Thanksgiving is a time of unyielding tradition. You have to have the turkey (even if it's tofu pretending to be turkey). You have to have stuffing and mashed potatoes. And you absolutely must have pumpkin pie.
There's only one problem: There are almost no genuine pumpkin pies in the world. As Emma Crist lamented on MyRecipes.com, those thousands of cans on supermarket shelves that say they contain 100 percent pumpkin puree are flat-out lying to you. What's inside is actually 100 percent squash.
Most brands use a mixture of admittedly yummy squashes--butternut, Hubbard and so on. Libby's, which claims it sells about 85 percent of the nation's so-called canned pumpkin and pumpkin pie filling, took the deception one step further by developing its own breed of squash. Although their new gourd had much more in common with squashes than with pumpkins, they named it a "Dickinson pumpkin," which they figure gives them the right to claim their products contain 100 percent pumpkin. The Food and Drug Administration, which is theoretically supposed to protect us from falsehoods in food labeling, has avoided the whole issue by not worrying too much about what constitutes a pumpkin and what doesn't. So the only real pumpkin pies out there are made by die-hard cooks who buy fresh pumpkins and then steam them so they can remove and puree the flesh. Everyone else is eating squash pie instead.
And--it's not just pie. You know those seasonal pumpkin spice lattes that everyone is so in love with? Not to mention pumpkin spice yogurts, ice creams, candies, cookies, and so on? They're all made with squash, squash, and more squash. Basically, you just can't trust anyone.
It turns out there's a pretty good reason that people have been using squash puree all these years. Real pumpkins--sometimes called "field pumpkins" to distinguish them from the Dickinson non-pumpkins--just aren't very appealing. Their flesh is much more difficult to puree than squash is, and even if you go to the effort, what you wind up with is likelier to be stringier, more watery, and generally less tasty than squash. So squash may be the right choice, but pretending it's pumpkin when it isn't still amounts to deception.
While I can't suggest any fixes for lattes and cookies, I do have a solution to the pumpkin pie dilemma, and it does not involved getting yourself a real pumpkin and then steaming and pureeing it. Instead, let go of your attachment to the traditional Thanksgiving pie that wasn't what you thought it was anyway, and opt for something much, much better: sweet potato pie.
Why is it better? Let me count the ways:
1. It's from a farm, not a can.
Preparing a fresh pumpkin to go into a pie may be a serious undertaking, but preparing a fresh sweet potato is simplicity itself: Poke a few holes for steam to escape and stick it in the oven for 45 minutes and it's ready to become pie filling.
2. It's more nutritious.
Sweet potatoes are a great source of beta carotene. They also contain vitamin C, copper, potassium, vitamin B6, B1, and B12, and they're a good source of fiber.
3. You can use less sugar.
Processed sugar is fast emerging as one of the worst foods for your health. While you can't make either a pumpkin or sweet potato pie without using any sugar or sugar substitute, you can use a lot less because sweet potato is dramatically sweeter than pumpkin (or squash).
4. It's equally traditional.
In fact, according to this fascinating history of sweet potato pie from The Washington Post, Henry VIII was particularly fond of sweet potato tarts. Sweet potato pie eventually became the traditional Thanksgiving pie for cooks in the South and African-Americans everywhere. But those flinty New Englanders stuck with their pumpkin pie, perhaps because pumpkins are easier to grow in the North than sweet potatoes are.
5. It just tastes better.
Most people would find unadorned cooked sweet potato much more appealing to eat than unadorned cooked pumpkin--or squash. It stands to reason that the better-tasting base would lead to a better tasting pie. To my taste buds at least, it absolutely does.
Have I convinced you that sweet potato pie is worth trying? If so, here's a great, ultra-simple recipe. You can vary it by baking instead of boiling the potatoes, using evaporated milk instead of regular milk, substituting brown sugar for half the white sugar, or some other sugar replacement for all. I myself have been baking sweet potato instead of pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving for more than a decade. If you decide to give it a try, let me know what you think.