Why It Works
- Roasting tenderizes and slightly dries the butternut squash, while also deepening its flavor and sweetness.
- Blooming the gelatin ensures it's fully dissolved, and initiates its gelling properties.
- Allowing the squash-gelatin mixture to cool completely before folding in the meringue maintains volume and produces a light and airy texture.
I think that there absolutely must be a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, since it doesn’t feel right without one. But the one I like to make isn't the classic loved by so many, it's this silky, dreamy, light-as-air pumpkin chiffon pie.
A pumpkin chiffon pie is similar to a normal pumpkin pie, but the pumpkin filling, seasoned with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, is stabilized with gelatin and then made airy and light by folding in Swiss meringue. The result is a lush and lofty pie filling that, when refrigerated until set, is reminiscent of mousse.
While chiffon pies are often made with a graham cracker or cookie crust, my preference is for a buttery and flaky old-fashioned pie crust, since it adds textural contrast to the pie's soft and smooth filling. The pastry crust also acts as a durable base and adds some stability to the pie, making it much easier to slice and maneuver.
Store-Bought vs. Homemade Squash Purée
As Stella has noted before, most canned pumpkin purée is actually made from a type of squash that's very similar to butternut sqush. Because of this, I tested my pie with canned pumpkin as well as homemade roasted butternut squash purée. The results were very similar, except that the homemade butternut squash purée had a slightly more complex flavor. Roasting any ingredient adds complexity, which in this case means extra notes of caramel and butterscotch in the final dish. The canned version really wasn’t too far behind though; it delivered a sweet, earthy, and balanced pumpkin chiffon pie. Ultimately, the choice is totally up to you!
Gelatin: The Key to a Firm-Yet-Light Filling
Because the filling is so light, it needs the added structure unflavored, powdered gelatin provides to hold its shape. First, to activate its thickening properties, the gelatin must be bloomed by sprinkling the powdered gelatin over a liquid (in this case, water) and allowing it to absorb the moisture. Since since prolonged exposure to high heat can weaken its gelling properties, I play it safe by adding the bloomed gelatin to the pot after the custard is already cooked and thickened.
Using Swiss Meringue for a Stable Base
The light-as-a-feather texture of this pie comes from Swiss meringue. Many recipes for pumpkin chiffon pie will use French meringue, which is made with raw egg whites, but this can poses a slight risk of food-borne illness and shortens the shelf life of the dish. (While a carton of pasteurized egg whites might seem like a convenient solution for the risks associated with raw eggs, they don’t whip up as light, resulting in a poor meringue.)
The Swiss meringue is made by cooking the egg whites to 175°F (79°C), which means you can feel comfortable serving this dessert to anyone and everyone. It also means, as Stella notes in her write up of Swiss meringue, that the meringue becomes more stable, so you can make this pie in advance and keep leftovers for a longer period of time without worry.
As a safety precaution, this recipe actually makes double the amount of Swiss meringue you need for the pie. You can, in fact, make the Swiss meringue successfully by halving the quantities (so, three large egg whites instead of six, etc.), but your margin of error is smaller. With the lower volume of ingredients, it's more difficult to check the temperature of the mixture accurately, which in turn makes it easier to overcook, which will produce a grainy result. If you're confident in your Swiss meringue abilities, go ahead and reduce the meringue ingredients by half; if not, stick with the recipe as written since it's more foolproof.
Once the pie is assembled, chilled, set, and ready to serve, top it off with a cloud of brown sugar whipped cream and an extra sprinkle of cinnamon.
- For the Pumpkin Base:
- One 7-inch butternut squash (1 1/2 pounds; 680g), halved lengthwise and seeded (see note)
- 1/4 cup (60ml) water
- One 1/4-ounce envelope (about 2 1/2 teaspoons; 7g) unflavored gelatin (see note)
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces; 100g) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (115ml) whole milk
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus more for garnish
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
- For the Swiss Meringue (See Note):
- 6 large egg whites
- 9 ounces granulated sugar (1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon; 255g)
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
- To Assemble:
- 1/2 recipe Old-Fashioned Flaky Pie Dough, blind-baked
- Brown Sugar Whipped Cream, for topping
For the Pumpkin Base: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 400°F (205°C). Place squash halves cut-side down on a foil-lined aluminum baking sheet. Roast until fork-tender, about 45 minutes. When cool enough to handle, scrape pulp into a food processor and purée until smooth. Measure out 14 ounces (about 1 3/4 cups; 395g) squash purée (leftovers can be refrigerated for another use). Use warm, or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Add the water to a small bowl and sprinkle gelatin evenly on top. Let stand until gelatin absorbs the water and becomes translucent, about 5 minutes.
In a 3-quart saucepan, add the egg yolks, sugar, milk, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and whisk to combine. Turn the heat to medium and cook, whisking frequently, until mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. A few bubbles are okay, but do not let it boil.
Once the custard has thickened, reduce heat to low and stir in bloomed gelatin. Whisk until gelatin is completely dissolved and no lumps remain, about 45 seconds.
Turn off heat and whisk in butternut squash purée and vanilla extract. Transfer mixture to a large bowl and chill in an ice-water bath, stirring occasionally, until cool to touch, about 10 minutes.
For the Swiss Meringue: Fill a wide pot with at least 1 1/2 inches of water, with a thick ring of crumpled tinfoil placed inside to act as a "booster seat." Place over high heat until steaming-hot, then adjust temperature to maintain a gentle simmer. Combine egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Set on foil booster seat over steaming water, stirring and scraping constantly with a flexible spatula, until egg whites hold steady at 175°F (79°C), between 8 and 10 minutes (if the temperature seems to be rising too slowly, crank up the heat). Transfer to a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment and whip at high speed until meringue is glossy and beginning to ball up inside the whisk, about 5 minutes.
Divide Swiss meringue in half, reserving one half for another use or discard (see note). Add about one third of remaining meringue into cold squash mixture and fold gently with a flexible spatula just until incorporated. Fold in remaining meringue in two additions until combined.
To Assemble the Pie: Scrape filling into prepared, blind-baked crust and spread in an even layer. Cover loosely and refrigerate until filling is firm and cold, at least 5 hours and up to overnight.
When ready to serve, top pie with whipped cream and sprinkle with cinnamon. Slice into wedges with a hot chef’s knife, rinsing the knife under hot running water between slices. Carefully slide a pie server under the crust, making sure it reaches all the way to the tip of each wedge, and serve.
14 ounces (about 1 3/4 cups; 395g) canned pumpkin purée can be used in place of homemade butternut squash purée.
This recipe was not tested with sheet gelatin, which can vary substantially in bloom strength and use. For best results, use unflavored gelatin, such as the produced by the brand Knox.
This recipe makes double the Swiss meringue needed for the chiffon pie because it's easier to make the Swiss meringue successfully in larger batches. That said, if you're experienced at making Swiss meringue, it's possible to halve all of the meringue ingredients and still get great results without producing any excess meringue.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The raw pie dough can be made, shaped, and refrigerated up to 24 hours in advance, if well wrapped in plastic. The butternut squash purée can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 1 week in advance.
Wrapped in plastic, leftover pie can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.