In the past, I’ve made two different pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving: the fail-safe recipe that comes on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can and the crowd-pleasing candied pecan pumpkin pie recipe I’ve shared on the blog before. For both of these recipes, I’ve always used canned pumpkin, and doing so has always produced excellent results. I had heard that making your own pumpkin puree could have uneven results and it just didn’t seem worth the bother, especially since I have tasted too many pies made with homemade puree that were not good at all. (Side note: these terrible pies were always made by a special breed of foodie whose righteous fervor for whole,organic, locally sourced ingredients is inversely proportional to their ability to cook. Am I the only one who has encountered this kind of person before?)
I was talking to someone once about making pie for Thanksgiving and when I said that I used canned pumpkin, this person was overcome with a look that was some mix of betrayal and indignation that was so strong that I was convinced that they must think that I used a canned pumpkin pie filling. But no—they just couldn’t fathom that, as someone passionate about baking, I would deign to use canned pumpkin. Oy.
Ignore the chewed up part around the edge, which was due to the clumsy hands of the baker.
Last year was the first time I experimented with making a pie with fresh pumpkin. We bought a sugar pumpkin at the beginning of fall because our godson was obsessed with pumpkins. Basically, we bought a pumpkin just so we could watch him carry his tiny pumpkin around the apartment saying “da puh-kin” over and over. After a few weeks, Aidan suggested that we might actually use the pumpkin for something, so I roasted and pureed it following the instructions at Oh She Glows and then baked it into a pie using a Cooks Illustrated recipe that calls for cooking the pumpkin mixture down before baking the pie. The result turned out to be easily the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever made. At first, I just assumed that this was because I had used a different, better recipe. But when Thanksgiving rolled around, I made the same recipe with canned pumpkin and while it was really good, it lacked a certain something that kept it from being the kind of out-of-this-world pie that the first one was. I made this recipe again this year with fresh pumpkin and even though I was a teaspoon short on ground ginger, the pie was excellent.
And so, since then, my feelings about the canned vs. fresh pumpkin debate have been complicated. Fresh pumpkin can be a wonderful thing, but it’s not the only way to go and it’s not without it’s complications. Canned pumpkin make a really good pie. And what’s more, it’s reliable and does not involve the extra prep work and planning that making your own puree involves. Making your own puree isn’t difficult, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t kind of a PITA, especially if you’re in a high-stakes baking situation or juggling the preparation of lots of different dishes (hello, Thanksgiving).
But making a good puree depends on getting good pumpkins. You need the little ones that are called sugar pumpkins or pie pumpkins. One of the aforementioned terrible pies was made by one of the aforementioned cooking-inept foodies who could recite the many virtues of spelt flour but did not understand that different varieties of pumpkins have different uses. Getting good pumpkins might also involve buying them earlier in the season, and possibly even processing them and freezing the puree ahead of time, to make sure that you aren’t left choosing from a selection of picked-over, dried-out, late-season pumpkins. (I’ll be honest—I bought a can of back-up pumpkin in case the pumpkin we bought this year turned out to be crappy.)
And finally, the biggest issue with fresh puree is that it tends to be more watery than canned puree, and the extra liquid will throw the proportions of your pie filling out of whack. After I pureed my pumpkin, I let it sit in a fine mesh strainer over a bowl for 30 minutes. At the end, I had roughly 2.5 cups of puree and nearly a cup of liquid that had drained away. Draining the pumpkin is often listed as an “optional, but recommended” step to making fresh puree. Looking at that cup of liquid, I’m not sure how optional it is if you want good results.
In addition to straining the puree to get rid of any excess liquid, cooking the pumpkin down a bit also helps improve the final texture of your pie. That’s one of many reasons why I really love this Cooks Illustrated recipe. While cooking the filling before baking involves some extra steps and dirties a pan, the result is a wonderfully smooth, rich texture. And while I’m kind of moony-eyed about how this pie turns out with fresh pumpkin, this recipe also works wonderfully with canned pumpkin. This pie has great flavor. If you compare the ingredients list to other pumpkin pie recipes, you might expect the amount of spice in this pie recipe to be overwhelming. It’s definitely well-spiced but it’s not too much—the spices just make a pumpkin pie that tastes truly decadent and rich. The original recipe uses a traditional pie crust, but I like to make pumpkin pie in a graham cracker crust. There are lots of benefits to a graham cracker crust: 1) it’s a delicious flavor compliment to the pie filling, 2) it’s quicker and less fussy than making a traditional crust, and 3) you can invite your favorite toddler over to share the leftover crackers and watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and, in under an hour, you will have made a best friend for life.
I hope you had an excellent Thanksgiving with plenty of good pie!
Spicy Pumpkin Pie (crust adapted from Martha Stewart, filling adapted from Cooks Illustrated)
Recipe notes: The recipe calls for using a food processor to mix the filling. Each time I’ve made this recipe, I’ve used my food processor with good results. If you don’t have a food processor, you could definitely use a blender, but I don’t see why you couldn’t also use an electric mixer. It might result in a slightly different texture, but I’d be surprised if it were a significant difference. The key thing would be to make sure that you have the mixer going as you start to pour the pumpkin mixture into the eggs so that you don’t scramble your eggs. This is easy enough if you have a stand mixer. If you only have a hand-held mixer, you probably want to enlist a kitchen helper.
In my experience, this recipe makes more filling than will actually fill a regular 9” pie plate. Last Thanksgiving, I increased the graham cracker crust recipe by 50% and made the pie in a spring form pan instead (as if I were making a cheesecake). This is a good route to go if you like a higher filling-to-crust ratio but it doesn’t look very traditional. You could also pick up a package of pre-made miniature graham cracker pie shells and fill them with your left overs. You could keep your mini-pies as a gift to yourself, but giving a kid their own personal mini pie is another way to make a fast friend. Of course, you would need to adjust the baking times accordingly for either of these options.
For the crust:
- 12 graham crackers (or 1.5 c of graham cracker crumbs)
- 5 tbsp butter
- 1/4 c granulated sugar
- A pinch of salt (skip this if you use salted butter)
For the filling:
- 2 c of fresh pumpkin puree or 1 15 oz can of plain pumpkin
- 1 c dark brown sugar (packed)
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2/3 c heavy cream
- 2/3 c milk
- 4 large eggs
- To make the crust, pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees F. Pulse the graham crackers in a food processor until you have fine crumbs. Melt the butter and drizzle over the crumbs. Add in the sugar and salt, if using. Pulse the ingredients together until combined. Dump the mixture into a 9” pie plate and press firmly into the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate. Bake until golden, about 10 minutes.
- When the crust is done baking, turn the oven up to 400 degrees F.
- To make the filling, pulse the pumpkin, dark brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt together in a food processor for about a minute. Pour the pumpkin mixture into a medium sauce pan and bring it to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once the mixture starts sputtering, continue to cook for another five minutes, stirring constantly to keep the mixture from burning. The pumpkin mixture will be thick and shiny.
- Remove from the heat and whisk in the cream and milk. I do this in batches, adding half the cream, whisking to combine, adding the rest of the cream, whisking, and then repeating the process with the milk. Return the pumpkin mix to and heat it through, removing it from the heat as soon as it begins to simmer.
- Pulse the eggs in the food processor to combine the whites and yolks. With the processor running, slowly pour about half of the pumpkin mixture into the eggs. (I transferred half of the pumpkin to a glass measuring cup for this step for more controlled pouring.) Stop the food processor and add the rest of the pumpkin mixture to the egg mixture. Pulse the filling until everything is mixed well.
- Carefully pour the filling into your prepared crust, being careful not to overfill the crust. The pie will settle a bit while baking. After the pie has been in the oven for about 5 minutes, you can carefully ladle some of the excess filling into the pie.
- Bake the pie at 400 degrees F for about 25 minutes, until the filling is puffy and appears dry. The filling should still wiggle at the center if you gently shake the pie. Allow the pie to cool on a wire rack.