Baking Desserts Index Vegetarian

Pumpkin Pie Redux

[one_half][M]y extremely talented sister once told me that she had made a pumpkin pie, from scratch, with a fresh pumpkin, and that it tasted no different from a pie made with canned. I was in college at the time, when the idea of cutting open an actual pumpkin seemed tantamount to building your own television. The canned pumpkin seemed like a modern marvel that could possibly render the unprocessed version obsolete.

But times, and curiosities, change. I am now accustomed to seeing (presumably fresh) pumpkin shoehorned into every imaginable food throughout the fall and winter seasons. Pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin crème brûlée, pumpkin soup, pumpkin flan, pumpkin ale, and of course, the abomination that is the pumpkin spice latte. In each of these cases, I find myself asking the same question: What does pumpkin taste like?

The answer invariably seems to be: Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. Not that I have an intrinsic problem with those flavors. But aside from the comforting, orange-brown paste we are accustomed to taking in a pie shell, what does it actually feel like to bite into a piece of pumpkin? Perhaps, as I have often suspected, there is a reason we don’t leave the pumpkin meat intact. I could imagine it being bland, slimy, possibly bitter. Perhaps, like quince, it is only palatable in paste form. I considered it a personal challenge to prove that notion wrong.

As a home cook primarily known for slow-cooking meats, I have long felt that I should learn how to make a proper dessert. Years before the genesis of Babychili, I found myself oddly drawn to the numerous pie contests I saw on television. I felt that they were different from other cooking competitions in that, despite being open to professional cooks, the contestants, generally speaking, had no formal training. They were home cooks like me, and they were surprisingly creative. I wondered whether I could win such a contest, and how long it would take to find out.

It’s become cliché for savory cooks to say that they are intimidated by baking, but that has certainly been the case with me. Eventually, work, “real life,” and various other excuses took over, and I never did try making a pie. Sometimes you need to get pushed into the pool. So I committed, this Thanksgiving, to executing my own version of pumpkin pie (actually a tart). And dammit, you were going to get pieces of pumpkin if it killed me.

* * * * *


The crust

Regular readers of this blog have heard me say this several times now, but I’ll repeat it for the newcomers: If you are a neurotic perfectionist, or perhaps just like to have things explained to you in pedantic detail, a highly recommended way to learn any new technique in the kitchen is to consult The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. I have rarely attempted a recipe from this book that did not subsequently result in the best version of that particular dish I have ever had. So when it came time to learn how to make a pie crust, I did not turn to any number of classic tomes on baking. I went straight for the Basic Rich Tart Dough, by Rodgers.

But even a recipe as informative as Zuni’s does not necessarily make for a perfect first try. The prominent eyebrow-raiser in this recipe is its inclusion of salted butter. The salt, as I understand it, plays an important role in both the flavor and texture of the dough. Rodgers recommends butter containing 90 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon, which is near the high end of the range for salted butters. I neglected to remember this detail, and simply bought “salted butter,” which, in my case, happened to contain a whopping 115 milligrams per tablespoon. This was, in my opinion, too much salt for my recipe. I made three different crusts, and settled on using the European Style Lightly Salted Butter by Straus. In addition to being lower in sodium (45 milligrams per tablespoon), this butter was also significantly lower in moisture than the other two brands I tried. The lower moisture butter behaved with flour exactly as described in the book, while the other two butters (though they worked perfectly fine) were significantly stickier.

* * * * *

The filling

I imagined slices of caramelized pumpkin enveloped in a base of toasted pumpkin seed frangipane. Frangipane is a baked cream, typically made with almonds, that rises upon baking and assumes the consistency of a sticky bread. My first attempt at this was an unqualified failure. The frangipane did not rise, and the butter, all 13 tablespoons of it (which turned out to be only 9 tablespoons too many) leaked out of my poor tart and left it sitting in a pool of molten fat. I made several more versions of the frangipane before arriving at this version, found at Dessert First by Anita Chu. I made two ingredient substitutions: in place of almonds, I used pumpkin seeds (raw, unsalted, and hulled) which I pan-toasted over medium-low heat for 5 – 10 minutes until they became fragrant and slightly brown. So that my pumpkin seeds would not compete with the flavor of almonds, I used vanilla extract instead of almond extract.

One practical piece of advice I can offer in making any frangipane is to make sure that the sugar/pumpkin seed (or sugar/almond) mixture is processed or ground to the point where you cannot imagine the pieces of seeds or nuts being any smaller. Before adding wet ingredients, you should arrive at a sandy-colored sugar. There may be flecks of skin from the pumpkin seeds, but there should be no detectable grit from the meat of the seeds. This is apparently essential for allowing the seeds to incorporate into a smooth cream that will rise during baking.

* * * * *

The pumpkin

Finally, we arrive at the $64 question: Do pieces of pumpkin belong on a tart? I maintain that the answer is yes. My treatment of the pumpkin is inspired by calabaza en tacha, traditionally served during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. The challenge here was to prepare slices of pumpkin that were attractive, preferably caramelized, had a distinct pumpkin flavor, and could be cut easily with a fork. But how thick can I cut the pumpkin? Should I parcook it? Marinate it? Allow it to cook completely on the tart itself? I struggled to arrive at the product I suspected (but was not certain) was possible, and experienced a key aha moment when reading this recipe for butternut squash tart by Matt Armendariz. Roast it in oil first. Then season and bake. Here is the winning method:

Candied pumpkin

1 small sugar pumpkin*
grapeseed or vegetable oil
kosher salt
1/4 C granulated sugar
zest and juice from 1/2 of a small orange
2 T maple syrup
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground allspice

*Note: The pumpkin should be small, young and heavy for its size. Its flesh should provide a fair bit of resistance when cutting with a sharp knife. If the flesh is light or spongy, then too much of the starch has been converted to sugar, and it will wind up tasting more like a radish than a sweet potato. A kabocha or butternut squash would also work nicely here.

Peel and quarter the pumpkin and thoroughly scrape out the pith and seeds. Cut into uniform slices about 1/2 cm thick. Lightly toss in neutral oil with a sprinkle of kosher salt. Roast in a preheated, 400F oven for 15 minutes or until tender, turning once to ensure even heating.

While the pumpkin is roasting, combine remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Taking care not to damage the cooked pumpkin slices, arrange them in a single layer on a large plate and coat both sides with mixture. Allow the slices to marinate for about 15 minutes.

* * * * *

Assembling the tart

Spread the frangipane evenly in a frozen tart shell and carefully arrange pumpkin slices in a fan (or other desired) pattern. Bake in a preheated, 375F oven for about 40 minutes, or until both the frangipane and crust have begun to brown. About halfway through cooking, the frangipane should rise considerably, then relax. Allow the tart to cool completely on a wire rack before ravaging.

* * * * *

Needless to say, over this past week, I became extremely adept at peeling and seeding pumpkins. The tart shell, once a terrifying prospect, quickly became manageable. The pumpkin seeds yielded a rich, nutty frangipane. And the roast pumpkin slices married with orange to offer a fragrance reminiscent of marmalade. Did I mention that my tart didn’t last long?



83 replies on “Pumpkin Pie Redux”

Pumpkin pie redux–and improved. Love that you used all parts of the pumpkin to create something new and what I imagine tastes much better than the traditional pie. The top photo is gorgeous but the ones with Esme are even better. Great job! 🙂

Beautiful! The first photo is reminiscent of those Danish still-lifes – the quality of light and richness of hues are lovely.

I might have to take a look at Rodgers’ book. I would have to get another bookshelf if I get anymore cookbooks.

Informative post and great use of the pumpkin!

I’d really rather make a pie (or tart) than build my own television any given day, and I must say that for your first attempt at pie-making, the results look superb! The process of making the pumpkin seed frangipane from scratch did make my toes curl though, in not a pleasant way… You deserve a standing ovation for that feat!

Thanks for such a detailed account of your pumpkin pie baking session, I’ve learnt a lot about other stuff through clicking on your links.

Hahaha.. I just reread your post again (I have time to kill) and realized that you probably bought readily-hulled pumpkin seeds from the store! Silly me, I truly had such unreasonable expectations of you, Ben ;-).

LOL! I did briefly consider hulling my own seeds. *Maybe* I’d do it if I knew I could get the tart right on the first try, but you don’t know how many pumpkin seeds I went through. 🙂

I think this is the most challenging round yet. Your Ideas of how to treat pumkin seeds runs so counter intuititive of what I learned growing up. Treat them as a whole. They are a garnigh, not an ingredient! You have made me look at pumpkin seeds in a totally different light! I love chili baby! So

Ok, to be a bitch, I would love to see your interperitation of a Cornish pastie or a steak and kidney pie, one of my favorite Winter meals!

Ben, I love your story on how this dessert came to be, your explanation of the dessert and how to choose a pumpkin, all of it was very informative. And your daughter is beautiful (= Best wishes.

I also love the idea of using the seeds instead of almonds in a frangipane – opens up another world of ideas. Candied pumpkin already sounds good and the tart is beautiful. Of course, seeing your daughter so lovingly watching and admiring her daddy is the picture that will linger.

the lengths you went to to perfect what amounts to a serious challenge for a savory dude such as yourself impress me. i can tell it tasted great, which is often a dubious point in the world of food blogging. also- BIG props to the talent behind the lens on this one- the shots are incredible & Esme is a little gem.

Ben, I was relieved to see a previous comment addressing whether or not you bought some pumpkin seeds in bulk. I’m trying to imagine how many pumpkins you’d have to eviscerate to arrive at enough seeds to make frangipane. I have never heard of the Zuni cookbook, I am going to have to wishlist it ASAP because anyone who thinks of pumpkin seed frangipane has won my allegiance. Hmmm, pumpkin seed frangipane cupcakes…. JK.

Thanks, Stella. Curious to see what you might learn from it, given your training. Regardless, Judy is a wonderful writer and I cannot say enough good things about the book. It was a gift from my sister (your virtual neighbor).

Another awesome job by Team Babychili! I’m not a big fan of traditional pumpkin pie, but I can totally get on board with this deconstructed version. Love how you used pumpkin meat and pumpkin seeds to make this tart.. the pepita frangipane is positively inspired!
Good luck. You’ve got my vote!

I am in love with the still life – the lighting, the mood, and of course, the centerpiece, is stunning. For someone who is new to pumpkin pie baking, you pulled it off like a master! Beautifully executed! (p.s. Your little one is darling! Did she enjoy the pie?)

Wow. Love that you kept real pieces of pumpkin on there!! Very unique..everyone typically only uses pumpkin in pureed form. Looks amazing and your daughter is adorable. 🙂

You’re one of the rare people who surprise me. And not because you’re crazy, but because you can think/create in so many different ways. Great job bb.

…and Stella? When you finally come over some day, we can drink way too much wine and pore over my copy of Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Cookbook.

I’m not a huge fan of pumpkin-anything (apart from roasting them with a bit of oil and salt), but this pie-tart is seriously delectable. My sympathies about your first frangipane attempt (the same thing happened to M on his first try), and kudos to you for not giving up! Just wondering though, can you share the other brands of butter you tried? I only use Straus for baking but good to know about the characteristics of other brands too.

PS: I’m jealous of your marble baking slab!

Elegantly done, Ben. Pumpkin is not nearly as ubiquitous over on this side of the Atlantic (neither, thankfully, is the pumpkin spice latte), but I have had the US Thanksgiving / pumpkin pie experience, and this is a wonderful re-imagination of what that can be.

Will you be offended if I describe that top photo as haunting and unearthly? It is seriously a work of art and I love how it evokes a classic, old-timey feel to the whole post. I also love how you revamped something as classic as pumpkin pie, when I thought nothing else could be done to it.

Pumpkin seed frangipane? Finding the perfect butter for crust? I hate to inform you but you, sir, are now officially a baker.

That girl is adorable.
I’m reading it for the second time and realizing the nightmare you’re talking about has to do with how much trial and error went into the dish.
It’ll all be worth it when you get to the next round. Then you can relax and eat at a restaurant for the critique. Or 30.

I just love your approach to food-related mysteries – so adventurous and so analytical:) And we all get the benefits of your hard work.
My mother often made a simple dessert of roasted pumpkin with brown sugar and cinnamon, and even though it was not one of my favorites, I had an idea how pumpkin tastes. But, you are right – many times we describe it through the “pumpkin pie spices”.
I like the frangipane made with pumpkin seeds. My husband is deathly allergic to almonds and I am constantly looking for substitutions.
I am impressed with your wife’s Caravaggio photo. And your daughter is a beauty.
Great post, as always!
Good luck!

Beautiful pie..
Did you put up that nice table for photographing the pie?
It’s taken to look like the cover of some new book. 🙂

Good luck and voted for you. I’m going to come back and try this recipe one day when I get a nice pumpkin from the market.

Ben – I started to get tired of my same old pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving. Next time I am going to use your recipe to challenge myself. The pumpkin pie looks beautiful, and your daughter is adorable. You certainly have my vote. Best luck with the rest of the journey!

What does pumpkin taste like? Ha! You’re right about the usual accompanying flavors standing in for actual PUMPKIN flavor. I used nutmeg and cinnamon to make some pumpkin tuiles taste more pumpkin-y at the last LAZY Bear.

LOL. So I obviously didn’t stray far from the pumpkin spice suite of flavors. Partly, you get more of the pumpkin flavor because the slices themselves have less moisture and are more concentrated (and thicker than a tuile). The toasted seeds also add a dimension that’s atyptical of a frangipane. Thanks for reading, Chef!

now THIS is a proper dessert. as you may have never had an entremet, i don’t think i’ve ever had a frangipane tart. but now i find myself closing my eyes and drooling for one. i really admire your multiple attempts to get it right, um and your writing skills too.

I can understand your desire to step away from pumpkins after reading all these wonderful posts I have to admit I’m on pumpkin overload myself 🙂 However after hearing the words pie, frangipane and pumpkin in the same sentence my palate once again opens up and I’m curious about that marriage. This looks amazing and this may actually be one recipe that I may try.

this was gorgeous! I really love the part about the overflowing butter, your trial and error and pursuit of making this amazing tart WITH chunks (or slices) of real pumpkin. The pumpkin seeds were genius as well. Looking forward to your review!

You have always known what to do with pumpkin. I remember one of our Turkey Day feasts where you & Tiff made pumpkin ravioli & a ragout with spelt. The ravioli was so yum that when we came back from pool, you and I were eating it cold. Also, you were imbided enough, you put a turkey leg in your mouth & shake it like a dog. One of my funniest memories of you.

Late to the party, but thrilled beyond belief to have found this recipe! As someone with celiac, I am used to having to dance about recipes to get things to work without the usual go-to of gluten so a pie crust is a doddle to work out. But being allergic to nuts as well? Gah. (Especially as nut flours in general and ground almonds in particular are the main go-to for so many GF recipes) I’ve been longing to try quite a few recipes lately that all seem to require frangipane, but wasn’t willing to spend time with the epi-pen to taste them. The pumpkin seed idea is brilliant and I’m off to give this a whirl right away. And as for the candied pumpkin filling? Joy unbridled at the thought – from late August until early April my husband would happily eat pumpkin (and all it’s squashy kin) 3x a day, everyday, if I let him. And while I enjoy the flavor myself, it can get rather old fast so I’m always on the lookout for a new way to spin it. Thanks so much!

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