Pumpkin pie is a holiday favorite of mine. Although I often make it for Thanksgiving as well as Christmas, it’s very firmly rooted in our Christmas traditions, too. Pumpkin pie has been my traditional Christmas breakfast for as far back as I can remember. 🙂
When I was a kid I used to make pumpkin pie with my mom. I’d turn the mixing bowl (an old style mixer that had a turntable you turned by hand under the beaters) and pour in ingredients. Mom would make the pie crust and set aside a small amount of dough so I could roll out a little pie crust right next to hers. A little bit of the filling went for my mini pie which was baked in a left-over aluminum pot-pie pan. (Frozen dinners and frozen pot-pies were common fare.) It must have baked for less time than the big pie, but I don’t remember that. As it turned out there were a lot of things I’d forgotten by the time I left home. I didn’t do as much holiday baking with my mother when I was a teenager, but my mother didn’t do as much either because by then my grandmother was in a nursing home, so there was one less person to help in the kitchen and one less person to bake for and many more visits to the nursing home after work during the holiday season. Though Mom didn’t bake as much and I didn’t help as much, she still made pumpkin pie.
When I got married and moved away our first Thanksgiving was fraught with anxiety. I could hardly cook anything so even though I had my mother’s instructions there were still phone calls — including a panic-stricken call to Mom about the pumpkin pie as I stared in dismay at the soup in the mixing bowl. It had been so many years since I’d rolled out dough and turned the mixer next to my mother that I didn’t remember that pumpkin pie filling was soupy when it’s all mixed up. I looked at that liquid in the bowl and thought: That can’t be right. I didn’t see how that could possibly turn into a solid pie. I didn’t know then, as I do now, that pumpkin pie is essentially a custard. Mom reassured me and I went on to make the best pumpkin pie I’d ever had in my life. It was better than my mother’s pie! How often does that ever happen to new cooks? 😀
It wasn’t until talking to Mom about the pie making at Christmas that I found out why. When I mentioned casually something about one of the ingredients my mother’s mouth dropped open. She was flabbergasted. I’d used a wrong ingredient. I didn’t know much about cooking. I didn’t realize that there was a huge difference between “Eagle brand milk” and “evaporated milk”! The recipe called for a can of evaporated milk. Eagle brand milk is canned sweetened condensed milk. “No wonder the pie is so rich and creamy!” Mom exclaimed. She shook her head and pointed out that there aren’t too many recipes where you can substitute sweetened condensed milk for evaporated milk and not ruin the recipe! But in the case of pumpkin pie, it works great. I’ve used a can of Eagle brand milk in my pumpkin pie ever since and told everyone my secret. Maybe eventually my stupid mistake could become the standard for pumpkin pie as word spreads. (Eagle brand milk is very common in Texas and the South, but I’m not actually sure if it’s that common throughout the US —and I doubt you’d find it in other countries, though I wouldn’t be surprised if other countries didn’t have a version of it.)
After that first happy accident, I haven’t screwed with the pumpkin pie recipe, but Libby’s — who makes the canned pumpkin I use — has messed with cooks everywhere. The recipe my mother and I used is one off the Libby’s can, an old Libby’s can as it turns out. You can find the revised recipe on the official Nestle baking site. This is identical to the recipe my family has always used, except the original recipe calls for 1 16oz can of Libby’s solid pack pumpkin and a 14 1/2 oz can of Carnation evaporated milk. The cans of pumpkin are now only 15 ozs. The cans of evaporated milk are now only 12 oz. So, if you think your pumpkin pie doesn’t ever come out like your mother’s or grandmother’s pumpkin pie, even though you’re using the same off-the-can recipe, this may be why. It might explain why I encounter so many pumpkin pies whose consistency is slightly “off”. I bake the pie until a toothpick comes out clean and the cooking time is usually slightly longer than the 45 mins the original recipe called for. (The version on the website gives the cooking time as 40-50 mins.) Cans of evaporated milk and Eagle Brand milk, did not hold the same amount but both, like the pumpkin — have also changed over the years. Eagle Brand milk used to come in 15 oz cans: the cans are now 14 oz. Carnation Evaporated milk used to come in 14.5 oz cans. It now comes in 12 oz cans! (I think it has suffered two downsizings because I find references to 13 oz cans in old recipes.)
To be clear: I substitute 1 14 oz can of Eagle Brand milk for the 12 oz can of evaporated milk, and I use the 15 oz cans of Libby’s pumpkin (not even realizing until recently that the amount had changed). Right now the recipe still works, but if the amounts in cans of pumpkin and milk continue to change, the time may come when amount of eggs and spices may need to be slightly adjusted .
This change in the size of cans and jars is something cooks need to be aware of. Sometimes it won’t make enough difference to notice, but sometimes it will, particularly with a custard (like pumpkin pie) which needs the solids and liquids to balance just so in order to set properly. There was a news story a while back about how manufacturers were cutting the amount of everything in order to avoid raising prices in a bad economy. Everything from cans and jars to boxes of detergent. Everything. Caveat emptor.