until pale golden, another 6 to 10 minutes. Cool completely. Whisk together pumpkin, cream, milk, eggs, brown sugar, spices, and salt, and pour into shell.
Bake pie on the lowest rack 40-50 minutes, or until filling is set but center still jiggles slightly when jostled. Transfer to rack and cool completely. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.