Perfecting the Traditional Pumpkin Pie

America’s favorite Thanksgiving dessert is a particular favorite of mine. And over the many years of preparing them, I have learned they can be quite persnickety and are rarely “perfect” without a little tweaking.

Most home bakers will buy some cans of pureed pumpkin on sale this time of year and use the recipe on the back of the can. By the way, go right ahead, since these filling recipes are not only standard, but delicious. Most will also purchase pre-made pie pastry, which is a timesaver. But whether you use canned pumpkin or fresh, pre-made pastry or homemade, you are still going to face a few challenges.

Foremost is the likelihood that the pastry shell will become soggy during baking, a rather notorious condition when making custard-based pies. This is easily avoided by partially pre-baking the shell before filling, and cooking lower in the oven.

The fillings will often curdle if the pie is cooked in too high a heat, or overcooked, producing a filling that separates (really making the crust soggy) and becomes grainy with a thick browned film on the top of the pie. For this inescapable threat, one does not cook a pumpkin pie so much by time, as one does by “feel” of the custard filling. Never cook so long that a knife inserted into the center returns clean, but only to the point where the center no longer “sloshes”, but jiggles like jello.

And if you roast your own pie pumpkins to make your own pumpkin puree (as I always do), you’ll never go back to using the canned stuff, despite how long it takes to make your own. The reason for this is not only flavor, but texture. (There may be some obstinacy on my part here, too.) Homemade pumpkin puree is smooth as silk and has an unbelievable deep, rich flavor that makes any effort on buying pie pumpkins worthwhile. Canned pumpkin is notoriously fibrous and almost always has that “canned” taste you clearly discern when tasting homemade puree and canned puree side-by-side.

However, it is certainly great to use canned pumpkin and just two steps are all you need to follow to make the canned stuff taste almost as good as homegrown and home-roasted (although you will never achieve the depth of pumpkin flavor found in one fresh from the vine): (1) Before using canned pumpkin puree, run it through your food processor for a minute or so to completely puree any fibrous bits; and (2) precook this puree with the sugar and spices and the “canned” flavor will quickly disappear.

Here is how to make the best pumpkin pie of your life, regardless of whether you use fresh or canned pumpkin, from a few tips you will never find on the back of a can. I offer my preferred recipe two ways, the first with a drop-dead wonderful filling from fresh pumpkins, the second that illustrates how to create a canned pumpkin filling that even I couldn’t guess was canned…after a couple of glasses of wine, of course.

The Perfected Classic Fresh Pumpkin Pie

1 partially pre-baked pie pastry in a 10-inch “deep-dish” pie dish

2 cups fresh roasted pumpkin puree

1 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt (not sea salt, please)

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup milk (2% is fine)

4 large eggs

You will need to prepare your fresh pumpkins the day before making this pie.

There are several varieties of pie pumpkins available across the country, but Sugarpie and Sweetiepie are probably more common to find in farmers’ markets and larger stores (like my Central Market). You can generally expect a 2-pound pie pumpkin to produce 1 cup of puree. I always buy several usually around 3 to 4 pounds in size, roast them at the same time, and then can and/or freeze the extra puree for other uses (like soups, cookies, cakes, cheesecakes and future pumpkin pies). Inspect the pumpkins carefully and reject any with dark spots or abrasions/cuts to the skin or having any mold around the stems.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees (F). Line a jelly roll pan with heavy duty aluminum foil extending over the sides and crimping into place, then oil the foil generously with vegetable or canola oil. (If you roast several pumpkins at once, place your two or three oven racks spaced evenly in your oven above center, (at center, if using three racks) and below center, and prepare two or three jelly roll pans as described.)

Using a sharp chef’s knife, remove the stem end from each pumpkin. Cut each pumpkin in half and remove all of the seeds and fibers. Cut each half again creating quarters, then cut each quarter in half across the middle creating triangles.

Arrange the pumpkin triangles evenly on the oiled foil with the outer skin side up. Place into your preheated oven and roast for about 2 hours, or until the pumpkin pieces are fork-tender. (If roasting two or three pans-full, the roasting time will probably require three hours of cooking to reach fork tenderness.)

When tender, remove from the oven and transfer the pumpkin pieces to wire racks to cool completely for about 2 hours, placing the pumpkins skin side down on the racks.

When cool, remove the skins using a sharp knife and discard. Also slice off any hard or dried-out spots that may form in the flesh, especially toward the ends that touched the baking pan. Slice the pumpkin triangles into 1-inch pieces and place into a large bowl.

Fill your food processor bowl or blender with the pumpkin chunks and pulse a few times to reduce the pieces. Then puree the pumpkin for 1 full minute, or until completely smooth. (If you have roasted two or more pans of pumpkin triangles, you will need to puree in batches.)

Measure out two cups of puree and set aside for the pie filling, then can and/or freeze the balance of puree for use elsewhere.

Meanwhile, prepare your pastry shell:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (F) and place your rack below the oven center.

Mix your pastry, roll out and line the 10-inch “deep-dish” pie dish. Once your pastry is done and has nicely fluted edges, place it into the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Remove from the fridge and line the inside of the pastry with a couple of layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil pressed gently into place and with the edges of the foil extending over the edges of the pastry. Completely fill the foil cavity with ceramic pastry weights or dried beans.

Bake in your preheated oven for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pastry looks complexly dry, but is still unbrowned. Remove the dish from the oven, carefully gather the corners of the foil and lift out the weights and set aside to cool. Return the pastry to the oven to cook for another 5 minutes, or until the pastry has turned a light golden brown. Set aside on a wire rack.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees (F) and carefully place your cooking rack below the center of your oven.

Next comes the filling:

In a small bowl or large measuring cup, whisk the eggs until the whites are completely blended and the eggs smooth. Add the cream and milk to the eggs, whisking briskly until the eggs and cream are completely combined.

In a separate large bowl, combine the pumpkin puree, brown sugar, spices and salt and whisk well to completely blend. Continue to whisk for a couple of moments to help dissolve the sugar. Pour 1/3 of the egg-cream mixture into the pumpkin and whisk well to combine. Add half of the remaining egg-cream mixture and whisk well again. Then add the balance of the egg-cream mixture and whisk well once more until the filling is well combined and smooth.

Pour the filling slowly into the partially pre-baked pastry shell. Brush the edges of the pastry with an egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon of water).

Place into your 350-degree oven and bake for 35 minutes, then pull it out for a test. Insert a clean dinner knife 1-1/2 inch from the crust edge. If it returns clean, great! But shake the pie dish – if the 2-inch diameter of the center of the filling sloshes about and is still very loose, return to the oven for ten more minutes, then recheck by the jiggling method. Once the very 2-inch diameter of the center, when shaken, jiggles like firm jello, remove the pie from the oven and place on a wire rack. The residual heat will continue to firm up the center of the filling.

Allow the pie to cool on the wire rack for at least 1 hour before serving warm, or after the hour, cover the pie with plastic wrap and place into the refrigerator to chill completely for another hour.

Serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream that is flavored (during the whipping) with 1 tablespoon of bourbon or brandy. Alternatively, serve the pie with a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream.

The Perfected Pumpkin Pie Using Canned Pumpkin

1 partially pre-baked pie pastry in a 10-inch “deep-dish” pie dish

2 cups (16 oz.) canned pumpkin puree

1 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon salt (not sea salt, please)

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup milk (2% is fine)

4 large eggs

Begin by “de-canning” your canned pumpkin puree:

Place the pumpkin puree in your food processor and puree on high for 1 minute until completely smooth.

Pour the puree into a heavy medium saucepan and add the brown sugar, spices and salt. Bring to a simmer on medium heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. When at a simmer, reduce heat to low and continue to cook at a simmer, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes or until the pumpkin is thick, creamy and shiny.

Remove from heat and allow to cool a bit.

Meanwhile, prepare your pastry shell:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees (F) and place your rack below the oven center.

Mix your pastry, roll out and line the 10-inch “deep-dish” pie dish. Once your pastry is done and has nicely fluted edges, place it into the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Remove from the fridge and line the inside of the pastry with a couple of layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil pressed gently into place and with the edges of the foil extending over the edges of the pastry. Completely fill the foil cavity with ceramic pastry weights or dried beans.

Bake in your preheated oven for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pastry looks complexly dry, but is still unbrowned. Remove the dish from the oven, carefully gather the corners of the foil and lift out the weights and set aside to cool. Return the pastry to the oven to cook for another 5 minutes, or until the pastry has turned a light golden brown.

Remove the pastry shell from the oven and place on a wire rack.

Increase your oven’s temperature to 400 degrees (F).

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until the whites are completely combined. Add the cream and milk and whisk briskly until the eggs and cream have completely blended. Next add the warm spiced pumpkin mixture and whisk well until the mixture is completely blended and smooth.

Pour the filling into your partially pre-baked shell and brush the edges of the pastry with an egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon of water).

Place into your 400-degree oven to bake for 25 minutes, then pull it out for a test. Insert a clean dinner knife 1-1/2 inch from the crust edge. If it returns clean, great! But shake the pie dish – if the 2-inch diameter of the center of the filling sloshes about and is still very loose, return to the oven for five more minutes, then recheck by the jiggling method. Once the very 2-inch diameter of the center, when shaken, jiggles like firm jello, remove the pie from the oven and place on a wire rack. The residual heat will continue to firm up the center of the filling.

Allow the pie to cool on the wire rack for at least 1 hour before serving warm, or after the hour, cover the pie with plastic wrap and place into the refrigerator to chill completely for another hour.

Serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream that is flavored (during the whipping) with 1 tablespoon of bourbon or brandy. Alternatively, serve the pie with a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream.

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~ by eheavenlygads on November 7, 2007.

4 Responses to “Perfecting the Traditional Pumpkin Pie”

  1. That sounds yummy (although I don’t think I am ready to start using real pumpkin -vs can- yet. So here’s my question on pies. I make a pretty mean, and big, apple pie. It comes up beautifully but after the apples bake down and the pie sits for a little while the top sinks. What to do to prevent this???
    Thanks,
    Debbie aka The Real World Martha (not prefect!!!)

    SpinningSugar: The method for using canned pumpkin is below…keep reading!

    RealWorldMartha, you’re a woman after my own heart. I love apple pie and I can answer your question. Your very common result of having a large gap between the surface of your apples and the top of the crust is caused when the top crust cooks faster than your filling. The secret is in pre-cooking your apples and sugar and spices for about 5 minutes over medium heat (stirring often), then removing from heat and adding your cornstarch slurry and mixing well. You don’t want your apples to turn to the consistency of canned apple filling, but to just begin the cooking process and soften the apples. Flash-chill the apple filling in the refrigerator for 30 minutes (or by placing the pan in a large bowl of ice water for about 15 minutes). Then pour into your shell, add your top crust, crimp, brush with egg wash, vent and bake.

    Many folks will simply place a sheet of aluminum foil (sprayed with oil) on top of the pie, but this creates a much flatter pie. Like you, I like mine a mile high and something to brag about.

    I hope that helps. And may I also add what a wonderful blog site you have there! I truly enjoyed finding you and loved your frugal, creative ideas!

    God bless, and may He bring you and yours the happiest of holiday seasons of your life.

  2. Thanks for your suggestions! Pumpkin pie is my favorite.

    I make mine with a pecan topping that really makes it special. Chop 1/2 cup of pecans, add 3/8 cup brown sugar and 1/8 c melted butter (mixing in a plastic bag works well). Place on cooled pie and broil it until caramelized.

    Hope you like it!

    SpinningSugar: An absolutely outstanding suggestion, Tabitha! I like the mixing method, too. Many thanks for adding that to the post!

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

  3. Wonderful post! I was converted to making my own filling long ago… about the time I started making sweet potato pies and realized it wouldn’t be so very different. My guilty secret for good pie crust is the Cuisenart. Until then I honestly could not make a crust that wasn’t tough. The processor does a far better job of cutting the fat into the flour without overmixing than I’ve ever managed. But don’t tell my grandmother.:-)

  4. What a terrific essay on pumpkin pie – I love to cook and I agree with the whole article!

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