Snowy fall days just beg for baking. The first hint of cold weather starts me thinking about Halloween and Thanksgiving — two holidays whose orange color schemes have roots in the fruit that is most plentiful at harvest this time of year: Pumpkins!
A pumpkin pie on the counter is just so cozy on a cold day. So I woke up this morning with plans to roast a squash, so there would be a pie waiting when my daughter came home from school hungry for an after-school treat. But which squash to use? Did you know that most pumpkin pies are not made from pumpkin at all? If you buy a can of pumpkin puree from the grocery store, chances are, what you are actually getting is a puree of roasted butternut squash. It’s got a thicker consistency and deeper orange color than pumpkin, so yields the pie that most of us are used to seeing on our fall tables.
I can’t resist squashes at the market this time of year, so I was already stocked with a pie pumpkin that I bought from Fossil Creek Farms and a butternut squash from Red Wagon Organic Farm. Instead of choosing one, I decided to embark on a Farming Fort Collins experiment to compare the two.
Baking a pie from scratch takes a little longer than opening a can of puree, and taking pictures along the way slows down the process even more. I started at about 10 a.m. this morning to get my two squash competitors ready to show their stuff.
First I cut each in half and cleaned out the seeds, to save for roasting later. Notice the different colors of their flesh:
After an hour in the oven, these guys were ready to have their skins removed and jump in the food processor for a puree. I was seeing big differences already in how each squash would hold up in pie. The butternut was thick and took longer to puree before all the lumps were smoothed out. The pumpkin was stringy and watery, but produced a silky smooth puree with puddles of juicy water around the edges.
I made two pies with equal amounts of puree from each squash. Other than the squash variety, the ingredients were exactly the same in each pie. The custard for the butternut squash pie was thick. My mixing spoon stayed suspended in the mix on the side of the bowl. But the pumpkin mix was so thin I couldn’t leave the spoon in the bowl without it sinking to the bottom. I was curious at this point to see how these pies would bake up next to each other.
Both pies baked for just under an hour and came out looking pretty similar. Both tempted me from the minute they exited the oven, but I waited until my favorite 7-year-old taste tester got home before cutting into them.
I asked which pie she thought was pumpkin and she immediately pointed to the darker orange pie (the butternut squash). I gave her a sliver of each to try and she again chose with great confidence the darker, thicker pie as “pumpkin!” She easily proclaimed it her favorite of the two until I broke the news that her choice was actually a butternut squash pie. At that point, she abruptly remembered that she doesn’t like pumpkin pie and abandoned my experiment.
I took slices of both pies to my neighbor and asked him “Which of these is the pumpkin pie?” He was sure that the darker pie was made from pumpkin. He described it as having “more character”, while the actual pumpkin pie was “smooth and tasty, but lacking the character” of the butternut squash selection. He was shocked to learn that he had chosen the wrong pie in identifying the pumpkin flavor. He realized that we don’t always know exactly what we’re eating, and sometimes we make assumptions based on what we expect to be true.
I was able to pass my pies through two more taste testers over the course of the afternoon. Both gave me the same result. They preferred the butternut squash to the pumpkin pie in both taste and consistency. The pumpkin pie’s crust got a bit soggy from the wetter custard, and although it had a delicate flavor with smooth custard, it just didn’t hold up to expectations for what a “pumpkin” pie should be.
For years I have chosen butternut or kabocha over pumpkin in my squash pies, and find people are always surprised to learn they aren’t really eating pumpkin in my “pumpkin” pie. As we become more concerned with sourcing our food and knowing our farmers, it’s amusing to me that we still sometimes make assumptions about ingredients. As my neighbor said, “we don’t always really know what we’re eating, do we?”