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Secret Ingredient Pumpkin Pies

This Thanksgiving, give traditional pumpkin pie a lift with your choice of three unexpected flavor twists

Fine Cooking Issue 88
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As a devoted fan of pumpkin pie, I wouldn’t dream of a Thanksgiving dinner without one. Perfectly balanced between savory and sweet, with just a hint of creamy richness, pumpkin pie is a regular on my fall and winter menus. I’ll even eat it for breakfast—one slice has more than the RDA for vitamin A, plus fiber, so you can hardly call it a vice. 

I may be loyal to pumpkin pie, but that doesn’t mean I’m loyal to a single recipe. I’m always looking for new flavors to pair with pumpkin, nuances that add depth and interest without taking over. For me, it’s important that pumpkin is the star, so I don’t want to cover it up with heavy, overwhelming flavors.

Three of my favorite secret ingredients for pumpkin pie are caramel, vanilla bean, and muscovado sugar with rum. Surprised? Your guests will be. None of these ingredients hits you at the first bite, but the lingering flavor is unmistakeable. Once you reveal the secret, your guests will nod in agreement, “Ah, yes. Caramel. Of course.” Naturally, I keep the spices to a minimum to share the stage with the supporting cast, so you’ll find just hints of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg in these pies. But for the rum and muscovado version, I couldn’t resist adding warm allspice, a nod to the pie’s Caribbean-inspired flavor profile.

The Secret Ingredients

Vanilla beans are hand-pollinated and hand- harvested, making them quite expensive. Therefore, it pays to choose the best you can and store them properly. To keep vanilla beans plump and moist once you get them home, wrap them airtight and store at room temperature. They should not be refrigerated. If you live in a humid environment, take care not to trap moisture with the beans, or they could mildew. The beans will keep for more than a year, but why on earth would you have them that long? Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian beans are all fine to use; just rely on a well-known source when purchasing them, such as Penzeys or The Baker’s Catalogue.

Muscovado sugar and dark rum and are both derived from sugar cane, and their deep flavors always make me think of the Caribbean Islands, where they were both once made. Dark rum, unlike white rum, has the pronounced flavor of sugar cane, so it’s used more for cooking than for cocktails. If you haven’t discovered muscovado sugar yet, you’ll surely be a convert after your first bite. Yes, I said bite—I actually find myself eating this sugar out of hand.  It’s just that good. Smoky, spicy and incredibly complex, this fine-textured, soft sugar is a must for your pantry. (It’s available in both light and dark versions, but you’ll want the dark muscovado for the recipe here.) It’s an artisanal sugar, refined the old fashioned way, so the residual cane syrup (molasses) left in the granules is not the least bit harsh. Sprinkle a little on your morning oatmeal—you’ll see. You can find muscovado sugar in specialty stores and online at ChefShop.com; I’ve noticed that most brands hail from the United Kingdom. This sugar is very moist; take extra care to seal it tightly so it doesn’t dry out.

Caramel is easiest to make in a heavy-duty saucepan with a stainless steel interior. A good quality pan will ensure even heat distribution, thereby avoiding hot spots where the sugar darkens quickly before the rest has even melted. The stainless interior makes it easy to judge color—and telling doneness for caramel is all about color.  Pale gold caramel has a light flavor, while a caramel with a nice, rich color has distinctive smoky, buttery notes that stand up to strong flavors like pumpkin and chocolate. 
The traditional method for making caramel is to sprinkle sugar evenly across the bottom of a pan and let it melt slowly over medium-high heat without stirring. As the edges begin to brown, you carefully and gently swirl the pan to encourage even cooking and coloration.  To play it safe, I opt for sprinkling a few tablespoons of water over the sugar as it heats in the pan. I do stir occasionally until the sugar has dissolved, but then no more stirring. This method takes longer, because the water must cook off before the sugar can begin to reach the caramel stage, but the slowness of the process makes it easier to avoid overcooking.

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