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.