Here’s a truth about Thanksgiving: No matter how much sauce bathed turkey, sweet potato stew with marshmallow top and piles of stuffing you can devour, there is always room for pie when dessert time rolls around.
Pie had been a constant on the Thanksgiving table even before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the day a national holiday in 1863. Pumpkin was the first variety associated with the party, soon along with other seasonal favorites such as apple and pecan. The three work perfectly together – creamy, smooth pumpkin, juicy apple and crispy, candy-like pecans ̵[ads1]1; each adds a distinct lure. In a perfect world, my Thanksgiving dessert plate would contain wedges of them all, topped with whipped cream and swallowed in alternating chunks until the last buttery flakes of the crust were gone.
I have spent every Thanksgiving in my baking life striving for perfect recipes for these three typical pies. But over the last six months, I’ve been more methodical about it, building on previous work and testing myself through different techniques so you do not need it (sous-vide apple pie, not a keeper).
There were some adjustments that stuck, like pre-cooking Ginger Golds for my apple pie and replacing the corn syrup in the pecan pie with a mixture of maple syrup and honey. And although I have long been a fan of using butternut squash for my pumpkin pie, I improved the cooking method to get the most caramelization and deepest taste.
Then there is the crust. While I am still devoted to puff pastry, I no longer bother to parbake. I’ve learned that a metal pie tin placed on a hot pan conducts heat well enough to make a crispy, golden brown crust without having to break out the foil and dried beans. (This does not work with glass or ceramic pie plates, which are not as good at conducting heat as metal.)
The results of all this testing are three brand new, but still perfectly classic Thanksgiving pie recipes that are the absolute best of their kind. At least until I start polishing next year.
Have you ever bothered to cut, seed, peel, cook and puree the flesh of a large orange pumpkin to make a pie – only to conclude that after all the work it is not as good as if you had used pulp from the box?
The reason is a dirty little secret in the can: The puree in Libby’s, one of the leading supermarket brands, is not made from large orange pumpkins; It is made from a variety of squash called Dickinson. (You can see them being harvested in this video.) Beige-skinned and oblong, they look more like puffy butternuts than anything else you would cut to make a jack-o’-lantern.
While the term may be misleading, it is perfectly legal. According to the Food and Drug Administration, any canned puree “prepared from golden meat, sweet squash or mixtures of such squash with field pumpkin” can be labeled pumpkin.
Meredith Tomason, senior innovation chef at Nestlé (which owns Libby’s), said that the Dickinson variant tastes like a cross between butternut squash and kabocha.
“Butternut squash is a safe choice if you are trying to get a similar taste as Libby’s at home,” she said.
All of this means that everything you’ve heard about canned pumpkin being better than homemade puree is not exactly true. Yes, canned pumpkin is better than homemade pureed field pumpkin. (Orange field pumpkin, even the small sugar pumpkin variety, is not good food.)
But homemade pureed winter squash is delicious, and much better than anything canned – sweeter, lighter and fresher. It is also easy to make, especially if you buy a container of peeled, cubes of butternut squash.
To get the most flavor, I fry my squash cubes instead of steaming or boiling them. In the high heat of the oven, the cubes condense and turn golden, caramelizing at the edges. A sprinkle of sugar and a sprinkle of heavy cream help the cause.
Pureed with heavier cream, eggs and spices, fried butternut squash gives the best pumpkin pie you’ve ever had, no pumpkins needed.
Although it is doubtful that apple pie was served at the first Thanksgiving feast, the tradition of apple pie baking was brought to America by the colonists, who planted apple trees when they arrived.
The earliest apple pie recipes were similar to what we still make today – sugary, spicy apples baked in a crust. In what is believed to be the first cookbook published in the United States, “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons (1796), there are two versions of the dessert, one with boiled apples and one with sliced raw apples.
This difference between cooking the apples before frying and adding raw slices to a crust, was what I focused on when I made my best apple pie recipe.
Most apple pie recipes in the United States today require sliced raw apples. But when I first started cooking, I became a convert, for two reasons.
Raw apples release the liquid into the pie pan while frying, which evaporates and collects, making it harder to get a crispy crust, no matter how many openings you cut at the top or how much thickener you add. Raw apple slices also collapse while baking, creating a gap between the sunken filling and the molded top of the crust.
Pre-cooking the apple slices helps to stabilize them so that they do not dissolve into a saucy pile. You end up with shiny, perfectly cooked apples squeezed into a crispy, buttery crust.
To get a smooth and consistent texture in the filling, use only one apple variety. You may lose some nuances in the taste, but you get a great mouthfeel. And if you add such as cinnamon and other spices, you probably will not notice the difference between using one type of apple and several.
I tested pies with Granny Smiths, Ginger Golds (a jam-packed Golden Delicious hybrid), Honeycrisps and Gala, and they were all excellent in their own way. Granny Smiths were the toughest, but also the softest and most prone to break down. Honeycrisps and Galas had excellent texture – tender but not mushy – but were on the sweeter side. And Ginger Golds shared the difference: a little tart, with slices that kept their shape.
You can use any of these apple varieties here, and just balance out the sweeter ones by adding an extra splash of lemon juice.
Pre-cooking the apples can add a step, but you can do it a few days before frying. This gives you much-needed flexibility ahead of Thanksgiving, something any cake-loving chef can appreciate.
Native to North America, pecans had been a staple of Native American cooking for millennia before European settlers arrived. The nuts got into American pies in the 19th century, but it was not until the 1920s that the recipe for pecan pie we know today became popular – by being printed on the back of a box of corn syrup.
Based on a sugar pie, the combination of sugar, eggs and syrup gives a jelly-like filling (affectionately called “the goo”) that can be flavored in countless ways. Whole or chopped pecans, which are practically sweetened in the syrup mixture while baking, add substance and crunch.
The problem with most pecan pie recipes is their toothache-inducing level of sweetness.
This recipe is different. Instead of corn syrup, I use a combination of maple syrup and honey, which makes the mixture less lumpy while adding complex earthy and floral tones. Simmering the maple syrup for a few minutes helps to concentrate the taste, which makes the pie even more intense with the maple flavor.
I made a new adjustment as well. Most pecan pie recipes contain melted butter, but in my opinion there is brown butter in each pan with melted butter waiting to happen. To make it, continue to heat the melted butter for a few extra minutes until the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan and caramelize, turning golden brown. This gives a layer of intoxicating taste to all kinds of baked goods, including pecan pie.
And finally, there is the relationship between nut and nut. The more nuts you can fit into the pie tin, covered with as little dirt as possible to hold them in place, the better the last pie will be. I do not bother to roast the pecans first: they get a little toasted while they are baked in the pie. But if you love the taste of deep brown, roasted nuts, consider shaking them for five to 10 minutes at 325 degrees before adding them to the syrup mixture.
Of all the Thanksgiving pies I tested, the pecan pie holds up best and is practically as good served the day after frying as it is baked the same day. It also freezes reasonably well. Put the well-wrapped pie in the freezer for up to a month, then let it thaw at room temperature overnight. The crust is not quite as sharp, but the crunch of all those pecans will more than make up for the lack.