I’ve been writing this blog for years now, and it recently dawned on me that I’ve never shared my recipe for one of the most quintessential dishes of Thanksgiving: pumpkin pie. Maybe I wanted to be unique and opt for more exotic desserts (Chocolate, Pumpkin, and Peanut Butter Cheesecake, I’m looking at you). Or maybe I just figured pumpkin pie isn’t all that hard, and you can already find a multitude of recipes out there.
Upon further scrutiny of the great wide interwebs, however, I realized that there really aren’t that many recipes for rich, creamy pumpkin pie—or at least ones with limited sugars and few, if any, refined ingredients. A solid 90 percent of the recipes I came across contained things like evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and white sugar. Even the “healthy” recipes that swapped out white sugar for a less-refined option, which increased the nutritional value somewhat, still contained huge amounts of sweetener.
Now I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer and rain on everybody’s parade—especially during the holiday—but I do think it’s possible to enjoy delicious treats while still being mindful of the stuff we put in our bodies. You’ve likely heard that the amino acid tryptophan, a natural sedative in turkey, is what makes you conk out after Thanksgiving dinner. There’s even a grain of truth to this theory—turkey does contain tryptophan. But it’s not enough to make you fall asleep. In reality, the sleepiness has more to due with the body pulling blood from the brain to help it digest the massive amount of food and calories we consume on the big day. Various estimates put the average caloric intake of a Thanksgiving feast at a whopping 3,000 to 4,500 calories. And that’s per person!
Some folks may look forward to the Thanksgiving food coma, but I enjoy myself much more when I can relish in a huge feast and, rather than need a nap, I gain energy from it. Every little step we take towards healthier eating counts, and when each component of a large meal is made consciously with a nutrition-forward attitude, those little steps add up quickly. And after many years of mindful eating, I’ve learned that the more I practice it, the easier it gets. Partly because it’s a habit, yes, but also because I’ve trained my body to prefer healthy foods.
Which brings me to this pumpkin pie.
This pie is proof that just because something is “Dessert,” it doesn’t need to contain a ton of sugar. Pumpkin pie is similar to fruit-based desserts, in that fruit already contains plenty of natural sugars, so it doesn’t take much more to elevate it to dessert material.
Unlike many baked foods that rely on the chemistry of sugar for texture and loft, pumpkin pie doesn’t need a certain volume of sweetener to work properly. You can use just a touch of maple syrup, adjusted to your individual taste. The custard contains a lovely blend of warming spices, and using heavy cream or (my favorite) coconut milk enriches it with a silky texture. (You can now find coconut milk without any stabilizing gums. Yeah!)
My pie dough isn’t integral to the outcome of the final product, so if you have a favorite recipe feel free to use it. The recipe below is my preferred pastry, and it uses both butter and lard for optimal texture and taste. You can use all butter in lieu of the lard with great results (though I find the texture to be slightly less tender). And of course, if homemade pastry is just too much to take on, no one will tattle on you if you opt for store-bought crust.
Recipe notes: All in all, pumpkin pie isn’t really difficult to make, but I’ve found a couple of secrets that ensure success:
- Use roasted pumpkin flesh from baby pie pumpkins. In my experience, taking the time to roast the pumpkin yourself results in a deeper flavor and superior texture. Canned, 100 percent pumpkin puree works in a pinch, but make sure you don’t accidentally get pumpkin pie puree, which contains added sugars.
- Make the custard in a blender. I find that incorporating the extra air into the custard gives it a more silken mouth-feel.
- Bake the pie until just set. This results in a dense, creamy texture and limits the chance for cracks. (But if it does crack, not to worry, it’ll still taste great!)
Makes 1 (9-inch) deep dish pie
Prep time: 20 minutes, plus chill time for pastry (if making your own)
Cook time: 1 hour (plus cook time for roasting pumpkin, if using)
For the pastry:
1½ cups whole grain einkorn flour, whole wheat pastry flour, or other whole grain, finely milled flour of your choice
½ teaspoon salt
3 oz. (6 tablespoons) butter, cut into ½-inch squares and frozen
2½ oz. (5 tablespoons) lard, cut into ½-inch squares and frozen (or replace with more butter if you prefer an all butter crust)
2 tablespoons ice water
For the pumpkin custard:
2 cups pumpkin puree (follow instructions for roasting pumpkin below, or use canned 100 percent pumpkin puree)
1¼ cups heavy cream or coconut milk
2–8 tablespoons maple syrup (sweeten to taste)
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
⅛ teaspoon allspice
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
If roasting pumpkin: Cut baby pumpkin in half. Scoop out seeds and bake at 375°F until soft, about 30–60 minutes, depending on size. Let cool, then scoop out flesh and mash before proceeding with recipe.
- Prepare pastry: Place flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor (or bowl, if making by hand). Add chopped, frozen butter and lard to flour and pulse to combine (or incorporate with cold hands or a pastry blender), until mixture resembles large peas. Add water a little at a time until pastry just starts to come together in a ball. Dump onto counter and shape into a ball, then flatten into a disk about ½-inch thick. Wrap pastry. Allow to rest and chill in refrigerator for at least 45 minutes before using.
- Prepare crust: Dust countertop with a little flour and roll out pastry to fit a 9-inch deep dish pie pan. Fit pastry into pie pan and trim edges, then crimp to form a border. Set aside in fridge to chill while you finish the custard. (You can save the trimmings to make decorative leaves or other garnishes if you like.)
- Prepare custard: Place pumpkin, cream or coconut milk, maple syrup (start lower, you can always add more to taste), salt, and spices in a blender. Blend until completely smooth, about 1 minute. Taste for sweetness and adjust as necessary. Once sweetened to your liking, add eggs and egg yolk and blend until smooth.
- Bake pie: Preheat oven to 350°F. Pour pumpkin custard into prepared pie shell and place in center rack of oven. Bake until pie is just set, with a slight jiggle in the center, about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from oven and let cool on rack to at least room temperature before serving. Slice or refrigerate until ready to serve.
Image from Briana Goodall.
healthy desserts | healthy recipes | Thanksgiving recipes