The Secrets of Baking the Perfect Pumpkin Pie

Fresh, homemade pies are the stuff of fond childhood memories, full bellies and family get-togethers. Apple, cherry, pecan and all those other delicious pies conjure up happy times and special occasions for many of us. But nothing says Thanksgiving like the traditional holiday pumpkin pie.

The old saying “As American as apple pie!” could very well apply to good old pumpkin pie just as easily. That’s because the use of pumpkins as an ingredient in dessert has been around for centuries.

Pumpkin pie in the United States dates back 400 years to the early American settlers. The first permanent European settlement in New England made sweet desserts from pumpkins in the fall season, simply because pumpkins were naturally abundant. These early renditions of what would eventually become a Thanksgiving staple most likely consisted of stewed pumpkins or pumpkin shells filled with milk, honey and spices that were baked in hot ashes. Not exactly the pies most of us are used to today!

Home for the Holidays: Thanksgiving and Pumpkin Pie

There’s just something about coming back home for the holidays and catching that first whiff of homemade pie. Those scents unique to specific holidays trigger associations and memories that define what those holidays mean to each of us, especially when it comes to food! Maybe you were lucky enough to have spent time in the kitchen as a child watching your mom cook for the Thanksgiving holiday. If you were fortunate, your mom let you help and maybe even eventually passed her pumpkin pie recipe on to you.

It’s My Mother’s Recipe!

Assuming the result is something sweet and delicious, most of us would take special pride in announcing to our grateful Thanksgiving guests, “It’s my mother’s recipe.” In one simple statement, we can tell everyone at the table that our perfect pumpkin pie is homemade, one-of-a-kind and that we are paying homage to good old mom. Good, homemade food is one of those family traditions that everyone enjoys, so without further delay, let’s get started on creating the perfect pumpkin pie that can be a family tradition for generations to come.

Practice and Fresh Ingredients Are the Secrets of Perfect Pumpkin Pie

First, let’s face it, pumpkins aren’t known for their sweetness or great flavor right out of the pumpkin patch. Those early settlers didn’t cook with pumpkins because they tasted so good, they just used them because there were so many available! But with the advances in agriculture over the last several hundred years, some pumpkins are better than others when it comes to flavor. Those big pumpkins you buy for jack-o-lanterns and the varieties for fall decorating don’t make for great desserts.

Today there are specially bred varieties of pumpkins grown just for cooking. They are sweeter, fleshier and taste a whole lot better than the original varieties. Look for pumpkins labeled “sugar pumpkins” or “pie pumpkins.” Some specific varieties are Autumn Gold, New England Pie Pumpkin and Fairy Tale. Choose pumpkins that weigh between four and eight pounds that don’t have soft spots or bruises. Once you get that perfect pumpkin, it’s time to head to the kitchen.  

While you can certainly buy some ‘pre-made’ ingredients like pumpkin puree, non-dairy cream and pumpkin spice, we’re after the perfect pumpkin pie here. To us, that means from scratch! Doesn’t that mean more work? You bet. It also means creating a delicious family recipe that you’ll be proud to serve year after year.

There are more than enough pumpkin pie recipes out there already, so we’re going to focus on what makes a perfect pumpkin pie recipe. With a little practice, removing a dash here, adding a little something there and other experimentation, you’ll eventually come up with a delicious recipe that is truly your own.

  1. Prep that pumpkin. Making pumpkin puree takes a little work, but the results are worth it. To bring out the natural sweetness and to remove much of the water, baking or roasting the pumpkin first seems to produce the best puree. Here’s a great puree recipe to help you get started.
  2. Make your own crust. Any pie will benefit from the exquisite taste of a fresh, flaky homemade pie crust. The ingredients are simple, and while the process is a bit detailed, the end more than justifies the means! For a primer on how to get started with your pie crust recipe, check out this tutorial. For any pie crust recipe, the added step of brushing on an egg wash will give your crust a golden-brown shine.
  3. Skip the pumpkin spice blends. Sure it takes a little more time and effort, but using the freshest available ginger, cloves, cinnamon, allspice and freshly grated nutmeg make a world of difference. Especially that freshly grated nutmeg ― yum!
  4. Mix up the sugars. Remember, even pumpkins bred for baking can use a little extra dose of sweetness. For more intense flavor, mix in brown sugar with the traditional white sugar and your pumpkin pie will be memorably sweeter and richer.
  5. Pre-bake your homemade crust. Before you pour in your homemade pumpkin filling, bake the crust for a few minutes in a pre-heated oven. This preparation will prevent any sogginess and ensure a crispy crust every time.
  6. For even more flavor, you can always blend in some candied yams, sweet potatoes and butternut squash with your pumpkin. These readily available vegetables are naturally sweeter than pumpkins and can take the flavor and sweetness to whole new level.
  7. Having come this far, this is no time for store-bought whipped cream. Topping your fresh-baked pie with freshly-made whipped cream using heavy whipping cream and sugar is the only honorable thing to do.

BONUS! If you hadn’t noticed by now, while pumpkins by themselves are a pretty healthy food source, a pumpkin pie is a whole different story! There’s plenty of sugar, butter, shortening and other indulgent ingredients needed to take that plain old pumpkin from bland to delectable. At the risk of going over-the-top, we couldn’t help but add a final touch that puts your pie into the sweetness stratosphere. If you are bold enough, you can try this caramel pecan topping guaranteed to satisfy any sweet tooth and make your pumpkin pie the talk of the table.

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