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Thanksgiving Dessert Recipe: (Better than) Pumpkin Pie

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Better Than Pumpkin Pie. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
(Better than) Pumpkin Pie. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

All Photos: Wendy Goodfriend

Pie-giving is almost here! As a self-appointed pie therapist, I wish I could be in every one of your kitchens, holding your hands and convincing you that yes, this year, you can make a delectable pie from scratch, with no need for frozen pre-made crusts or jarred fillings. But where I can't be, technology can, and so to this end, we've created a step-by-step photographic how-to to help you through the pie-making process, starting with what I call Better than Pumpkin Pie.

This is the Thanksgiving classic, what your guests and family think of when they think of pumpkin pie. It's the pie Peppermint Patty was longing for when she shouted "Where's the cranberry sauce, Chuck? Where's the PUMPKIN PIE??" in the kids' television classic A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. It needs only a dollop of (possibly bourbon'd) whipped cream to reach festive perfection.

So, how can it be better than what it already is? By skipping the canned pumpkin, for starters, then by not using pumpkin at all, but rather freshly roasted and pureed butternut and kabocha squash. Using fresh squash will give your pie filling a lovely, fluffy texture that's very different from the typical heavy, stodgy wedge made with a can of Libby's.

Butternut and Kobocha squash. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Butternut and Kobocha squash. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Other, less trustworthy people will tell you that those small, melon-sized pumpkins are just what you want for pie. Well, they lie. Out of the vast pantheon of winter squash, pumpkin is among the least interesting in flavor and texture.


Butternut squash, widely available at this time of year, are firm and meaty and have a sweet, mellow, rounded flavor when roasted. The flame-skinned, drum-shaped sunshine kabocha squash, common at farmers' markets and some specialty shops with good produce sections, is intensely flavorful, with a dense, chestnut-y sweetness. Mixed together, they make a bright, sweet, deliciously velvety puree worth spooning up all on its own.

Turning a whole squash into a pie-ready puree takes some time, it's true. But the three steps--roasting, mashing, draining--can be done several days before you need to bake. The puree will last at least four or five days in the refrigerator, and any extra can be used in soup, in pumpkin bread, muffins, or pancakes, or simply salted, peppered, warmed up and eaten as is, or with a dab of butter or trickle of cream.

Here's how to make your squash puree. Using a sharp, heavy knife or cleaver, slice off the stem end of your butternut and discard. Slice the rest of the squash lengthwise. Using a spoon, scrape out the seeds and strings. Massage the cut side with a little neutral vegetable oil, like grapeseed or canola. Put the squash halves face down on a baking sheet.

Kabocha squash are harder to cut, so don't bother trying to remove the stem. Start just to the side of the stem and hack--carefully!--down to the bottom, splitting the squash in two. Using a spoon, scrape out seeds and strings. Massage the cut sides with a little neutral oil, like grapeseed or canola. Add the kabocha squash halves, face down, to the baking sheet. Roast in a preheated 400ºF oven until squishy and browned in spots, about 45-60 minutes. Remove baking sheet from oven. Flip the squash halves cut sides up, and let cool.

Once the squash is cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh out of the skin. Fit the medium-hole disk into a food mill, if you have one, and set it over a deep bowl. Working in batches, scoop the squash in and crank it through the mill. If you don't have a food mill, you can puree the squash in a food processor, or mash it thoroughly with a potato masher. Whichever method you use, spoon the finished puree into a fine-mesh strainer and let it drain over a bowl for at least an hour. Discard the liquid. Pack the squash into a container with a lid and refrigerate until needed.

Now, onto the crust. You're going to all the trouble of using fresh squash, make an all-butter crust. Even better, use a high-fat butter, like Straus Family Creamery European-Style Organic Butter. Chill your butter in the freezer for an hour or so, until it's very firm but not frozen.

Measure the full amount of cold water and vinegar into a glass (or see-through plastic) wet measuring cup. Add a handful of ice cubes. Measure your flour by dipping a dry-measure cup into the flour, then sweeping off the excess with the flat side of a knife. Don't pack it, don't shake it! Mix the sugar and salt into the flour.

Now, here's the trick: Using the coarse holes on a box grater, grate in the butter. Doing it this way will give you the perfect texture with almost no manipulation on your part. The less you're touching the butter and the dough, the flakier your end result will be.

Toss lightly with the flour to cover--this will help keep the butter curls from clumping or sticking together. Pour in about half your ice water (not including the cubes). Using a wooden spoon, gently and quickly mix the water into the flour. Drizzle in remaining water as needed, a tablespoon at a time, stirring gently, just until a handful of dough will hold together when squeezed. A little crumbly is fine; it's better to stop while the dough is still on the crumbly side than to turn it into a big gooey doughball. Scoop the dough into a resealable plastic bag. Flatten into a round, squeezing out any remaining air from the bag, and seal. If you have the time, chill the dough for an hour in the freezer or 2 hours in the refrigerator. Again, the dough can be refrigerated for 1-2 days ahead of baking.

Lightly sprinkle a large, clean work surface with flour. Rub a light coating of flour on your rolling pin. Take your dough out the freezer or fridge and pat into a roughly symmetrical round. Roll from the middle out to the edges, using the equal amounts of pressure as you go. After every few rolls, pick the dough up from the counter and revolve it a quarter turn. This helps keep the dough from sticking to your work surface. If it seems like it's sticking, loosen with a spatula, then sprinkle a little more flour underneath. Imagine you're painting sun rays all the way around from the center of the dough.

Once you've got a nice, more-or-less round of evenly rolled dough, lift it into your pie pan. Press it gently into the pan. You should have about an inch of dough hanging over the edge; trim off any excess. Now, the fun part: crimping! There are many, many ways to do this. Personally, I like to fold my extra dough inwards (towards the middle of the pie) to make a ridge, then gently pinch it between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. Up with the left hand, down with the right, moving all the way around the pie until the whole thing has been crimped. The main thing is do something, even if it's just a plain or rolled ridge of dough along the edge, both to keep any excess filling from spilling out and to make the pie look nice and finished.

Crimping the pie dough. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Crimping the pie dough. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Wrap your empty, crimped shell loosely in plastic wrap or foil and return it to the freezer or fridge while you put together the filling. By now you're probably getting that cold dough=good pie. Keeping the butter solid (rather than soft and melty) as much as possible before baking ensures the flakiest end result.

Putting together the filling is easy. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Beat squash, sugar, spices, salt, bourbon (optional) and eggs together. Beat in cream. Pour mixture into pie shell and bake for 45 minutes, until crust is golden brown and filling is mostly set. The pie will continue to cook a bit as it cools, so leave the center a little jiggly. This will prevent giant fault-line cracks from cratering through the custard. Cool on a rack. If you're baking your pie the night before serving, refrigerate it once it's cooled to room temperature.

Just before serving, whip cream to soft peaks using a wire whisk or hand-held mixer. Whisk in vanilla or bourbon. Bask in the glory of your Better than Pumpkin Pie.

Recipe: (Better than) Pumpkin Pie

Because pumpkin pie is almost always served alongside apple pie at this time of year, and apple pie is almost always made with cinnamon, we've left the cinnamon out this pie. But feel free to add in 1/2 teaspoon if desired; you can also replace the ginger and nutmeg with "pumpkin pie spice," usually a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg. The fresh squash has a lot of flavor on its own, so keep the spicing light. And think long and hard before you decide to jazz things up with star anise or cardamom. You'll need 2 cups of pumpkin or squash puree for the pie; refrigerate or freeze any extra for other cooking projects.

Better than Pumpkin Pie right out of the oven. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
(Better than) Pumpkin Pie right out of the oven. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Makes 1 pie



  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 oz (8 tbsp, 1/2 cup) butter, chilled in the freezer until very firm but not frozen
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons ice water
  • 2 tsp cider vinegar
  • Extra flour for dusting


  • 1 small butternut squash
  • 1 sunshine kabocha squash
  • 2 teaspoons neutral vegetable oil, for roasting the squash
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 3 tbsp molasses, maple syrup, or cane syrup
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tbsp bourbon, optional

Whipped Cream:

  • 1 cup heavy cream, preferably not ultra-pasteurized
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or 1 tablespoon bourbon

1. To make the pie crust, pour water and vinegar into a glass measuring cup. Add a handful of ice cubes, and set aside.

2. Mix flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Using the large holes on a box grater, grate the butter into the flour. Toss lightly to coat butter curls with flour.

3. Pour half the water (not the cubes) into flour mixture. Stir gently with a wooden spoon to moisten the flour. Drizzle in remaining water (you may not need all of it) a tablespoon at a time, stirring gently, until you can just squeeze together a handful of dough. Stop adding water while dough is still slightly crumbly.

4. Flatten dough into a round and seal in a resealable plastic bag. Chill in freezer for 1 hour or in the refrigerator for 2 hours.

5. Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough from the center to the edges. After every 2-3 rolls, pick up the dough and rotate it a quarter turn to keep it from sticking to the counter.

6. Once dough is rolled evenly into a round about 2" bigger than your pie plate, lift it up and drape it over the pie plate. Press gently into the pan.

7. Fold excess dough inwards to make an even ridge. Crimp or shape as desired. Wrap loosely in plastic wrap and chill until needed.

While your dough is chilling, roast the squash:

8. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Cut squashes lengthwise. Scrape out seeds and strings. Rub cut sides with a little oil. Bake for 45-60 minutes, until squash is very soft when pierced with a knife. Remove from oven, flip cut side up and let cool.

9. Scrape flesh out of skins. Crank through the medium disk of a food mill or puree in a food processor. Scoop into a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and drain for an hour. Discard liquid. Refrigerate squash until needed.

Put it all together:


10. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Measure out 2 cups of squash puree. (Reserve any remaining squash for another purpose.) Beat squash, sugar, spices, salt, bourbon (optional) and eggs together. Beat in cream. Pour into pie shell and bake until slightly puffed and set, with the center still a little jiggly, about 45 minutes. Let cool on a rack. Serve with whipped cream.

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