The great pumpkin pudding experiment

Do you ever get a taste in your mind? Like you just imagine a flavor that you’ve never had before and you wonder whether you can make it happen? That’s how pretty much all of my cooking projects come together. Call it my particular form of synesthesia.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve had this taste vision of a spiced pumpkin pudding. But not just pumpkin pie filling. Something in the vein of the persimmon cake I made last year. A kind of warm, almost citrusy, thick custard. And then I saw this video from Emmymade where she suggests combining chocolate with an unusual squash that has the texture of pudding, and the thought really clicked. How do I make THAT?

I started off by searching for pumpkin pudding and custard recipes. Usually, if I have a specific ingredient in mind, I start with Food52, which has a ton of recipes that showcase a single ingredient, and tends to be gourmet but not fussy. Their search feature is also very user-friendly. I only found a couple of recipes in the vein of pumpkin pudding, and I was disappointed to see that they were both crustless pumpkin pie. Expanding my search in Google, I got more of the same. Everyone seems to think that pumpkin pie would be improved by just removing the crust. Which… huh?

The results of my search left much to be desired.

Let me take a second to explain myself here. I love pumpkin pie. I’m not crazy for it, and I don’t want that flavor all the time. But once a year, it’s just the right taste. Because I’m extra, I usually make it with fresh winter squash – the last time I used a combination of kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and butternut squash for a really intense pumpkin flavor. I just think it’s a good pie. I like the textures of creamy and crunchy together, which is pretty much the foundation of pie. So why would you want to take away the crunchy? But obviously, we’ve gone a little pumpkin pie crazy as a society. In a medieval sense, pumpkin pie is an icon that we use as a shortcut to what we’re really after – a much more all-encompassing autumnal experience. Yes, I’m saying that like a medieval religious icon, pumpkin pie is an intercessory access point to the religious experience of fall. And I guess I’m an iconoclast, because I think it’s cheapening the experience. Pumpkin pie spice shouldn’t be a thing. We shouldn’t be taking the pumpkin part out of all of these desserts flavored like pumpkin pie. And why do we keep riffing on pumpkin pie instead of just making pumpkin pie? Which brings me back to my point here. I like pumpkin. The fruit. I think it tastes good and has an interesting texture. A lot of people don’t agree with me. I also think it’s cool that pumpkin is a very American botanical and right now I’m into exploring American food traditions, particularly the ones that don’t descend from Europe. So I’m not looking for another pumpkin pie. I’m looking for another way to taste pumpkin that highlights its flavor in a slightly different light.

That’s where chocolate comes in. One of the great things about chocolate is that it automatically has that silky texture when it’s melted, and that slight bitterness that brings out a complexity of flavor beyond sweet. I’m also very into the combination of chocolate with both fruit and spices – Mexican hot chocolate, or chocolate-covered cranberries, for instance. The kind of flavor and texture I was looking for were very much in that vein, although I’ve never had pumpkin and chocolate together before, so I was a bit apprehensive.

I started off with my basic stovetop pudding. I wanted the texture to be that really thick custard, rather than the more gelatinous character of baked custard (I also wasn’t interested in the flavor and texture change that happens on top of baked custard). I developed a pudding recipe a few years ago that I’m happy with and out of the necessity of one moment, it has an unusual thickening agent: a roux. A roux is a cooked flour and fat paste that’s usually used for savory dishes like gravy and gumbo. But one time I was making pudding and didn’t have cornstarch, so I made a roux instead. And I actually really like it, because it makes the pudding taste a bit like cake batter. But I also use eggs, so that the final texture gets that silky jiggle of an egg custard.

For the pumpkin, I found a small sugar pie pumpkin at Trader Joe’s, which old TJ is helpfully selling with instructions for cooking and turning into pie. I followed those instructions, baking the pumpkin for about an hour and 15 minutes, along with half of a kabocha I had left over in my fridge. I will say that neither of these squash was properly ripe. Ripe kabocha will be really dark orange on the inside, and ripe pumpkin will have an even and not at all stringy texture to the main part of the flesh. Neither was the case here, so the flavor was not as deeply pumpkiny as I was hoping, but it was still pretty good after baking. After baking, I mashed the pumpkin flesh together and got a nice creamy texture. Unlike potato, you don’t need to worry about over mashing pumpkin, because it’s more fibrous than starchy, so once it’s fully cooked it will just fall apart.

Cooked pumpkins and their caramelized juices.

I decided to combine the pumpkin into the pudding as if it were a flavoring, rather than part of the base. So rather than mixing the pumpkin with the milk and eggs at the start, I waited until after the milk, eggs, roux, and sugar had thickened and then added the pumpkin and spices together. I thought this would work out better because the pumpkin is a really wet ingredient and I wasn’t sure the pudding would thicken properly if I added it at the beginning. This mostly worked, although I did get some separation. This was probably because I added the eggs with the milk instead of tempering them in. When you make an egg custard, the eggs need to get cooked really slowly, or the proteins will squeeze out their water and you end up with this weird grainy texture and thin liquid. To avoid this, you heat the milk separately, then add a small amount of the hot milk at a time to the eggs while whisking rapidly until the eggs are the same temperature as the milk, and then you continue to heat them both together. I didn’t do this, so even though I whisked the pudding constantly while it was heating up, I still got some separation. The texture evened out a bit after I added the pumpkin and the chocolate, but even so, I decided to push the pudding through a sieve to be really fancy about it, which got rid of any bits of egg as well as pumpkin strings.

Because I still wasn’t sure about the whole chocolate thing, I divided the pumpkin pudding in half and added chocolate to one part. This gave me the freedom to try it both ways and tweak the chocolate side. I eventually found a mixture that I liked, and also decided I liked both versions. So I layered them in a bowl to cool. I’m pretty pleased with the results. It really is a nice spiced pumpkin pudding. One avenue that I thought about but didn’t end up exploring was making this more like a flan by using sweetened condensed milk. I honestly just forgot, but in retrospect I didn’t really want to make two different custards. I think the addition of the caramel flavor that you get from sweetened condensed milk would be great and I might try that in the future.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try it yourself:

Served with pieces of graham cracker, but don’t call it a pie.

Spiced Pumpkin Pudding, with and without chocolate

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisk together 2 tbsp each flour and butter. Cook until the two have fully incorporated and the mixture begins to darken slightly and smell nutty. Carefully whisk in 2 cups of milk, a pinch of salt, and 1/4 cup maple syrup. When the mixture begins to thicken, temporarily turn off the heat. In a medium bowl, whisk two egg yolks and one whole egg, and add about half of the hot milk, one tbsp at a time, whisking constantly to slowly heat up the eggs. When the egg mixture is hot, add it all back into the pot and return it to the heat. Continue to heat over medium-low, stirring constantly with a whisk until the mixture gets very thick. Turn off the heat and add 2 cups pumpkin puree (canned is fine), plus 1 tsp vanilla and 1/4 tsp each Chinese 5 spice powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Fully incorporate. Remove 1 1/3 cups of the pudding to a separate bowl. To the remainder, add 2/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips and stir until the chocolate is fully melted and incorporated. Layer the two puddings in a bowl (you can strain them first if you like), then cover them by pressing plastic wrap or a waxed cloth directly to the surface of the pudding and refrigerate until fully cooled. You can omit the chocolate entirely or if you want the whole thing to be chocolate, use a full cup of chocolate chips.