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Pumpkin Pie Smackdown: What’s That Mystery Ingredient?

My standard pumpkin pie.

What’s a CurvyMama to do after an intense week of Thanksgiving pie prep and baking? I thought I needed a break. But a holiday trip to California only made me miss my dough and my rolling pin that much more. So the minute I got back, I jumped right back into the pie kitchen.

This time it was an experiment to find out what effect a new ingredient could have on my pumpkin-pie filling. And what better way to do that–and to endear me to my colleagues–than to bring two nearly identical pies to work and get people to taste them?

Time for another pie smackdown!

You might remember that I’ve roped my coworkers into these contests before. They’ve provided thoughtful feedback on apple pies baked two different ways. They’ve carefully analyzed the texture and tastes of two kinds of crust. As journalists, they are quite articulate and nuanced in expressing their views. So everyone wins: they get an unexpected pie treat in the middle of the work day, for the small price of having to serve as critics, and I get a bunch of useful reactions to my experiments.

For this smackdown, I wanted to take a page out of my fellow piemaker Kate McDermott’s book and see how big a difference it would make to replace the dairy I typically use in pumpkin pie with coconut milk. So I made one pie according to my usual recipe–with cream and half-and-half–and another with regular coconut milk.

I took them both to work, and mid-morning, when people were sipping coffee, not quite past the resentment of coming back to the newsroom the week after Thanksgiving, I sent out an email that two pumpkin pies awaited their detective skills in the kitchen. Moments later, they were lined up with their dear little forks in hand, enthusiastically embracing the challenge of figuring out exactly what was the difference between these two pies.

First came the obvious observation: the filling in Pie #2 (the one with the coconut milk) had baked up darker than the filling in Pie #1. Nope, I said, that’s not really the secret difference; think about the taste, not the appearance. What is it?

The pumpkin pie with coconut milk.

Some people observed that Pie #2 had a fluffier texture to the filling; Pie #1 was denser. Some also said Pie #2 tasted sweeter, even though the amount of sugar in each was identical. Another observation was that Pie #2 tasted “spicier.” I couldn’t understand why, since the seasonings were the same as well. Could the aromatic quality of the coconut milk be creating an experience of more flavor (“spice”)?

I finally gave in and told them: Pie #2 had its dairy content subbed out for coconut milk. In the end, my tasters were about evenly divided on which pie they preferred. I myself still stuck with the regular version, although the coconut milk one was so delicious that I feel happy to have a great non-dairy alternative for this pie.

You’ve already got my recipe for my standard pumpkin pie (which is incredibly yummy, if I do say so myself. And you don’t have to use fresh pumpkin for the puree; you can use canned). Here is the recipe for the coconut-milk version. Happy baking!

Coconut-Milk Pumpkin Pie
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Ingredients
  1. One single-crust batch of pie dough (enough for a 10-inch pie)
Filling
  1. 3 eggs
  2. 2/3 c. cup brown sugar
  3. 1/3 c. white sugar
  4. 2 cups pumpkin puree
  5. 1 13.5-ounce can regular unsweetened coconut milk
  6. 1 tsp. ground ginger
  7. 1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  8. 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  9. 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
  10. 1/4 tsp. cardamom
  11. Pinch nutmeg
  12. Pinch salt
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 425. While it's heating, roll out the pie dough and line a 10-inch pan with it. (If you use a 9-inch pan, you'll have leftover filling. Not that there's anything bad about that. Bake it up in a little pyrex dish and save it for a snack.)
  2. Chill the piecrust thoroughly; I typically stick mine in the freezer while the oven's preheating. When the oven's hot enough, take out the crust and line it with parchment and some dried beans. Bake at 425 for about 15 minutes.
  3. While the crust is baking, make the filling. In a roomy bowl, beat the eggs and sugars together. Stir in the pumpkin puree, spices, and coconut milk.
  4. When the piecrust is done, take it out of the oven and remove the parchment and dried beans. Lower the oven temperature to 325.
  5. Slide the oven rack most of the way out and put the piecrust back onto the rack, but place it toward the front edge. Pour the filling into the piecrust and carefully slide the pie back into the center of the rack. With equal care, to avoid spilling, slide the oven rack back into place. Bake the pie at 325 for 50-55 minutes, until the center is set but still jiggles very slightly.
  6. Remove from oven and let cool completely before serving.
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