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A better pumpkin dessert for Thanksgiving that doesn’t need a crust

Pumpkin nemesis
The best part of pumpkin pie — the filling — gets to stand on its own in this autumnal rendition of a classic River Cafe dessert.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

Thanksgiving in 2020 is going to look a lot different this year in more ways than one. So instead of doing things the way they’ve always been done, here are recipes that throw tradition out the window — at least just this once — and play around with the expected holiday tropes. You’ll see that the classic dishes can be much easier — and more fun — when you focus on highlighting the qualities in each that really matter.

After almost a year of being at home and the same old, same old, reinvigorate your Thanksgiving table with a fresh outlook on the traditional holiday staples.

Pumpkin pie is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing. But I find it’s always hindered by one of its seemingly essential elements: the crust. I’ve been known to scrape the pumpkin filling from a wedge of mediocre crust but never vice versa. So when I wanted to create a pumpkin pie-like dessert for Thanksgiving, free of its pastry shackles, I knew right where to turn.

For my partner’s birthday over the summer, I wanted to make him a different chocolate cake than his typical sheet cake request. While reading through old cookbooks, I came across the “Chocolate Nemesis,” a cake in “The River Cafe Cook Book,” and made it for him. It was a resounding success, the texture halfway between a flourless chocolate cake and chocolate custard. So when discussing the crustless pumpkin pie, we both exclaimed, “pumpkin nemesis!”

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A slice of pumpkin nemesis on a plate
A silky-smooth and spiced pumpkin custard stands on its own, no crust required.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

But what started out as that simple premise became exceedingly complicated and disastrous once I put it to the test. The first test — simply making the chocolate nemesis by swapping canned pumpkin for the chocolate — was a success and possessed a light and fluffy custard texture. But the ensuing tests where I set about to correct some small issues — a layer of separated custard on the bottom, tearing on the top when unmolding the cake — yielded worse and worse disasters. The cake was quickly becoming my nemesis in more ways than one.

After several trials and incalculable errors — unlike the original, the eggs don’t need to be whipped at all and the consistency of the sugar syrup is the most important aspect — I came to learn more lessons about making this dessert than I ever wanted to know. The endeavor was worthwhile to achieve a light, custardy pumpkin dessert that highlights the real star — the filling. All the sweat and tears made up for the fact that, in the end, the effort resulted in a truly great thing.

Pumpkin Nemesis

Time 1 hour 20 minutes, plus 1 1/2 hours unattended
Yields Serves 8 to 12
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