In praise of pumpkin in a can

Yes, canned pumpkin can make a decent pumpkin pie. Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

In a time when we know that we’re supposed to start with whole ingredients as a matter of culinary correctness, Thanksgiving presents challenges. Turkeys come pre-brined with pop-up thermometers; cranberry sauce is sometimes just disgorged from the can and sliced; the desiccated stuff in the Stove Top box is, for many, the definitive flavor of stuffing. Over the years, I have overcome and cooked my way around all these classic cheats. But canned pumpkin? I won’t face the holiday without it.

Knowing this might raise an eyebrow during the season when Cinderella pumpkins look so fetching at the market, I searched for sympathy and solidarity for my approach among the world’s baking elite.

“A can of pumpkin purée is consistent,” says bestselling author and dessert specialist Dorie Greenspan. “Purée is not watery — it’s often hard to de-water fresh pumpkin — and it’s not stringy. While it’s been 100 years since I stopped making a Thanksgiving casserole with frozen string beans, I’m holding on to the traditional canned pumpkin for the pie.” I’m with Dorie.

Alice Medrich, another dessert deity, also favors canned pumpkin, and uses not only the contents of a Libby’s can but the recipe on that can as well — because her mother did. Medrich’s mother liked the custard so much that she didn’t even bother to make a crust for it. “Sometime in the ’70s maybe, my mom started simply making the pumpkin mixture in a baking dish, without any crust at all,” Medrich says. “This because pumpkin pie crust is usually soggy, and because her prized pies — double crust — were apple pies and, I think, because everyone is so full on Thanksgiving that no one needed to eat more crust, especially soggy crust.”


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And as much as I admire Medrich’s pumpkin pudding solution, my favorite part about any pie is the crust. Which means that, for me, the practical joy of a can of pumpkin is that I can use the time it saves me to make an excellent pâte brisée.

But, if we can put aside for a moment our commitment to local foods and slaving over the stove, let me advocate for canned pumpkin, because it is what so many relatives and other things on Thanksgiving aren’t: reliable. You do not want your pumpkin pie watery, or difficult, or anything other than what you will it to be with the cocktail of spices you spike it with. The pie is not fundamentally about mashed squash but that flavor combination that has launched a billion regrettable lattes — cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, maybe a pour of Armagnac? With canned pumpkin you can focus on taking pumpkin to places Starbucks cannot, instead of wrestling a wheelbarrow of hard gourds into submission.

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As for what brand of pumpkin purée, the overwhelming consensus is that Libby’s is the preferred can, which is fine by me. I always buy Trader Joe’s, but that’s more because I enjoy filling my cart with cinnamon brooms and cheap bars of Toblerone than because I can tell the difference between brands of purée.

Giving thanks can take many forms and, for me, there is often a murmur of it when I get out the can opener and shave the hours of selecting and roasting and puréeing and inevitably splattering that goes into sublimating a pumpkin from the wild. The consistency of the custard in your pumpkin pie is not a challenge to add to all the others the day can bring.

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