The Guts and Glory of Scratch Pumpkin Pie - Wyoming Magazine


The Guts and Glory of Scratch Pumpkin Pie


by Molly Michieli


Baking any pie, no matter the level of intricacy, is an accomplishment. After longingly awaiting the kitchen timer to ding, when you open your oven to find the pie you’ve worked so hard on still in fact resembles a pie, you’ve done it!

If there is one wrong way to boil water, there are a thousand wrong ways to bake a pie. It’s not a task for the lazy, the impatient, or the quitters. When you first glance at a pie recipe, the crust is probably the most intimidating part. (What the heck is a cheesecloth anyway? And what does cheese have to do with pie?) The good news is that thanks to the Internet, millions of pie experts have shared their secrets to crust success, and it’s not as scary as it first may seem.

Relax about the crust for now, because we’re here to focus on the gooey delight that lies inside. Cherry, apple, Boston Cream—these are pies that can be savored any time of the year. Yet there is one, and only one, very special time of the year that is reserved for the king of all pies: pumpkin. That delectable time of the year has now come upon us once again, so let us rejoice!

It’s true, from late September through December, you can pretty much pick up a pre-made pumpkin pie at any grocer, market, or bakery. And after that, any major retailer will have plenty stocked in their freezer section. But why would you want to do that when the opportunity to make one by hand only comes around once a year, at the peak of the pumpkin harvest?

To create a pumpkin pie entirely from scratch (we promise not to tell if you cheat on the crust) is a process. But the glory of having created that creamy, festive center is worth every one of the roughly 120 minutes it takes to make the pie.

From Halloween through Christmas, pumpkin pies are a staple at every family gathering and holiday meal. So this year, don’t just impress your in-laws with a delicious dessert, blow them away with your hard work and creative final course.

First things first. Yes, you can use just about any pumpkin, but the perfect pie pumpkins are in the ballpark of eight inches in diameter. There are certain types of pumpkins that can really sweeten the deal for the perfect pie. Peanut Pumpkins and Sugar Treat pumpkins naturally have a sweeter flavor than your average member of the squash family. A pumpkin patch is the best place to find these special varieties. But in all actuality, any pumpkin will do, as long as you have the measurements right for your recipe.

As you know from many years of carving Jack-o-Lanterns, opening a pumpkin to get the stringy, slimy guts out is no simple task. The number of tiny orange saws broken in the process is off the charts.

There are several ways to open a pumpkin for pie making. Halve the pumpkin vertically. A very well-sharpened knife usually does the trick. If the chosen pumpkin is small enough, microwaving it for a few moments will help soften its exterior, and cutting it open may become easier. We aren’t entirely against chucking the thing to the floor to get it to split open, either. Hey, pie making is hard! After the floor smash, be sure to wash the pumpkin with warm water and no soap. If you were lucky enough to open it with the knife, wash the outsides of each half and dry them.

With two jagged (or possibly perfect) pumpkin halves, use an ice cream scoop to shovel out the seeds and stringiness. Save the seeds to roast for a crunchy, nutritious snack. To turn that thick shell into a supreme puree, preheat that oven to a balmy 350°F. Here comes the fun part …

During this stage, the choice is yours as to how you want to add a little something extra to your pie. The final puree should not be wet or soupy. That being said, while the pumpkin is in the oven, enhance its flavor by lightly sprinkling it with brown sugar prior to placing it on a cookie sheet for roasting. Vanilla extract rubbed into the pumpkin is also delicious. A great pumpkin pie is not outrageously sweet, but a small boost in sweetness sure can’t hurt.  Whatever you want your signature pie to taste like, give it a whirl. To speed up the softening, try rubbing the inside of each half with a tad of olive oil, as long as it has a mild enough flavor not to spoil the pumpkin’s natural taste.

Bake the pumpkin halves placed cut-side down on a cookie sheet for around an hour at 350°F. Check it after 45 minutes to be sure there’s no over-doing. If at an hour you still can’t tell that it’s soft by poking it with a fork, add another five to 10 minutes. Size of the pumpkin, oven differences, and methods can all affect timing.

Once that plump little pumpkin is ready to be pureed, scrape out the soft cooked pumpkin and discard the skin. Toss the softened pumpkin into a mixing bowl and with an electric mixer smooth it out to a baby-food-like consistency. You’ve just completed the most time consuming phase of the pumpkin pie process.

From this point on, what you choose to do with that au naturel puree is all up to you, the master chef. If a pumpkin pie recipe has made its way down through family history, or if you found a random one in your favorite search engine, what now sits in your mixing bowl is the completely natural, healthy alternative to canned pumpkin. Substitute your new creation in with the same measurements of puree your recipe calls for.

There are all sorts of ways to put your own twist on tradition. Honey or agave nectar can definitely stand in for sugar, and an extra dash of cinnamon makes things even more festive. Just be sure to keep the wet and dry ingredients balanced. A filling that is too runny or too crumbly will affect the pie’s texture and taste. So go slow at first, but don’t hesitate to get creative either. That’s what kitchens are for!

Families are beautiful blends of allergies and dietary restrictions, and this can make the holidays pretty tough on hosts. If someone is allergic to pumpkin, there’s no helping them in this scenario. But if Uncle Jerry is dairy-free, almond milk with a touch of cornstarch can be substituted for the evaporated milk that 99 percent of pumpkin pie recipes call for. Artificial sweeteners can be used in place of sugar for a diabetic-friendly recipe. If you want to make the rest of your pie-making experience easier on yourself, pick up a small jar of pumpkin pie spice, which will only set you back a couple of dollars. Use this to simplify all of your recipe’s suggested spices. Pumpkin pie spice is a well-balanced blend of nutmeg, cinnamon, all-spice, and ginger that can be used instead of measuring out each of these individually.

When selecting your recipe, don’t choose a crust that will over-power the perfection of your scrumptious center. You want that filling to be the star of the show. Pumpkin pie should not be covered in a top crust, but a fun crust cutout on top can make your dessert stand out amongst the rest. A leaf, a star, a pumpkin…the possibilities are endless.

No matter which direction you go with your homemade pie, when you pour that filling into the crust, you will feel pride knowing there was no can or pretend pumpkin involved. If you haven’t noticed that every store-bought pumpkin pie tastes exactly the same, you will definitely notice that now, after you’ve tried one with a center created entirely from scratch.

It is time to give pumpkins—the real thing, not-from-a-can pumpkins—more of a purpose than Halloween decorations. Those guts inside serve a purpose, and that purpose is pie. Put down the imposter pumpkin puree and mix up your own. Who knows what will happen next. You could move onto pumpkin soup, pumpkin pasta sauce, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin muffins… oh autumn, we are so glad you’re here!

When your hard-to-please in-laws or picky eater teenagers take their first bites of your exquisite signature pie, the glory of the holiday season will be all yours. Don’t forget to write down the steps along the way, so you don’t forget your own “something special”. This will definitely be one recipe you are asked for, and it may be the one that is handed down through generations. Now enjoy a slice of your hard work, and top it off with a healthy amount of whipped cream. Cheers to pumpkin season!

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