Every so often, there is a concern about shortages of canned pumpkin. During the last pumpkin shortage, a pregnant friend was so desperate to satisfy her cravings for pumpkin, her husband offered his coworkers $20 for a single can of the precious puree. Again this year, there was concern raised over pumpkin shortages. Too much rain in Illinois where most of Libbey’s pumpkins grow has affected the yields by as much as one third.
So what’s all the fuss about? Growing up feasting on pies made from my grandpa’s pumpkin (which I now know to be Hubbard Squash), raised in his own garden and lovingly roasted and canned each fall, is a shortage of Libbey’s all that much to be concerned about?
First thing’s first. What exactly does Libbey’s use? The pumpkin in that can of pumpkin puree, in fact, is not pumpkin at all. It’s a variety of squash called Dickinson squash. Dickinson squash is the same species of squash as butternut squash. A lighter skinned, orange-fleshed squash.
What’s in a name?
According to the USDA Grading Manual for Canned Pumpkin and Squash, circa 1956:
The names pumpkin and squash are propularly [sic] applied to the fruits of the species of the genus Cucurbita,namely C pepo,C maxima and C moschata. In general, the term pumpkin is applied to the late maturing or fall varieties of C pepo and C maxima. The principal varieties of C pepo and C. maxima used for canning are the Connecticut field pumpkin, Dickinson pumpkin, Kentucky field pumpkin, the Boston marrow squash, and the Golden Delicious squash.
The Great “Pumpkin” Pie Experiment of 2015
So what is the best alternative to canned puree? Out to the market I went. I gathered anything we grow that could make a suitable alternative. This meant we’d be baking seven pies (including the Libbey’s variety to compare). Yes, you read that right, seven.
Roasting and Pureeing
And the roasting began. Everything was cut in half (thanks to my husband, particularly on the Hubbard Squash), deseeded and roasted, face down on a lined baking sheet, at 400 degrees.
The roasting times varied, with Hubbard Squash and Red Warty Thing taking longer and pie pumpkins, acorn squash and sweet potatoes taking less time. The roasting times ranged from about 40 minutes to an hour and a half. Each was pulled from the oven when a butter knife easily cut through the skin with little resistance from the flesh beneath.
After pulling from the oven, I let them cool enough to handle, then scooped the flesh into a food processor and pureed until smooth.
This was an evening task, so all purees were refrigerated after they cooled. This also gave me the opportunity to scoop off the watery parts once the puree settled, although none of them were quite as thick as the Libbey’s pumpkin.
For the pies, I used the same crust, same recipe and, since I didn’t have 7 glass pie dishes, all foil pans. Since Libbey’s sets the standard for pie expectations in ease and flavor, I decided to use the Libbey’s recipe. Sugar, spices, puree (1 2/3 cup each, consistently about 14-14.5 oz. on all purees), eggs and a can of evaporated milk. Simple enough.
So I set to work. Roll crust, mix filling, bake…roll crust, mix filling, bake…Several hours later we had seven pies.
My husband and I inspected and tasted them all, going back and forth to try to find the “best” replacement. I also had some of the girls from the market and my coworkers taste the pies (some tasted all, others gave feedback on the ones they tried).
Sweet Potato – The only one ruled out as a replacement to pumpkin (a tasty pie, just noticeably not pumpkin).
Acorn Squash – Noticeably more muted in color, but still a very tasty pie.
Red Warty Thing – Not one bad comment about this option. A beautiful hue, smooth texture and good flavor. Of those that did not try all of the pies, they seemed to be most compelled to try this one.
Hubbard Squash – Tasty, but the most difficult to work with due to its thick flesh.
Libbey’s – I noted that visually Libbey’s was the “smoothest” pie. As I worked, I noticed that the remainder of pies from the varying purees had tiny bubbles on top. After a few pies, I realized it was due to the fact that, since the purees were thinner, they were unable to prevent the bubbles from the shaken cans of evaporated milk from rising to the top of the custard. I was able to reduce the bubbles on later pies by taking more care in removing the bubbles prior to incorporating the evaporated milk.
Pie Pumpkin – Had the most negative comments (a grand total of two) [my husband felt that it was “grainier” when compared directly to the other options]
Butternut Squash – Also good. This is the most closely related and, to me, had an aftertaste that compared to one I noticed in Libbey’s.
The order of preference among the five squash selections varied between tasters, but also many comments that it became quite difficult to determine a best since they were all so similar.
Making Pumpkin Pie From Your Own Puree
Making your own puree for your Thanksgiving pies is simple. Yes, never as simple as cracking open a can, but the active time in making your own puree is simply cutting a squash (or two, in the event of smaller squash) in half, scooping out seeds, then returning an hour or so later to scoop out the baked flesh and puree. The puree can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to a week or even frozen (for those who may crave pumpkin after it drops off menus here in the next couple weeks).
And as an added bonus, it can be a great way to change the topic when the uncomfortable
arguments conversations about politics or religion pop up at Thanksgiving dinner 😉