One time I made a pumpkin pie and forgot to add sugar. It was as gross as you can imagine, but my family smiled and ate it. Luckily I made plenty of whipped cream to offset my error—good whipped cream can mask a lot. (And my family is the best!) I share this story because you should know that I have made and eaten bad pumpkin pie, but I’ve made many more great ones.
Besides adding sugar (my family won’t let me live that down), I’ve experimented with candied pecans on top and a homemade maple bourbon whipped cream that instantly wows.
While I love these sophisticated upgrades, when I crave pumpkin pie as I do every November, what I really want is something more classic. It’s Thanksgiving’s darling dessert and a good one doesn’t need much—a flaky crust and a perfectly spiced and creamy pumpkin custard. However, there is one little upgrade that makes all the difference and I never skip it: orange zest.
Why Orange Zest Works in Pumpkin Pie
Many cold-weather recipes that use winter squash and root vegetables—pumpkin, carrots, yams, etc.—call for orange juice or orange zest. For example, there’s pumpkin bread, sweet potato casserole, and glazed carrots. That’s because the bright, clean flavor of orange pairs so nicely with earthy winter vegetables, which can oftentimes feel and taste “heavy.”
So it’s not a surprise that adding a little orange zest to pumpkin pie works the same way. The orange zest brings out the natural sweet undertones of pumpkin, complementing it in a way no other citrus can. Adding orange zest won’t make your pie taste like orange—it’ll be subtle in the best way.
How To Add Orange Zest to Pumpkin Pie
Adding orange zest to your pumpkin pie is easy. After you make the pumpkin custard—mixing the pumpkin purée with spices, eggs, and evaporated milk—add up to one tablespoon of zest.
Here’s how I zest an orange: Wash a medium orange under running water and pat it dry with a clean towel. Grab a rasp (I like the Microplane) and lightly grate the outside skin of the orange. Use mild pressure to avoid getting any of the bitter white pith underneath the skin. One medium orange should yield about one tablespoon of zest.
Whisk the zest into the custard well so that it’s thoroughly mixed, then follow the recipe instructions for baking. That’s it!
Lean Into the Orange
If you like the orange zest in your pumpkin pie—I know you will!—consider adding orange zest to your whipped cream too. The zest can easily be folded into whipped cream. Then add dollops to pie slices and be prepared for plenty of oohs and aahs.