The Best Pumpkin Pie Is Squash Pie

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Natalie Holt]

For hundreds of years, Americans have been making squash pie and calling it "pumpkin" for the poetry of its name. I won't rehash a complicated story that's more thoroughly explained in my book, but the short story is this: that pie purée you're buying in cans? It's not made from the rotund orange pumpkin you're probably envisioning.

Butternut squash may not evoke the romance of a jack o' lantern or Cinderella's carriage, but it has all the earthy flavor of a pumpkin at a fraction of the hassle (less pesky rind, fewer slimy seeds, no stringy fibers). By the time a butternut squash has been roasted, puréed, and showered with spice, the only thing anyone will notice is how vibrant it tastes in pie.

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As Daniel has explained on the subject of butternut squash soup, roasting brings out the squash's best flavor, deepening its mellow sweetness into something caramel-y and complex. Plus, roasting keeps the purée dry so you won't need to drain it or cook it down.

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The other key ingredient to my recipe is homemade sweetened condensed milk. It has a clean dairy flavor, with strong notes of toffee and a sweetness that's more mellow than anything you'll find in a can.

Like any recipe for pumpkin pie, there's not a lot of fuss once the ingredients have been rounded up. Just whisk the sweetened condensed milk into the squash purée, along with brown sugar, melted butter, eggs, and spices—I use a blend of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a tiny pinch of clove. I know a lot of folks associate clove with the cloying scent of potpourri, but trust me, in extreme moderation it can work wonders, boosting the aroma of the other spices and lending an almost citrusy brightness.

The prepared filling can be used right away, or held in the fridge until you're ready to bake—up to three days. I know some folks have a taste for pumpkin pies with a soft and pale bottom crust, but I'm all about getting it flaky and crisp to complement the creamy custard filling. That means starting with a fully baked pie crust.

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You don't have to use my old-fashioned flaky pie dough, but do check out my tips for blind-baking a pie crust to make sure yours doesn't shrink or slide down around the edges. If you've ever been stuck with leftover filling that won't fit into the pie, a shrunken crust is almost always to blame.

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The fully baked crust will continue to brown around the edges, but as you can see in the photo above, the effect is subtle. Of course, not all ovens are the same, so if you do notice it browning more than you'd prefer, feel free to cover the edges with a pie shield or foil.

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That thorough blind-baking will keep the crust crisp along the bottom for days, so don't hesitate to bake off the pie in advance to free up your oven. Once cool, the pie can be served right away or wrapped in plastic and held for a few days at room temperature, or for up to a week in the fridge.

With the make-ahead route, I like to restore the pie's fresh-baked vibe by popping it in a hot oven for a minute or two just before serving. The hot air just works wonders for reviving a crust that's gone limp from being wrapped in plastic.

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Sure, it's a recipe that takes a little more time than those that call for a can of this and a can of that, but for those of us who love baking from scratch, the reward is something that truly stands out. With a dollop of whipped cream to top it off, it's everything I want in a pumpkin pie—comforting and familiar—but even better than my memories.