Two Secret Ingredients for the Single Best Pumpkin Pie

There’s nothing quite as pallid and depressing-looking as a Thanksgiving dinner store-bought pumpkin pie. And it tastes about as good as it looks. With its machine-stamped crust and thick, gummy filling it usually sits untouched on the sideboard among the crumbs of other desserts, the November equivalent of December’s fruit cake. A first-rate pumpkin pie has a crisp, buttery crust, and is filled with a lighter-than-air concoction that perfectly balances fragrant spices and the subtle earthy flavor of freshly baked pumpkin. I’ve had some wonderful pumpkin pies over the years, but none of them, alas, made by me.

I’m not a baker. Some people, my sisters and sisters-in-law among them, are born to the task. They have the same feel for dough that poets have for sound or dancers rhythm. They’ve somehow mastered the alchemy of timing and touch that goes into really great baking. But what about the rest of us?  Well, I think I’ve come up with a simple solution: learn to cheat. I’ve discovered two inexpensive secret ingredients that allow someone like me who’s all thumbs around a rolling pin to create Thanksgiving’s signature dessert with very little trouble and even less time. Lean in close while I whisper this to you. The first is Libby’s canned pumpkin purée which a professional French chef I know claims is “just as good as home-made and a lot easier.” The second, courtesy of a sister-in-law who’s also a successful cookbook writer, is Pillsbury’s frozen pie crusts which are a fail-safe substitute for the time-consuming effort of creating a pâte brisée.

Here’s a simple recipe for whipping up your very own pumpkin pie using these secret ingredients. When asked by the recognized bakers in your family where you bought it, you can answer — as I plan to do — with a smile and small shrug of modesty: “I baked it myself.”

Home-made Pumpkin Pie

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cups Libby’s pumpkin purée
  • 1 3/4 cups sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground clovers

1 (9-inch) Pillsbury frozen pie crust, unbaked

Directions:

  • Combine Libby’s pumpkin purée and remaining ingredients in a large bowl; beat at medium speed with an electric mixer 2 minutes.
  • Pour into prepared Pillsbury pie crust (read directions on package).
  • Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes.
  • Reduce heat to 350 degrees; bake 50 additional minutes or until a knife inserted in center comes out clean.
  • Cool on a wire rack
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18 Responses to Two Secret Ingredients for the Single Best Pumpkin Pie

  1. John Masiero says:

    Hi Liza,
    I could not agree more with your pie secret. Ada always uses Pillsbury crusts for every kind of pie. Canned pumpkin is as good as it gets. I read an article once where the author was of the opinion that, in general, the best pumpkin pie was not much better than the worst and suggested her/his favorite improvements. Best wishes, John M

    • Liza says:

      Ada certainly falls into the natural born baker category. So if she uses Pillsbury pie crusts then I think that settles the question once and for all. Thanks, John!

  2. Susan Fisher says:

    Well, when it comes to baking, I am definitely Liza, not Ada. But I am going to try this pie recipe, and I will let you know after Thanksgiving how it went.

  3. Gwen Rhodes says:

    so I learned something last year…my two new secrets to the pumpkin pie, which apparently I never realized…pumpkin pie is a custard…so you are meant to bake the crust first and then fill it and cook for 25 minutes so custard forms itself…and then take out of the oven…let it sit and then eat it…I did this last year with total success.
    the second part is using the coconut milk for those dairy free people in my life…pumpkin taste is hearty enough to stand on its own with coconut so you do not even taste it….quite creamy too.
    and this year…yes…I am buy the the pillsbury dough and trying it…thanks for the hint.

  4. annette shear says:

    I’ll be in Florida celebrating with my sister on her 87th (!) birthday and eating Popeye’s chicken (double fried, it’s fabulous)

    and Beata will have my pumpkin pie to serve to her guests…

    hope your turkey and all the side dishes will be tasty and your day will be wonderful!

    Annette

    • Liza says:

      How kind of you to bake a pie for Beata before you go, Annette. Have a wonderful celebration in Florida where I know you’re going to enjoy every bite of that Popeye’s chicken!

  5. Amy White says:

    Liza,
    Some who love plants are committed to choosing only native grasses, trees, and growing things; others celebrate eating only veggies from their own –or neighbors’ gardens, honey from local bees?
    When it comes to cooking it is very hard for me not to use the “real” things–pumpkin from a pumpkin I’ve put in the oven, pie crust that I’ve struggled over with the rolling pin. This is perhaps to say the commitment to sources is greater than the commitment to outcome…and certainly has no regard for labor and fuss.
    Anything to do with pumpkins, on the other hand, is a good, in my opinion!
    Amy White

    • Liza says:

      Though I tend to be a purist when it comes to most cooking, I just wimp out as a baker. I admire your commitment to sources rather than outcome, and I suspect it’s true in other parts of your life, as well. I enjoyed seeing you the other weekend — if just briefly — and remain deeply moved by the service which reflected the man so beautifully.

  6. Beverly Betz says:

    Hello from Michigan! Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but not nearly as bad as Buffalo!

    Great news! Pillsbury makes a gluten-free crust, also found in the refrigerated section at the store. By the way, when using the above spices, make sure your Libby’s is “pure” and does not already contain the spices. Libby’s also makes an “easy” pumpkin with all the spices in the mix.

    Liza, you are spot on with this way of making pumpkin pies. I’ve been cheating for decades and, yet, meet with great success. Of course, appearances are important, too. The crust cut-outs make it just that much more festive.

    By the way, just finished reading Bleeding Heart and actually have time for Thanksgiving baking, now! I read as slowly as possible to savor every morsel, but alas! the feast is over. Now, the famine begins until you give us another great read.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Liza says:

      So nice to hear from you! That is fantastic news about Pillsbury’s gluten-free crust — and I’m going to add it to my post right now. I’m so pleased you liked Bleeding Heart. If you’re comfortable doing so, it would be great if you could post a comment on Amazon or Good Reads. We’re bracing for some real snow in the Berkshires this weekend — by some accounts 12 inches But, as you point out, that would be a mere dusting in Buffalo. Happy baking!

  7. Carole Hansen says:

    Liza – thank you for this…I’m over the frozen pies, too….

  8. Liza says:

    Happy baking, Carole — and eating, too!

  9. Doug R. says:

    I had acquired a can of pureed pumpkin a few months ago, just on whim. Just before TG I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do something with it…but what??” Literally the same day, your post popped into my email. So thanks for a wonderful pie–well, I did manage to screw it up a little (“How on earth is that even possible?” you’d be right to ask), but otherwise, it was ambrosaic. I look forward to trying it again next year. Looking forward to some of your Fall and Winter New England photos, too. Thanks!!

    • Liza says:

      Thanks, Doug. But how did you screw it up a little? I thought the thing was pretty fail-safe. More details, please!

      • Doug R. says:

        Easy! take one bottom-rung NYC apartment oven with an iffy thermostat; one Taylor oven thermometer of uncertain vintage and accuracy; terrible kitchen lighting requiring you to shove a chair in front of the oven so you can sit comfortably as you periodically peer inside with a flashlight to read the oven thermometer (evidently the designers of my particular oven thought an internal light was just unspeakably frou-frou); and picture yourself checking the thermometer and going “Yikes, 475!!?? How did it get to 475??!! I was trying to goose it up from 350, but not that high!!” So yeah, Liza Julia Child Gyllenhaal, that’s how you screw up the recipe…a little. It was still good, though scorched in spots. Still, even the scorched parts were good. (And in my defense, it wasn’t a screwup on the scale of “I didn’t have any condensed milk so I used mayonnaise instead, they’re both white, right?”)

        • Liza says:

          I understand, Doug. The digital lights on my stove in the city that, when new, burned bright orange to indicate the temperature have dimmed over the years to the glimmer of dying embers. Sometimes I just think I’m seeing them. And to turn the oven on and set the temperature requires turning off all overheads and masking any ambient light (closing blinds, etc.), covering one’s head in a kitchen towel, and leaning in with a small flash light. Even then, it’s mostly guesswork.

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