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The Great Pumpkin Pie Cook-Off! CooksIllus vs. Epicurious vs. Libby's

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This year I was in charge of the pies. So after a bit of research the three most consistent "best" pies were CooksIllus, Epicurious Ultimate Pumpkin Pie and the back of the Libby's can. So I decided that I would make one of each and the winner would be the one I would make going forward.

To make sure the competition was even I used the CooksIllus vodka pie crust recipe which turned out nice & flaky. (My 1st time making crusts) But I had to make 5 crusts to come up with two. When I pre-baked the crust and went to remove the foil liner it kept sticking to the crust pulling it away with the foil, whether I weighted it down or not – I even tried spraying the back and flour. Ironically the most heavily weighted version (using coins) stuck the least. Finally I ran out of time and just bought a graham cracker crust for the Epicurious version. I also strained all 3 mixtures to ensure a silky custard. I cooked all three according to their directions - although I forgot to add the apricot to the Epi. All three were served together at room temperature with homemade whipped cream.

All three were pretty easy to make, with the CI being the most involved. The Libby's custard was the thinnest of the three and I was nervous that it would be too watery, but it cooked fine. The CI version took longer to cook than the directions indicated and the Libby's took only 40 minutes.

So the winner was........... a tie! It was an even split between the Libby's & the Epicurious. The Epi version uses sour cream so it was a bit richer or "gourmet" as one tester stated and perhaps a bit sweeter - and was my personal favorite. The Libby’s was more “traditional” tasting. But this may also be due to the fact that this is the version most people make. But both were great and everyone stated that going forward I should just make both. If I go by the pie plates, there is about 1/8 of the Epi pie and about 1/4 of the Libby's left this morning.

I liked the graham cracker crust, but most people preferred the regular crust.

The CooksIllus version wasn't even in the competition. In fact most of the pie is still left and will probably be tossed. It lacked sweetness, is a bit salty, and the flavor is just off. Someone stated that it tastes more like a vegetable pie than a pumpkin pie. Very disappointing based on the time it took to make and that I thought it would be the winner. Plus, its crust came out the best.

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  1. To add to the pumpkin pie conversation (sorry to throw an additional pie in there!) I made Rose Levy Berenbaum's pumpkin pie for yesterday http://www.realbakingwithrose.com/200... and people commented that it was the best pumpkin pie that I've made in a while, and it was pretty simple to make. I will say that it caused a big mess in the food processor, and next time I'd use my hand mixer to puree everything instead. There was also about 1/2 a cup too much filling for my 9 inch pie pan. But I liked it better than both the Libby's recipe and the Epicurious recipe, both of which I've made in other years.

    10 Replies
    1. re: JasmineG

      Rose's recipe is remarkably similar to a recipe from a '93 issue of Cook's Illustrated, with some notable changes-- less sugar, one fewer egg, no cloves or nutmeg, the different crust, and baking on the bottom of the oven. I've been using this CI recipe for years, only with the amount of sugar Rose calls for in her recipe! (I don't have a gas oven, so can't bake on the floor of the oven.) It's just what we want for Thanksgiving, not too sweet, balanced spices, and perfect with freshly whipped, unsweetened cream. Our best recipe for traditional pumpkin pie. Now, if you want pumpkin chiffon, that's a whole other matter!

      1. re: amyzan

        Is this the recipe with cream in it?

        1. re: jen kalb

          It's half and half, technically, but yes.

        2. re: amyzan

          I forgot to say, I didn't use her gingersnap/pecan layer in between the crust and the pie, and used a different pie crust recipe, but I still loved her filling.

          1. re: amyzan

            I make a recipe from Epicurious that also calls for cream, no cloves or nutmeg and only two eggs, and although I'm not a fan of pumpkin pie in general I rather like this one, and my husband says it's the best he's ever had. I used spiced rum this year instead of bourbon and I think it made it even better. I commented on another thread that I think the use of cream and less eggs contributes to the texture I prefer.

            http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

          2. re: JasmineG

            I was a bit hesitant, intimidated by Berenbaum's recipe (very fussy, many steps) but made it yesterday. I thought it was going to come out great but either my oven was too hot (I guess I need to buy an oven thermometer) or my timer was off, but, it overcooked.

            The crust was a dream to roll out. I was worried about putting the pie on oven floor but did it...maybe that was a mistake? She said to cover the crust after 30 minutes...that was hard putting foil around hot plate (I've ordered the pie shields)...I finally had some help from duct tape!! (I was desperate)

            It was so much work and then was overcooked. (I took your advice on using the mixer instead of FP for filling.)

            1. re: walker

              I couldn't put my pie on the oven floor (I tried, but the oven is a little slanted so when I started to do it I could tell that the pie would spill), and mine came out well. I didn't think that her pie was all that fussy, though, especially the pumpkin filling part.

              I do think that I need to order some pie shields, they seem so much easier than the aluminum foil thing. I also like the recommendation to start with the shields on, and take them off with 30 or so minutes to go -- so much easier than wrestling with a half cooked pie.

              1. re: JasmineG

                I thought her directions said to put on for first 30 minutes.

                Did you make her pie crust? That was a lot of steps. I don't know if I should try it again but not bake on oven floor.

                1. re: walker

                  I actually didn't make her pie crust this time, but I've made that crust before (is it the cream cheese crust?) and for a long time it was my all time favorite crust. I didn't find it to be too complicated, but I've made it a lot now so it goes pretty quickly for me.

                  I think she has you bake it on the oven floor to cook the bottom of the crust quickly so that you don't have the soggy crust issue; it might work to start the pie on the bottom and then move it. But I didn't have the overcooked problem, so maybe it's that your oven temp is a little off?

                  1. re: JasmineG

                    Yes, it was the cream cheese one; I moved it from the floor of the oven to the lowest rack after 30 minutes, when I put the foil around the edges.

                    What crust recipe do you usually make?

                    Yes, I need to get an oven thermometer.

          3. I made a filling using the CI version from their Baking Illustrated book. Then baked it in the store crusts that you just unfold into the pans. The CI version I used calls for pureeing the filling, then heating on the stove, adding eggs and heating more, then adding to the partially prebaked hot crusts. I think the theory is that heating it on the stovetop helps it set. And it used a lot of eggs, so I figured it would set.

            I doubled the recipe to make two pies and had a MAJOR food processor mess. With filling dripping out onto the floor and getting into every nook and crevice . Major cleanup headache.

            You bake it for a relatively short time at a pretty high temp. As a result, my crusts burned.

            I was not going to serve them at all, and made a crustless thing with extra pumpkin I had.

            But people actually ate the pie with the edges I thought were burned.

            Next time: Maybe make the crust just on the bottom and maybe up the sides, but not emerging, so you have crust but it doesn;t burn? Or make the filling and then serve with bits of crust cut out with cookie cutters and baked separately?

            I can't seem to master the combination.

            7 Replies
            1. re: karykat

              CI mentions in the text of the recipe I have, which is from the magazine in '93, what to do if all the filling won't go in the crust at first. They suggest ladleing (sp?) into the crust after it's been in the oven for five minutes, which strikes me as a PITA. I usually make the crust large enough that the dough folds over the edge, then I can make the crust a little taller when I flute. It's just a minor adjustment with most pie crust recipes--using 1 1/4 c. flour (plus proportional fat) for a single crust pie, but it works. I almost always can get all the filling in before it goes in the oven. If not, I just bake a little ramekin alongside the pie.

              Sorry to hear your crust burned, what a disappointment! I've seen pie shields but just use foil if I fear this outcome. I'm not much for single use gadgets, though I will admit that trying to sculpt foil around a hot pie pan without touching the filling is not for everyone!

              1. re: amyzan

                though I will admit that trying to sculpt foil around a hot pie pan without touching the filling is not for everyone!
                ~~~~~~~~~~~
                put the foil on *at the beginning* and just remove toward the end to get some color on the crust.

                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  Thanks for these thoughts and your empathy, amyzan and GHG.

                  I think foil pie shields would have done the trick. Of course, I was in a Thanksgiving rush and skipped that. I thought that the pies would be in the oven for a short enough time that it wouldn't be needed. I was wrong.

                  Next time. . . . .

                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    Well, yes ghg, of course, that makes perfect sense, ahem, IF one remembers. ;)

                    1. re: amyzan

                      ha! fair enough :)

                  2. re: amyzan

                    I recommend pie shields highly. You will use them year after year. No need for anything fancy. http://www.chefscatalog.com/product/2...

                    I have had other options, from an "adjustable" shield with a bunch of flimsy foil strips to paper that is slightly wetted and stretches around the pie (at inception), but I think the simple light aluminum shield that can be simply set on top of the pie when trouble threatens is the least fussy especially when you are handling a hot and fragile crust.

                    1. re: jen kalb

                      CAM! I love my aluminum pie shields. Don't make many pies during the year, but whenever I do, I use my shields. They're great. Haven't had a burnt crust in years.

                2. Next year, if you are up to the challenge, consider adding the Silver Palette pumpkin pie recipe into the mix. There is something about this recipe that just seems perfect.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: smtucker

                    How does that one differ? Do they pre-cook the filling?

                    1. re: karykat

                      You can get the Silver Palate recipe here:
                      http://www.yale.edu/icenter/images/re...

                      1. re: toveggiegirl

                        Thanks for this.

                    2. re: smtucker

                      i like the sugar level and the inclusion of allspice & cardamom in the Silver Palate recipe, but i'd definitely cut back on the ground clove (or even omit it) - 1/2 teaspoon would definitely be too much for me.

                      thanks for the recommendation, i might have to add this to my ever-growing "must tweak & try" list!

                    3. Awesome post, dynastar. Thanks for putting the effort into the cook-off and then reporting so thoroughly.

                      Funny, I didn't love the CI recipe when I made it last year, and wouldn't try it again. I do like the Libby recipe but I use half and half or light cream in place of the evaporated milk for extra richness. I haven't tried the epi recipe, but that sounds like a winner, too.

                      1. Boy, I'm in the minority here...I made the CI (2008 recipe) and I thought it was perfect! No cracks in the pie, perfectly smooth, dense custard...but I confess, I didn't make their crust, I just used a store-bought. I've been doing Libby's for years, and I like it very much--but Libby's doesn't call for straining the filling, so I can't agree that you made Libby's. The straining is a key difference in approach, right?
                        Now--I made my TG pie using Libby's pumpkin & Bruce's yams. Yesterday I made another with Libby's pumpkin & America's Choice yams and it was no where near as good.
                        Love that you did a comparison test!

                        1. I made one on the KAF website that I loved. You mix the filling the night before, I have no idea why it made such a difference but it was delicious. I'll be making it again for the Christmas dessert extravaganza. I was about to make the CI one and I could not find canned yams. Good to hear other opinions about it.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: colonelcrunch

                            @colonelcrunch, I took a look at the KAF recipe, you made me curious...they explain that mixing the day before helps to bloom the seasonings--which is why CI cooks the filling. Also the pre-cooking that CI calls for reduces moisture & concentrates/intensifies the flavors. If you like the KAF, I think you'd like the CI also.

                          2. I love this test! I've always been fine with the Libby's canned pumpkin recipe (although I do add more ground ginger to the filling), so I'm glad to read it came out tied for top. :-)

                            1. There was a side discussion about the quantity of eggs on one of the other Thanksgiving threads this year. It's hard to believe that one egg can make such a huge difference, but it seems that it does.

                              I use the Joy of Cooking ('97 edition) recipe, which says to use 2 eggs for a firmer pie with a more pronounced pumpkin flavor, and 3 eggs for a softer, more custardy filling.

                              I have tried it both ways, and the 2-egg version gets rave reviews from everyone, so it's my standard recipe all the. The 3-egg version is just there...but the 2-egg has a fantastic flavor - it has cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and ground cloves...so standard spice mix.

                              It also gives the option of making it with evaporated milk, half and half, or a mixture of regular milk and cream...because it's the only way I've ever made it, I just use the evaporated milk (seems wrong not to!), so can't say how the liquid affects it.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: sunshine842

                                Wow. This is weird. I was assuming that more eggs would help the filling set. Since it seems like eggs have that effect in other things like bread pudding and meat loaf. (Admittedly, very different things.)

                                That's why I gravitated to a CI recipe that had 4 eggs in the filling. Since it seemed like I was always waiting way longer for my pie to set, I thought that would help.

                                1. re: karykat

                                  I agree with you, karykat - it's a little counterintuitive, isn't it?

                              2. We made the 2008 CI recipe this year and it was pretty much a disaster. The crust was very difficult to work with, but very tasty and flaky. The filling was an incredible amount of work and although we followed ALL the instructions, the pie was not fully cooked. Supposedly it continues cooking after you take it out of the oven, but ours was soup when it was supposed to be cooked through. We put it in the oven again (for a total of twice the suggested cooking time) and it was STILL soup in the middle. The flavors in it were not quite right. Maybe too much ginger.

                                1. I take it from your later posts that you made the 1993 CI version, not the 2008 CI version with the yams? In any event, I have made the 2008 version a couple times. This year, everyone loved it, especially the fresh ginger. I like the smooth texture. I make one batch of filling and for me it fills two 9 in. (voedka) crusts nicely. However, I am not convinced that all the extra effort of cooking the filling and using yams is really worth it. I am sold on straining, though. What an interesting taste test.

                                  oh and my CI peeve--when they revisit a recipe they have made before and do not acknowledge that they already published their own "best" of that thing (like pumpkin pie!).

                                  1. "When I pre-baked the crust and went to remove the foil liner it kept sticking to the crust pulling it away with the foil, whether I weighted it down or not "

                                    Did you put your pie crust in the fridge for 15-20 minutes before you put it in the oven to blind bake? I blind bake my crusts all the time and this takes care of the sticking foil usually.