Easy as pumpkin pie

Daily News correspondentDecember 5, 2013 

From coconut milk to chocolate chips, pumpkin pie is a recipe that lends itself to variation.

PHOTO BY SHANNON KUHN

Thanksgiving may be over but the season of pumpkin pie is still going strong. That's right, eating pumpkin pie all the way through the New Year is very much justified. It is love that needs no explanation.

The basic equation of pumpkin pie filling is this: pumpkin puree plus liquid plus binder plus sweetener. Once you realize there are just a few elements, it's easy and fun to start mixing things up.

But first, a few kitchen rules. Ditch the sweetened condensed milk. I promise you don't need it and you won't miss it. If you are using canned pumpkin, make sure it's plain pumpkin puree and not spiced pumpkin pie filling. Always beat the eggs first, then add the pumpkin, sugar-spice mixture and liquids last.

A quick note about crust: Keep your ingredients cold. Cut your butter into cubes and store in the freezer until you mix it. You want to see butter chunks when you roll your dough out. Remember, fat pockets equal flakiness.

Whether you are highlighting local squash from the farmers market or getting rid of grandma's brandy that's been sitting in the cupboard for months, you have endless flavor combinations to choose from and make it your own.

Mix and match these ideas for sweeteners, milk, spices and toppings. Maple coconut pumpkin pie with pecans on top? Cream cheese pumpkin pie with chocolate chips? Onward, adventurous baker!

Eggnog and brandy

A one-month-a-year indulgence, eggnog takes pumpkin pie up a level. Eggnog pumpkin pie is the dessert I'd make if Prince William and Kate Middleton came over for a home-cooked meal. Swap your liquid for 1 1/3 cup eggnog and ¼ cup brandy.

Coconut milk

A healthy and nutritious alternative to cow's milk, coconut milk is my favorite ingredient to use in pumpkin pie. It's a perfect base and keeps the pie light and airy. Swap your liquid for one can of unsweetened coconut milk (regular, not light).

Espresso

Add a tablespoon of espresso powder to the filling, for a hint of java.

Flax Seeds

Flax seeds are a superfood. Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, lignins and fiber, they have many health benefits. Toss a handful of ground flax seeds into the filling for added nutrients. Eating pumpkin pie for breakfast never tasted so good.

Pecans

Add a crown of pecans (glazed in maple syrup, rolled in brown sugar, or just plain) on top of the finished pie post-baking for decoration and crunch.

Cream Cheese

Do you love cheesecake and pie equally? This one's for you. Add a package of cream cheese for the most indulgent of pumpkin pies. I recommend pairing with a gingersnap or almond crust.

Maple syrup/birch syrup and bourbon

Maple and birch syrup are the nectar of the gods. One of the best alternatives to processed sugar, use ¾ cup maple syrup instead of sugar and add 2 tablespoons bourbon to cut the sweetness.

Chocolate chips

Pumpkin and chocolate are natural partners in crime. Add a cup of semisweet chocolate chips to the filling before baking. Add less sugar, as the chocolate chips will be plenty sweet.

Chipotle chili powder

Spicy pumpkin pie may sound more like an accident than an intentional recipe, but if you are willing to take the risk you shall be rewarded. Add 1 teaspoon for just enough heat to make your tongue tingle.

Crème brulee

Here's a stocking stuffer: Buy a blowtorch at Home Depot for your favorite baker. Not one of those dainty and overpriced ones; I have a Bernz- Omatic and love it. After baking the pie, sprinkle 2 tablespoons granulated sugar on top. I recommend giving yourself a buffer of space away from the crust, as it will burn easily. Torch the sugar until it turns golden and caramelizes. Voila! Pumpkin pie with a crème brulee top.

Winter squash

My favorite pumpkin pies are actually not pumpkin pies at all. They are made with winter squash. Choose butternut or kabocha. Making your own puree is a little time-consuming but totally worth it. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and place face down on a baking sheet or in a glass pan. Add a half-inch of water and poke a few holes in the squash. Bake until soft, then puree in a food processor or with a stand mixer. Use the squash like you would use canned pumpkin, only now you have full bragging rights.

Chai tea

Cut open four bags of chai tea and pour into a saucepan with the milk you have chosen. Bring to a boil, then take off heat and let sit for five minutes. Strain the tea leaves and discard. Use the chai-flavored milk in your pumpkin pie recipe. You can also use chai tea concentrate if you have it.

Tofu

Don't run away! Tofu is a vegan baker's best friend, and this pie will fool even the biggest tofu hater. If you are trying to cut dairy out of your diet, even for one recipe, substitute a package of tofu for both the milk and eggs in a pumpkin pie. For all you cooking science lovers, the tofu replaces the eggs as the binder.

Sour cream

Good. Really good. Add ¼ cup to any recipe. Hint: Pair with maple syrup.


Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.

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