Pumpkin pies with a light touch. They don't have to be soggy and overspiced

SPICY, custardy, fragrant, and warm from the oven -- who can resist pumpkin pie on a cold winter day? As popular as it is, however, I think pumpkin pie is immensely overrated. Too often it is stodgy or heavily spiced, and invariably the bottom crust is soggy.

Then there is the flavor of the pumpkin itself: There's not much to it. It reminds me of a rather flavorless sweet potato. And so I wonder: How can pumpkin pie be anyone's favorite pie?

But every year as days get chilly, my husband asks me to bake a pumpkin pie. To please him, the first pie of the season is a traditional one. It is much like the one you will find a recipe for on the side of a can of pumpkin.

After this first pie, my efforts turn to improving what I consider the faults of the traditional pumpkin pie.

The texture of a pumpkin pie, I've found, can be lightened by folding stiffly beaten egg white into the filling mixture. I've also found that the degree of spiciness can often be improved. This is an individual preference, and it must be remembered that baking intensifies the flavor of the spice.

Soggy bottom crusts are a perennial challenge. The crust needs high heat to crisp it properly, but the filling demands a lower, slower heat.

One solution is to brush the bottom crust with egg white and bake it 8 to 10 minutes before adding the filling. This seals and partially bakes the crust so it will not absorb as much liquid.

Finally, while canned pumpkin is called for in many recipes, a pie made from freshly cooked pumpkin is by far more delicate and delicious.

To cook a pumpkin, cut it in large pieces and scrape out seeds and fibers. Place pieces in a baking dish with an inch of water. Cover and bake at 375 degrees F. for 30 minutes or until tender.

Scrape the pulp from the outer peel. Pur'ee pulp in a blender, food processor, or food mill. A 3- to 4-pound pumpkin yields 4 cups of pur'ee, which is enough for 2 pies.

I must declare that I have learned to like some forms of pumpkin pie. The recipe that follows for A Lighter Pumpkin Pie is my favorite now. A Lighter Pumpkin Pie 1 9-inch pie shell, sealed and partially baked 2 cups cooked pumpkin pur'ee 1 cup brown sugar 3 eggs, separated 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon cloves 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1 cup half-and-half, scalded

Combine pumpkin, brown sugar, egg yolks, salt, cornstarch, and spices. Gradually add scalded half and half and mix until smooth. Beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into pumpkin mixture. Pour into partially baked crust.

Bake pie at 425 degrees F. 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake 30 minutes longer. Egg Yolk Pastry 4 cups unbleached white flour 1 tablespoon sugar 2 teaspoons salt 1 1/2 cups lard 2 egg yolks 2 tablespoons vinegar 1/2 cup cold water

Stir together flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in lard until particles are pea-sized. Beat egg yolks into water and vinegar. Sprinkle over flour a tablespoonful at a time, mixing gently with a fork. Gather dough together to form a ball that cleans the bowl. Add a bit more water if dough is too dry. Chill dough 1 hour before rolling. Yield: 4 9-inch pie shells. Pumpkin-Pecan Pie 1 9-inch pie shell, sealed and partially baked 3/4 cup dark corn syrup 3/4 cup sugar 1 tablespoon butter 4 eggs 1 cup pumpkin pur'ee 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1 cup pecan halves

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a saucepan, combine corn syrup, sugar, and butter. Bring to a boil. Meanwhile, stir together eggs, pumpkin, salt, and allspice. Gradually stir in hot syrup, then pecans. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 375 degrees F. 40 to 50 minutes or until filling is set. Garnish with whipped cream if desired. Pumpkin-Pear Tart 1 9-inch pie shell, sealed and partially baked 1/3 cup sugar 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1/4 teaspoon ginger 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 cup apple juice 2 tablespoons lemon juice 3 cups sliced pears 1/2 cup walnut pieces 1 egg 1/3 cup brown sugar 1 cup cooked pumpkin pur'ee 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1/2 teaspoon ginger 3/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Combine sugar, cornstarch, ginger, and salt in saucepan. Stir in apple and lemon juices. Bring to boil. Add pears. Stir and cook 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in walnuts. Blend together egg, brown sugar, pumpkin, salt, allspice, ginger, and cream. Pour pear mixture into pie shell. Spoon pumpkin mixture evenly over pears. Bake at 375 degrees F. 45 to 50 minutes.

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