Sunday, November 20, 2011

Well Tested: The Best Pumpkin Pie Recipe

Last Thanksgiving, high from the thrill of so many people to keep my toddler busy while I partied in the kitchen all day long, I decided that one pumpkin pie recipe was not enough and declared it a good day for a pumpkin pie recipe contest.

I chose two solid recipes: one from the side of the Libby's canned pumpkin and one from Cook's Illustrated. Libby's represented a straight forward traditional recipe. Cook's Illustrated represented the "improved" version - highly tested and always focused on the best result over the easiest method.

cooking pumpkin and yam on the stove top

The Libby's recipe could hardly be more simple. Could a recipe that is so simple actually make a really good pie? The Cook's Illustrated recipe was more complicated for sure. The recipe calls for replacing some of the pumpkin with cooked yam and has the baker first cook the pumpkin-yam on the stove top to concentrate flavor. It calls for real milk and heavy cream instead of canned milk and then uses a multi-temperature baking process to avoid any curdling. 

The spice profiles differed between the two recipes. Libby's uses a small amount of ground cinnamon, cloves and dried ginger. Cook's Illustrated replaces clove with nutmeg and uses fresh ginger instead of dried.

The math teacher in the family was in charge of dividing the pies

The pies were laid out for the official dozen tasters. Whipped cream was provided for authentic pumpkin pie eating experience. The crusts used for both pies were the same so as not to sway results. 

When it comes to traditional foods, deciding which recipe is "best" is not as easy as it seems. Nostalgia is a strong force. Even if your new and "improved" recipe for an old family favorite is indeed improved - with a higher quality ingredient, let's say - the resulting dish may be declared as "off" or "not right" by your family members around the table.

This held true for the pumpkin pies. Libby's recipe won by a fair percentage, although the Cook's Illustrated recipe has its fans as well. I had a hard time deciding which I thought was "best." I liked the familiar taste of the Libby's straightforward pumpkin pie. I also appreciated the rich and complex flavor of Cook's Illustrated, but was it better? Maybe. Maybe not. 

Maybe is not reason enough for the significant extra effort involved. This year, I will be sticking with Libby's. No need to add yam. No need for stove top cooking. Canned evaporated milk solves the potential curdling problem. Here is what I will borrow from Cook's Illustrated though - they do have the best method for making crust (vodka!) and I appreciate freshly ground nutmeg and ginger instead of old dried spices, which only take an extra few seconds. 

Whether your family goes old school or high brow - happy pie eating and be sure to make plenty of whipped cream! 


Sustainable Eats said...

I love the Cook's Illustrated pumpkin pie recipe from 1993. It's been my favorite since 1993. I make it with kabucha squash so you don't need to cook any moisture out. The flavor profile is stupendous and roasting the squash heats up the kitchen which I love since we set the thermostat to 55...

Kitchen Bounty said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I love Cook's Illustrated, but sometimes I think they go a bit overboard. Thanks for taking time to bake and post this!