Everything you thought you knew about pumpkin pie is wrong

Next to the turkey, pumpkin pie is the icon of a typical Thanksgiving table. It’s one of the most familiar, and favorite, dishes of autumn, and virtually every American has tasted it. But despite its ubiquity, pumpkin pie is a misunderstood dish. I’m going to help you understand it better, and prepare it better. But first, allow me to serve you a slice of humble pie in the form of a challenge: name a single thing you can say, with absolute certainty, about pumpkin pie.

If you said, “Pumpkin pie has pumpkin in it,” that doesn’t quite cut it. A pumpkin is a type of squash, all examples of which belong to one of three species in the cucurbit family. Cucurbita pepo includes the original, true pumpkin, as well as modern pie pumpkin varieties. C. moschata is the squash species from which most canned pumpkin comes. (This year, bad weather created such a serious shortage of C. moschata that Libby’s, the nation’s largest supplier of canned pumpkin, has seen its inventory drop by half.) The final species, C. maxima, includes classic winter squashes like Hubbard and buttercup. This species contains no pumpkin-like varieties, makes the worst Jack O’Lanterns, and, according to many experts, the best pumpkin pies.

If you said, “pumpkin pie has cream and eggs,” I hope there weren’t any vegans around when you said it, as they would surely have begged to differ. If you say pumpkin pie has cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, I would shrug; I’d sooner part with any of these spices before vanilla.

I suppose one could argue that a pumpkin pie has a crust, because all pies have crusts. But the crust is the least important part of a pumpkin pie to me. Other than functioning as a vessel for the pie filling, the crust is nonessential. I usually skip it. So did the Pilgrims, for what it’s worth, as they didn’t have any wheat.

Perhaps the only thing that I can say with certainty about pumpkin pie is that I could live on it, probably forever. In fact, years ago when I had a seasonal pumpkin pie business I survived on it for weeks at a time. We even made crusts, flaky, buttery, beautiful and delicious crusts that were tedious and messy to prepare. I don’t miss them one bit.

For a while I called my crust-free creations pumpkin pudding. Then I went through a pumpkin custard phase. Now I’m into pumpkin pot de crème. Or pots de crème, in the plural form.

Pumpkin pot de crème-or crusted pumpkin pie, if you wish-is a flexible and forgiving dish. It handles chocolate very well, for example. Cocoa powder can be added to extra-sweet fillings, while chocolate chips or chunks can be added when some extra sweetness is in order. Adding cracked tapioca-or tapioca pearls-will add extra suppleness of body to the filling (tapioca is my secret weapon for many fruit pies as well, from apple to blackberry).

A friend recently sent me a recipe for a southern-style pumpkin pie that contains “cocoanut.” When I asked him about that unusual word, he said it was “coconut” and apologized for his spelling. Interestingly, the internet is full of examples of the cocoanut spelling in the south. However it’s spelled, cocoanut, like cocoa, makes a fine addition to most any pumpkin pie filling. My friend’s pie, made with a cup of shredded fresh coconut, is almost more macaroon than pie.

Since tasting that cocoanut pumpkin pie, I’ve been playing around with other coconut products, like coconut flour, coconut cream (as a partial or total replacement for cow cream) and shredded dried coconut. Shredded fresh coconut is my favorite, but you have to be OK with a little extra fiber, as it definitely changes the custardy consistency for which pumpkin pie is known.

I’ve even messed around with coconut sugar, which, tastes more like sugar than coconut. Maple syrup is my favorite pumpkin pie sweetener, but I respect a drop of molasses, and don’t mind sugar or honey, as long as the pie, or pot, is not too sweet.

With so many important variations to try, who has time for crust? And even if a crusted pie on the Thanksgiving table is your ultimate goal, testing your filling in pudding or pot de crème form will be a lot more efficient than making a crust for each experiment.

There is a pumpkin pot de crème recipe that I’ve practically become monogamous with since first trying it. Spiced Pumpkin Pots de Crème with Pistachios and Spiced Apples comes from the French blog La Tartine Gourmands. It includes the very cool trick of steaming the squash with a split vanilla pod.

Despite my fascination with this pot de crème recipe, I can’t stop experimenting. I’ve been doubling the pumpkin/squash amount, adding coconut and tapioca, and omitting the sautéed pistachio and apple topping (which admittedly sounds good, but who has the time?).

I guess with me and pumpkin pie, monogamy isn’t really in the cards. That’s another thing I can say with certainty. But here is the recipe, anyway. It’s a good point of departure.

Pumpkin Pots de Creme

1 cup red kuri squash or pie pumpkin, cut into chunks (optional: double that amount, and add an extra egg)

One vanilla pod, split, split, with seeds scraped out

1 cup milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. ginger

1/8 tsp. nutmeg

(optional: ½ cup grated, fresh coconut)

(optional: 1 Tbsp. cracked tapioca)

Steam the squash with the split vanilla pod. When soft, allow to cool. Puree.

Preheat oven to 320 degrees.

Beat eggs and sugar together in a bowl.

In a heavy-bottom saucepan, heat milk and cream and spices to a simmer.

Stir the pureed squash into the milk and cream. Stir the milk/cream/squash into the egg and sugar.

Pour the mixture into little cups, jars, or ramekins.

Bake creams in a covered water bath for about an hour. Let cool to room temp, and refrigerate overnight to set completely.

Serve with sliced apples and pistachios sautéed with butter and sugar. Or whipped cream.

Serve. Freak out about how good it is. Eat more.

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