What's Better Than Pumpkin Pie? Pumpkin Cream Pie

November 19, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

What if pumpkin pie weren’t pumpkin pie? Certain classics need no explanation and this Americana-as-it-gets dessert is one of them. Say pumpkin pie and most people will picture the same thing: a single, flaky crust, filled with pumpkin custard, baked until just set.

But there’s more than one way to go about this.

Which is why, this year, my pumpkin pie is actually cream pie. Of course, there’s more than one way to go about this, too. A couple years ago, I wrote all about cream pies’ seemingly endless possibilities, from crust to filling to topping.

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Here's the cheat sheet:

  • Crust. Often a crumb crust, like graham cracker or saltines. This is quick to come together, keeps well in the refrigerator, and is crispy enough to support the...
  • Filling. My go-to is pastry cream, which is essentially pudding: milk, sweetened with sugar, thickened with egg yolks and cornstarch. But mousse and citrusy curds are great, too.
  • Topping. Whipped cream! (Did I get too excited?) Some opt for meringue, though others would contend that if it’s topped with meringue, then it’s a custard pie, not a cream pie. Tomato, tomahto.

Cream pies are often seen as summery, but I’m here to say loud and proud that I’ve eaten a cream pie every month of the year and enjoyed every one. At the bakery where I used to work, we always had a cream pie in rotation. During the summer, the type relied on in-season fruit, like peaches or blackberries, which we’d layer with vanilla pastry cream. During colder months, we had to get creative—say, a malted-banana number or cayenne-spiced chocolate pudding.

Likewise, this recipe takes a summery template and makes it Thanksgiving-y as heck. First up: the crust. I love a graham cracker crust for its accessibility and wheaty flavor. Typically, the recipe is as simple as cracker crumbs, sugar, and melted butter. My take swaps in brown sugar, adds lots of ground ginger, plus more salt than you’d expect. Think of it as: graham cracker meets gingersnap.

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Top Comment:
“I made this and it was amazing!! I had a deep pie pan but it was still an amazingly thick graham cracker crust and I basically ate it all myself. I like how this recipe uses a custard cream because the previous recipe I'd used was too runny and didn't hold when you cut it.”
— els

The pumpkin custard uses the same approach as any pastry cream—only we ditch some of the milk for pumpkin puree. This turned out trickier than anticipated. I tried stirring the pumpkin puree in after cooking the custard, but this resulted in a grainy texture and weepy shelf-life. Adding the pumpkin puree with the milk yields a smooth, creamy custard that holds up well in the fridge. Meanwhile, brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice, and vanilla bring all the autumn vibes. I love pumpkin pastry cream because—compared to its Other Pumpkin Pie counterpart—it cooks for relatively little time, which means more vibrant squashy flavor.

Sour cream does, too. This ingredient’s bright tanginess is a welcome standout amid a rich meal—a lot like how any raw salad during Thanksgiving dinner is surprisingly popular. Here at Food52, we think funky whipped creams are Genius, from crème fraïche to Greek yogurt. Not only do they balance any dessert’s sweetness, but they also help the whipped cream stay fluffier longer.

And yet, none of these are my favorite part about pumpkin cream pie. Not the gingery crust nor the pumpkin custard nor the tangy topping. My favorite part about pumpkin cream pie is that it’s make-ahead friendliest. You can prepare the pastry cream up to 3 days in advance; just cover with plastic, refrigerate, and whisk well to smooth out before filling the crust. You can make the crust, fill with pastry cream, and keep in the fridge for up to 1 day, then top with the whipped cream morning-of.

In fact, the pie needs to chill before it’s sliced and served. Call it your excuse to get dessert out of the way beforehand and have more fun on the holiday itself—a sweet idea, indeed.

What’s your favorite way to pumpkin pie? Please share your traditions and memories in the comments!

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

els January 26, 2020
I made this and it was amazing!! I had a deep pie pan but it was still an amazingly thick graham cracker crust and I basically ate it all myself. I like how this recipe uses a custard cream because the previous recipe I'd used was too runny and didn't hold when you cut it.