MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And the holidays are a time for pie - lots and lots of pie - sweet potato, cherry, pecan and, of course, pumpkin. If you have attempted this yourself, then you know making a good pumpkin pie is no small endeavor. You could end up with a soggy crust or egg-y filling. And that is why NPR's Maanvi Singh went on a journey to learn the art and the science of the ideal pie.
MAANVI SINGH, BYLINE: I wanted the best of pies, more often I got the worst of pies. I made many, many, many pies and my results were, at best, inconsistent. So I went to the experts - the ones who really knew the science and the secrets to making the perfect pumpkin pie. First, I called up Dan Souza at ""America's Test Kitchen."
DAN SOUZA: I mean, one of the problems is most people only make it once, maybe twice a year, right around the holidays, so they're not very practiced at it.
SINGH: And there's a lot to think about - fresh or canned pumpkin, which crust recipe.
SOUZA: There's a lot of places where you can slip up.
SINGH: He started by coaching me through the filling. Souza says it's not so much about the ingredients but how you cook them.
SOUZA: The - a custard - baking is really all about hitting that ideal temperature. And we don't really want to go over 175 degrees.
SINGH: If the custard gets any hotter in the center, the eggs will begin to overcook and curdle - blergh. I learned another trick from Kenji Lopez-Alt. He's a chef and author of a book called "The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science." His secret is cream cheese.
LOPEZ-ALT: Some of the stabilizers and emulsifiers in the cream cheese will actually help keep that pumpkin pie filling nice and smooth.
SINGH: Brilliant. As for the crust, Lopez likes butter over shortening or lard for flavor, but...
LOPEZ-ALT: The problem with using butter, though, is that it has some water content in it, which means that when you add it to your flour, you develop gluten. And gluten is what makes your pie crust tough.
SINGH: You also want to minimize the water you add to pull the dough together. It helps to blend the flour and butter in a food processor. That makes for a softer dough that requires less water. Plus, something I never would've guessed - use vodka instead of water - gluten doesn't form in the presence of alcohol. The booze is also handy to have around for consolation when you mess up, which I did many times before getting it right.
Two tablespoons of sugar.
I invited my friends, Meredith and Lexi (ph), to bake with me.
SINGH: Wait, why won't this food processor work?
It was a fraught experience at times.
Guys, I think I failed already.
So I badly burned a couple of crusts, and despite all the coaching, I curdled some custard. Take note, folks, timers and thermometers are key. But finally, I baked two pies that combined everything I had learned. And I faced my toughest critics yet at NPR's science desk. For one pie, I used freshly-roasted squash and cream cheese. I made the other with canned pumpkin. One of the crusts had some shortening, whereas the other was pure butter. And I used a good shot of vodka in both, of course. Each iteration had its fans.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It's like creamy pumpkin - almost like if pumpkin were milk.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Anyway, I think this one's really, really good...
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: OK, Allison, you have - you have to stop eating that pie because we have to eat the other pie.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, this one tastes completely different.
BRUMFIEL: I need, probably, to eat a lot more of this.
SINGH: OK, but maybe a bit more ginger would've done good. Maybe I should've baked the crust a bit longer. Maybe I should've cooked the custard a bit less. I still don't feel like I've succeeded - guess I'll just have to pie, pie again.
Maanvi Singh, NPR News.
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