When it comes to food, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always said that my grandma knows best. Her dishes are the stuff of legends: the ingredients identifiable and unmeasured, hand-written on now-yellowed paper (if written down at all) and filled with little secrets I can’t seem to figure out. Yet, the thing that makes this food extra special is the images and memories that it invokes: the pie that makes Thanksgiving, the soup that heals me when I’m sick, the smell of the peach upside-down cake that still manages to transport me back to the long summer nights of my childhood. Everything was cooked with love, and when I eat the pie or the soup or the cake, it’s almost as if I’m five all over again, running into her flour-covered apron for a hug.

Here in Chicago, chillier weather, piles of golden leaves, and the explosion of pumpkin-spiced products absolutely everywhere reminds us that pumpkin season is here and leaves me longing for the nostalgic whiff of Thanksgiving’s favorite pie, baked fresh from the oven.

But what do we really know about the infamous gourd that is the basis of this and many a lovely fall dish?

Pumpkins are, believe it or not, fruit! A member of the Cucurbitaceae genus, the pumpkin is thought to have originated in the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America, and it is one of the oldest known crops in the western hemisphere. Early Native Americans not only used them for food and medicine, but also dried them in strips and wove them into mats. As the United States welcomed colonists from Europe, pumpkin emerged as a leading food source, and for good reason. Pumpkin is low in calories, fat, and sodium, and it’s high in fiber and is a great source of vitamin A, vitamin B, potassium, protein, and iron. All the more reason to dig in!       

Few of us can resist the edible sugar pie variety of pumpkin in its pureed, baked, flakey-crusted, and pumpkin-spiced form.

In homage to this fall favorite, I’ve procured a recipe for a classic pumpkin pie that my friend dug out of her grandmother’s archives.

According to Grandma Mary Schmidt, she first had this pie in the early 1940's. She was dating Grandpa Walter at the time, who rented a room from a woman named Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson was a widow who treated Walter like her own son. Mrs. Johnson would cook a Thanksgiving dinner every year and invite Walter and Mary to join her. This pie recipe was Mrs. Johnson's, and Mary loved how good it tasted. She liked the spiciness and thought that the brown sugar made for a better tasting pie. Walter and Mary married in 1947, and from then on, this was the pumpkin pie recipe that Mary made for her own family.

Grandma Mary originally made her own crust by "chopping Crisco into the flour with the thing with the wires" and "always using ice cold water." I modified this by using my own butter pie crust.

As the smell of the ginger, cinnamon, and cloves wafted out of the oven and throughout my apartment, I couldn’t think of a better way to mentally prepare for Thanksgiving than by digging into this dish.  Don’t mind if I do.

  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 TB unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 TB dark molasses
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 5 ounces evaporated milk
  • 1 can pumpkin puree
  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, cold
  • ¼ cup ice cold water
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar

1. Make the pie crust by combining the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor; pulse to combine. Add butter; pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal.

2. Add about 2 tablespoons of the ice water. Pulse until dough is crumbly, and add 2 more tablespoons, until the dough holds together, but is not wet or sticky. Do not over mix.

3. Transfer the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap. Form dough into a disk, wrap tightly, and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.

4. Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly flour a work surface and roll the dough out into a round approximately 12 inches in diameter and 1/4 inch thick. Line a 9-inch pie plate with the dough and fold the excess under itself, crimping the edges to seal. Poke the dough with a fork to make holes throughout (this will ensure the crust does not puff out).

5. Bake the crust on a baking sheet until set and light brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool slightly before adding the filling.

6. Make the filling by combining all of the ingredients and whisk until smooth. Pour the mixture into the crust and bake until the filling is set in the middle and the edges are puffed, about 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature before cutting. Serve with whipped cream.

Chew on this:

One way the colonists prepared pumpkins was to slice off their tips, remove the seeds, and fill the shell with a mixture of milk, honey and spices. The concoction was then baked, and viola! Pumpkin pie was born.

Do you have a favorite from grandma? We’d love to see it! Send yours to chrissy@chicagofoodseum.com!


Chrissy Barua lives in Lincoln Park and successfully lawyers by day despite an addiction to bad movies, cookies, and travel. She'll be bringing you monthly doses of delicious as she tries to track down the best grandma recipes she can find. (Follow her on her other cooking adventures at The Hungary Buddha Eats the World.)