The Pumpkin Stops Here

A couple of weeks ago we were at my in-laws’ when the conversation, as it often does at this time of year, turned to Thanksgiving. While trying to explain why and what we celebrate, I found myself once again surprised at how little is known about this holiday in the rest of the world. Not that that’s a bad thing; the fact that Thanksgiving is still confined to North American shores just stands in stark contrast to all those other holidays we seem to have exported to the furthest reaches of the globe (Valentine’s Day and Halloween in particular come to mind). While it’s true that Non-North Americans have heard of it, know it revolves around a turkey and may have even attended a Thanksgiving dinner staged by a homesick expat somewhere, most still don’t really understand it. In particular no one seems to be able to grasp that there’s no religious or political motivation behind it, that it really exists for the sole purpose of getting together with friends and family and stuffing ourselves as full as those turkeys on our tables!

While trying to decide whether I should feel proud or embarrassed by this fact, my step-father-in-law Jürgen interjected to inform me that Germans, in fact, have a comparable holiday. It may not have anything to do with giving thanks, or eating oneself into a food coma for that matter, but it at least falls in November and involves the roasting of a large bird. This holiday is called Martinstag, or St. Martin’s Day, in honor of a Roman soldier-turned-monk who was canonized after ripping his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a blizzard, and apparently one of the ways this selfless act is celebrated is by roasting and eating a goose. Since any kind of roast fowl is cause for celebration in my book, I suggested we stage a hybridized holiday: they’d introduce me to the goosely charms of Martinstag, and I’d show off some traditional Thanksgiving specialties. A date was set for the following weekend.

Before I even sat down to mull over the menu, I knew one of my Thanksgiving contributions had to be a pumpkin pie. It’s an unwritten essential, one of the pillars of Thanksgivingdom. It might even be more important than turkey; after all, I’ve been to various turkey-free Thanksgivings, but never one without pumpkin pie. There was no question that I had to make it. There was, however, a problem: I don’t actually like pumpkin pie. I never have, and for most of my life I considered that a positive thing since when faced with the typical Thanksgiving multi-pie spread and limited stomach space I had one less decision to make. For a four-person dinner, though, I couldn’t possibly justify making more than one pie. I also knew I couldn’t serve my in-laws a pie I would rather scrape into my napkin than eat myself. The solution, obviously, was to find a pumpkin pie I liked. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?

What followed was a week of pumpkin mania. From someone who hadn’t so much as thought about pumpkin pie in years, I became obsessed with finding the perfect one. I started by listing the characteristics I detest in pumpkin pie (soggy, mealy, over-spiced), and conceptualizing my ideal one (tender, creamy, and actually tasting like pumpkin!). My next step was to assemble a few good candidates for pies. I didn’t want anything that strayed too far from the standard, so anything with nuts, chocolate, cranberries or apples was out. I combed my books and the internet, looking for pies that looked like they might satisfy my rather abstract desires and finally settled on four contenders: one from Bon Appetit, one from Gourmet, one from Pam Anderson (of CookSmart fame, not Baywatch!), and one from the late, great Richard Sax. I wanted to include the famous one from Cook’s Illustrated, but had to drop it when I realized canned yams are about as common in Germany as coconut palms, and at the last minute added in the classic Libby’s back-of-the-can recipe for control purposes. And then I baked them all. Well, I didn’t actually bake five pies; I cut each filling recipe by three-quarters and baked them in custard cups, using the bright-orange flesh of a hokkaido squash I roasted and pureed myself (canned pumpkin being about as common here as canned yams).

To my surprise, there was no clear winner. Every pie had something I liked and something I didn’t. I liked the soft custardiness of the fillings that contained heavy cream, the almost cheesecake-like tang of sour cream in the Gourmet pie, the slightly saltier edge in Pam’s and the Libby pies, and the sweet suggestion of vanilla in Richard’s. The best texture of all belonged to the Bon Appetit pie, which included a tablespoon of cornstarch; this seemed to simultaneously soak up any sogginess and prevent the custard from getting too firm. On the other hand I didn’t like the fluffy, souffle-like texture of the Gourmet pie; Pam’s condensed-plus-evaporated-milk filling tasted too strongly of cooked milk to me; the Libby’s pie was, just as I remembered, kind of bland and watery; and all of them were too heavy-handed with the spices. In particular I found myself rebelling against the large amounts of ginger in every single recipe. I don’t know if I’m alone in the world in this, but I really don’t like the fusty taste of powdered ginger; it always reminds me of gingerbread, lebkuchen and all the other over-spiced sweets I avoid like the plague at holiday time.

Looking over my notes, a recipe started to take shape. To get the tang of the Gourmet pie I would use something sour; to get a soft, custardy texture I would use only cream, no milk, and a little cornstarch. Seasoning had to include vanilla and a generous measure of salt but no ginger, and a mixture of brown and white sugars would give depth without masking the pumpkin’s own flavor. By this point I had run out of time, though, so instead of being able to give my new formula a test run I crossed my fingers, threw together my favorite crust, and popped what I hoped would be the answer to my pumpkin-pie fantasties in the oven with only a couple hours to spare before our big dinner.

Everything that night was delicious, and we all ate so much goose, gravy, potatoes and stuffing I wondered whether anyone would have any room for the pie. But I needn’t have worried: my dessert-ambivalent husband had seconds, my equally dessert-ambivalent mother-in-law Silvia asked for the recipe, and Jürgen said he wished he’d eaten less goose so he could’ve fit in thirds. And me? Well, after seeing how much they liked it I gave my in-laws half the leftover pie to take home with them, but a few minutes later, when I was in the kitchen cleaning up and my gaze fell on the two lonely pieces of pie that remained, something even more unexpected happened: I felt a not-so-tiny twinge of regret that I’d been so generous.

That, I think, says it all.

p.s. If there’s still a hole to fill in your T-day dessert spread, check these out:

Autumn Trifle with Spice-Roasted Apples, Pears, and Pumpkin-Caramel Sauce
New-Fashioned Toll House Pie
Perfect Pecan Pie
Pistachio and Almond Tart with Orange and Cardamom
Treacle Tart, a la Heston Blumenthal


Tangy, Creamy Pumpkin Pie

This is without a doubt my favorite pumpkin pie ever. I love the freshness of the sour cream, the warm subtlety of the spices and the velvety-soft texture of the filling. If, like me, you’ve ever found yourself wondering why on earth people get so excited over this dessert, prep your shopping list now. This is a pie that does pumpkin justice.

A couple of tips on ingredients: whether you use crème fraîche or sour cream is up to you—crème fraîche is my choice since it’s a little richer and makes for a slightly smoother filling but it’s not worth going to great lengths to obtain (though remember, you can easily make it yourself!). Also, I know time is short on T-day but if you can manage to find the time, definitely roast and mash your own pumpkin—the difference in flavor is more than worth the effort. And don’t think you have to stick to pumpkin; in fact other squashes are just as good if not better, particularly butternut, acorn, hubbard and kabocha. Finally, do grate your own nutmeg for this. It’s not even the same spice as the anemic pre-ground stuff.

p.s. To roast your own pumpkin or squash, cut it in half, scrape out the seeds, rub the cut surfaces with vegetable oil and place cut-side down on a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Cover with a second piece of aluminum foil, lightly tucked around the sides to hold it in place, and bake at 375F/190C until completely soft and a knife passes through the flesh with no resistance. Cool before scraping out of the shell and mashing with a fork (it doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth since the pie filling goes into the blender). To parbake your crust, fill it with aluminum foil and pie weights or dried beans and bake for about 12-15 minutes at 375F/190C, then remove the weights and foil and bake until lightly golden all over, about another 7-8 minutes. Let cool slightly before filling.

Yield: 8-12 pieces

1 1/2 cups (375ml) pumpkin puree (preferably from a pumpkin or winter squash you’ve roasted and mashed yourself)
1 1/2 cups (375ml) crème fraîche or sour cream
3 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
pinch ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (100g) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (100g) white sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 9-inch (23-cm) pie crust, parbaked (see headnote above; use your favorite crust or mine)

Place a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 325F/160C. Place everything for the filling except the sugars and cornstarch together in a blender or food processor. In a small bowl stir the white and brown sugar and cornstarch until no lumps remain. Add to pumpkin mixture and blend until everything is smooth and homogeneous. Pour mixture into parbaked crust.

Place pie on preheated baking sheet in oven and bake until the filling is puffed and just set, about an hour, lightly covering the top of the pie with aluminum foil if the crust starts to brown too much. Cool completely, and serve at room temperature with lightly-sweetened whipped cream.

27 thoughts on “The Pumpkin Stops Here

  1. A friend just gave me a French recipe for pumpkin 'flan' which is basically identical to your filling! Pumpkin, sour cream, sugar, eggs, cornstarch, vanilla.. The only difference is there are no other spices, but they add a couple of tablespoons of eau de vie (or any other booze). A recipe that gets created twice is surely too good not to give it a try.

  2. I don't celebrate Thanksgiving (I'm Greek living in The Netherlands) but if i ever have to make a pumpkin pie I know which recipe I'll use. It seems like you went into a lot of trouble to come up with this one. Looks great!Magda

  3. your review is so thorough, I loved understanding more about pumpkin pie. I am not American but live in the US and I still have to understand the allure of pumpkin pie. Now, after your review, I am more motivated!!!

  4. Hey Melissa!So great to hear about your fantastic, Martinstag/T-day, pumpkin-cum-Hokkaidō squash pie adventures ;)This looks delicious, and it is *perfect* timing, as I am baking a pumpkin pie for our T-day here in Los Estados Unitos de Norteamérica this year! My semi-cousin, Amy Burian, is hosting her own T-day while her parents (do you remember Eve and Ron?) are in France with other extended family…. So Michael, my mother and I got shanghaied — I mean, invited — into spending it with Amy and her friends.It should quite enjoyable.Question:I'd like to try making the pie with honey — no sugar.Any recommendations on how to go about that?For instance:- should qty be modified? (not equal to the amount of sugar??)- other adjustments made (e.g., more cornstarch??) to keep the texture consistent?- other thoughts?The reason is that I'm interested in experimented with non-sugar, natural sweeteners — such as honey (+ molasses, perhaps) or agave in lieu of refined sugar.Sounds like you had a fantastic holiday! Would love to hear more about how you're doing!– josephHey Joe, I've never had a pumpkin pie made with honey but recipes for it do exist. I don't think in this case you'd need to modify anything else, just substitute for the sugar — though keep in mind that the flavor will change! The general rule is to substitute about 3/4 the quantity of honey, since it's sweeter. Or how about maple syrup? It's also substituted at 3/4. If you have time you could give it a test run, just baking a quarter or so of the recipe in a small dish. Otherwise — my fingers are crossed for you! Happy Thanksgiving! -m

  5. First of all, I love reading your blog! And I certainly want to try this recipe – I have been waiting for a recipe that tells you to make your own pumpkin puree because we have lots of real pumpkins and hardly any canned puree. But I have one shy question: is it really correct that 1 1/2 cups equal 750 ml? That sounds like an awful lot of filling (in ml) for one pie. Thanks for helping me on that question. Happy Thanksgivings Day!No it is certainly not correct, ha! Who knows what I thought I was translating there — pints, pounds? Thanks for the catch. 🙂 -m

  6. Oh, the hokkaido is my favorite too. Most Germans I've served pumpkin pie to seem unable to compute squash as sweet, so good for your open-minded Schwiegereltern. Happy Thanksgiving to you & Manuel!

  7. Hi Melissa! I couldn't resist reading this, as my husband counts the days until pumpkin pie season! I admit, I use the LIbby recipe, but I add grated crystallized ginger and fresh ground nutmeg. This year, I added a little vanilla bean paste. But it's really the crust that makes the pie! And of course, the fresh whipped cream. Now I will certainly try this recipe when the craving hits!I was reading from Food for the Poor that China, India & Canada celebrate harvest/communal thanksgivings and that Jewish people celebrate Sukkot, a fall celebration of thanksgiving to God, although not our typical turkey feast. How fun to celebrate with German traditions! In my house, we are eating lamb stuffed grape leaves from Richard's Lebanese family!Have a blessed and beautiful Thanksgiving! We are giving thanks for you and for all our family!Happy Thanksgiving, you guys! Everything sounds scrumptious — especially those grape leaves! Just don't forget to save room for pie. 🙂 xo m

  8. Much as I appreciate your wonderful recipes and blog, I thought I should make a minor correction about Thanksgiving not having a "religious or political motivation". Thanksgiving is an intrinsically religious holiday, and for your benefit and that of your readers, here are some historical facts.In 1789, in his first year in office, President George Washington called for a day of Thanksgiving because “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” In 1815, President James Madison issued a proclamation for “a day of thanksgiving and of devout acknowledgments to Almighty God for His great goodness.” After Madison, however, Thanksgiving reverted to a regional celebration in New England for 48 years. So in 1863, magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale petitioned the Lincoln administration that a day of Thanksgiving "now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution." Lincoln called on Americans that year to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore if, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

  9. Thank You for Sharing all Your Wonderful Recipes and Knowledge. IT is very Kindly Appreciated and Used!

  10. Thank you for experimenting and presenting a recipe for pumpkin pie that I can actually try – canned pumpkins and yams being equally common in my neck of the woods! Of course, I will need to make the pie crust as well as the sour cream…but it seems doable and worth it to have a pie that has a chance of looking like that!

  11. Looks delish! I'm a big fan of pumpkin (and sweet potato) pie. This year I made Alice Water's pumpkin pie. It was a creamy version, using a full cup of heavy cream in the filling. Instead of cornstarch,some of the cream is boiled with a TBSP of flour until thickened. I roasted a sugar pumpkin and then strained as much liquid out as possible. The recipe also only had 1/4 cup of brown sugar plus 2 TBSP granulated, and three eggs. It was light on the spices. I used a splash of apple brandy, too. It was definitely different and much less sweet. I also made a coconut sweet potato pie, which was the big hit of the meal. It was much sweeter, spicier, and the coconut was a perfect match. Here's the recipe I used: did use some crisp vanilla cookies instead of graham crackers and roasted the sweet potatoes instead of boiling. By the way, your pie crust looks great – I'll have to try it!

  12. I think the addition of the cinnamon and cloves will definitely set this one apart from the usual classic pumpkin pies. Looking forward to try this very soon

  13. I just celebrated my third or fourth Thanksgiving in the US and am only now starting to get that it really is "just" about family, friends, and food. … right? I'm starting to get into it and like that it gives me a break before the Christmas crazyness starts. I still miss the German pre-Christmas season though, in particular Weihnachtsmaerkte. I think that's where us Germans catch up with family and friends before Christmas. Have a nice hot Gluehwein for me!

  14. Just got back from a holiday in New York and have been thinking about making my own pumpkin pie. I'm just going to have to echo what everyone else has been saying.. thanks for doing the research! Can't wait to try your recipe out 🙂

  15. Melissa, this is such a wonderful piece of writing. as a pumpkin-pie lover, I now have to try your favourite recipe which might soon become mine too. xx

  16. Your recipe sounds delightful, but I must say that your rebellion against spices seems unnecessary. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's the spices in pumpkin pie that make it worth eating, ginger especially. I'm sure this pie is tasty, but nothing can replace a good old traditional pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.

  17. Love your blog and have been reading back entries, which brings me here. I had been hunting for a pumpkin pie recipe that suited me for years. Like you, I sort of ate around it at Thanksgiving. They are usually too sweet, over spiced, with bad crust. I love the Martha Stewart Brown Sugar Pumpkin Pie recipe. Creamy custard texture, sweet brown sugar, not grossly spiced.

  18. I made this recipe today and it is easily the best, most perfect pumpkin pie I have ever tasted. It is so delicate and subtle and hits just the right taste notes. Not too sweet, not too spiced and slightly tart. I applaud you for bravely chucking the ginger. I was skeptical since I don't mind powdered ginger but wanted to stay true to your recipe. And its true – it isn't needed and would otherwise have outcompeted the delicate pumpkin flavor. I used roasted a pie pumpkin grown in our own garden and my go-to pie crust recipe which is Martha Stewart's Pate Brisee. Thank you for posting this.

  19. so..Thanksgiving always has me searching for a new Pumpkin Pie recipe and my search led me to yours.I cook/bake a lot and first I thoroughly enjoyed your blog! second I made the pie(with just minor tweaks I like spicier) and it turned out picture perfect AND tasted amazing. well that was the trial run so for Thanksgiving I baked another one but tried greek yogurt instead of sour cream and although it was tasty it didn't set up as well. Thanks for a amazing recipe and a wonderful blog I will keep reading and experimenting

  20. I got 2 pumpkins at home and one would be a jack o lantern but the other one I don't know but thanks to you I'll make a pumpkin pie with it

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