This story started as a conversation between two food writers.
Thanksgiving is one of the most challenging times of year to come up with story ideas. We've all written about the trends, the traditions and the turkey, and finding a new way to cover the oldest and most important American food holiday is virtually impossible.
I admitted to the other food writer, Erica, that I had never much cared for pumpkin pie, that I'd never baked a pie or written the requisite Thanksgiving pie story.
She suggested I try making a pie with a real pumpkin instead of the canned stuff. I'd always heard it wasn't worth the extra work. She vehemently disagreed, and I had my Thanksgiving story idea: Bake one of each kind of pumpkin pie and figure out for myself which is better.
Opinions are mixed when it comes to the how-to of pumpkin pie-making. Some people swear there's virtually no difference between canned and straight-from-the-gourd fillings. Others — mostly people who have tried the pie made from a real pumpkin — swear its better. And if not better, at least different.
One in-depth New York Times story set out to determine which kind of squash is best for making a pumpkin pie. The research suggested a butternut or acorn squash, but for the purpose of my story, I wanted to cook with an actual pumpkin, not one of its squash cousins.
I made a few decisions, choosing two pie recipes: one for “fresh” pumpkin pie that came from Taste of Home magazine and a second for a pie with canned filling that used a mix of unsweetened canned pumpkin and canned yams from America's Test Kitchen.
I brought a medium-sized pie pumpkin home and set to work.
The crust making went off seamlessly — I made both pie crusts at once, as though I were baking a double crust pie. The canned pie required me to pre-bake the crust and cook the filling on the stovetop; both the cooked crust and the filling needed to be warm when I put them together. It took me much longer than I anticipated to get the first pie in the oven.
While it baked, I set to butchering the pumpkin, which, it turns out, is no easy feat.
I struggled with my biggest, sharpest chef's knife to get through the skin, which wasn't that thick but was hard as a rock. I broke into a sweat as the pumpkin slipped and spun around my countertop. I finally got a finger in between a cut I'd made and pried the two halves apart. It split with a loud crack and launched shards of pumpkin all over my kitchen.
From there on out, it was easy: Scoop out the seeds, microwave the two halves of the pumpkin for about 15 minutes, then scoop out the flesh. I used my stand mixer to blend the filling, but it would have been just as easy with a spoon and bowl. The filling was runnier than I expected. If I make the pie again, I'd roughly chop the pieces of big pumpkin instead of leaving them intact.
An hour later, I had two completely different looking pies sitting side by side on my countertop.
The pie I made with the cooked pumpkin looked almost like a pecan pie, with a rich brown bubbly top. The canned pie looked, well, like every pumpkin pie you've ever seen.
I took both pies to work to let my coworkers be the judge. Most of them noted that the texture was the biggest difference. Instead of being completely smooth like the canned pumpkin pie, the one made with cooked pumpkin had a lumpier texture, but not in a bad way. In fact, everyone who tried it liked it better.
The denser texture of the cooked pumpkin pie made a nice background for the spices, and the clove stood out, adding richness. And despite the filling looking quite thin when I poured it in the crust, it thickened nicely once it was baked.
The time difference in baking the two pies was minuscule because I had to cook the canned filling on the stove and I had to microwave and scoop the flesh out of the pie pumpkin. The only thing that made the real pumpkin pie a touch more challenging was the elbow grease required for butchering the pumpkin.
Is there a difference? Yes. Would I make a pumpkin pie with a pie pumpkin again? Yes. Is one better? That depends on your taste. To my taste, the sweat equity that went into the real pumpkin pie is definitely worth it.
The other lesson I learned: Listen to your fellow food writer. She's probably right.
PUMPKIN PIE: THE RECIPES
Fresh Pumpkin Pie
1 medium pie pumpkin
Pastry for single-crust pie
¾ cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup 2 percent milk
Cut pumpkin in half lengthwise; discard seeds. Place cut side down in a microwave-safe dish; add 1 inch of water. Cover and microwave on high for 15-18 minutes or until very tender. Meanwhile, roll out pastry to fit a 9-inch pie plate. Transfer pastry to pie plate. Trim pastry to ½ inch beyond edge of plate; flute edges. Set aside.
Drain pumpkin. When cool enough to handle, scoop out pulp and mash. Set aside 1¾ cups (save remaining pumpkin for another use). If pumpkin is in large chunks or looks stringy, chop roughly. In large bowl, combine the mashed pumpkin, eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger and cloves; beat until smooth. Gradually beat in milk. Pour into crust.
Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees; bake 40-45 minutes longer or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cover edges with foil during the last 30 minutes to prevent overbrowning if necessary. Cool on a wire rack. Refrigerate leftovers. Yield: 8 servings.
— Recipe courtesy tasteofhome.com
Foolproof Pie Dough
Vodka is essential to the texture of the crust and imparts no flavor — do not substitute. This dough will be moister and more supple than most standard pie doughs and will require more flour to roll out (¼ cup must be used to prevent the dough from sticking to the counter.)
2½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1½ sticks), cut into ¼-inch slices
¼ cup vodka, cold
½ cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
¼ cup cold water
Process 1½ cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.
Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.
— Recipe courtesy americastestkitchen.com