What’s So Great About Pumpkin Pie?

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I have a confession to make that will not make me popular at this time of year. I don’t love pumpkin pie.

During my childhood I was highly enthusiastic about this classic concoction of pureed squash and spices baked into a pastry crust. But in recent years, I approach the Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with a sense of dread. “Oh no, it’s pumpkin dessert season again,” I think as I spy the first crop of pumpkin rolls, frosted pumpkin cookies and bite-size orange tartlets in the bakery aisle of my local grocery store.

I’m not sure when my taste buds turned, but at some point, eating the dessert has become a disappointment. At worst, it can taste like cold, wet mashed vegetable with an apologetic sprinkle of unspecified autumn spices. I’m not a fan of traditional pie crust to begin with, so I’m also battling against the boredom of the thin sliver of damp pastry at the bottom and a flaky but flavorless rim.

I recently asked a sampling of friends and family about where they stand with pumpkin pie. At least one person vehemently defended the dessert and suggested that anyone who doesn’t like it is too seduced by sugary treats topped with syrups, candy and goo. But I actually do like subtle sweets as well: Give me an earthy oatmeal date square or a gingerbread drop cookie any day.

Others admitted ambivalence towards this ubiquitous pie, noting that they either slather it with whipped cream topping, peel off the crust, or bury it under a layer of praline. Cream has never added much in the way of sweetness, texture or flavor to be worth the bother to me. No crust? Then you’ve just got custard. Praline? Why not just make pecan pie?

Just how mandatory is pumpkin pie? I began to wonder. When I looked up the history of the dessert, I learned that it was not at the first Thanksgiving, although early pioneers may have baked the squash with a mix of cream, honey and spices inside. The pie apparently gained a following in France and England before catching on here, where Americans embraced it and elevated it to a national tasty treasure.

I want to be excited about pumpkin pie, as it combines two favorite things: a healthful vegetable and an array of my favorite spices. Every year I try it again, purchase different versions of it, experiment with a new recipe.

I’ve also tried to come around to the dessert through its many offshoots. Pumpkin rolls remind me of cinnamon cupcakes, and pumpkin ice cream is a very sweet, cold homage to the concept of pie. Pumpkin bread, especially dotted with walnuts, probably does the most justice to the squash–the dense earthiness of the pulp provides a perfect moistness for the loaf. I even once fell in love with a platter of pumpkin squares, made by my mother from a Krusteaz mix, that had a thick wedge of sugary gingerbread crust topped with a layer of creamy, perfectly spiced squash.

But at the formal holiday table, I can’t really substitute a bar cookie box mix for the real deal, this legendary American dessert. (Or can I?)

So while I search for the perfect pumpkin pie that might give me a change of heart, I’ll spend time with my true holiday love. It’s Mom’s pecan pie, that sassy sibling of the pumpkin. For me, the mixture of crunchy nuts on a bed of thick syrup and a dash of flaky pastry crust is the winner. Want the recipe? It’s no family secret. Mom reveals that “grandma’s pie” is in fact the classic Karo syrup recipe.