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Crisp crust, great pumpkin pie

Keeping the crust crisp is the biggest challenge when making a pumpkin pie. Too often the crust is soggy. Two things work against you: Pouring liquid filling onto unbaked pie dough almost guarantees a soggy bottom; over-baking the custard filling causes the proteins in the milk and eggs to denature and exude water. And guess where that water goes? Right into the crust.

But there's a fix. Bake the shell first to get it cooked through and crisp; that's called blind baking. Then be sure the filling is warm but not hot when you pour it into the baked pastry shell. That step quickens the time needed to set the egg custard and shortens the overall baking time.

Here's how it plays out. Dough can be used unbaked when making, say, an apple pie. But when you are making something with a liquid filling, such as a quiche or a pumpkin pie, you must bake the crust first. To bake a blind crust, you fill the shell with something heavy to prevent the crust from buckling. Pie weights are made specifically for this, but a layer of aluminum foil and a pound of dried beans reserved for just this purpose does the job well. (Keep the beans in a coffee can in the pantry and use them over and over.)

Here's a recipe adapted from "Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking" by Michael Ruhlman (Scribner, 2009, $27):

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. (Some recipes bake for a short time at a high temperature, but that can cause the pastry to shrink.) Use your usual pie pastry recipe, transfer it to the pan, fluting the rim higher than usual to contain the filling. Put the raw shell in the freezer for 15 minutes to firm it up.

Put a piece of foil directly onto the cold pie shell pressing it to conform to the shape, and pour in the pie weights or beans. Bake the shell for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the weights or beans and continue baking until the crust is light golden brown and cooked through, another 15 minutes or more. Let cool on a rack.

When ready to bake the pie, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine room temperature filling ingredients (pumpkin, eggs, sugar and spices) and mix well. Heat milk or cream until it is hot but not boiling. Slowly whisk the heated milk into the pumpkin mixture. It should register about 100 degrees on a digital thermometer, no more, just beyond lukewarm. (Poke your finger in to take both a temperature reading and a taste.)

Pour the filling into the baked pie shell and bake about 30 to 40 minutes depending on your oven. The pie is done when a knife, inserted off-center into the pie, comes out clean. The center of the pie will continue to cook after the pie is removed from the oven. Do not overbake.

The pie crust will stay crisp until the pie is gone, even the next day. That is, if it lasts until the next day.

Marlene Parrish can be reached at marleneparrish@earthlink.net . First Published November 23, 2009 5:00 AM