Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Perfect Pumpkin Pie

We all know that pumpkin pie is a quintessential fall dessert. Once we start seeing the cans of pumpkin goo on the shelves at stores, the frenzy begins. I am personally an offender of buying the canned stuff, and I actually do not mind it. However, growing up, I was spoiled by my Grandma making her own "pumpkin" (and I say "pumpkin" because she did sneak in squash…a lot…I remember a particular pumpkin pie making experience with my Mom and sister: we were in the kitchen, and ran out of pumpkin. So, my Mom used squash. I was horrified. Squash? In a pie? What the hell?). But now I realize that the squash was nothing to be scared of-and I also do not recall giving a damn when eating that "pumpkin" pie. It was delicious.

Pumpkin Pie: Version 2.0
This year, I decided to make my own pumpkin puree. The process was pretty darn simple to no warrant doing it every year…I think the hardest part, of which I gracefully handed off to my boyfriend, was scraping the inside of the pie pumpkins. The pumpkin puree extravaganza is included below.

Now, for the pie. Let me tell you about my pumpkin pie making experience  thus far this year: it was a pain in the ass, and I learned a few things. Above all, I discovered that pumpkin pie is something that you keep simple. You do not mess with it: do not put it into a tart shell; do not par-bake your crust; do not put galangal root in your custard in place of ginger; do not let your significant other be in a room alone with the pumpkin pie; and don't be afraid to use lots of spices.

This is what happens, pie murder, when you leave a pie un-attended. In a fit of rage, I made version 2.0, with the improvements listed mentioned here. Totally worth it!
But there were a few things I learned to improve upon the perfect pumpkin pie: as in any pie pastry, make it ahead, and chill it; you can boil down your milk to concentrate it (as opposed to buying canned condensed milk-I mean, why would you put canned condensed milk into homemade pumpkin puree?); it is very respectable to strain your custard, or even better, blend it in a blender, food processor, or with a immersion blender-I found that this step lender an airy quality to the custard; it is advisable to use a coffee filter or cheese cloth strain your pumpkin puree if it is watery (as my homemade puree was fairly watery); alternatively, you can cook your pumpkin puree on a stovetop to rid some water from it.

I know: I said keep it simple. And all that rubbish above seems counter. But I assure you, it is all worth it. By heating your milk and/or pumpkin puree, you are not only reducing moisture, but you are pre-heating the custard before baking. The reduced moisture will assure a less-soggy crust post-bake (and eliminate the need to blind bake your crust), and a pre-heated custard will most surely prevent cracking of your custard during baking. Straining or blending your custard will make a silky smooth and homogenous custard, beautifully flecked with the spices you choose to incorporate.

Now, a word on how many eggs to use: my inner-food science-geek thinks that if you have a higher moisture pumpkin puree, it may be advisable to add an additional egg. The additional proteins will help bind the additional water and create a more firm (not to be confused with stable!) gel, and the lecithin in the yolks will help stabilize and evenly disperse oil droplets within the water that is trapped within the gel matrix. Both will help prevent "syneresis": the squeezing of liquid from the gel's protein matrix, resulting in a soggy crust and layer of moisture on the top of the pie. It really comes down to controlling water, and moisture migration. But there is one sad, sad truth for all pies: the water activity of the crust is typically lower than that of the filling. This results in a gradient that is satisfied by water moving from the filling to the crust, restoring equilibrium, and leaving you with a soggy crust. Sigh. But really: what pie hangs around long enough to get a soggy bottom? You could introduce a moisture barrier, but we won't go there now. And good news: my pie's bottom stayed fairly dry for about 3 days.

Now, to the Bat Cave….erm, I mean recipes!

Pumpkin Puree
Yield will depend on how big your pumpkins are, and how many you decide to bake. I recommend making a large batch, and freezing in tightly sealed containers for up to 6 months. I used 2, 8" diameter pumpkins and got about 6 cups of puree (enough for approximately 3 pies).

Pie Pumpkins, ranging from 4" to 8" in diameter

Baking Sheet
Aluminum Foil
Metal Spoon
Sharp Knife
Cutting Board
Food Processor
Containers for storage (optional)

Pre-heat your oven to 350F. Line the baking sheet with aluminum foil. Wash your pumpkins with warm water and a dash of soap. Dry thoroughly-you don't want a pumpkin to slip when you are chopping it in half.

With you sharp knife, cut the stem-end off the pumpkin. This provides a stable, flat base for cutting the entire thing in half.
Be-heading a pumpkin is a little sad….
Slice the pumpkin in half, going through the long ways. Scoop out the seeds and guts, reserve if you wish to bake the seeds.

Place the halved pumpkins on the lined baking sheet cut side up, and tightly cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours; this time will vary, so I recommend checking your pumpkins after an hour by piercing with a sharp knife or fork. The flesh should be easily pierced and soft when it is done.

Turn the oven off, and remove the pumpkins from the oven. Keep the aluminum foil on, and cool to room temperature. You can place in the fridge now, or, continue. Scoop out the flesh, and place into a food processor.

 Do this in batches. I found that my pumpkin was a bit dry, so it took some convincing, swearing, and spatula-scraping to get the pumpkin puree completely smooth.

If freezing, place into containers, packing the puree to the top and tightly covering to omit headspace and prevent freezer burn. If you wish to keep it in the fridge for later use, it will keep for up to 1 week.

Pumpkin Puree! Don't you feel like…amazing…for making your own!

Pumpkin Pie
Makes one, 10" diameter pie


For the Custard:
2 1/2 cups pumpkin puree, strained with cheesecloth for a few hours (up to over night) if watery
2 cups milk, preferably 2%, whole or half and half
3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup honey
scant 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 heaping teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

For the pastry:
4 ounces, or 1 stick butter, chilled
1 1/4 cups all purpose, unbleached flour, plus additional for rolling
1/2 teaspoon salt (reduce if using salted butter)
2 teaspoons sugar (optional, for browning)
2 tablespoons ice water
2 tablespoons vodka (or 2 additional tablespoons ice water)


For the Custard:
Blender, food processor, immersion blender
medium sauce pan
Measuring Cups and Spoons

For the Pastry:
Medium sized bowl
Sharp Knife or Bench Scraper
Measuring Cups and Spoons
Pastry Cutter or Fork
Rolling Pin
10" diameter pie tin or plate (could be smaller, just not larger; you'll have extra filling if you use a smaller size)


First, make your pastry. You can do this up to two days in advance, and you better not be thinking of "just using the frozen crap".  In a pinch, you can prepare the pastry first, let it rest in the fridge, then get on with the custard as the pastry rests.In a bowl, sift the flour, salt, sugar together.
I used 2 teaspoons brown sugar in my crust
Dice the chilled butter into cubes.

I used slated, hand-rolled Amish butter form Wisconsin. No big deal. 
Then, prepare your ice water, and grab your vodka if using.
Yep, I know-using Grey Goose is entirely not necessary. But it was all I had.
Into the sifted dry mixture, add half the butter. Work into pea-ish sized chunks with a pastry cutter or fork. Add the second half, and work into slightly smaller chunks; it is fine to have some larger ones, for this will make a flakey pastry!

Now, using a tablespoon, sprinkle the water and/or vodka over dry ingredients. Using a fork and/or pastry cutter, work the liquids in until a homogenous dough forms. Add a dash more water or vodka if the pastry is dry or not coming together; during the winter months, the air contains less moisture, so your flour may absorb more liquid. The pastry should hold a shape when squeezed in your hand. It is alright if some dry specks are left on the bottom of the bowl.

Turn the pastry onto a floured surface, sprinkle some flour on top, and form the pastry into a disk. Wrap with plastic wrap, and place into the fridge.

When ready to prepare the pie, remove the pastry from the fridge and allow to come up to room temperature. Pre-heat your oven to 400F. On a well floured surface, roll out the pastry until it is large enough to fit inside the pan, with a 1" overhang around the edges. Trim excess, and fold under.

Crimp the edges with a fork, or using your fingers:

I know the nail polish is not good manufacturing practice friendly...
The pastry is ready to be filled, and baked!

Now, onto the custard:

Strain your pumpkin puree, if desired: set up a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter atop a bowl or other vessel, and allow to drain up to overnight:

Into the medium sauce pan, add the milk. On medium heat, bring to a simmer, and allow the milk to simmer for 10-15 minutes, whisking occasionally. Meanwhile, measure out your spices, and grate the ginger.

 In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs and yolk with the honey, salt and sugar. Set up your blending apparatus.

 After the milk has simmered, remove from the heat, and whisk in the strained pumpkin puree.
While whisking, slowly add the egg, sugar and honey mixture to the warm pumpkin-milk puree. Return the entire mixture to the heat, and while whisking constantly, bring to a slow simmer. Be careful to not heat on high, or else you may curdle the eggs. If you do, never fear-you are blending the custard.

Once the mixture has come to a simmer, carefully pour into a blender, or, using an immersion blender, blend the custard with the spices. Taste the custard for spice, and adjust as necessary.

Pour the blended custard into the prepared pastry shell, and bake in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes. Then, turn the heat down to 300F, and bake for 25-30 minutes longer. The pie is done when the filling is firm to the touch, and has lost the glossy-sheen.

Your crust will retain a shape much better if you chill it! Mind did not, as I did not chill it overnight as you should.
Let the pie cool completely before serving….and enjoy plain, with whipped cream, or vanilla ice cream. Makes for a perfect breakfast treat as well, full of vitamin A!

Happy Autumn!

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