Many Words on Pumpkin Pie

(Spiceless) Browned Butter Pumpkin Pie with Candied Pepitas

pie and whipped cream

My pie: pumpkin. My topping: sweetened whipped cream. My weapon: fork.

Lacking much of a sweet tooth, I don’t really know where my love of baking came from. Right now, my work and this blog reflect an appreciation for science and mathematics, for deep thought, for art, and for movement. But that couldn’t have been the case as I crushed bananas to a pulp for bread while my mom’s hands gripped mine, guiding strokes of the potato masher because I wasn’t yet tall enough or strong enough to operate it myself. That couldn’t have been the case as I decorated gingerbread men and women with globs of sugary royal icing in bold primary colors, spreading them with a butter knife that felt awkward in my hand.

It is most likely that pastry first gripped me at the Thanksgiving table. When November arrives I start getting that feeling in the back of my throat—that saliva-inducing tingly sensation when I think about salty potato-chip-crisp turkey skin and deep, savory gravy; unctuous bacon fat; and earthy roasted potatoes. Of course, I make dessert, exercising my hands and thanking all that’s living for their ability to shape dough that encases fillings that light up faces. But it’s not that apple pie that I crave, even though I love it, or that spice cake, with its creamy frosting that pulls me. I typically crave all things savory.

Pumpkin Pie
That wasn’t always the case. The turkey, squash, stuffing, and mashed potatoes that we ate every year at my grandparents’ played second fiddle to the dessert. Dessertime at those annual dinners was the closest I could get to doing in the kitchen, because I got to help set up the “dessert bar.” I call it a “bar” mainly because the table showcased such a variety of sweets. My grandmother used to order a couple of slices of many different pies from a local restaurant because we all had our loyalties—apple, pecan, pumpkin, chocolate cream, and, just one year, cherry. There were usually a decorated, nut-encrusted carrot layer cake and chocolate turkeys on sticks. My grandmother would make a pan of grape-nut pudding and a date-nut and/or pumpkin loaf. I’d bring something along, too—usually a cookie or a bar, since all of the other major bases were covered.

Pie Server
My grandmother—in her rose-colored apron smattered with vegetables with faces, wearing chefs hats—would take care of the grown-up tasks (making the coffee and tea, moving pie slices from box to platter, and whipping cream) while I set the table and had the honor of carrying the sweets from kitchen, where the setting up took place, to dining room, parading them under the noses of my family members and asking if anyone wanted a slice of pecan or apple to be heated and topped with ice cream.

So I guess I wasn’t really doing anything with the desserts themselves on those Thanksgivings, but I was near them. I could marvel at them before others could. We could speak our own language together, together in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Slice of pie

Every year, I went for the same slice that my grandmother chose, a slice of pumpkin pie, because its hue that matches that of the crispy fallen and disintegrating leaves, its creamy squash filling that reminds me of the texture of the Christmas puddings to come, and its gentle spice that warms the late-fall table made it seem like the right thing to eat. At my grandmothers’, the pie was always cold from the fridge, so I eat it that way today. The crust on the pie of Thanksgivings past had a uniform texture and was most likely filled with hydrogenated scaries. It was never flaky, and to this day, though I pass on the scaries, I don’t see the same buttery layers that I advocate in many posts as being a fitting choice for pumpkin. Moderate flakiness is the key here.

Those formative moments in my dessert life have made it so that Thanksgiving cannot be Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie. And without a perfect pumpkin pie. In making this, to my taste, perfect, pumpkin pie, I scrapped the recommended recipes from popular cookbooks and magazines and the ones on the back of supermarket cans and made what, for me, will be THE pumpkin pie recipe—the one that I will make now and always and for my children. The one that still makes me look forward to dessert, even if I’m craving the cruciferous funk of Brussels sprouts and the caramelized edges of roasted butternut squash the most.

This pie, with its crunchy pepita topping isn’t wholly traditional, but it’s also not a huge departure from that restaurant-made pie that I enjoyed at many past Thanksgivings. With the pumpkin spice phenomenon, people think that pumpkins actually taste like cinnamon and nutmeg and not like, well, the flavorful and only faintly sweet gourd that they are. So I cut the spice in this pie—altogether. The pie gets its spice from 2 teaspoons of fresh grated ginger, which provide that much-loved warmth along with a freshness that one cannot get from a glut of dusty spices. A shot of bourbon provides vanilla notes and depth but doesn’t make this taste like a “bourbon pumpkin pie” (which is good but different).

Cream Cheese Dough
But what really makes this pie better than any other pumpkin pie that I’ve had is the nutty richness provided by what must be, if you follow along here, my favorite ingredient: browned butter. The overcooked butter doesn’t mask the pumpkin flavor but toasts and roasts it, making it irresistible, And the pumpkin purée is cooked down to a paste so that its flavor concentrates to the nth degree. To hold that smooth and creamy but not-too-custard-y rich pumpkin filling is a pie dough that employs a heck of a lot of cream cheese. This crust, as a result, lacks the impossible amount of flaky layers that my traditional pâte brisée or rye dough has, but it doesn’t need them. Instead, this crust contributes a pleasant but noticeable tang that offsets the richness of the browned butter–pumpkin filling. Plus, it’s super-tender.

Yes, pie-making on Thanksgiving is, to me, the most meaningful way of doing that can be, well, done. I will be hosting my first Thanksgiving outside of a relative’s home this year. And while my three-person urban Thanksgiving will deviate from the norm in many ways, it will not be without a slice of this pie.

Browned Butter Pumpkin Pie with Candied Pepitas

Make sure to push the limits of darkness when browning the butter for the nuttiest flavor in the final pie. Do not strain the milk solids before using. The bourbon adds a beautiful warm, round note—not a boozy one—to the pie. If you choose to bake without it, replace it with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. The best way to accurately determine if the pie is done is with an instant read thermometer. I like to serve this pie with whipped cream and candied pepitas (recipe follows). Pepitas are shelled pumpkin seeds.

1 recipe cream cheese pie dough (recipe follows)
430 grams (2 cups) unsweetened pumpkin purée (homemade or canned)
100 grams (½ cup) packed brown sugar
62 grams (5 tablespoons) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
84 grams (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon bourbon
200 grams (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) whole milk, room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 large eggs plus 2 large yolks, room temperature, plus 1 large egg, lightly beaten

1. Adjust oven rack to middle rack and heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll dough into 1/8-inch-thick circle measuring 12 to 13 inches in diameter. Transfer to 9-inch pie plate and crimp as desired. Freeze pie shell for 30 minutes. Line frozen pie shell with parchment paper or aluminum foil, covering edges with paper or foil. Fill shell with pie weights and bake until set, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove paper and weights, rotate pie plate, and bake until dough is dry and lightly golden, 7 to 10 minutes longer. Set crust aside.

2. Combine pumpkin purée, brown sugar, granulated sugar, ginger, and salt in large saucepan. Simmer mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of the saucepan with a rubber spatula, until pumpkin mixture is dark, thickened, and paste-like, 10-12 minutes (mixture should measure 11/2 cups).

3. Meanwhile, melt butter in small, light-colored skillet over medium-low heat. Once melted, continue to cook, stirring occasionally with rubber spatula, until milk solids have turned dark brown, liquid has turned golden, and butter smells of toasted hazelnuts, 7-10 minutes (stir constantly during last 3 minutes). Set aside.

4. Transfer pumpkin mixture to bowl of food processor, add bourbon and browned butter, and process until mixture is completely smooth and slightly more cool, about 30 seconds. Add milk and cornstarch to pumpkin mixture and process until incorporated. Add eggs and process until combined, about 15 seconds (don’t overmix).

5. Meanwhile, brush pie crust bottom, sides, and rim with beaten egg. Return pie shell to oven for 2 to 3 minutes to reheat. Pour pumpkin mixture into crust and smooth top. Bake pie for 5 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees and bake pie until the edges are set, center jiggles just slightly, and center registers 170 to 175 degrees, 30 to 45 minutes. Transfer pie to wire rack and let cool completely, 2 to 3 hours, before slicing or refrigerating.

Cream Cheese Pie Dough
Adapted from Martha Stewart

210 grams (1½ cups) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
112 grams (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces and frozen
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into ½-inch pieces and frozen
4 teaspoons cold water
2 teaspoons cold cider vinegar

1. Pulse flour, sugar, and salt in food processor until combined, about 5 pulses. Scatter frozen cubes of butter and cream cheese, and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some larger pieces remaining. Combine water and vinegar in small bowl and pulse into dough mixture until just combined.
2. Dump dough mixture onto sheet of plastic wrap, form into disk, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days before rolling.

Candied Pepitas

60 grams (1/2 cup) raw pepitas
1 tablespoon egg white, beaten
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss pepitas and egg white together in bowl. Transfer pepitas to fine-mesh strainer and drain off excess egg white. Transfer pepitas back to bowl; toss with sugar, salt, and cinnamon; and spread onto prepared baking sheet, leaving some clumps.bake until golden, puffed, and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Let cool completely. (Pepitas can be stored at room temperature for up to 1 week.)

4 responses

  1. I have never had or thought about making pumpkin pie – it’s just not something we make in the UK – and I always imagined it to be sickly sweet. This sounds like a fresh, grown-up version and looks absolutely delicious… maybe I will give it a try!

  2. i’m totally in love with my mom’s pumpkin chiffon, i can never really eat another regular pumpkin pie :) although, browned butter does sound awefully enticing!

  3. I have never much liked pumpkin pie, which is strange because I love winter squashes of all sorts and sweet potatoes and the like. I think that it may be my general dislike of what my husband derisively calls “Christmas spices.” As you have dispensed with them and left only the best (fresh ginger, yes!), I must reconsider and give this one a try. Lovely post, as always.

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