Alan Tangren: Pick the perfect pumpkin |

Alan Tangren: Pick the perfect pumpkin

Alan Tangren

Dear Alan: I was wondering if there are certain varieties of pumpkins that I should look for to make pie this fall.

Alan: There are many varieties of pumpkins and all of them are members of the larger family of squashes. But not all pumpkins, or squash, are created equal.

If you choose carefully, you can have great fall decorations for your home, and then turn them into delicious meals later.

Plant breeders have been busy creating squashes in fanciful shapes that have skins ranging from smooth to ribbed to incredibly warty, and in colors of green, blue, pink, white, orange, red and more. Fortunately most of these have delicious flesh.

Summer squash, winter squash like acorn and Delicata, and pumpkins are all fruits of the species Cucurbita pepo. Probably only a botanist would care that winter squashes like butternut, Hubbard, turban and kabocha types belong to other species.

As far as pumpkins go, you can depend on good flavor and texture for cooking if you choose any pumpkin with “sugar” as part of its name. The small pumpkins called “Sugar Pie” are fairly easy to find.

But ask for help at the pumpkin patch or growers market in choosing other all-purpose squash and pumpkins that will be good for cooking.

There are many varieties with decorative skins and smooth, creamy flesh without the stringiness you will want to avoid. Most farmers spend a lot of time in the off-season choosing just the right seeds to plant, so their advice can be very helpful.

I’m not a big fan of pumpkin pie, so I’m always looking for other tasty ways to serve pumpkins. You can substitute cooking pumpkins in most recipes for winter squash, especially for soup.

To prepare pumpkins to purée for soup or pie, cut in half, scrape out seeds and roast on a baking sheet, cut side down, at 350°F until tender when tested with a paring knife, 45 minutes or so. Scoop out the flesh when cool and purée in a food mill or food processor.

For most other uses, cut the pumpkin into quarters, scoop out the seeds, peel and cut into pieces.

If pumpkin pie is a mainstay on your family’s holiday table, I think it’s well worth the extra time and effort to use fresh pumpkin purée.

For me, there is a noticeable difference in flavor and texture, and you will have a sense of accomplishment that opening a can does not afford.

Make the purée and roll out the dough a day ahead and refrigerate to streamline the pie baking.

Home-Made Pumpkin Pie

Makes one 8 or 9-inch pie

10 to 12 ounces pie dough, your own or store-bought

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

3 large eggs, beaten

2 cups pumpkin purée

1-1/4 cups cream

Roll out pie dough and chill for 10 minutes. Butter an 8 or 9-inch pie plate and line with the dough. Trim any excess dough to an inch or so from the edge, fold under the rest and crimp to make an edge higher than the rim of the pie plate.

Freeze the lined pie plate for 15 minutes, OR line the dough with parchment and pie weights. Bake in a preheated oven at 400°F until dough is set but not browned, about 10 – 15 minutes. Remove parchment and weights if used.

Whisk together the sugars, flour, salt and spices in a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, pumpkin, and cream. Add to the dry ingredients and mix well. Cover and refrigerate overnight for best flavor.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Place lined pie plate on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Pour in filling, leaving at least 1/4 –inch space at top of crust.

Bake 45 to 50 minutes, until filling is set almost to the center. Remove and cool. Refrigerate if not serving right away. Serve with whipped cream.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at Contact him at

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