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How-To

Holiday Pies with a Pretty Twist

Whether you're making apple, pecan, or pumpkin pie, here's how to make it the star of the dessert table

Fine Cooking Issue 54
From the 2017 Thanksgiving Guide
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Photos: Scott Phillips
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I’ve finally given up on introducing some new dessert sensation to the Thanksgiving table. It doesn’t seem to matter if my sweet offering is unbelievably fantastic; any attempt to shake things up meets with resistance. The fact is that apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies are mandatory at this time of year. So instead of fighting tradition, I now embrace it, and I must admit that I’ve come to enjoy the annual challenge of making the ordinary extraordinary.  

I expect my guests to declare this year’s pies better than ever, and I bet yours will, too. If you’re the one supplying dessert for the holiday table, I heartily encourage you to try these recipes. They all use the same pie dough recipe—a double batch of dough makes enough crust for all three pies. If you’re not confident about handling pie dough, you’ll find the tips below should help guide you. Yes, these pies may look ambitious for an amateur baker, but if you follow my detailed directions and photos, I’m sure you’ll have success.  

For apple and pumpkin pies, I don’t fiddle with flavor. I’ve made enough of these classic pies to have fine-tuned the recipes. But I do work on their appearance. This year, my theme is autumn leaves. I’m giving the apple pie a gorgeous top crust composed of forty or so leafy pastry cutouts. Pumpkin pie, which is usually so homely looking, gets a leafy rim instead of a regular fluted one; eight sugar-sprinkled leaves set in a starburst on top give the pie a professional look. For both pies, the technique is simple (you can cut out the leaves either with a knife, following the instructions in the recipes, or with your own leaf-shaped cookie cutter), and the results are both lovely and delicious.

For pecan pie, I’ve given the traditional recipe a bit of an overhaul. I’ve never been a fan of those cloyingly sweet and gooey pecan pie fillings, but I realized that I do love that crisp nutty topping. That led to a revelation. If I transformed the pie into a shallow tart, I’d get a thinner layer of chewy, brown-sugar-covered pecans—in essence, more nutty crispness and less sweetness. A hint of rum in the filling livens up the flavor. Trust me, anyone who has steered clear of pecan pie for the reasons I’ve just described will love this variation.

Keys to a well-behaved pie crust

1. Mix on low speed until the texture is floury with flecks of butter. The largest butter pieces should be no bigger than peas, and the mixture will look uneven. Be sure to start with butter that’s refrigerator-cold to get a tender, flaky crust. After you cut the butter into the flour, pick up a pinch of flour and butter and mold it into a square. If your fingers feel greasy, the butter is too warm, so chill the mixture for 15 min.  

1. Mix on low speed.

2. Keep the work surface and the dough lightly floured when rolling. No need to go crazy, but a light dusting every now and then keeps the dough from sticking. Another trick is to give the dough a quarter turn and-a lift as you roll. If it’s starting to stick to the board, you’ll know early enough to do something about it. I keep a pastry brush handy as I roll the dough to brush off any excess flour.  

3. Chill the dough only after it has been rolled out and set in the pie pan. Many pie crust recipes call for chilling the dough before rolling it. I think this leads to a tougher crust and causes the dough to crack during rolling. You’ll find that my pie crust rolls out beautifully right after it’s mixed. I do chill the dough once it’s in the pie pan to let the gluten in the flour relax and to firm up the butter.

2. A light dusting of flour keeps the dough from sticking.
3. Chill the dough after, not before, rolling.

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