Finding Some Love for Pumpkin

Many years ago, when living in my native England, I decided to throw a Thanksgiving dinner. After compiling a guest list of assorted ex-pat Americans and a few other friends, I got to work on the menu. I knew there should be several types of pie and settled on pumpkin, pecan, and coconut custard. After purchasing imported canned pumpkin and other ingredients at great expense at Harrods Food Hall, I got to work. The coconut and cream pies were a triumph, but from the moment I opened the rather unappetizing can of Libby’s Best, it was downhill all the way for pumpkin. I hated the results so much that I refused to serve it and pumpkin pie did not so much as pass my lips for many years to come.  I have lately made my peace with the whole debacle, and have found a compromise pie that I serve up every year. It is a delectable and creamy confection, with a lightly spiced custard style filling. The unpleasant flavors of my freshman effort have been replaced with a mix of fresh pumpkin and sweet potato, enhanced with a touch of bourbon and fresh vanilla bean for added luxury. I only make the pie once a year, and thoroughly enjoy a single slice served with a big dollop of maple whipped cream. It is a proven crowd-pleaser and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

The Vegetables

I used kuri pumpkin as it has sweet dense flesh and is not too stringy. Sugar pumpkins and Long Island cheese pumpkins are other good choices. Save the Jack o’ Lanterns for decoration only. Last year I pressure cooked my pumpkin in an Instant Pot, but have discovered that roasting yields the best results. It intensifies the sweetness, and the flesh is less watery. The puree can be made several days ahead and freezes well, but do not freeze the sweet potato. Bake the sweet potato in its skin up to one day before preparing and store in the refrigerator. The local farm crop is at its very best around the holidays.

2 medium orange flesh sweet potatoes
1 small kuri or sugar pumpkin
Light olive oil or canola oil

Slice the pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds. Cut into thick slices or chunks (leave skin on) and toss with oil. Place slices on a baking parchment-lined sheet pan and roast in a 370-degree oven for about 30-35 minutes, until pumpkin is tender and not browned. Cool before scraping the flesh from the skin and placing in a blender. Process to a fine puree. Wash the sweet potato skins and dry thoroughly. Prick lightly with a fork and bake in a 375-degree oven until very tender. Set aside to cool before scraping out the flesh from the skin and blending to a fine puree. Cover and chill both purees in the fridge until ready to use.

Cookie Crumb Crust

Purchase McVitie’s digestives in place of Graham Crackers, for a superior crust. They are available at King Kullen supermarket and The Market in Greenport. You can also source them online. The crust can be made a day ahead. Cover tightly and store in a cool place (not the refrigerator).

2 cups finely ground McVities digestive crumbs (or graham cracker crumbs)
½ cup melted butter
¼ cup granulated sugar
Large pinch cinnamon (optional)

Place all ingredients in a food processor and combine until they start to clump together. Cover the bottom and sides of a 10-inch pie plate with an even layer of the mixture, using your fingertips to pat it down firmly. Bake in the middle of a preheated oven for 10-12 minutes until golden brown and firm. Cool on a wire rack.

The Filling

To keep the crust from going soggy I do not refrigerate the finished pie for too long. I prepare the crust and filling (except the melted butter) the day before and assemble and bake early on Thanksgiving morning, before the turkey goes into the oven. Add the melted and slightly cooled butter just before you bake. If your spices have been in the pantry since last November or before, discard and purchase new ones.

2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
¾ cup pumpkin puree
¾ cup sweet potato puree
¼ cup soft brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1½ cups heavy cream
3 Tbsp. melted butter
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 Tbsp. bourbon
1 vanilla bean split, seeds scraped and reserved

Whisk together the whole eggs, yolks, and sugar. Fold in the pumpkin, sweet potato, cream, butter, bourbon, spices, and vanilla seeds. Beat thoroughly to combine. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl or a pitcher with a pouring lip. Place the pie plate with the crust in it on a heavy sheet pan and carefully pour on the filling. 

Cook in the center of a 275-degree oven for 1½ hours, until cooked but still “jiggly.” Remove to a wire rack to completely cool before covering loosely and refrigerating. Serve with whipped cream, lightly sweetened with maple syrup, and a dash of extra bourbon if desired.

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