I have a friend named Suz who grew up in Cowra, Australia reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books and dreaming about America.
She would immerse herself in tales of life in the big woods, on the prairie, and on the farm, tapping trees for maple syrup, and as she read, she dreamed about pumpkin pie.
She remembers, in particular, passages from Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy that presented the pie as the treat of all treats, and the reward of all rewards. At the end of the book, the future of a young boy named Almanzo is being decided by his mother and father during a conversation over supper. Almanzo eats some roast pork, some apple sauce, and takes a long swig of milk...”and then, he sighed and tucked his napkin farther in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie. He cut off the quivering point of golden-brown pumpkin, dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and his mouth and nose were spicy.”
Suz’s fantasies of pumpkin pie remained intact for decades. When she was in her 20s, she moved to the United States, and was invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving. Finally, it was time for dessert, and she tucked her napkin farther in, and reached for her first-ever pumpkin pie, and took a bite.
“I have to say my bubble was burst, Pem,” she says. “I discovered it was cold, and hard, and gelatinous.”
Scarred, she fled back to Australia.
Just kidding. She did leave the United States for a bit for her home country for a variety of reasons, but now she’s back with a husband and her two boys, and she recently was talking with a family member who will be hosting Thanksgiving this year.
The subject of pies arose.
Suz quickly offered to bring some. Apple. And peach. From Bishop’s Orchards Farm Market.
No One Way to Do It
It may be beyond our ability to ever bring Suz back to the pumpkin pie side, but, intrigued by her story, I asked some friends how they made their pies, convinced there was a right way to do this.
In fact, it seems there are many right ways to do this. Our country’s history with pumpkin pie-like dishes goes way back, predating even the arrival of the first European immigrants. Pumpkins and gourds were a food staple of Native Americans. Still, it’s unlikely that even the first European settlers had the luxury of supplies sufficient enough to make a pie crust. Some of the first recipes for pumpkin pie like those we make today start to appear in cookbooks around the 1670s, and while most of them do call for a wide variety of traditional pumpkin pie spices and some call for sugar, the recipes don’t specify how much sugar.
That, in fact, is one of the first choices a pumpkin pie maker has to make: sweet, or more toward savory? Many recipes called for a can of sweetened condensed milk, some call for two cans, and some call for two cans, plus some brown sugar.
Some recipes call for pre-packaged pumpkin pie spice, which often includes some variation of nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice, but many of the most avid pumpkin pie lovers I know create their own spice mix, often grating spices fresh in a coffee grinder, and then sometimes toasting them beforehand to make sure they provide the optimal depth of flavor.
Priscilla Martel, the chef and cookbook author who lives in Chester, says freshly ground spices will definitely improve the pie. She uses cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.
“We keep a coffee grinder to use exclusively for grinding spices. Run rice between unfriendly spices,” she says, adding that they grate fresh nutmeg in a tarp grater.
You can sometimes find fresh spices locally at Food Works, with locations in Guilford and Old Saybrook, that can be purchased in just the amounts you need at that time, relieving you of the temptation to use out-of-date spices the following year just because you have some leftover.
Other recommendations for great spices include: Penzeys (www.penzeys.com), Kalustyans (www.kalustyans.com), or The Spicehouse (www.thespicehouse.com)
Pumpkin Pie Tips and Tricks
Here are some other pumpkin pie tips and tricks:
• Whipped cream is key. Reddi-Wip is fine in some cases, but not for pumpkin pie. Make your own with heavy whipping cream, adding only as much sugar as you like. Put the metal mixing bowl and metal whisk in the freezer for about 10 minutes before hand, and whipped to desired thickness, usually until stiff peaks form. It can be stored for about 8 to 10 hours.
• Don’t bother with making your own pumpkin filling. Canned pumpkin will do just fine, and even better because some of our native varieties are not ideal for pumpkin pie, since they are either too wet or too fibrous.
• Sherry McKee of Guilford says before you mix in the other ingredients, cook the pumpkin filling over medium-low to medium heat, so that it caramelizes the sugars. Cook it, watching carefully, until the color deepens, and it starts to smell a little bit like brown sugar.
• Whatever recipe you use, double the spices, says Kelly Cosgrove of Guilford.
• Use the pie pan size specified in the recipe. If no size is specified, use standard 9-inch pie pan that is about an 1 ½ inch deep. If there is any leftover filling, you can bake it in little ramekins.
• Remove the pie from the oven before it is all the way cooked through. It will look jiggly, but it will continue to cook a bit after it is out of the oven, and leaving it in until it’s cooked through will overcook it.
• Consider switching out the traditional pie crust for a graham cracker crust, says Marty Weiss of Guilford. Weiss is married to Kelly Cosgrove, who says she uses the graham cracker crust mainly because it’s easier than making one from scratch, but clearly it’s a big hit in her house.
• If you’re going to use a traditional pie crust, says Peter Lynch of North Haven, use the recipe in Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours. He also recommends crust cutters from Wiliams Sonoma, which come in a variety of fall and holiday shapes.
• If your recipe calls for additional brown sugar, substitute maple syrup instead. Some say this totally overwhelms the flavor of the pumpkin. Others say that’s the point.
• Amp it up with a layer of sugary cream cheese that has a dash of vanilla.
• Use peaches instead of pumpkin
• From my friend Dan Barry: “Entenmann’s”
• And from my friend Adrian Price: “Forget all that, walk into Costco and get theirs! It’s amazing and cheap! Feeds 16 people easy!”
Pumpkin Pie ala the Jayman
This recipe is from Fay Abrahamsson of Killingworth, who used to work for this paper, and who used to write a column called In the Kitchen with Fay. She got it from a friend of hers, Jayson James, aka “the Jayman.” The original recipe is on old shiny fax paper.
“It’s an indulgent pie with the addition of the cream cheese, but I find that the creamy texture of the cheese complements the pumpkin flavor and adds interest to the often large expanse of plain pumpkin pie filling often found in other pies,” Abrahamsson says. “It’s always been a hit at any holiday or gathering!”
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Start with one 9-inch homemade pie crust lightly pressed into the bottom of a pie dish, or one store-bought pie shell in its own tin. With a fork, prick the dough once.
8 oz. package cream cheese, at room temperature
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ tsp. pure vanilla abstract
1 egg, ever-so-slightly beaten (à la the Jayman)
Mix the above ingredients well with a hand-held electric mixer. Pour into the bottom of the unbaked pie shell.
15 oz. can of cooked pumpkin
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
Dash of sea salt
2 eggs, ever-so-slightly beaten (à la the Jayman)
5 fl. oz. can of evaporated milk
Mix the above ingredients together well. Pour gently on top of the cream cheese mixture. Bake pie at 350 degrees for 60- to 70 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Let cool, refrigerate if desired, and served with lightly sweetened whipped cream.
Patrick Lynch’s Pumpkin Pie
Another great recipe comes to us from Patrick Lynch, an artist, author, designer, and photographer from North Haven who recently published A Field Guide to Long Island Sound. On his blog, with entries that include subjects like least sandpipers and Labrador duck drakes, there are several recipes, including this one.
“No orange mush,” Lynch declares. “This is a dark, rich, spicy pumpkin pie I’ve refined over the years with pinches of cloves and mace.”
Check out the original post, along with his other posts and recipes at coastfieldguides.com/recipes/desserts/pumpkin-pie.
Makes: 1 9.5 inch pie
Time: About 80 minutes
Your favorite pie crust recipe (mine is from Dorie Greenspan’s superb Baking)
2 cans pumpkin filling (15 oz)
2 cans (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
4 large eggs
1 ½ cups brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Line a pie plate with crust. The crust pattern in the photo above was done with these pie crust cutters.
Pour in the filling, but leave at least a half inch below the crust rim. The filling will puff up about 20 percent during final part of baking, but then settle as it cools once out of the oven.
Bake about 45- to 50 minutes at 375°, until the filling is well puffed up and the surface is a deep golden brown.
Libby’s Pumpkin Pie Original Recipe from 1950
This is the original Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe, the one on the labels. It’s basic and straightforward, and will let the flavor of the basic ingredients shine through.
¾ cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 can Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin (15 oz)
1 can Nestlé Carnation Evaporated Milk
1 unbaked 9-inch deep-dish pie shell (4-cup volume)
1. Mix sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger, and cloves in small bowl.
2. Beat eggs in large bowl.
3. Stir in pumpkin and sugar-spice mixture.
4. Gradually stir in evaporated milk.
5. Pour into pie shell.
6. Bake in preheated 425° oven for 15 minutes.
7. Reduce temperature to 350° and bake for 40- to 50 minutes more or until knife inserted near center comes out clean.
8. Cool on wire rack for 2 hours.
9. Serve immediately or refrigerate for two days.
10. Top with whipped cream before serving.