For years, my family used canned pumpkin in our pumpkin pie. Taking a cue from my father, the most opinionated pumpkin pie lover in our lot, our goal was for the spiciest, gingeriest pie possible. When you’re spooning in heaps of ginger powder, cinnamon, clove, and grated ginger root, we all thought, it hardly matters whether you use canned pumpkin mush or a fresh puree – it’s all just a vehicle for ferrying sugar and spices to your mouth.
Besides, we’d tried fresh pumpkin, struggling to carve up a big, tough jack o’ lantern-esque orb before steaming and pureeing it. Once all the spices were added and the pie was baked, the flavor didn’t seem that different from Libby’s and definitely not worth the effort. So canned won out.
At some point when I was in college while flipping through my dog-eared Fannie Farmer cookbook, I noticed a recipe for winter squash pie.
It looked a lot like pumpkin pie, but called for winter squash puree in place of pumpkin, heavy cream in place of evaporated milk, and a fat dose of brandy along with the usual spices. It sounded appealing on every count and even though it was March, I decided to try it.
Obtaining the winter squash puree was far easier than that jack o’lantern experience – I simply halved a butternut squash and roasted it until tender. Then I whirled it in the food processor before adding the other ingredients, kicking up the ginger slightly as per the Clark family custom.
As I mixed everything together, I noticed that the proportions of cream to squash were higher than pumpkin to evaporated milk in the usual recipe. I hoped this would make for a lighter pie, and I was right. It was silky and creamy without being pasty or heavy. Even with the hefty dose of ginger, the flavor was fresher and brighter than pumpkin pie, but close enough to fool people come Thanksgiving. And the brandy added a warm, sophisticated note.
When the holidays rolled around, I made another squash pie and brought it to my parents’ house without revealing the secret ingredient until the last crumb was devoured. No one was really surprised. Culinary trickery is a long-standing tradition in our family and hidden butternut squash is mild compared to disguised horsemeat or surreptitious rabbit.
Since then, I’ve never consistently gone back to putting pumpkin in my pumpkin pies. I did occasionally waver – there were the years I tried the same gingery, brandied recipe with sugar pumpkins and cheese pumpkins, which have denser, sweeter, and more intensely flavored flesh than those jack o’lantern types. They worked perfectly well. But they are hard to track down, heavy to carry home from the farmers’ market, and have thick rinds that are a royal pain to cut through even with my meat cleaver. Butternut squashes have the great advantage of being easy to find and small enough to carry home in my purse. And the thin skin slips right off with a vegetable peeler.
I discovered how easy they are to peel when following a recipe for roasted butternut squash salad. While I was slathering the squash cubes with olive oil and salt, I could imagine tossing them with butter cubes and sugar, and cooking the squash until almost candied, then turning it all into pie.
I was itching to try this candied squash pie so badly that I made one almost immediately, not caring that plums were still in season and it 80 degrees out. And my friends ate it all up, declaring it the best pumpkin pie they’d ever had – even when I told them it was squash.
1 recipe Perfect Pie Crust
2 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch chunks (see note)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons brandy (or rum is nice too)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 to 2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger root, or more to taste
3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pinch kosher salt
1. Place the pie dough between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and roll into a 3/8-inch thick round. Line a 9-inch pie pan with the dough, use your thumb and forefinger to flute the edges, and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 1 day, lightly cover the dough with plastic if leaving for more than 2 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 375° F. Place the squash on a baking sheet; dot with the butter and sprinkle with the granulated sugar. Bake, stirring every 10 minutes, until the squash is fork tender, 30 to 35 minutes.
3. Line the crust with foil, fill with pie weights, and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake the crust until set, about 15 minutes. Remove the foil and weights and bake until pale golden, 5 to 10 minutes longer.
4. While the piecrust is baking, prepare the filling. Puree the squash in a food processor until smooth (you should have about 1 3/4 cups puree). Add the cream, egg, yolks, brown sugar, brandy, vanilla, ground ginger, grated ginger, cinnamon, and salt and puree until combined. Scrape the filling into the piecrust and smooth the top with a spatula.
5. Reduce the oven temperature to 325° F. Bake the pie until the filling is just set, but still jiggles in the middle, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool completely before serving.
Serves 6 to 8
Variation: Brandied Pumpkin Pie
If you must have pumpkin, you can skip step 2 and substitute 1 can pure pumpkin puree for the pureed squash. Don’t use pumpkin pie filling, which is already sweetened and spiced.
You can also use fresh roasted sugar or cheese pumpkin puree in place of the squash. Halve your pumpkin, then roast cut side up (sprinkled with sugar and dotted with butter if you like) at 375 until very tender. Scoop the flesh out of the skin and puree. Proceed as above. The same goes for any other variety of squash that tickles your fancy. Acorn, dumpling, turban, and kabocha all work well, though because their skins are harder to peel, I find it easier to roast them in halves like pumpkins instead of peeled in cubes like the butternut squash.