When you live as far out in the country as we do, one of the ways of making sense of your surroundings is by learning the common names of plants. Redbud, white oak, pokeweed, mountain mint....
Love it or hate it, pumpkin pie is the quintessential Thanksgiving dessert. I, for one, have always been a fan of its bright orange hue, its custardy texture, and its affinity for whipped cream and mulled cider.
However, pumpkin pie has come to suffer over the years from standardization. Most cooks I know make pumpkin pie almost begrudgingly, and when it comes out of the oven a gummy and mediocre dish, it is chalked up to inevitability--"pumpkin pie is just like that."
However, as we cooks know, sometimes a little improvisation on the original is needed to take a dish to the next level. Why should we simply ride on the aching backs of our forebears, when there may be a better way to a similar end? As JOY so succinctly quotes in the invocation to the 1964 and 1975 editions, "That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it. --Goethe: Faust."
Pumpkin pie is no different. "The ultimate" pumpkin pie remains to be seen, and so we need not hold sacred the old canned-pumpkin-condensed-milk version that is printed so appealingly on the backs of millions of cans of pumpkin each year.
In truth, there is something funny about canned pumpkin--its flavor is more pumpkin-y than pumpkin, and it has a strangely thick texture. If you've ever roasted a pumpkin at home, you know that pumpkins are quite watery, and the flesh is often a more golden color than what finds its way into cans. My best guess is that the breed of pumpkin has something to do with this, although I can't be sure.
In any case, it is high time that we renovate the beloved pumpkin pie to make it a thing worth having in its own right, and not simply as an inevitable component to Thanksgiving.
Over the course of autumn, I have roasted a number of butternut squashes and pumpkins. The farmer's market has been rife with them, and I have a weakness for their wonderful flavors, not to mention their shapely forms. After roasting so many of these cucurbits, I was able to make a few observations. One, butternut squashes do not tend to exude liquid while they cook. Pumpkins, however, have turned my roasting pans into pumpkin juice swamps a number of times, making it very difficult to remove the pan from the oven without sloshing steaming hot, orange-tinted liquid everywhere.
Two, butternut squash flesh is very dense, having an almost custardy texture when cooked. Pumpkin, on the other hand, tends to be grainy and slushy. Three, butternut squash has a very distinct, sweet flavor, while pumpkin more closely resembles other squashes.
Taking these findings to heart, I decided that the best course of action was to make pumpkin pie minus the pumpkin. As it turns out, butternut squash is better suited to the making of pies than pumpkin is. This is less of a criticism than a culinary fact. Of course, using canned pumpkin negates this issue, but if you want to make a from-scratch "pumpkin" pie, I advise you to use butternut squash.
The base of my recipe is directly from JOY. I have updated it slightly, though, to make my ideal "pumpkin" pie. I have included several substitutions, however, in case you are more of a traditionalist. I must say, though, you will not be sorry that you made this modern take on pumpkin pie.
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If making your crust from scratch, which I highly recommend (it is Thanksgiving, after all!), please review my Let Them Eat Pie series. You may also use plain old canned pumpkin instead of butternut squash.
Roast the squash (this can be done up to 3 days ahead of time). Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Cut off the stem and blossom ends of:
1 large butternut squash (2 pounds)
Cut the squash in two, width-wise, to separate the long neck from the bulbous end where the seeds are. Then, cut each half of the squash in half again, lengthwise this time. Scoop the seeds out of the bulbous end. Place the quartered squash flesh-side down on a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil. Bake until completely tender, about 30 to 45 minutes.
When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh into a food processor or blender. Purée the squash until very smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
1/2 recipe of my Basic All-Butter Crust
Roll the dough and transfer to a 9-inch pie pan. Chill for 30 minutes. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425˚F.
Prick the dough all over with a fork, and line with parchment paper (I use this stuff--it makes removing the pie weights a snap, and it's reusable). Fill with pie weights or dried beans. Blind bake the crust until the edges start to brown, about 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 400˚F, remove the parchment and pie weights, and brush the crust with:
1 egg yolk, beaten
Return to the oven until the egg yolk has dried, about 5 minutes.
Make the filling. In a large bowl, whisk together:
2 cups cooked squash or pumpkin purée
1 1/2 cups coconut milk or cream, heavy cream, or evaporated milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
(1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger)
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
(1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves or allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pour the filling into the warm pie crust and bake until the center of the pie just barely jiggles when you shake it gently, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Cool completely on a rack. The pie may be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Serve cold or at room temperature, accompanied with:
Whipped cream flavored with 2 tablespoons bourbon, if desired