Pumpkins are giant orange fruit/vegetable things that serve precisely two purposes: to be carved into scary faces on Halloween, and to be consumed as desserts on Thanksgiving. If you ever see anyone doing anything else with a pumpkin, you should alert the local authorities immediately.
The sad truth, though, is that most people don’t know how to transform a pumpkin into a pie. Growing up, we would always have a jack-o-lantern for Halloween. We knew there was some vague connection between the orange object we were hacking eye sockets into and the delicious orange pie we would be consuming a month later, but our curiosity always went unsated. One of the major steps to carving a jack-o-lantern, of course, is removing the goopy string-like innards from the pumpkin and discarding them. Certainly, if one were so inclined, you could take those goopy innards, perform some kind of black magic, and they would transmogrify into a pie. Right?
But come Thanksgiving, our pies always came out of cans. Pumpkin black magic was always beyond our ken, until one year I got fed up. I was going to by-gods find a for-real pumpkin and I was going to mess that pumpkin up. I was going to turn that pumpkin into a pie or I was going to die trying.
As you know, I’m still alive. And homemade pumpkin pies have become something of my annual Thanksgiving contribution.
This year, I’m going to pass along what I’ve learned about the hidden arts of pumpkin black magic. All you need to get started is a pumpkin.
The first thing to understand is that you’re not going to be carting home a giant behemoth pumpkin like you do on Halloween. If you have fond childhood memories of annual trips to the pumpkin patch, skimming each row until you found the heaviest pumpkin you could lift… I hate to break it to you, but those memories cannot involve pie.
Actually, you probably could make a pie out of a carving pumpkin… if you’re some kind of animal.
What you’re seeing here are called pie pumpkins, and they are specifically bred for pies. What’s the difference between a carving pumpkin and a pie pumpkin? What a silly question. One is for carving, the other is for pieing. I’ll bet you feel silly for even asking.
The green thing on the right is a butternut squash, which is sort of a bizarro pumpkin. One of the weird, hidden secrets of pumpkin lore is that you don’t need a pumpkin at all to make pie! Butternut squashes have the same taste and texture, have more pie-able “meat” inside, and are easier to prep and work with. It’s sort of like how we don’t call pencil leads “graphites”.
Whether you go with pumpkins or squashes, I find it takes about two of this size gourd to make a sizable pie. I usually buy three squashes and only end up using two for my pie. The third is a backup in case I screw up one of the first two, or failing that, can be used as an emergency stagecoach should the need arise.
This year I bought a pumpkin and a squash just to show the difference between the two. I’ll be using one of each on my pie.
Here’s the inside of my pumpkin! The first step to prepping your pumpkin is to gut the core and hack it in half. Inside you have all the guts and seeds, otherwise known as “the goop you throw away when carving a jack-o-lantern.” If you’ve ever wondered whether or not you should save the guts in your freezer to make a pie, hold on to your hats, folks, because I’m about to blow your mind.
All that goop and glop? You still throw it away. None of that is used in the pie at all.
If you need to go breathe into a paper bag for a minute, go ahead. I’ll wait.
After you’ve hacked your pumpkin in half, you want to scoop and scrape all that worthless garbage out of your pumpkin. The seeds have a very minor use, if you decide to salt and roast them, but they pale in comparison to the tasty treat that otherwise awaits us. I like to use an ice cream scoop for this part, but any scraping mechanism you have handy should work fine.
I’m pie-ing at my mom’s this year, and she doesn’t have the kind of ice cream scoop I like, but she had this awesome little scrape-y thing that worked just as well. Also note: hideous yeti arms.
The first few pies I made, I was unclear as to where the usable “meat” of the pumpkin began and the useless stringy mess ended. This seemed like an obscure bit of knowledge that every recipe I looked up seemed to assume I already knew. Since this safely-guarded piece of common knowledge apparently doesn’t exist, I’ll present the sum of my experience here. Consider this a sort of Idiot’s Guide to Scraping a Pumpkin.
If it’s soft, wet and orange, you want it the hell out of your pumpkin. The inside of the skin should be as white as possible. The fewer globs and strings you overlook now, the better off you’ll be down the road. What you want in your pie is everything between the rind and the goopy stuff in the middle. That’s right! Thats the part you carve faces into! In order to turn your jack-o-lantern into a pie, you don’t save its guts; you have to chop him to pieces.
The inside of the butternut squash looks about the same as this, except it only has a tiny handful of glop that needs to be scooped out. Where you can pull several fistfuls of useless guck out of the pumpkin, you could probably scrape out the inside of the butternut squash with two fingers. Also, the “meat” of the squash is much thicker, and has a deeper color to it. Hmm… do we have a shot of that?
Yeah, there we go. I’ve cut my pumpkin and my squash into small-ish wedges here, and arrayed them skin-side-down on a cookie sheet. The squash chunks are along the top of the pan, and the larger pumpkin chunks are on the bottom. You can tell the difference because the squash has a gren rind and much darker “meat”.
I could probably look up on Wikipedia what pumpkin “meat” is actually called. I won’t, though. Maybe you will.
Cooking the pumpkin chunks is just means to an end: what you want is to soften the chunks enough that the “meat” partially liquefies and can be mashed up. All you really have to do is apply heat until they’re done; this can be done in the microwave, on the stove, in the oven, over a volcanic vent… you name it. The oven is the easiest of these methods, I find; line a cookie sheet with tin foil (the chunks will bleed out all over the place, especially the squash), then shove it in a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes.
You know the pumpkin chunks are done when you can press a fork into them without much resistance. The inside should be soft and pliable. It won’t be the pumpkin mush you’re used to seeing in a finished pie, but it will be similar.
If you’re mixing gourds the way I am, you’ll notice another difference between the two. The pumpkin chunks tend to form a tough skin on the top, where the squash tends to be softer throughout. This is no big deal, though, and you don’t have to discard the pumpkin skin. If you weren’t diligent enough in removing the stringy goopy bits earlier, however, this is where you’ll have problems: it’s difficult to tell where the stringy parts end and where the baked, toughened skin begins. I’ve lost a pie or two because some goop snuck into the mixing bowl, where it cannot be defeated.
On top of the stove are blueberry pies set out to cool. I strongly recommend always keeping a blueberry pie on hand, because despite the 1300+ words I’ve typed so far, man cannot live by pumpkin alone.
Making pumpkin pie filling is 90% scraping. This time, though, your goal is to scrape the soft meaty part from the rind. This is much easier to do with the squash than with the pumpkin. If your squash is cooked perfectly you can just use a spoon to separate the good stuff from the rind, and it will roll right out. The pumpkin is a little tougher because of the skin that forms on top, but it’s not too big a deal. You don’t have to separate the skin; that can go in the pie.
In one corner of the tray you can see a little pile of spent pumpkin rinds I’ve already scraped to exhaustion. That gives you an idea of how much you can scrape out. The rind is actually prety close to paper-thin if it’s properly scraped; it’s not like a watermelon or an orange, where the rinds are significantly thick.
I always work with my chunks right when they come out of the oven, which means they’re very, very hot. Be careful not to burn your fingers when you’re lifting the chunks and scraping them. If you want to leave them sit for a few minutes to cool, that is probably okay. In fact, if the chunks are cool enough to handle it’s pretty easy to just peel the rinds away with your fingers. I usually start with my spoon or my scraper, and resort to my fingers before the end. Using your bare hands to separate skin from filling is a bit like doing the same thing to a baked potato.
The pumpkin filling is similar enough to a baked potato that you can actually use a potato smasher on them. I highly recommend doing this because potato smashers are way awesome and a lot of fun to use. Smash smash smash. Keep smashing until the harder chunks of filling are smoothed out. If you’ve ever made pumpkin pie using canned filling, you know exactly what you’re aiming for here. Your product will be a little juicier than what you’re used to, and also quite a bit less can-shaped. It’s also a much lighter shade of orange than what you’ll see in the can. In fact…
I always chicken out when I’m doing my pumpkin shopping, and end up buying a can of Libby’s as a backup plan, just in case. I ended up not needing it here, but it makes for a good comparison shot.
As you can see, it takes about two pie pumpkins to give you the same amount of filling as is in one standard can of Libby’s. This is just about right for one pie.
We were going to use the Libby’s to make a pumpkin cake, or a loaf of pumpkin bread, but we started running short on time and needed to get our turkey in the oven. We ended up just throwing it away instead. It looked right at home in the garbage, which is all it’s really suited for if you have a nice, attractive pile of fresh filling on hand to use instead.
Note: Libby’s pumpkin filling is actually the exact same thing as what I just made. It even says right on the can: “Ingredient: pumpkin.” That’s all it is. You can substitute one for the other in any pie recipe you care to name.
Actually finding a pumpkin pie recipe is left as an exercise to the reader. I think we got this one off the Kraft website. If you’re short on time, just copy the recipe off the back of a can of Libby’s at the supermarket. We’re going with a traditional pumpkin pie this year, but if you want to make some sort of amazing cheesecake concoction or what-have-you, follow your heart.
I could have wiped the counter down before I took this shot, but I’m way too manly for that. You will look upon my mess and you will revel in it.
Pumpkin pie filling is almost purely liquid, since it’s essentially a mixture of mashed pumpkin, sugar and cream. Be carefuly not to slosh your pie all over the floor as you transfer it into the oven.
Fifty minutes at 350 degrees later, you have this awesome dessert fit for kings. Your pie is done when you can stick a toothpick in the middle and it stands up on its own. The filling is very hot and very soft, so again, be careful removing it from the oven. I always just slide my pies onto glass serving plates to minimize risk of folding, spilling or distorting my pie.
I took such especial are this year that I ended up plunking my thumb right into the filling. At dinner tonight I’ll just explain to everyone that it’s my signature.
And there you go! The lessons of pumpkin black magic have been passed on, and now you know all the hidden mysteries of this wonderful, multi-talented food item. Huzzah!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Enjoy the pie!