The hard part is not getting slimed.
Otherwise, despite all the gruesome tales you might have been told, making pumpkin pie from an actual pumpkin is neither a daylong ordeal nor a cleanup nightmare. In fact, you might say it's as easy as cake.
Never having done it before, I figured I would tackle pumpkin-into-pie baking last week, as cooks across America get their recipes ready for Thanksgiving. Then bake a second pie using the same recipe with canned pumpkin, compare them, and then I might be able to share some useful insights.
Here's the good news: It's quite simple, and you can create a delicious pie in as little as 20 minutes of hands-on work -- plus several hours of baking and cooling, during which you can otherwise occupy yourself.
Also, it's a great way to do something with those pumpkins besides watching them rot.
The bad, or neutral news: The pie I made from a real pumpkin tasted better than its canned cousin, but not by much.
My testers found real pumpkin offered slightly more squash flavor, a fuller vegetable background to the sweet spiced custardy flavors in the pie. But they would have been OK with canned.
So if you need more complicated culinary procedures to pay major flavor dividends, you might put your precious time into conquering giblet gravy this Thanksgiving.
Now let's get back to dessert.
To try the pie, buy a "sugar" or "pie" pumpkin. Those cannonball-sized pumpkins, smaller than the big jack-o'-lantern varieties, are better for eating. Pumpkins grown as ornamentals are bred for thicker skin and more internal reinforcement, which means stout fibers running through their flesh.
Sugar pumpkins are smoother and sweeter. The easiest way to turn them into the puree needed for a pie is hacking them in half, with a mallet on the back of a knife if necessary. Scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp (use sheets of newspaper or the porch, if you're not that careful. Those slippery seeds can skitter quite a ways).
Then roast the cleaned pumpkin halves in the oven. Once done and cooled enough to handle, the pumpkin can easily be spooned out from the skin. With a food processor, blender or stick blender, you have puree in minutes.
One possible complication is pumpkin juice. Some pumpkins have enough to water down the custard, requiring uncomfortably long baking times. If liquid is leaching from your roasted pumpkin in the bowl, you can mash it with a potato masher and let it drain in a strainer or through cheesecloth for an hour or more.
The Martha Stewart pie recipe we tried was designed for using fresh pumpkin puree. It's as simple as can be, just measuring a few ingredients into a bowl and whipping them together, then pouring the custard into a pie crust. I used ready-made crusts to save time, but another speedy option is Alton Brown's easy gingersnap crust, printed here.
Do not overfill the crust, as the mixture will puff up while baking. You can bake leftover pumpkin mixture in a buttered ramekin until set, like a pudding.
To get the pumpkin puree, I went with Brown's recommended pumpkin chopping and roasting technique, which was simple and took only 30 minutes. I lengthened the baking time because my pie's center was too liquid when the recommended time elapsed.
Wherever their squash comes from, pumpkin pies and other spiced fruit concoctions tend to taste better the day after they're prepared. Count on needing at least two hours cool-down time after baking, so the pie doesn't ooze when you slice it.
> Pumpkin Pie From a Real Pumpkin
1 sugar or pie pumpkin, 3-5 pounds, used to make:
1 1/2 cups fresh pumpkin puree
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3 large eggs, lightly beaten, plus 1 egg for glaze
1 1/2 cups evaporated milk
Enough pie dough for 9-inch pan
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove stem and carefully chop the pumpkin in half with a big knife, using a mallet to drive the blade through if necessary. Scrape out seeds and stringy pulp.
Sprinkle the cut side of the pumpkin halves with salt and place cut side down on baking sheet. Place in oven and bake for 25-35 minutes, until easily pierced with knife. Remove from oven.
When cool enough to handle, scoop flesh from the pumpkin halves, discarding skin. (If watery, drain pulp in strainer or cheesecloth for one to four hours.) Puree can be prepared up to a week ahead.
When ready to make pie, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine puree with brown sugar, cornstarch, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and three eggs. Beat well. Add evaporated milk, and combine. Set aside.
Between two pieces of plastic wrap, roll pie dough into a 12-inch circle. Fit pastry into a 9-inch glass pie plate; trim dough evenly along edge, leaving about a 1/2 -inch overhang. Pinch to form a decorative edge. If the dough begins to soften, chill for 15 minutes. (Or use prefabricated crust from grocery freezer, or gingersnap crust, which follows.)
Beat the remaining egg in another bowl, and combine with heavy cream. Brush glaze very lightly on edges of pie shell. Fill pie shell with pumpkin mixture.
Transfer to prepared baking sheet.
Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 30-45 minutes more, until center is set. Cool on a wire rack.
Note: If adding pecan-caramel topping, bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, lower heat to 350 and bake for 10 minutes more. Remove pie from oven and spread topping evenly over pie. Return to oven to finish baking, another 20-35 minutes, or until center is set. Cool on a wire rack.
> Caramel Pecan Topping
1 cup pecans, preferably mixture of halves and chopped
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons brown sugar, preferably dark
Melt butter in small saucepan. Add brown sugar and pecans and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until caramelized and syrupy, about 5 minutes.
> Alton Brown's Gingersnap Pie Crust
6 ounces gingersnap cookies
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 ounce unsalted butter, melted
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the gingersnaps, brown sugar and ginger in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the cookies are fine crumbs. Drizzle the butter into the crumb mixture. Pulse 8 to 10 times to combine.
Press the gingersnap mixture into the bottom, up the sides, and just over the lip of a 9-inch glass pie dish. (You can use a smaller pie plate in the larger one to press the crust into shape.) Place on a half sheet pan and bake the crust for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool crust at least 10 minutes before filling.