It's not Thanksgiving without homemade pumpkin pie, but if you've ever tried to make one, you know it can be tricky. Through the years, I've tested over a dozen recipes and each one was plagued with either a filling that wouldn't set properly, a massive crack down the center, or an under-cooked crust. Whomever coined the term "easy as pie" had obviously never baked a pumpkin pie!
Part of the challenge with pumpkin pie is that there are a lot of variables. First, there's the type of pan you use: ceramic, glass and metal all behave differently. Second, no homemade pie crust is ever the same -- plus, crust by nature is finicky. And, finally, pumpkin pie filling is a custard, which makes it difficult to gauge doneness. Most recipes instruct you to remove the pie from the oven when the filling is still a little jiggly -- take it out too early and it never sets up; cook it too long and it cracks down the center (or, in my experience, take it out at just the right time and still have it crack down the center!).
In coming up with a foolproof recipe, my first step was to tackle the crust. I tried just about every kind -- from butter to lard to shortening to combinations of all three -- as well as a few tricks, like adding vodka to the dough. In the end, I went with a mostly butter dough with a little bit of of shortening added for tenderness. This gave me a crust that tasted buttery, held its shape and was easy to work with. To solve the problem of shrinkage during baking, I added a tiny bit of baking powder to the dough (a genius trick borrowed from one of my favorite pastry chefs, Nick Malgieri), which helped the crust expand into the pan rather than slip down the sides. And, finally, to prevent the dough from becoming soggy from the wet filling, I blind baked the crust until it was completely cooked.
With the crust perfected, I got to work on getting rid of those unsightly cracks in the filling. Cracking is supposedly caused by over-baking, but I found that the cracks formed even when I under-baked my pies or cooked them perfectly. After much experimentation -- and many sad-looking pumpkin pies -- I discovered that adding a little flour to the filling and replacing some of the whole eggs with egg yolks stabilized the pie. Reducing the oven temperature helped too. Finally, no more cracking -- even if I accidentally left the pie in the oven a few minutes too long.
At last, with my crust and filling conundrums solved, I had the perfect pumpkin pie I'd been searching for. Here's how to make it...
Begin with the crust. Combine the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse a few times to combine.
Add the cold butter and shortening.
Pulse until the mixture is crumbly with lots of chickpea-size clumps of butter and shortening within. These chunks of fat will steam as the dough cooks, creating a tender and flaky crust.
Gradually add the ice cold water to the dough, pulsing until the dough is just moistened. It won't come together into a mass; it will be very crumbly. That's what you want.
Dump the crumbly dough out onto a work surface. It will seem all wrong but don't worry, it will come together.
Gather it into a crumbly ball.
And shape it into a disc about 4-inches wide and wrap in plastic.
Refrigerate for at least 45 minutes -- this allows the gluten to rest, which makes a tender dough less prone to shrinkage.
Dust a work surface with flour and roll the dough into a 14-inch circle, dusting with more flour as necessary so it doesn't stick. It will have a marbled appearance -- that's good!
Drape the dough over the rolling pin and transfer it to the pie pan.
Fit it into the pie pan, easing it inwards rather than stretching it outwards.
Patch any tears, then trim the edges to about 1/2-inch beyond the lip of the dish.
Fold the dough under itself along the rim, building it up.
Next, press the edges down against the rim -- this will help the crust stay put as it bakes. Otherwise, it's prone to slip down the edges of the dish, especially if you use a glass or ceramic.
Crimp the edges with your fingers or press with the tines of a fork.
Place the crust in the freezer to chill while you preheat the oven. As I mentioned above, it's important to "blind bake" your crust before filling it, otherwise the wet filling prevents the bottom of the crust from cooking, leaving you with a raw, doughy bottom crust.
To blind bake the crust, cover it with a sheet of parchment paper and fill it halfway with dried beans or pie weights. This will hold the crust in place and prevent shrinkage. Cook for 25 minutes until the crust is set. Remove the parchment and beans, then tent the edges with strips of aluminum foil to prevent them from browning too much.
Bake for another 20 minutes, until the crust is golden and completely cooked. This is long compared to most recipes but the crust won't cook any more once you add the filling, so it's important to make sure it's flaky and crisp.
While the crust finishes cooking, make the filling by combining all of the ingredients in a large bowl.
Whisk until smooth.
Add the filling to the cooked crust.
Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until just set -- it should look dry around the edges and set in the center, but if you nudge the pan, the center should jiggle slightly.
The pie will look a little puffed when it comes out of the oven, with small cracks around the edges, but it will settle as it cools and the cracks will close up. Let the pie cool to room temperature before slicing. GET THE RECIPE