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The Best Pumpkin Pie Doesn't Need a Crust

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Every week, baking expert Alice Medrich is going rogue on Food52—with shortcuts, hacks, and game-changing recipes.

Today: Enjoy a slice of pumpkin pie, minus the crust—because the filling’s the best part, right?!

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Do you you know anyone who really likes pumpkin pie? I don’t think so. See, I think people like the idea of pumpkin pie more than the pie itself. In my mind, what people really like is pumpkin pie filling, because the crust on a pumpkin pie is almost always soggy. I’m not saying pumpkin pie crust can’t be done well, but it rarely is, and Thanksgiving is no time to try to perfect a new skill. 

With everything we have to eat for Thanksgiving, who needs extra pastry, anyway? My mother figured this out over 50 years ago and I’ve simply picked up her torch.  

My family’s Thanksgiving, instead of pie, always included a dish called pumpkin pudding. I wish I could say that the pudding starts with a freshly baked pumpkin, lovingly mashed and blended with fresh cream, eggs, spices. In reality, it was—and still is!—canned pumpkin purée (which is actually not just pumpkin but a few types of winter squash) and evaporated milk, mixed with spices exactly as directed in the recipe on the can of pumpkin. It’s all baked in a dish instead of in a crust.

I can say that we have never stooped to buying cans of that already-spiced pumpkin pie filling instead of straight pumpkin purée—because we have to draw the line somewhere (and we’ll always have our spice drawer). The pudding is served chilled, scooped from the dish and topped with whipped cream. By the way, I’m talking real whipped cream, impossibly fluffy and light.

The whole business is absolutely divine. People always ask me for the recipe (and little do they know, it’s hiding in plain sight!). So here I am to give the big reveal. It’s quite a simple recipe, and absolutely foolproof. 

After you mix up a few ingredients, it’s on to the baking. I have kept notes for the pudding’s results in various baking dishes (see baking notes below), which I have relied on over the years. My notes have told me how many recipes fit in each dish and about how long the pudding takes to bake in each, including an emphatic note one year to not bake the stuff in that really large ceramic dish because it will crack—the pudding, not the dish, mind you—in an exceedingly unattractive way.

A good thing to know, though, is that you can fill a baking dish deeper than you can a pie crust, but it’s best not to exceed a depth of about 1 1/2 inches. Baking times vary with depth, size, and type of baking dish so you just have to watch and check. I used to dither each year about whether to start baking at 425° F, as directed on the can, and then turn down to 350° F for the rest of the time, or just do it all at 350° F.

Ultimately, I decided that the higher temperature was meant to get a fast start and prevent a soggy (ha!) crust, so I bake the pudding at 350° F from start to finish. One year, my attempt to bake even more gently, in a water bath, resulted in the following note to self: “Your know-it-all attempt to improve on mom’s method made the pudding less wonderfully creamy and flavorful. Go figure!”

More: See Food52’s guide to all things Thanksgiving.

The pudding can and should be baked the day before Thanksgiving (a make-ahead win, plus it’ll free up some much-needed oven space on the big day)—both texture and flavor are enhanced with a night in the fridge. When I make this pudding, I make a whole lot of it, as my mother always did, because my family is extremely devoted to its leftovers. We eat pumpkin pudding with a side of Bea’s No-Peel Apple Crisp for as many days and meals as it lasts, starting the day after Thanksgiving. (And at 91, my mother still prefers leftover pumpkin pudding and apple crisp to all of the other turkey-sandwich components.)

On Thanksgiving itself, it would not be possible to eat so much, especially with whipped cream, if both the pumpkin and the apple had crusts. So, you see, ditching the crust it quite brilliant—it’s not just an emergency, last minute, no-time-to-make-a-crust kind of crisis thing, but a good plan to have from the start. 

(I must add, though, that if you absolutely must make a crusted pie, start with this recipe and do a test run in October first.)

Crustless Pumpkin Pudding Baking Notes

A triple recipe for filling (three regular 14-ounce cans or one large 28-ounce plus 1 regular can of pumpkin purée) will fill two 2- to 2 1/2-quart baking dishes. Baking time will be somewhere between 55 and 65 minutes at 350° F—stick a knife into the pudding and see if it comes out relatively clean (and not at all liquidy) to test for doneness. Typically, this will be around 50 minutes to an hour. 

You can also make this recipe in ceramic oven-proof ramekins, to yield 8 individual servings. You’ll want to reduce the baking time, too—start checking at 25 minutes and move from there.

Last, a note on making this dairy-free: Some have asked if you can use coconut milk for the filling, and whip up coconut cream for the topping. While I’ve never tried it this way myself, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work—there’s enough fat content, and thickness, in coconut milk to help keep up the pudding’s texture. 

Pumpkin Pudding (a.k.a. No-Pie Pumpkin Pie)

From the Libby’s can 

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
One 15-ounce can pumpkin purée
One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
Whipped cream for serving

See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.

Another Pumpkin Recipe (This Time, the Crust Is Worth It)

Have you heard about Alice‘s book Flavor Flours? It’s packed with nearly 125 recipes—from Double Oatmeal Cookies to Buckwheat Gingerbread—made with wheat flour alternatives like rice flour, oat flour, corn flour, sorghum flour, and teff (not only because they’re gluten-free, but for an extra dimension of flavor, too).  

Photos by Bobbi Lin

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