Like cilantro and circus clowns, pumpkin pie can be quite polarizing. Some take a hard pass, whereas others can’t imagine cold-weather holidays without it. My earliest pumpkin pie memories involve trying not to stick my fingers in a store-bought Mrs. Smith’s pie on Thanksgiving Day, baked from frozen that morning and cooling on the washing machine in the tiny laundry room off the kitchen at Gramma’s house, while the rest of the Thanksgiving meal was prepared. By the time dinner was finished and the desserts rolled out, I was more interested in stealing spoonfuls from the Cool Whip tub next to the pie than I was in the pie itself. I became a late-in-life pumpkin pie convert, especially the homemade kind (no offense to Mrs. Smith), and have grown to love the simplicity and warming spices in an amber slice at the end of a celebratory meal.
A swooping, marshmallow-y Italian meringue topping manages to feel as luxurious as whipped cream but is free of fat, which balances nicely with a rich pumpkin custard. Italian meringue holds particularly well, so it can be made several hours ahead of time and transported easily if you find yourself in pumpkin pie duty for a gathering, and you get to wow the crowd as you torch it just before it hits the dessert buffet.
by Shauna Sever
Position an oven rack the center position and preheat the oven to 325°F/170°C.
Prepare the filling: In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin purée, eggs, egg yolk, cream, and brandy until well blended. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, spices, and salt. Whisk the spiced sugar into the pumpkin mixture.
Pour the filling into the prepared pie shell and bake until the filling is set but wobbles ever so slightly in the very center when jiggled, about 1 hour (the filling will set further as it cools). Turn off the oven and let the pie cool in the oven for 30 minutes. Let the pie cool completely on a wire rack. The untopped pie can be loosely covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days before serving. To serve, use some paper towel to gently dab any excess moisture from the top of the pie. Pile the meringue atop the pie. Use a kitchen torch to toast the meringue to a deep golden brown.
My Favorite Pie Crust
Pie crust purists will likely object, but I’m a big believer in using a food processor for pie crust making. If you don’t overdo it, it just doesn’t get any easier or faster.
We’ve all heard a thousand times that keeping the fat as cold as possible is the key to great pie crusts, and that’s certainly a great tip. But I add a few pinches and splashes that I consider insurance, for when the kitchen is hot or I’m distracted by any number of children or things.
Vinegar is great for tenderness: I like red wine vinegar, but cider vinegar is good, too. A little pinch of baking powder makes a flakier crust a little more foolproof in case you happen to overwork the dough (happens to the best of us). For a crust with a savory filling, I include the smaller amounts of sugar as listed here for flavor and browning. For sweet pies, use 1 or 2 tablespoons, as you like.
MAKES: 1 (9- or 10-inch/23 or 25 cm) round bottom pie or tart crust
SPECIAL NOTES: Pat the finished dough into a round disk before wrapping and chilling to make rolling it into a circle later much easier.
MAKES: 1 (9- or 10-inch/23 or 25 cm) round double-crusted or lattice-topped pie
SPECIAL NOTES: Divide the dough in half before shaping and wrapping. For a lattice top, make one disk slightly larger for the bottom crust.
MAKES: 1 (10 x 15-inch/30 x 43 cm) slab pie
SPECIAL NOTES: Make the dough in 2 batches (2 recipes of the doubled recipe, left), for the top and bottom crusts. Shape and wrap each batch separately.
METHOD: In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Pulse a few times to blend. Sprinkle half of the butter pieces over the dry ingredients. Process until the mixture resembles cornmeal, about 15 seconds. Add the remaining cold butter and pulse about 10 times, until this batch of butter cubes is broken down by about half.
In a measuring cup, combine the water and vinegar. Add about three quarters of the liquid to the bowl. Pulse about 10 times, or until the dough begins to form a few small clumps. Test the dough by squeezing a small amount in the palm of your hand. If it easily holds together and your palm isn’t dusty with floury bits, it’s done. If not, add an additional 1/2 tablespoon of vinegared water and pulse 2 or 3 more times. Repeat this process as needed just until the dough holds together. Turn out the mixture onto a work surface. With a few quick kneads, gather the dough into a mass. For a single crust, pat the dough into a disk, wrapping tightly in plastic wrap. For double crust, divide the dough in half and shape into disks. For 2 slab crusts, shape each half of the dough into a 5 x 8-inch/12.5 x 20 cm rectangle. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before rolling.
TIP > The dough will keep tightly wrapped in the fridge for up to a week, and in the freezer for up to 6 months.
Makes about 3 cups/710 ml meringue
Plenty of meringue pie recipes have you make a French meringue as their toppings—the type where egg whites are whipped and granulated sugar gradually added until you get a stiff, glossy meringue. The problem is that this meringue is far from foolproof and all too often ends up grainy, weeping on you, or collapsing. We deserve more certainty from our meringue, I’d say.
My choice for pie topping is Italian meringue. This type of meringue takes a little more doing, but the payoff is its stability—it holds, swoops, and peaks like a dream. Because it’s “cooked” by the hot sugar syrup, no further baking is required. For pies, I get a nice controlled toast on it with a kitchen torch, or leave it as is for a silky, fat-free alternative to whipped cream for rich pies that could use a creamy but lighter topping. For the occasional moments that one makes a meringue pie, I say go for the sure thing.
Place the whites in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add the cream of tartar. Beat the whites on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes. Turn off the mixer.
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, corn syrup, and salt. Stirring often, bring the mixture to a full boil. Clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pot, and cook until the syrup reaches 240°F/115°C.
Turn the mixer back on, on medium speed. In a thin stream, pour just a tablespoon or two of the syrup into the whipping whites. Wait 5 seconds, then pour in 2 more tablespoons. After 5 more seconds, pour in the remaining syrup in a thin, steady stream, aiming for the space between the side of the bowl and the whip. Increase the mixer speed to high and beat until the meringue is thick, glossy, and the bowl is cool to the touch, 7 to 8 minutes. In the last minute of beating, add the vanilla. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
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Shauna Sever is the author of the cookbooks, Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet. Her latest book is Midwest Made. She is also the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on The Today Show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.