What Makes An Awesome Pumpkin Pie?

Pumpkin pie is one of my favorite desserts to make from October through December. What separates a great pumpkin pie from an average, or even a good one? A great pie should have that crust that is both tender and flaky, a balanced sweetness in the custard, and of course, some real-deal pumpkin spice flavor. Baking a great pumpkin pie doesn’t have to be hard, especially if you know the science behind it.

The crust

The only fat source I use for pie crust is butter. Going the extra mile and using a high-quality butter like Kerrygold is a good idea here; since there is a lot of butter in the crust, better butter means better tasting crust.

Making pie crust is all in the method. Flour, a bit of sugar, and salt are mixed together before adding bits of cold butter cut into pea-sized pieces. Ice-cold water is added to bring it all together and the crust is chilled in the fridge before rolling out. I read an article several years ago where Barack Obama’s pastry chef let out a game-changing tip: You should work the butter into the flour with your hands, by rubbing the dough mixture between your fingers. This technique will yield a flaky and delicious crust that is not over-worked.

Rolling out the crust is one of the most difficult parts. The crust needs to be very thin to attain the right texture in the final product. It should be cold when rolled out and I recommend storing the rolling pin in the fridge beforehand. After rolling the dough once, pick it up and make a one-quarter turn, then roll again until the dough is as flat as you can muster. Don’t be afraid to add a bit more flour to the surface of the dough or counter to keep it from sticking. You can easily transfer the rolled dough to the pie dish by folding it in half over itself twice. Then simply place the folded crust (should fill one-quarter of the area) into the dish and unfold. Let the dough chill at least one hour before pouring the custard into the prepared dough and baking.

The custard

The custard is made by cooking down pumpkin puree with sugar and then adding cream, eggs, and spices. Cooking the pumpkin with sugar helps concentrate the pumpkin flavor and adds new caramelized flavors to the custard. Heavy cream is usually the choice dairy product added to the custard, but you can actually substitute with whole milk and still get a very good result. It is important to add the dairy before the eggs to prevent them from cooking at this stage. The process of slowly cooking the custard allows it to set as the eggs are cooked and begin to thicken.

Finally, what exactly is pumpkin spice? The kind that doesn’t come from the Starbucks factory is a mixture of dry spices including some combination of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. However, the amounts and ratios will vary based on the recipe. This spice combination has been used in American cooking since at least the late 1800s as it was featured in the famous Boston Cooking School Cookbook. It may have been derived from the similar “Mixed spice” from Britain.

One tip I have for baking custards like pumpkin pie that will prevent curdling and cracking on the top is to bake in a water bath. This can easily be done by pouring water in a baking sheet pan and then placing the pie dish on top. Bake the pie as indicated by the recipe or until a toothpick comes out smoothly.

Cool. Cut. Eat.

I hope this information is informative and prepares you for baking your next pumpkin pie. I usually use this recipe (without the topping) from Smitten Kitchen as a base for both the custard and the crust. Let the pie come to room temperature or chill after baking. Whip up some fresh cream and you will have one kick@$$ dessert!

Originally published at https://realfoodexplored.com on October 30, 2020.

Dr. Brandon J Eudy holds a PhD in nutritional sciences. He blogs about food, cooking, and nutrition at www.realfoodexplored.com

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