While trying out a new pumpkin pie recipe for a cookbook I was writing, I was suddenly struck by a feeling of betrayal. For the recipe I was using was not my mother's masterfully prepared pie that I always loved and anticipated at Thanksgiving. Even though she encouraged culinary exploration of a sort, certain recipes were deemed unchangeable in her kitchen. Pumpkin pie is one of them. Yet, here I was making a "spicy" pumpkin pie with brown sugar, molasses, and half-and-half, ingredients she would not recognize as part of the recipe pantheon. The spicy pumpkin pie gave me pause. What is it about my mother's pumpkin pie that I hold so dear?
My mother was always the pie baker. Even when she had help, she insisted on making the pie filling. Mom leaned against the counter, turned the mixer on, and I'd watch that frothy deep orange mixture swirling around in the white Pyrex mixing bowl decorated with olive green daisies. She always ended up smeared in pumpkin. We'd all be engrossed in our own task – peeling potatoes and chestnuts – when all of a sudden, she'd squeal, which would prompt my Aunt Mart to burst into giggles over the splatters of pumpkin everywhere and Mom's lack of eye-hand coordination. Was it because of her refusal to wear eyeglasses or her weariness? After all, she worked as a maid at a hotel all day long and then came home to bake her holiday meals.
Aunt Mart, Mom's oldest and dearest friend, sat at the table with the rolling pin, making the dough or patting it into the deep pie dish. Half-finished glasses of Coke and Fresca were scattered around the counters. Once, their nighttime pie baking went on too late and they dozed off, listening to Herb Alpert on the stereo, each curled up in a quilt on their own ends of the couch. They woke up to burning pumpkin pies at 2 in the morning. Another time, Mom's lack of coordination gave way in the early morning hours and she dropped several pies all over the floor.
Watching the thick, smooth, orange filling in the pie shell go into the oven was fascinating to me. I anticipated the changing of the liquid filling into the solid custard and longed for the first warm piece. Warm pumpkin baking scents filled our mobile home. I still think of it as one of the most all-time comforting smells. Mom sacrificed one pie every year to her helpers. We cut into it with abandonment – we wanted it warm and sloppy, with Cool Whip melting over it, often on Thanksgiving morning.
For years, Mom made several types of pies at Thanksgiving to appease different members of our family: mincemeat for my great-grandmother, apple for my grandmother, custard for my father, and maybe two pumpkin pies. When the passing years took away my grandmothers and my parents divorced, my mother stopped making any pie but pumpkin – her favorite.
Since then, Thanksgiving and pie only meant one kind: pumpkin, which was a freeing experience for Mom. Each year, she made about six or eight pies, which her dinner guests ate happily, for they are not just good, but extraordinary.
The pies are two inches thick and when you bite into a piece, the flavor grabs you. The thickness greatly enhances the flavor – there is simply more pumpkin to enjoy with each bite. It's certainly not just the recipe that makes the flavor unique – Mom uses the Libby's recipe that thousands of women use every year. There are a couple of changes – beside the thickness – she prefers the canned pumpkin, not the pumpkin pie filling, and she uses pumpkin pie spice, not separate spices. "That's already in the spice mix," she says.
Some people are adamant about their recipes. I like to think of myself as someone who is open to new ways of approaching food – the opposite of Mom and my mother-in-law, who are both set in their food ways. For example, when I mentioned the recipe I was trying out to my mom, she said, "That's not pumpkin pie."
When I occasionally talk about my mother's thick pumpkin pie with my mother-in-law, she says, "I prefer mine thin" – leaving no doubt.
My mother, however, is against thinness on all matters – most particularly anything to do with baking. "When I want a piece of pie, I want a piece of pie," she states emphatically.
No matter how far I think I've come, I will always return to the recipe that really satisfies me, even though I am the wayward daughter, the one who makes my mother throw up her hands, and my father shake his head. Yet, how wayward can I be if all it takes is a new pumpkin pie recipe to make me feel a twinge of betrayal?
Mom's Thick Pumpkin Pie
This is the traditional holiday pumpkin pie, a classic recipe that has been on the label of Libby's canned pumpkin since 1950. It's an easy pie to prepare: Just mix, pour, and bake. My mother uses 2-inch-deep pie pans and doubles this recipe, filling the pie shells quite high. She says that the doubled recipe yields a pie and a half. Also, she does not use the spices called for here. She uses pumpkin pie spice and "some" cinnamon, calculating how much pumpkin pie spice she needs by adding up all the other spices called for – more or less.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
1 unbaked 9-inch deep-dish pie shell
Whipped cream (optional)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Mix sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger, and cloves in a small bowl.
Beat eggs in a large bowl. Stir in pumpkin and sugar-spice mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk. Pour into pie shell.
Bake 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees F.; bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for 2 hours. Then serve or refrigerate. Top with whipped cream before serving, if desired.
Mrs. Rowe's Spicy Pumpkin Pie
This deep-orange, almost-brown pie gives off a heavenly scent as it bakes. It offers a warmer, richer twist to the traditional pumpkin pie recipe. It's more spicy than sweet. This recipe will be in "Mrs. Rowe's Little Book of Southern Pies" (Ten Speed Press, 2009).
1 (1-pound, 13-ounce) can pumpkin
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
2 tablespoons dark molasses
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
4 eggs, slightly beaten
2 cups half-and-half, scalded
2 (10-inch) pie shells (with high-fluted edges)
8 ounces heavy cream, whipped
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Mix pumpkin, sugar, molasses, salt, spices, and eggs in a bowl. Gradually stir in the half-and-half. Pour into pie shells. Bake 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and continue to bake 30 to 40 minutes or until the center of filling looks firm. Cool and top with whipped cream. Makes 2 pies.