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The approach of Thanksgiving always triggers memories of my first internship in a restaurant kitchen. It was at a well-loved Brooklyn shrine of farm-to-table cuisine that brought in beautiful produce from local farms each day (raising my standards of quality produce about a thousand percent). I worked there through the holidays, which, as a lowly intern, meant many of my days were filled with either peeling apples or breaking down pumpkins and squash and making gallons of pumpkin puree to be used in muffins, ice cream, sauces, and of course, pies. Prior to working there, it had never occurred to me to obtain pumpkin puree from something other than a can.
Since those days, I've never gone back to canned pumpkin puree. For me the difference in taste alone is worth it; puree from fresh, roasted or steamed pumpkins just tastes and smells more... pumpkin-y. It's a hard quality to describe. I also prefer the texture, which is smoother than canned pumpkin, and the bright color, which is so much more appetizing.
When choosing pumpkins for puree, it's important to select pumpkins that will deliver the most intense and sweet flavor. Small, dense Sugar Pumpkins are great for puree and easy to find in most grocery stores and farmers' markets. You can also use lesser-known heirloom varieties such as New England Pie (these are very similar to Sugar Pumpkins), Long Island Cheese Pumpkins (high yield for puree, but not as sweet), Long Pie (these look nothing like pumpkins, but have very smooth flesh that is great for pies), Baby Pam, or Peek-a-Boo. Avoid using the kind that are ideal for carving jack-o-lanterns; big pumpkins with thin walls and mostly hollow insides are generally flavorless, and therefore not desirable ingredients for delicious baked goods.
Best of all, making smooth, velvety pumpkin puree is not difficult at all. Sure, it requires planning at least one day ahead, but this is par for course with a lot of pastry projects. If you're using it for pumpkin pie, you can double up the prep work for your components, mix and chill the flaky crust dough just before you cut, clean, and roast the pumpkins. By the time they cool, you'll be ready to shape your bottom crust and finish the puree. Chill both overnight, and you'll be ready to rock the next morning.
Click through the slideshow to learn the method, then beat the pre-holiday frenzy and make your puree this week. Hold it in the freezer then thaw before use. Don't miss my Pie of the Week columns this week, a special double edition of pumpkin pie recipes that are perfect for Thanksgiving. If you can't wait that long, be sure to check out my recipe for pumpkin muffins, the perfect breakfast fix for pumpkin fiends.
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About the author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evillagekitchen.