Great Pumpkin: Even new twists on the holiday pie start with traditional ingredients

In the fall, growers make headlines with giant pumpkins that win contests for their immense size and weight. But the best ones for baking seem to come in much smaller packages.

They’re most often used in classic pumpkin pies, those creamy, custardy creations that some bakers prefer plain but others like to embellish. Usually containing evaporated milk and eggs for thickening, this pie variety can make use of either canned or freshly cooked pumpkin and is best baked in a flaky, shortening-based, hand-rolled crust.

Julie West of Soulard Coffee Garden is a longtime gardener and finds the New England pie pumpkin, “a small meaty pumpkin,” best for making the pie from scratch. “The best ones are solid, bright orange, no larger than 10 inches across,” she said. Sugar pumpkins are another variety used in pie baking.

To precook small pumpkins for baking, cut the stems off and slice the pumpkins in half, West recommended. Then scrape out the seeds (which can be roasted and snacked on later). Place the pumpkin halves cut-side down on a cookie sheet with 1-inch sides. Add one-quarter cup of water to the pan and roast the pumpkin halves in a 350-degree oven for about an hour. “The pumpkin should be very soft and slightly browned,” West said.

Drain the liquid from the pan, turn the halves over and set them aside. When they’re cool enough to handle, scrape out the meat and mash it by hand or in a food processor. “At this point, it can be frozen for future use,” West said. It can be used in place of canned pumpkin in any recipe. “You won’t believe the taste difference the fresh pumpkin makes,” she said.

Of course, not all pumpkin pie recipes are created equal. There are variations out there for pumpkin-nut pies, even pumpkin pie cheesecakes.

Linda Coonrod, pastry chef at Moxy Contemporary Bistro in the Central West End, enjoys serving Crème Brûlée Pumpkin Pie to family and friends during the autumn holiday season. She uses a made-ahead crème brûlée in place of the traditional egg and condensed or evaporated milk mixture usually found in pumpkin pie. She also relies on another ingredient to make her pies stand out: Cake Spice from Penzeys Spices on Manchester Road in Maplewood. It’s a mixture of several spices, including star anise – “one of those things that, when you taste it in something, you say, ‘Hmm, I wonder what that is?’” Coonrod said.

Coonrod’s innovative use of pumpkin and crème brûlée also appears on Moxy’s fall menu, though in a slightly different form. Her Pumpkin Crème Brûlée features a base of pumpkin pie filling topped with the traditional custard dessert. To best showcase the traditional pumpkin pie flavors, Coonrod cuts back on the vanilla in the crème brûlée. Moxy’s chef and owner, Eric Brenner, said it’s a “slightly more elegant way to do pumpkin pie.”

Mary Hostetter, owner of The Blue Owl Restaurant and Bakery in Kimmswick, offers her customers lots of ways to enjoy pumpkin pie in the fall. She and her pie-prep staff of six make about 300 pies of various kinds on the day before
Thanksgiving alone.

The Blue Owl staff uses Libby’s canned pumpkin in their pumpkin pies, which are dressed up in several scrumptious ways. “Pumpkin pie and our different versions of it are the most popular pies we make at Thanksgiving,” she said. “We make a pumpkin-walnut pie with a brown sugar-walnut glaze on top, which oozes into the pumpkin and makes it really delicious.

“We also make a pumpkin-cream cheese pie, with a bottom layer of cream cheese and whipped cream, and a top layer of regular pumpkin pie filling,” she said. Her restaurant churns out pumpkin pie spin-offs such as a pumpkin-caramel cheesecake with a ginger snap crumb crust, pumpkin-praline cheesecake and miniature pumpkin pie tassies with a swirl of cream cheese or whipped cream and orange-colored sugar atop traditional pumpkin pie filling. They’re baked in a rich cream-cheese pastry crust.

When it comes to serving traditional pumpkin pie, Hostetter, West and Coonrod like to cut fun fall shapes such as oak leaves and acorns out of pie pastry, then bake them on a cookie sheet till they’re lightly browned. These decorations can be arranged atop an already-baked pumpkin pie.

For a flaky crust, Hostetter recommended using butter-flavored Crisco shortening instead of regular Crisco. “The butter-flavored kind gives the crust a much nicer, more golden touch,” she said. West swears by the Deluxe Butter Flaky Pastry Dough recipe from “Joy of Cooking,” using cold ingredients and only touching the dough with a pastry blender, not her hands.

Coonrod suggested serving traditional pumpkin pie with homemade cinnamon ice cream, or whipped cream enhanced with vanilla, orange-vanilla flavoring or China cinnamon.

Secrets of a successful crust

For those who prefer to stay away from traditional vegetable shortening, which is made of partially hydrogenated oils, there are some alternatives. Crisco makes Zero Trans Fat Shortening, an all-vegetable product that has zero grams of trans fat per serving. According to the manufacturer, the J.M. Smucker Co., Zero Trans Fat Crisco in the green canister can be used in any recipe that calls for regular Crisco.

Some bakers swear by lard, which is sold commercially in 1-pound packages by companies such as Armour, for about $2 each. Others use duck fat sold by companies such as D’Artagnan; it comes in small, round containers and costs $13 for a package of two. Organic lards are available, as are preservative-free ones.

There’s also leaf lard, a pork fat that comes from the abdomen around the animal’s kidneys. It’s so named because it appears in separate layers, or “leaves,” of fat in the animal’s body. Processed lard such as leaf lard can be similar in texture to vegetable shortening, but usually is richer, resulting in tender, flaky pastries and biscuits. It’s used often in European, Canadian and South American kitchens.

Julie Ridlon of Chanterelle Catering in the Central West End recommended using leaf lard in pastry crusts, especially for “custardy” pies such as pumpkin. “I use leaf lard with butter,” she said. “The crusts are flakier and more tender and hold up better with custard and cream fillings. They don’t get soggy. It’s a night-and-day difference from other pie crusts.

“Leaf lard is what people used to use before there was Crisco. The leaf lard doesn’t carry a pork flavor,” she said. “There’s not very much of it to a pig – about 5 to 8 pounds per pig – but a little goes a long way in recipes. It’s not expensive, and it keeps well in the freezer,” she said. “People who try it love it.”

Ridlon said leaf lard can often be purchased through farmers’ markets. “There are enough pork farmers in the area that you can access it fairly easily through the markets,” she said. She suggested simply asking the pork farmers who regularly sell at the markets, such as Mark Uthlaut of M&K Farms, Bryan Trumpeter of Farrar Out Farms and Karlos Hinkebein of Hinkebein Hills Farm.