I guess I like Thanksgiving so much because more than any other holiday the focus is on food. The traditional dinner of turkey with stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie has become iconic. It’s hard to think of any of them without thinking of Thanksgiving.
I have not always been a fan of pumpkin pie. Most likely that’s because it was one of my mother’s favorites. For whatever reason, I tended to dislike whatever she liked and visa versa. Since we were brought up in the South, she would always make candied sweet potatoes and cornbread dressing (baked outside of the turkey). When we moved to Wisconsin, I embraced mashed potatoes and gravy. For me, bread stuffing is the only reason to roast a turkey.
It took me a lot longer to like pumpkin pie. Perhaps it was the texture. Pumpkin after all is a squash, and squash was one of the few things I wouldn’t eat well into adulthood. I can also remember trying to eat a lot of pumpkin pies with soggy crusts. And too often it brings to mind fake whipped cream—the only thing I loathe more than Jell-O is Cool Whip.
But I am not a purist. True, when I cook I’m very conscious about the ingredients I use and their provenance. It was inevitable, like it or not, I would make pumpkin pie since people expect it at Thanksgiving. Besides, I have made nearly every kind of pie known to man (I have pictures of pies on my Facebook page). It seemed logical that a good pumpkin pie would begin with fresh pumpkin. I knew you had to find the right variety—not a jack-o-lantern. I carted home one from the Farmers Market guaranteed to be perfect. After all the cooking and pureeing, I ended up with something that very much resembled what comes out of the can, only the color seemed very anemic.
After performing this pumpkin preparation ritual several times, I tried the canned and haven’t felt the need to switch since. I never have been tempted to try the canned “pumpkin pie mix”—what’s up with that? I assume most of the people who do use it, plop it into a premade crust. If you require that kind of convenience, just purchase an already baked pie.
I also use evaporated milk. For a long time, I assumed that the synonymy of this product with the holiday dessert was just successful marketing by the Carnation Company. Evaporated milk is made by cooking fresh milk until 60% of the water evaporates. Canned, it has a long shelf life. It became popular during a time when refrigeration was a luxury. Unlike sweetened condensed milk, no sugar is added in the processing. Originally, the concept was to reconstitute evaporated milk with water, equivocating fresh milk. Some creative cook soon discovered it could be used more successfully undiluted as a substitute for cream in cooking.
My experience is evaporated milk produces a more stable custard and better texture. Cream—especially heavy cream—can make the filling too dense. That of course, will depend upon your recipe and the ingredients.
I have experimented with a lot of different kinds of pumpkin pie. My favorite unorthodox version is from The Way to Cook
by Julia Child—she calls it “… a pumpkin soufflé in a pie crust.” I once made a hybrid pumpkin-pecan pie, a cheese-bottom pumpkin pie and even a chocolate pumpkin pie. Whatever recipe you choose, always prebake the crust
before filling and baking.
Most years, I find myself returning to one of my oldest recipes that came from New England. Whether the Pilgrims actually served pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving is debatable. The Pilgrims, however, did introduce pumpkin pie to the New World, bringing the delicacy from England. Oddly the British no longer make it, but then again, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving either.
New England Pumpkin Pie
1 prebaked 10-inch pie shell, made with Basic Pie Pastry
¾ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon molasses
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
Pinch of ground cloves
16-ounce can pumpkin
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 tablespoons rum or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Gradually combine the brown sugar, sugar, flour, molasses and spices. Stir in the pumpkin. Combine the eggs, milk and brandy, rum or bourbon and fold into the pumpkin mixture.
Carefully pour the filling into the prepared pie shell and set in the preheated 375-degree oven. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the center is just set. Cool on a rack.
Serve the pie at room temperature with whipped cream.