Cooking in the Cave: Do as I say, not as I do—join the fresh-pumpkin movement

My love for rain is unconditional. So last Saturday, the first rainy day of autumn, was a day I had long anticipated.

I love rain because it heralds the holiday season, which really is the most wonderful time of the year.

So, to make my Saturday even more perfect, I decided it was time to make the first pumpkin pie of the year.

Pumpkin, like rain, coincides with the holidays, so I love it unconditionally as well.

After I made a quick trip to Whole Foods, I bundled up and opened all of the windows in the kitchen to let the sound and the joyous aroma of the rain in (Yes, I love rain that much.). Then I put on some music and got cooking.

But, alas, my pie was mediocre.

The crust tasted too much like Walkers shortbread and overwhelmed the pumpkin flavor. But I don’t blame the crust.

I think the real problem was that the pumpkin flavor wasn’t very crisp and clean to begin with.

And that’s probably because I used canned pumpkin purée.

Since it’s not October yet, fresh pumpkins were not available at Whole Foods, so I had to opt for the canned pumpkin. And I never do that.

A food blog converted me to fresh-pumpkin pies a few years ago. And, until last Saturday, I had remained faithful to the fresh-pumpkin movement.

Unless you’re in a fix for time, or your grocery story does not sell pie pumpkins, there is really no reason not to use fresh pumpkin.

For starters, fresh pumpkin simply tastes better and fresher. Canned pumpkin has likely been sitting on a shelf or in a warehouse for months!

And it’s not even hard to make. All you have to do is cut the pumpkin up and throw it in the oven or stockpot (see recipe below).

Plus, using fresh pumpkin is great if you have people to impress over the holidays.

And I just love pumpkins, so I find it much more fun to work with them while they’re fresh rather than just opening a can.

But don’t get too excited. Not every store sells pie pumpkins. Those pumpkins you’re used to seeing—the ones we make jack-o’-lanterns out of—don’t make a very good pie.

They’re too large and therefore stringy and bland. Most online recipes will tell you to get sugar pie pumpkins, which are about the size of a mini-watermelon.

But I prefer Japanese sweet pumpkins—more commonly known as kabocha squash. They have much firmer flesh, which makes the purée smoother. And the flesh is more orange in color.

They come in two varieties—red and green—with green being more common.

There is little difference between the two, besides the color of their bumpy skin. Some prefer the red variety because they are closer in appearance to the traditional pumpkin, but I don’t really care.

You can usually find the green variety at Whole Foods.

But if you can’t find sugar pie pumpkins or kabocha, you can always use butternut squash. Even though it doesn’t even resemble a pumpkin, it will still make a great “pumpkin” pie.

And if you can’t find butternut squash, which are available year-round,  you should really question the integrity of your grocery store.

Brandied Squash Pie

I rarely use the same pumpkin pie recipe twice. There are so many good versions and I like trying them all. I’ve even tried one that used melted vanilla ice cream (much too heavy) instead of evaporated milk.

But the pumpkin pie recipes I return to always contain liquor—usually cognac or brandy. The liquor adds a greater depth of flavor that goes well with the crispness of the fresh pumpkin. I found this recipe last year from the New York Times website and it’s exceptional (although I made a few tweaks). The key to this one is the roasted purée.

Use all of the spices to your personal taste.


1¼ cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled in small cubes

2 to 3 tablespoons ice water, as needed

1¾ cups squash/pumpkin purée (recipe follows)

3 large eggs

1 cup heavy cream

¾ cups firmly packed dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons brandy

1½  teaspoons ground ginger

1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon

¼  teaspoon grated nutmeg

Pinch ground clove


Makes one 9-inch pie


Squash Purée

To make the purée, peel, halve and seed a 2½ to 3 pound squash of your choice and cut flesh into 1½-inch chunks. Coat with melted butter or oil and roast at 400 degrees, stirring once or twice, until the squash is tender, about 30 to 45 minutes. Let cool, then purée in a food processor. This part is crucial to a great pie. You must purée it until it is no longer stringy.


1. In a food processor, briefly pulse together the flour and ¼ teaspoon salt. Add butter and pulse until mixture forms chickpea-size pieces (3 to 5 one-second pulses). Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until mixture is just moist enough to hold together.

2. Form dough into a ball, wrap with plastic and flatten into a disk. Refrigerate at least 1 hour.

3. Heat oven to 375 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pie crust to a 12-inch circle. Transfer crust to a 9-inch pie plate. Fold over any excess dough, then crimp edges. Prick crust all over with a fork. Chill crust 30 minutes. Cover pie with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights to keep the crust from melting and puffing up (you can use rice or dried beans for this). Bake for 15 minutes; remove foil and weights and bake until pale golden, 5 to 7 minutes more. Cool on rack until needed.

4. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin purée, eggs, cream, dark brown sugar, brandy, ginger, cinnamon, ½ teaspoon salt, nutmeg, and clove. Pour mixture into the cooled pie shell. Transfer pie to a large baking sheet. Bake until crust is golden and center jiggles just slightly when shaken, 50 to 60 minutes. Cool completely before serving.

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