Saying “no” to dessert, even after a feast that’s left our bellies creaking and groaning from expansion, is no easy thing. And if that dessert just so happens to involve pumpkin pie? Well then, all bets are off. That exhausted-sounding request you made for “just a teeny tiny sliver?” That’s out the door, of course, replaced by a more robust “Don’t be so stingy with that!” and “Of course I’ll have whipped cream on top!”
What is it about pumpkin pie that tempts us so? Is it the sweetness? The spice? The crunch of its crust? Its perfectly smooth brown custard skin, how it begs to be disrupted by a knife or fork or spoon? The fact that it’s rich in Vitamin A and antioxidants? (Yeah, right)
Ironically, the majority of the pumpkin pies aren’t even made with pumpkin—the canned puree, the key ingredient so many of us depend on for the custard filling’s proper consistency, comes from different types of winter squash rather than the flesh of those orbs we carve at Halloween. Don’t be alarmed, though; pumpkins, like squash, are members of the same genus, Cucurbita. Phew!
Although native to North America, pumpkins now are grown worldwide. In the U.S., the largest producer is Illinois. Which might explain why the Libby Corporation, the largest purveyor of that aforementioned and indispensible pureed “pumpkin,” is located in Morton, IL, the self-proclaimed “Pumpkin Capital of the World.” According to healthdiaries.com, every year 50 million pumpkin pies are made using Libby's canned product.
Recipes for pumpkin pies have been floating around for hundreds of years, one of the earliest, “Tourte au Potiron,” recorded in a cookbook by renowned French chef Francois Pierre la Varenne. In the late 1600s recipes for “pumpion pie” began appearing in English cookbooks. Although both the French and English recipes involved pumpkins, they differed greatly from the pie we love today, the recipe for which wouldn’t appear until 1796, when Amelia Simmons published her take on “pompkin pudding” in a baked crust.
No doubt Amelia would’ve swooned had she witnessed what her creation wrought on September 25, 2010, the date in which the good people of New Bremen, OH, at their annual Pumpkinfest, prepared the world’s largest pumpkin pie, one measuring 20 feet in diameter and containing 1,212 pounds of canned pumpkin, 109 gallons of evaporated milk, 2,796 eggs, 7 pounds of salt, 14.5 pounds of cinnamon and 525 pounds of sugar. Fully baked it topped the scales at a whopping 3,699 pounds.
One would think that, after hundreds of years of refinement, the recipe for pumpkin pie would be cut and dried, “locked” as they say in the film industry. And while this certainly is the case for most home cooks, professional chefs on the other hand, those incorrigible tinkerers, just can’t stop themselves. Here’s a sampling, courtesy Justine Sterling, writing for Food and Wine, of some pumpkin pie variants:
At the Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland, pastry chef Vince Griffith serves a carnival–inspired pumpkin funnel cake. Made with a roasted pumpkin pâte à chou, the crispy, fried dessert is served drizzled with dulce de leche.
The Thanksgiving menu at Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain in New York City features pumpkin bread pudding made with spiced pumpkin bread. The gooey, spiced pudding is served with maple-walnut soft-serve ice cream and an apple cider–caramel sauce.
At Comme Ça, chef Brian Howard transforms pumpkin pie into fall-spiced beignets filled with Grand Marnier pumpkin pie and covered in a pumpkin glaze.
At Sushi Roku in Los Angeles, pastry chef Juan Sanchez poaches a whole baby pumpkin to use as an edible bowl for his mascarpone–enriched pumpkin mousse. It’s topped with a shortbread cookie and sautéed pumpkin.
For a Greek spin on pumpkin pie, chefs George Pagonis and Mike Isabella came up with a sweet-tangy pumpkin cheesecake to serve at Kapnos in Washington, DC. It’s made with Greek yogurt and manouri cheese, a fresh, semisoft cheese made from the whey that is drained off during the making of feta.
In Alexandria, VA, Brabo pastry chef Erin Reed does away with the crust of a traditional pumpkin pie and instead makes a crème brûlée inspired by the filling. The burnt sugar on top gives the dish some crunch.
Finally, while not exactly a Christmas carol, let’s sign off with the lyrics to “Farewell O Fragrant Pumpkin Pie,” a song written by Oscar Ferdinand Telgmann and George Frederick Cameron for their 1889 opera, Leo, the Royal Cadet.
Farewell, O fragrant pumpkin pie!
Dyspeptic pork, adieu!
Though to the college halls I hie.
On field of battle though I die, my latest sob, my latest sigh
shall wafted be to you!
And thou, O doughnut rare and rich and fried divinely brown!
Thy form shall fill a noble niche in memory's chamber whilst I pitch
my tent beside the river which rolls on through Kingston town.
And my Love—my little Nell,
the apple of my eye to thee how can I say farewell?
I love thee more than I can tell;
I love thee more than anything—but—pie!