Like most, I grew up on the pumpkin pie from the back of the Libby’s label. The crust may have been homemade or may have been a Pillsbury crust, I don’t really recall, but the pumpkin came from a can. Mixed with fresh eggs, various seasonal spices and a can of evaporated milk it was the holiday standard. When I was old enough to assume pie responsibilities, I follwed the recipe religiously and produced two beautiful pies. There was never deviation from this plan. Don’t mess with tradition; there are dire consequences. The pie was always, always, served with Reddi-Whip right out of the can. In fact, squirting copious amounts of Reddi-Whip directly into our mouths while hiding behind the refrigerator door was an important part of my sisters’ and my holiday tradition. Our mother was on watch as soon as the groceries were unpacked and would listen for that telltale sound. With ears like a hawk, we never quite pulled it off.
Though it was delicious and Thanksgiving would not be complete without this particular pie, as I got older and started baking more, I began to think less of it. Canned pumpkin; how gauche! I think it’s a common perception that using a canned product is cheating. Real chefs use real pumpkin, I thought and anything less was inferior. I was a snot.
So one year, all high and mighty with my professional pastry chef credentials, I made the pie completely from scratch. I bought a heavy sugar pumpkin from the farmers market. I roasted, peeled and pureed it’s bright orange flesh. I mixed it with fresh eggs and cream and carefully poured the mixture into a homemade butter/lard pie crust. I cooled it properly, so it didn’t crack, and chilled it thoroughly. I served it proudly with freshly whipped local cream and a tinge of superiority at my Thanksgiving feast. I was master of the universe.
That pie sucked. It was loose, flavorless and bland. The filling didn’t have any of the deep rich flavors of the Libby’s pie, nor any of silky custardy texture I so loved. It was a ton of work and surprisingly messy – multiple pans, spoons, spatulas and the food mill saw a lot of combat action in the making of this pie. It was so disappointing in so many ways.
This was the moment, and there have been many, when I got off my high horse and accepted that sometimes a canned product is just fine. Let Libby’s do the work because working from scratch is an ordeal. That canned pumpkin – not the pie filling, the canned pumpkin – is 100% pumpkin puree. Nothing else. Does it have the pedigree of a farm raised, organic, heritage pumpkin? No, but does it need to? I think there’s enough going on in a Thanksgiving prep kitchen that you shouldn’t have to worry about, much less feel guilty and inferior, about not roasting your own pumpkin. Open the damn can and pour yourself a drink.
I came across this particular recipe in Bon Appétit many years ago and it is nearly identical to the Libby’s recipe except it has fresh milk and cream in place of the evaporated milk. I find I greatly prefer it this way as the texture is even more silky and creamy. I also add a little ground cardamom and salt to deepen that classic spicy fall flavor.
The pie dough is my standard butter dough but feel free to use your favorite. And if you must, a round of purchased Pillsbury is fine too. I understand the stress of holiday cooking – with a homemade filling, do what you need to do for the crust. To ensure success though, make sure you par-bake the crust first so it stays nice and crisp and doesn’t become soggy with that custard filling. This where I sit proudly on that high horse and look down upon those who don’t par-bake. Do it.
Now then, you may notice in my photos, the baked pie has a big crack down the center. That, as I’m sure you are aware, is not ideal and the result of two things, possibly a combination of both. One is overcooking. The pie should be baked until the outside edges are set but the center jiggles just a bit. The second is a cooling issue. Egg-based custard pies should be cooled gently. Too quickly – say, from oven to fridge – causes the egg proteins to contract too quickly resulting in cracks. Remove the pie from the oven to a wire rack and let cool gently to room temperature, then place in the fridge to chill for several hours. Plan ahead – do not rush this like I did.
But if you do, and it happens to the best of us, and find you have a giant craters bisecting your pie, get the piping bag and the fancy tip out. A couple discreet swirls of whipped cream and none’s the wiser. I once covered up the Grand Canyon of all fissures on a culinary school exam pie with tiny, intricately detailed leaf pastry cutouts. To my eye, it was blatantly obvious what I was doing but my Chef commented on my beautiful decorative work and gave me an A. My eyes bugged out in barely concealed disbelief but I thanked him and walked away quickly, less he reconsider. Remember, if you make it look pretty, no one will think twice about it. Distractions are a cook’s best friend.
on this blog four years ago: Cider Donuts, Pumpkin Bundt Cake
on this blog three years ago: French Apple Tart
on this blog two years ago: Salted Caramel Apple Pie
on this blog one year ago: Raw Kale and Roasted Squash Salad
other great Thanksgiving/Holiday dessert ideas: Apple Pear Crisp, Classic Apple Pie, Vanilla Bean Cheesecake, Simple Jam Tart, Almond Tea Cake, Dark Chocolate Torte, Chocolate Ganache Tart, Banana Tart Tatin, Apricot Almond Tarts, Chocolate Malt Pots de Crème, Chocolate Banoffee Tart, Pear Frangipane Tart, Ricotta Cheesecake, Gingerbread with Bourbon Sauce, Pineapple Upside Down Cake, Chocolate Pear Clafouti, Chocolate Raspberry Tart, Chocolate Lard Cake, Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Lime Angelfood Cake, Passionfruit Chiffon Cake, Apricot Pistachio Frangipane Tart, Honey Maple Roasted Pears, Chocolate Hazelnut Torte
CLASSIC PUMPKIN PIE WITH GINGER WHIPPED CREAM – slightly adapted from this recipe
Makes one 9” pie – serves 8-10
With pie dough, the key is to keep everything – including your hands – cold. If your mixture starts to warm up, pop it in the refrigerator for a bit then continue.
For the pie dough:
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
9 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
3 Tablespoons ice water
for the filling:
15 ounce can pumpkin purée (2 cups)
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup whole milk
2 large eggs
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- For the pie dough: Cut butter into 1” pieces
- In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt.
- Add the butter to the flout mixture and cut the butter into flour – with your fingers, two butter knives or a pastry blender – until butter is the size of peas. You want chunks.
- Sprinkle ice water over mixture and mix gently with your hands until dough just comes together and ingredients are incorporated. The dough is ready if you squeeze a bit and it holds together. If dough is a bit too dry, add a little more water but resist the urge to add too much water as it will make the dough tough.
- Turn the dough onto work surface and knead briefly to make a smooth ball – no dry scraggly bits.
- Pat the dough into a disc, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven: Adjust oven rack to lower 1/3 of the oven and preheat to 375°F.
- Roll the dough: Remove dough disc from the refrigerator – if stiff and very cold, let stand until dough is cool and malleable, about 5-10 minutes.
- Lightly flour the work surface and the top of the dough and roll into a 12” circle.
- Transfer to a 9” pie plate by rolling the dough up onto the pin and unrolling into the plate. Regarding pie plates – glass is best because you can see the bottom but ceramic and metal will work too.
- Gently ease the dough into the sides of the pan, careful not to stretch.
- Trim dough to ½” beyond the pan lip and tuck this dough overhang underneath itself so the folded edge is flush with the pan lip.
- Flute or crimp the edge:
- Use your thumb of one hand and the thumb and index finger of your other hand to create evenly spaced fluted edges.
- Place your left thumb/index finger, spaced about ¾” apart, against the inner lip of the dough.
- Take your right thump and push into the space between the left thumb/index finger, creating a “v” shape in the dough. Continue around the entire crust.
- Other ideas: use just your thumb to create semicircular indents; use a fork; attach decorative cut-outs made from scrap pie dough along the rim with some beaten egg.
14. Freeze the empty pie shell until firm – at least 30 minutes.
15. Prebake the pie shell: Crumple up a piece of parchment paper, flatten out and line the frozen shell. Pour in pie weights – metal, ceramic, dried beans or uncooked rice – place the frozen pie shell on a silpat or parchment lined sheet pan and bake 17 minutes.
16. Rotate the pie shell and continue to bake 9 minutes until lightly golden brown. Remove and set aside until needed.
17. Make the filling: In a large bowl, whisk pumpkin purée, cream, milk, eggs, brown sugar, salt and spices.
18. Pour filling into pre-baked pie shell
19. Bake: bake the filled pie 45-50 minutes until filling is set but center still trembles and jiggles slightly. If crust becomes too dark during baking, cover edges with aluminum foil and continue.
20. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely then chill for at least 4 hours; serve with ginger whipped cream. TIP: to avoid a cracked filling, let cool to room temperature before chilling. Serve with ginger whipped cream. Or a good squirt of ReddiWhip.
21. Make ahead: the pie dough can be made up to 2 months in advance and frozen, tightly wrapped. Let defrost in the fridge overnight. The dough can also be rolled, crimped and refrigerated right in the pan up to 2 days in advance, tightly wrapped. The pie can be fully baked up to 1 day ahead.
GINGER WHIPPED CREAM
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tablespoons powdered sugar, or to taste
1 Tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger, or to taste
- In a bowl with an electric mixer beat the cream and powdered sugar to soft peak stage (thick but not stiff.)
- On low, mix in the ginger. If under whipped slightly, you can do this several hours in advance. Keep chilled and rewhip a few minutes to stiffen just before serving.