Why Erin McDowell’s Pumpkin Sugar Pie Is Genius


Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Every Thanksgiving, somewhere around the time we realize we forgot the clincher step on the Judy Bird, my brother Billy and I also remember we need to get the pies in the oven—fast—before the turkey sets up shop. There are only five large eaters and now one small one, but that never stops Billy and me from making two pies. We need one for each set of crimping hands.

It’s a dash to get the dough made and rolled and pinched and chilled. Wine bottles are makeshift rolling pins, measuring spoons are surrogate polka-dot cutters. Flour is on our sweaters, our keyboards, the floor, the toddler. In the oven, sides slump; butter leaks, hissing smoke; pumpkin custards puff and collapse.

It might be stressful if it wasn’t so fun, if we had a family big and proper enough that someone would care that dinnertime shot right past 6 p.m. and landed at 9.

Let’s set aside pumpkin pie stress this year.

Photo by Julia Gartland Food Stylist: Lauren LaPenna Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth

I recently moved back home to Northern California, Billy is still in New York, and neither of us is taking travel lightly this year—so this is the first Thanksgiving that the two of us lost flowers won’t be together in decades, maybe ever. Even the year Billy was living in Paris, I flew there with Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix and poultry seasoning in my suitcase for our grandmother’s stuffing, so we could feed his friends a real American Thanksgiving, the turkey acquired sweatily at a local butcher in muted French (“dinde…DIN-de?”).

For all of us missing the people we love, whose Thanksgivings this year aren’t what we’d hoped, I wish us all long Zoom calls and new traditions, and recipes that will give us comfort—and also give us a break.

Erin Jeanne McDowell has just the pie for us: a pumpkin filling that will never crack, and a dough that wouldn’t think of leaving a floury mess. If you haven’t met yet, Erin is Food52’s celebrity baker and, as of six days from now, the author of The Book on Pie—her latest cookbook of joyful pep talks; mix-and-match crusts, fillings and toppings; and the baking science behind all of it.

This pumpkin filling is based on a traditional sugar pie, Erin’s favorite underrated style of custard. “When I started making that classic sugar pie, the Hoosier pie style (1), I was completely blown away because it never cracked. Never ever,” Erin told me as we shot the video above. “If I left it five minutes too long, if I forgot about it, it would never crack because there’s no eggs in it—it’s thickened with flour.”

In traditional pumpkin pie, eggs set the custard as their proteins heat and coagulate, but can become over-stretched when forgotten in a hot oven. “That’s when the cracking happens,” Erin said. Starches like flour or cornstarch, on the other hand, set pies much more gently, similarly to how they work in fruit pies. As Erin put it, “When was the last time your cherry pie cracked?” She also pointed out one last bonus: When the eggs get out of the way, the pumpkin spice flavor can really speak for itself.

The crust is a soft, shortbread-y cookie dough that you can stir together in a mixer (or by hand), then press in at room temperature, rather than cycling in and out of the fridge to keep butter flakes icy cold. “This is one of those things trying to get you from zero to pie as quickly as possible.” Erin said. This tender, buttery crust style is more commonly seen in tarts, but works beautifully in pies too, without rolling or hustle or sweat. And no children or laptops will be debased in the process. (2)

Worth noting: This pie doesn’t appear in exactly this form in The Book on Pie. Which is, in a lot of ways, the whole point. I Build-a-Bear-ed these two pieces together from the hundreds of beautiful options in Erin’s one-woman Wonka factory of a cookbook, because they were exactly what I needed.

I just as easily could have gone with Eggnog Sugar Pie in Brown Butter Cookie Crust or Two-Bite Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecakes in Press-In Pretzel Crust, if either had struck me that day. With the genius, choose-your-own-adventure style of Erin’s book, you’ll be empowered to do the same. Thanksgiving will feel not quite as it should, but we’ll be grateful anyhow.

(1) The best-known example, Erin explains in The Book on Pie, is Hoosier pie, flavored with vanilla and nutmeg. (To which Erin adds chocolate, citrus, spice, and the aforementioned ’nog variations.)

(2) Erin also published an earlier version of her Pumpkin Sugar Pie right here on Food52 in her famous All-Buttah Dough, if you want to go flaky instead of cookie.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what’s so smart about it) at [email protected].

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.

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