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The ultimate pumpkin pie recipe from Julia Child

It's a recipe that the legendary chef published in 1982 and said that she loved how ‘delicate and light this pumpkin pie is’

Representational image of pumpkin pie (Photo: Karolina Grabowska, Pexels)
Representational image of pumpkin pie (Photo: Karolina Grabowska, Pexels)

Pumpkin pie always sweeps into the holiday season as a leading contender for top dessert. What’s surprising is that its fan base goes beyond the old-fashioned crowd. On TikTok, pumpkin-based classics dominate the rankings, making up 50% of the site’s 10 most popular food and drink trends. The favorite hashtag, #pumpkinpie, has garnered more than 140 million views.

Favored activities among TikTok users include using molds to cut miniature pumpkin pies out of larger ones, and crafting pumpkin pie pancakes. 

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Which makes this a good time to reintroduce the world to a non-traditional pumpkin pie recipe from a cooking legend. It’s one of the dishes in The Essential New York Times Cookbook: The Recipes of Record, 10th Anniversary Edition, by Amanda Hesser  (W.W. Norton; $55). The book has more than 1,000 recipes packed into its pages; Hesser, a co-founder of the seminal cooking site Food52, says she has tried every one.

The new edition includes 120 new recipes that highlight the best and most popular ones since the launch of the New York Times cooking app, including Melissa Clark’s simple roast turkey and cheesy Hasselback potatoes from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. Over the past decade, says Hesser, the Times has worked hard to include “a much more exciting and inspiring mix of recipes—including everything from Tibetan dumplings to jollof rice to bulgogi.”

In the pies and tarts section, readers will find one particular recipe that stretches back further than many others: It’s one that Julia Child published in 1982 in Parade magazine. In it, she introduced the public to a pumpkin pie that’s lightened up by folding a quickly made meringue into the custard filling. “I love how delicate and light this pumpkin pie is, which to me is a much better way to punctuate a traditionally heavy holiday meal,” says Hesser.

That’s why Hesser included the recipe in the book: “It solves the problem that many pumpkin pies suffer from: density.” She adds: “It’s a fairly classic pumpkin pie recipe with a few twists—like folding whipped egg whites into the filling—that make the filling more cloudlike.” (You can watch Hesser’s entertaining pie-making demo, in which she calls the filling “diaphanous.”)

This pumpkin dessert is a welcome alternative to the classic pies you’re overwhelmed with at the holidays. It’s easy to make with a big payoff in flavor, from the heavy hit of spices and the warm, sweet molasses; the spoonfuls of bourbon you can add if you want to further animate the pie (and the company). As Hesser promises, the whipped egg whites lighten up the filling enough that you should feel free to add a few spoonfuls of whipped cream to finish.

In short, it’s a dessert that you can imagine would delight Julia Child. If only we could see her make it on TikTok. The following recipe is adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook: The Recipes of Record, from the New York Times Co. and Amanda Hesser.

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Tester’s note: The texture of pumpkin purée differs according to brand. You might need to add a little more milk to denser purées. Although this pie can be served warm or at room temperature, it’s at its best—in texture and flavor—if you chill it first.

Julia Child’s Aunt Helen’s Fluffy Pumpkin Pie
Serves 10

One 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
Half cup plus 1 tbsp. granulated sugar
Half cup light brown sugar
Kosher salt
1 and half tbsp molasses
1 and half tbsp bourbon or dark rum (optional)
Half tbsp ground cinnamon
Half tbsp ground ginger
One-eighth tsp freshly grated nutmeg
One-eighth tsp ground cloves
2 large eggs, separated
Half cup heavy cream
One-fourth cup milk, plus more if needed
1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust
Whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450F. Using a mixer or blender—or a wooden spoon and a large bowl—blend the pumpkin, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, the brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, the molasses, bourbon (if using), cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, egg yolks, cream, and milk, until smooth. If the mixture is stiff, add a  tablespoon or two of milk.

Whip the egg whites until foaming in a large bowl. Whip in a pinch of salt, then gradually whip in the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar until shiny white peaks form. Beat one-quarter of the whites thoroughly into the pumpkin mixture; gently fold in the rest.

Immediately ladle the filling into the pie shell until it is just below the rim of the pan; discard any leftover filling. Bake in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, just until the rims of the crusts begin to turn gold. Reduce the heat to 375F and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until a tester inserted into the filling 2 inches from the rim comes out clean. (The center should still be a bit wet; the pie will continue to cook as it cools.) If the rim of the crust starts to get too brown, cover the edges with foil.

Immediately turn the oven off, prop the door ajar (stick in a wooden spoon to hold it open, if necessary), and let the pies sit for a further 20 to 30 minutes as the oven cools; this will prevent the filling from turning watery.  Serve the pies warm—or let cool—cover tightly, and refrigerate for up to two days. Serve with whipped cream if desired.

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