Finding the Best Pumpkins for Pies
I Couldn't Find the Right One, so I Went Looking for Answers
It’s not a pumpkin. Or is it?
Three pies sat on my table. A sweetly spiced aroma wafted through the room while condensation glistened atop the baked custard. Freshly whipped cream with speckles of black vanilla bean mounded high in an earthenware bowl. One pie was deep orange, while another was more salmon-colored, and the third had a cinnamon-brown tone.
A dozen people sat around, waiting for the first slice. They scrutinized the selections. My friends had gathered for a pie tasting; their duties were to test all three and tell me which reigned supreme. All the pies adhered to the same recipe except for one ingredient. And I wouldn’t tell my friends what it was.
Tamalyn, a certified chef, tasted and savored each one. Then she accused, “Hey, this is sweet potato!”
I just smiled. None of the pies were made with actual “pumpkin.”
The Quest For The Perfect Pie
Like most of my homesteading adventures, the quest for the perfect pumpkin pie began in my garden. And my first endeavor as a gardening adult involved pumpkins.
Raise your hand if you chose specialty French or Italian varieties for your first pumpkin-growing endeavor. You probably chose jack o’ lanterns, right? They’re cute, easy, and seeds are 99 cents a packet.
And they taste horrible.
But I didn’t know that. Because it’s a pumpkin! And pumpkins make pies. So I grabbed the first seed packet labeled “pumpkin” from the dollar store shelf and planted. Jack o’ lanterns swelled up almost as big as my water bill. Then I cut the ripe fruit, roasted it and pureed loose, watery, bitter flesh into something that looked nothing like the deeply hued selections in commercial cans.
Realizing I had chosen the wrong type of pumpkin, I tried again the next year. I logged onto the seed company’s website and searched up, “pumpkin.” And I chose the only one that also had “pie” in the description, convinced that “Small Sugar” was key to the pies, breads and cookies of my dreams. Small sugar pumpkins did well in my climate. By October, I had 20 pretty orange globes curing atop my chicken coop. I couldn’t wait to try the first one. Since it wasn’t yet November, I baked bread first. After cutting the top off, scooping out the guts, and roasting the fruit, I tasted the cooked flesh. It was bitter, not sugary as the name suggested. But it was denser than the jack o’ lantern flesh so, after draining it in a colander for over an hour, I made bread.
I attribute the bread’s deliciousness to brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves … all the luscious seasonings that gave my creation its true flavor. Even the color was because of the spices, not because of the pumpkin.
I had to be missing something.
To the internet I went. How could I turn my garden pumpkins into the sweet, dense purée offered in the cans? By searching, “best pumpkins for pies,” I found articles with conflicting claims. They all agreed on one thing, though:
The best choice wasn’t a pumpkin at all.
A Pumpkin By Any Other Name
It’s semantics, really. The words we call things. Internet articles claimed the best choices were actually squash. Butternut, Long Island Cheese, Buttercup … not pumpkins.
But all pumpkins are squash. And, in some places, all winter squash are pumpkins.
While working on a story for Countryside Daily, the online portion of this magazine, I delved into the reasons “growing pumpkins” was really about growing squash.
There are five domesticated species of squash. All sub-species, such as butternut, cushaw, Hubbard and zucchini fall within those five. And most of what Americans call “pumpkins” are part of the Cucurbita pepo species. They’re round, orange, ribbed … sometimes white with orange flesh. Sometimes flattened, sometimes taller. But they almost all look like something that grins, glowing with a candle inside, at the end of October.
It was while I researched that story that I realized people in Australia and New Zealand use the word “pumpkin” for all winter squash.
Back to the internet I went, this time to a large and cherished group of fellow writers. I asked those living in different countries, “What does ‘pumpkin’ mean where you live?”
Michael Manz was first to respond. He’s an expatriate Canadian living in China. Though other Canadian friends confirmed that “pumpkin” referred to jack o’ lantern types, Michael said pumpkins in his part of China are small and green. They’re still orange on the inside, and sweet. The Chinese pumpkins are dipped in egg and fried.
Then Holly Kench replied. She lives in Tasmania, just south of the Australian continent. “The concept of being able to carve a pumpkin makes no sense to me outside the movies,” she explained. The things she calls pumpkins are very hard and thick, but still sweet. They’re also green.
Holly showed pictures of the most common Kent pumpkin, a round and squat fruit with thick orange flesh and a small seed cavity. The skin is forest green with yellow spots. I’d call it a kabocha squash. Lighter-colored Jarrahdale pumpkins are blue-gray. Holly described the only orange-colored pumpkins as “butternut pumpkins” and showed me a picture of my beloved butternut squash.
At that point, Michael spoke up and identified the photo of the “Kent pumpkin” as the type he eats in China. But in Chinese, they’re called Nan Gua, or “South Melon.” Michael says, “Everything is a melon in Chinese. Cucumbers are ‘yellow melons.’”
Even Wikipedia agrees the term “pumpkin” has no specific botanical or scientific meaning. A pumpkin within one region is a squash within another and a melon in yet a third.
So Wait … It Is a Pumpkin?
No, it’s not. It is, but it’s … Okay, let’s start again.
The whole mix-up involves jack o’ lanterns. They’re so popular, due to American traditions, that we’ve come to accept those as the standard “pumpkin.” The term has become synonymous with round, ribbed fruits and cavernous seed hollows. Pretty pictures and marketing have convinced us that pies are made with these glowing orbs.
Though pumpkins are native to North America, their introduction to Tudor England made them a popular pie filler. Pumpkin pie recipes are found in English cookbooks written as early as 1675. The Pilgrims carried the concept of pumpkin pie back to New England with them while the English took squash recipes in a different direction.
But jack o’ lanterns are a fairly new thing outside of America. Nick Johns, living in the United Kingdom, claims that in his first 20 years, jack o’ lanterns were only seen on TV and recently became popular when trick-or-treating overshadowed Britain’s autumn holiday of Bonfire Night. Nick says even butternut squash recently gained popularity due to the rise of celebrity chef shows.
Back in America, pumpkin pie is a regional thing. Pretty pictures and marketing often dismiss sweet potato pie, which is a cheaper and more available filling in the southern United States, but more difficult to grow up north. When drained to the same consistency, baked winter squash and baked sweet potato flesh are interchangeable within recipes.
In my pie tasting party, only Tamalyn, the certified chef, knew the difference.
Are You Going To Reveal The Best Pumpkin Or Not?
Jack o’ lanterns can make pies, if you roast the flesh then drain it long enough. But any palatable flavor comes from the sugar and spices. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger give pumpkin pie its traditional flavor. And even sub-par pumpkin can improve with good spices. Small sugar pumpkins work better. But if you’re also on a quest to make the best pumpkin pie, why not take it up a notch?
My guests tasted all three pies then cast their votes. I still hadn’t revealed the ingredients, though those who despised sweet potatoes were now hesitant to try that one.
Pie #3 was voted most flavorful. But not everyone wanted the deep, full-bodied tone of sweet potatoes.
Pie #1 was prettiest, a brilliant orange from the Castilla squash I’d purchased at the Hispanic market. With small seed cavities and undeniable sweetness, Castilla squash have stringy crimson flesh, which must be pureed for the best texture. They are bigger than Long Island Cheese and are also called Musque de Provence.
But the winner was made from a zucchino rampicante grown within my own garden. Like a butternut with a really long neck, these are tan on the outside and light orange within. Other names include tromboncino or zucchetta rampicante, and they’re often eaten young as a summer squash. Seeds only form within the swelling at the end, leaving one to three feet of neck that can be peeled, diced, roasted, or made into pies. Pie #2 was such a favorite that one of the judges started zucchino rampicante in her garden the next year.
The best pumpkin pie recipe calls for the sweetest, densest winter squash. Usually, they’re cucurbita moschata or cucurbita maxima, as the pepo species is often too mild and watery. Grow buttercup or Musque de Provence within your garden or purchase butternut at the grocery store. Give zucchino rampicante a try or cultivate unique squash like Galeux D’eysines or Marina Di Chioggia, which get their warts from sugars seeping through the skin. Make sure squash are fully ripe before roasting, draining and crafting into your perfect pie.
Farm Fresh Pumpkin Pie Recipe
Instead of peeling and cubing the squash, simply stab it with a knife and set it on a cookie sheet. Lower your oven rack until the pumpkin fits then bake at 400°F until a knife can easily insert through the sides. Cool the squash then cut it open and remove the seeds. Scrape out the flesh. Let the roasted flesh drain in a colander for at least 30 minutes.
If you want to save and roast seeds, cut the top off and scrape seeds out before baking. Then put the top back on and roast the whole pumpkin until it is soft.
Remember, “pumpkin” is a subjective term. You can even use roasted sweet potato if a loved one can’t eat squash. For a more distinguished flavor, substitute evaporated goat milk for the heavy cream or use 1 and ¼ cups honey instead of sugar.
1 cup white or whole wheat flour
½ cup rolled oats
½ cup cold butter
¼ cup cold water
3 cups roasted, drained squash
1 cup raw or brown sugar
2 ¼ cups heavy cream
4 large eggs
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon allspice
Heat oven to 425°F.
Pulse the rolled oats in a food processor until the texture of coarse meal. Mix oats and flour in a bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles pea-sized chunks. Sprinkle in cold water, mixing with a fork, until the dough comes together and isn’t dry.
Lay a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper on the counter. Place the ball of pie dough in the middle. Roll the dough into a circle on the plastic/paper until it is about nine inches across. Lift dough and plastic/paper then invert dough-side-down over the pie plate. Press the crust into the pie plate, shaping as necessary; then carefully peel the plastic/paper away.
Combine all the custard ingredients in a blender or food processor. Pulse until smooth.
Place the pie plate on a baking sheet to avoid spills. Set both plate and sheet onto the middle rack of the oven and carefully pour the pumpkin custard into the crust. Don’t worry about overfilling; let it rise all the way to the top edge.
Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven down to 350°F and bake another 45-60 minutes, until a metal fork inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove the pie from the oven and let cool completely before serving.
Top with real whipped cream.
Published in the November/December 2016 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.