How does one arrive at the PERFECT pumpkin pie? For most of us, pumpkin pie is a dessert we make 2-3 times a year–tops. For me, arriving at PERFECT pumpkin pie required determined testing over several seasons for all variables that go into the mix.
The pie crust alone has taken me nearly a lifetime to perfect. And it wasn’t until I went into the OtherWorldly Kitchen and did nothing else for a week, beyond research and test-test-test, that I FINALLY cracked the secrets of the perfect pastry crust. And that’s what I recently did for the pumpkin filling as well.
I started with my trusty recipe grid template and mapped the basic ingredients and their amounts (recalibrated to a single constant, in this case 15 ounces (1¾ cups) of pumpkin puree) across a couple dozen examples from top bakers and pastry chefs across the country. This process allows me to quickly see the formulas in comparison to each other.
What jumped out immediately in this research is how similar most pumpkin pie formulas actually are: 15 ounces puree, 1-2 cups dairy (cream, sour cream, evaporated milk), 2-3 eggs, ¾-1½ cups sugar, and 2-5 teaspoons mixed spices.
It’s a pretty straight-forward baked custard formula. The occasional odd duck recipe adds a small amount of flour or cornstarch, but it’s really not necessary to set the custard. And I ran into a couple of recipes that added 1-2 additional egg yolks for richness.
But after the basic custard filling is perfected, the sky’s the limit as far as additional complementary flavors are concerned. I’ve included Ten Fabulous Pumpkin Pie Variations below.
And some of the more interesting examples I found across the web are included in the Cookin’ with Gas section, also below. I’ve never seen a marshmallow meringue on a pumpkin pie, for instance, and it looks amazing. I imagine it tastes amazing too. And then there are a few examples that add chocolate to either the crust, the custard, or a topping. I love that idea as well.
But before I present my absolute fave, perfect pumpkin pie recipe, here are the tips and tricks that will help ensure that your pumpkin pie is a smash hit this year.
Tips & Tricks for Perfect Pumpkin Pie
- There is no substitute for your own flakey pastry crust. The crust is critical to the success of this pie, so jump on over to Quick & Easy, Flaky, All Butter, Short-Crust Pastry for everything you need to know to make the BEST FLAKEY, ALL-BUTTER PIE CRUST of your life.
- A soggy bottom crust is one of the most bemoaned issues with pumpkin pie. It’s nearly always soggy. And how can it be otherwise when a cold, liquid filling is poured onto it and then takes nearly an hour to set? Here are several tricks to help you here.
- Use a partially pre-baked pastry shell.
- Check out these new pie weight discs,here and here. So much easier than aluminum foil and pie weights.
- Make sure the pastry shell is still hot when you pour the custard filling into it.
- Heat the custard filling on the stove before you pour it into the crust. This shortens the time it takes for the custard to set, as well as the overall baking time.
- Bake the pie at 425° for 10 minutes to quickly heat the custard filling, and then turn the oven down to 350° to complete the baking.
- Don’t use ready-made Pumpkin Pie Spice. It’s always better to add individual spices and tweak the combination to your own flavor preference. I like a little heat in mine.
- Consider the cinnamon. If you live close to a spice store, stop by. You will be amazed by the variety of cinnamons that are available today. I bought Vietnamese cinnamon this year, and it’s simple stunning.
- Consider doubling the amount of spices called for in most pumpkin pie recipes (not mine). A bland pumpkin pie is so disappointing.
- Use full-fat cream or evaporated milk. Low fat milk will not make a creamy custard.
- Contrary to some claims, a perfect pumpkin pie can be made with quality canned pumpkin (NOT canned pumpkin pie filling). I’ve tried several brands over the years and still prefer Libby’s.
- For reference: A 29-ounce can of Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin measures approximately 3½ cups. One cup weighs approximately 9¾ ounces. Two cups weigh 19½ ounces (1 pound 3½ ounces). So when a recipe calls for 2 cups of pumpkin puree or a 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree as if they are interchangeable, note that those two options are not exactly the same measurement. A 15-ounce can of Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin measures 1¾ cups. However, with pumpkin custard filling, 4 ounces or so of difference is not critical to the success of the custard.
- Even better than canned pumpkin is reduced canned pumpkin. And even better than reduced canned pumpkin is Homemade Pumpkin Butter (store bought is also good). When you evaporate the liquid from cooked pumpkin, the flavor of the pumpkin is intensified. And that’s what you want when you plan to dilute that flavor by adding cream and eggs to the filling mixture.
- To reduce pumpkin puree, put at least 29 ounces of pumpkin puree in a medium saucepan and bring to a slow simmer. Simmer–stirring occasionally during the first 5 minutes, and then more frequently during the final 15 minutes–until reduced and thickened (but still moist), 20-30 minutes. The puree should reduce to 2½-3 cups and have a silky, spreadable consistency. Or follow directions in Spiced Pumpkin Butter & 20 Ways to Use It.
- Remember when developing recipes using reduced pumpkin puree or pumpkin butter that you must add additional liquid to the formula to keep the ratio of liquid and eggs in proportion.
- A lot of cooks are experimenting these days with substituting a portion of the pumpkin puree (about half) with canned plain or candied yams. I just completed my first test with all candied yams (no pumpkin) and can report that this is the absolute silkiest “pumpkin” pie I’ve ever eaten. MauiJim, who doesn’t like pumpkin pie, ate two slices and now wants another.
- Complete the custard filling a day ahead, cover, and refrigerate. This improves the flavor considerably.
- After whisking the eggs rather vigorously, gently whisk the other ingredients together. Try not to whisk too many air bubbles into the filling.
- A well-known cooking publication (okay, Cook’s Illustrated) did an in-depth piece on pumpkin pie awhile back, which launched a flurry of follow-on blog articles touting the benefit of straining the custard filling before pouring it into the pie crust. This is supposed to make the baked custard extra silky. You’re on your own here. I haven’t tried it, and my pumpkin pie is always silky nonetheless.
- A metal or glass baking dish (rather than ceramic) will help the pie crust to brown.
- Place the pie on an edged baking sheet to bake. This makes it easy to remove from the oven and also catches any drips.
- Bake pumpkin pie on the bottom shelf of your oven. This helps to ensure that the crust is cooked through and not soggy.
- If the crust begins to brown too quickly or too much, simply protect it with strips of foil. But after a round of testing this year, I am absolutely in love with these flexible pie crust protectors, here, here, and here.
- Don’t overbake the custard filling. The eggs in the filling continue to cook as the heat from the edge of the pie moves to the center. So it’s important to remove the pie from the oven before the center is completely set. Leaving the pie it in the oven too long causes the eggs to overcook (curdle), tightening the proteins and causing the pie to crack in the center. If the eggs curdle, they can no longer hold all of the liquid in creamy suspension, so there will also be liquid seeping from the bottom of the pie when you cut it. When your pumpkin pie filling is done, the outer edges will appear firm with a matte finish, while the center circle (2-3 inches) will appear indented, glossy, and still jiggle a bit when gently shaken. Don’t worry about pulling the pie from the oven when it doesn’t look quite done. The custard filling will finish setting outside the oven.
- Pumpkin pie cuts and tastes best when cold. Make sure you give it plenty of time to cool to room temperature and then to chill in the fridge. This is one pie that actually benefits from being made 24 hours in advance.
Perfect Pumpkin Maple Pie
My basic, perfect pumpkin pie contains maple syrup–for the simple fact that maple syrup is the perfect complement to pumpkin. It actually enhances the pumpkin flavor. Once I tasted this combination a few years ago, there was no turning back.
Also note that I don’t use a generic pumpkin pie spice, even my own homemade spice mixture. I love customizing the spices individually for each batch of pumpkin custard filling—sometimes a different cinnamon, a little more ginger, or maybe a hint of Chinese five spice. I taste and adjust as I mix the filling.
10- to 10½-inch diameter, 6-cup capacity, partially baked pie crust
3 large eggs
1¾ cups homemade or premium canned pumpkin puree (15-ounce can)
1½ cup heavy cream
½ cup pure maple syrup
½ cup packed dark brown sugar, put through a coarse sieve to remove any lumps
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons ground Vietnamese cinnamon (or other cinnamon of choice)
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
lightly sweetened whipped cream
- In a large bowl, add the eggs and whisk until well blended.
- Add the pumpkin puree, cream, and maple syrup. Whisk until smooth, but try not to incorporate a lot of air into the custard.
- Add the brown sugar, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves, and whisk to incorporate.
- Pour the pumpkin mixture into a storage container, cover, and refrigerate until ready to bake, up to 2 days ahead.
- Whisk the pumpkin filling to incorporate the ingredients and then pour into the pastry shell.
- Bake on the bottom rack of a preheated 425º oven for 10 minutes, lower the temperature to 350º, and continue baking for 40-45 minutes, until pumpkin filling begins to puff at the edges. When the filling is almost done, the outer edges will appear firm and matte, while the center circle (2-3 inches) will appear indented, glossy, and still jiggle a bit when gently shaken. Don’t worry about pulling the pie from the oven when it doesn’t look quite done. The custard filling will finish cooking outside the oven.
- Remove pie from the oven and cool at room temperature on a wire rack. Cover and refrigerate for 8-24 hours before serving. Serve chilled.
Makes 4 cups custard filling and one 10½-inch diameter pie. Serves 6-8.
Ten Fabulous Pumpkin Pie Variations
The following variations make approximately 4 cups of custard filling. For an extra silky pumpkin pie, consider substituting pureed candied yams (available canned in chunks) for half or more of the pumpkin.
Old Fashioned Pumpkin Sugar Pie
- Substitute ¾ cup of sugar for maple syrup and brown sugar.
- Substitute evaporated milk for cream.
Pumpkin Honey Pie
- Substitute honey for maple syrup.
Pumpkin Caramel Pie
- Substitute caramel sauce for maple syrup.
Pumpkin Chocolate Pie
- Consider a chocolate cookie or graham cracker crust for this pie.
- Substitute ¾ cup golden brown sugar for maple syrup and dark brown sugar.
- Add a mixture of 3 ounces of premium semisweet chocolate melted with 2 tablespoons unsalted butter to the prepared custard.
- For spices, substitute this combination for the other spices indicated:
- 2 teaspoons ground Vietnamese cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoons ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
Pumpkin Orange Pie
- Reduce cream to 1¼ cups, and add ¼ cup frozen, thawed orange juice concentrate.
- Add finely grated zest of 2 large oranges, if desired.
Pumpkin Sour Cream Pie
- Reduce cream to ½ cup and add 1 cup sour cream.
Pumpkin Cream Cheese Pie
- Reduce cream to ½ cup and add 1 cup cream cheese (beaten with the cream until smooth).
Pumpkin Praline Pie
- After the pie is baked and chilled, top with 2 cups of praline topping and broil 6-8 inches from the broiler until topping is melted and bubbling, 1-3 minutes. (For the praline topping, combine 1½ cups chopped pecans, ¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar, ¼ cup melted unsalted butter, and 2 tablespoons heavy cream.)
Pumpkin Streusel Pie
- Sprinkle 2 cups of prepared streusel topping over the pumpkin pie before putting it into the oven. Don’t worry; it won’t sink to the bottom. (For streusel topping, combine 1 cup all-purpose flour, ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar, and 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts.)
Candied Ginger Pumpkin Pie
- Add ¼ cup slivered candied ginger to the custard.
Spirited Pumpkin Pie
- Add ¼ cup rum, brandy, bourbon, orange liqueur, or liquor of choice to the custard.
More LunaCafe Pumpkin Pies & Cheesecakes
- Pumpkin Sour Cream Pie with Caramel Walnut Topping
- Pumpkin Spice & White Chocolate Cheesecake
- Dreamy, Creamy, No-Bake Pumpkin Butter Cheesecake
Cookin’ with Gas (inspiration from around the web)
- Baking Bites: Perfect Pumpkin Pie
- Baking Bites: Salted Caramel Pumpkin Pie
- Brit + Co: The Ultimate Pumpkin Pie
- Delicious as it Looks: Tips for the Perfect Pumpkin Pie
- Dinner & Dessert: Sherry Yard’s Triple Silken Pumpkin Pie
- Madey Edlin: My Imperfect Pumpkin Pie
- Martha Stewart: Triple Chocolate Pumpkin Pie
- Noble Pig: Sweet Potato Pie with Marshmallow Meringue
- Recipe Girl: Double Decker Pumpkin-Caramel Pie
- Sally’s Baking Addiction: Nutella Swirled Pumpkin Pie
- Smitten Kitchen: Silky Smooth Pumpkin Pie
- Spabettie: Maple Cream Pumpkin Pie with Buttery Gingersnap Crust
- Spoon Fork Bacon: Pumpkin Pie with a Chocolate Crust
- The Kitchn: Ginger Pumpkin Pie with Graham Cracker Crust
- What’s for Dinner Mama?: Triple Ginger Pumpkin Pie
- Williams Sonoma: Classic Pumpkin Pie
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Copyright 2013 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.