The Food Lab: How to Make the Best Pumpkin Pizza

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Pumpkin, apples, and sage come together in this fall-inspired pizza. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Pumpkin and pizza are not the most common bandmates, but I'm gonna try and convince you that they should get together and jam out a bit more often. For the past few weeks I've been experimenting with different ways of incorporating pumpkin and other fall flavors onto a crisp dough crust. I knew I wanted a pizza that was strongly pumpkin-y with gentle warm spices and a light sweetness, but it had to be something that was still undoubtedly savory enough to eat for dinner.

Here's how I got there.

Step 1: Roast Pumpkins for Best Flavor

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: those pumpkins that you carve into Jack-o-Lanterns? Forget about them as a food source. They're bland, watery, and stringy. What you really want to use when making a pumpkin recipe is something smaller, denser, and more intensely flavored. Sugar pumpkins or the closely related kabocha squash (sometimes sold as "Japanese pumpkin") have a much more intense pumpkin-y flavor with denser flesh that doesn't get stringy as it cooks.

Like sweet potatoes and other squashes, the key to intense pumpkin flavor is a good, slow roast. Not only does this improve sweetness through browning and caramelization—the breakdown of complex sugars into simpler, sweeter ones—but it also promotes a second kind of sweetening. See, in their normal stored state, pumpkins are packed with bland starches. However, they also contain enzymes that will break these starches down into sugars. As you slowly heat a pumpkin, these enzymes kick into overdrive, making the flesh turn sweeter and sweeter until they finally deactivate as the pumpkin continues to heat up.

I quarter my pumpkins, toss them in olive oil, season them with salt and pepper, then slip them into a 300°F oven until they're completely tender (for this recipe, I roast three out of four quarters, reserving the fourth for later on). You should then be able to easily scoop out the soft, sweet flesh.

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I tried incorporating that roasted squash flesh in a number of ways, from pureeing it with olive oil and using it as a sauce for the pizza to cutting it into chunky pieces and dropping it on top.

The most effective method of getting a good mix of pumpkin flavor and interesting texture was to make a rough mash. I mashed up the pumpkin flesh with a whisk, adding a drizzle of olive oil, a little honey for extra sweetness, and a pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg.

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This stuff is good enough to eat with a spoon right out of the bowl, but hold up! We're gonna need it for the pizza!

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Step 2: Sauté Pumpkin for Texture

One form of pumpkin is good, but two forms of pumpkin is even better. I decided to try sautéing cubes of pumpkin in butter until nicely browned, then adding some chopped sage leaves to the mix. Unfortunately, the flavor of the sautéed pumpkin paled in comparison to the roasted.

The solution? Add some apples to the mix.

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When sautéed together, the apple complements the pumpkin's flavor, making it sweeter and somehow more pumpkin-y without actually tasting overtly of apples.

Step 3: Put it Together

Now comes the fun part: assembly. I knew that this was going to be a tomato-free white pie from the start. No point in adding too many extraneous flavors when pumpkin is meant to be the star.

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A combination of cheeses worked well. I used shredded gruyere as the base, along with a few dollops of fresh mozzarella and a grating of Parmesan. I applied the mashed pumpkin in rough spoonfuls, then scattered on the sautéed pumpkin before finishing it with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and some torn sage leaves.

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I popped it under a broiler with a pre-heated Baking Steel and cooked it for a few minutes until charred.

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It's really damn tasty. The smashed pumpkin kind of melts together with the cheese while getting these nice crispy, craggy edges. Some sliced scallions added on post-bake are the only garnish it needs.

This year I think I'll be serving a different kind of pumpkin pie.