Taste Test: Pumpkin Pie

In which our team of tasters tackle more than 20 local gourd-filled treats to find out who is baking up the best.

How far would you drive for the perfect pumpkin pie? Photograph by Erik Uecke

On the matter of pumpkin pie, there is good news and there is bad news.

The good news is that bakeries are churning out plenty of tasty iterations of the seasonal dessert for your Thanksgiving consumption; there is no shortage of the stuff in the Washington area. In fact, our team of taste testers stuck their forks into more than 20 locally baked pumpkin pies and discovered lots to like (though, it must be said, there were some low moments, as when one freshness-compromised confection prompted a taster to wonder if it had been flavored with Sour Apple Pucker schnapps).

The bad news, at least for those of us who don’t live in or around Warrenton, Virginia, is that the best of these pies is found about an hour’s drive out of DC at Red Truck Bakery. Owner Brian Noyes dreamed up the winning recipe. “A lot of people dump in white sugar, but I cook up a caramel of sugar, water, and cream,” he explained. He also adds orange zest to brighten things up, so the pie has none of that flat quality that characterizes lesser pumpkin desserts. Of this hint of citrus, one of our tasters said: “It could have been overpowering or distracting but wasn’t. Even as a pumpkin-pie-ambivalent person, I scarfed this.”

In other bad news, Red Truck doesn’t ship. If you can’t get there, try a pie from one of these runners-up:

For the commitment phobes, Pie Sisters is serving up leaf-topped mini pies. Our tasters loved the buttery, lightly salty crust of these hand pies, and holiday guests of all ages and dispositions will be powerless in the face of their considerable cuteness.

The pumpkin pie from Buzz Bakery, meanwhile, comes topped with more than a dozen fat quenelles of cinnamony whipped cream, circling the pie like a ring of miniature sleeping seals. A smattering of pepitas lent a nice toasty quality plus a little crunch, and the softly spiced filling was a favorite of all who sampled it.

Acadiana pastry chef Catherine McArdle won points for spiking her pumpkin pie with Maker’s Mark and adding orange zest to both the crust and the filling. One taster loved the combination of boozy, eggy custard and flaky crust, and everyone agreed it was the sleeper hit of the bunch—the one that might send you to the fridge in the middle of the night for a few more forkfuls. (Note: This pie is available only with a to-go Thanksgiving order from the restaurant.)

Baked and Wired is the bakery behind the last of our top five pies, lauded for the assertive but balanced spiciness of the filling and the homestyle, “lardy” crust.

Three more pies did manage to sneak their way onto our list of favorites. Let’s call these honorable mentions: Cafe Saint-Ex’s offering was described by one taster as a “pleasant, creamy, homestyle pie,” while the deep flavors in Dangerously Delicious Pies’ confection verged on being overly intense, but would be well served by a “dollop of whipped cream,” according to another. Finally, Tout de Sweet’s sample won points for its “crumbly, rich” crust.

Whichever locally made pie you choose, get your order in as soon as possible (like, now) to ensure you’ve got something delicious to dig into next Thursday.