Picture a classic Thanksgiving meal, all set for dinner with candles aglow. Center stage, a glistening roast turkey. A bowl of jiggly cranberry sauce crowds the extra space next to a pitcher of gravy, a deep dish of pillowy mashed potatoes, and a platter of stuffing, crowned with crispy cubes of butter-soaked bread. Competing for your attention are the scents of onion and sage, and the comforting, yeasty fragrance of just-baked dinner rolls.
But you’re not really here for any of that. You—like many people on Thanksgiving—are waiting for the main event: the pumpkin pie.
One of the most fiercely beloved traditions of a Thanksgiving meal, pumpkin pie has become a symbol of the holiday: a dessert recipe most bakers trot out solely for this one day and largely ignore the rest of the year. Unlike apple or pecan pie—both common Thanksgiving desserts that remain popular throughout the year—pumpkin pie is inextricably intertwined with Thanksgiving.
Of course, plenty of cooks will outsource dessert, delegating the task to guests or a bakery. But if there’s one day of the year when non-bakers will attempt a from-scratch recipe, it’s Thanksgiving. And if you’re baking a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, there’s a good chance you’re using the recipe from the back of the Libby’s pumpkin puree can.
The recipe dates back to the 1950s, when it first appeared on the can’s label. That single recipe has made its way into a vast number of kitchens: Libby’s (owned by Nestlé) makes up nearly 90 percent of the market for canned pumpkin in the United States. And nearly all of that is sold within a four-month window between October and March. This is, in short, firmly a Thanksgiving-centric product.
Perhaps you can remember making the Libby’s recipe yourself, or you can picture a family member or friend consulting the back of the can. I’d wager that the handwritten recipe in many family cookbooks is actually the Libby’s one—just like on Friends, when Phoebe’s grandmother’s “famous” chocolate chip cookies turned out to be from the back of the Tollhouse bag.
Not that there’s anything wrong with following recipes like these. They work. The Libby’s recipe, in particular, yields a stunning pie with a silken, creamy pumpkin custard that jiggles just enough but rarely ever cracks on top. It isn’t too thick or rich, nor is it too soft or thin. It’s certainly sweet, but not so sweet that you don’t taste the pumpkin and the spice.
And about that spice: It’s subtle. A 5-year-old with a picky palate won’t be thrown off by the level of spices, which include ground ginger, cloves, and cinnamon. This is a comforting pie, designed to please everyone at the Thanksgiving table. The bakers in Nestlé’s test kitchen developed this recipe to sell canned pumpkin, and it does just that.
So given the popularity of the decades-old recipe, you’d imagine the company would stick with proven success.
But this year, for the first time since the product debuted, the recipe has changed! If you buy a can of Libby’s pumpkin puree and flip to the back of the label, you’ll find a recipe for “New-Fashioned Pumpkin Pie.”
So what’s new?
The old recipe uses granulated sugar and evaporated milk for sweetness, whereas the new recipe skips the sugar altogether and uses a combination of sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk, but dials back the amount of evaporated milk to compensate for the increased liquid content from the condensed milk. The new pie is baked slightly longer (10 additional minutes), an important adjustment that ensures the filling is still creamy and set, despite more liquid.
Everything else stays exactly the same, with one notable exception: The new recipe has double the amount of cloves (1/2 teaspoon compared to 1/4 teaspoon), which is a surprisingly noticeable and welcome change. You can’t pinpoint the clove flavor exactly, but in a side-by-side comparison, my taste testers found that the spices sung more in the new version. They stand out more against the backdrop of pumpkin and sugar.
Devoted fans of the original recipe may stay loyal to it, steadfastly refusing to alter any Thanksgiving traditions. But if you’re willing to stray ever so slightly from the classic recipe, try the “new-fashioned” version. It’s as familiar and as comforting as the original, but—I’ll go right out and say it—even better.
Do you make the pumpkin pie from the back of the Libby's can? Let us know in the comments below.
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Food52’s Automagic Thanksgiving Menu Maker
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