The absolute best pumpkin, apple and pecan pies for Thanksgiving – The Denver Post

By Melissa Clark, The New York Times

Here’s a truth about Thanksgiving: No matter how much gravy-bathed turkey, marshmallow-topped sweet potato casserole and mounds of stuffing one may devour, when dessert time rolls around, there’s always room for pie.

Pie had been a constant on Thanksgiving tables even before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the day a national holiday in 1863. Pumpkin was the first variety to be associated with the feast, soon joined by other seasonal favorites like apple and pecan. The three work perfectly together — creamy, smooth pumpkin, juicy apple and crunchy, candylike pecan — each adding a distinct allure. In a perfect world, my Thanksgiving dessert plate would hold wedges of them all, topped with whipped cream and devoured in alternating bites until the last buttery flakes of crust were gone.

I’ve spent every Thanksgiving of my baking lifetime striving to perfect recipes for these three quintessential pies. But, over the past six months, I’ve been more methodical about it, building on earlier work and testing my way through different techniques so you don’t have to (sous-vide apple pie, not a keeper).

There were some tweaks that stuck, like precooking the Ginger Golds for my apple pie and substituting a mix of maple syrup and honey for the corn syrup in pecan pie. And though I’ve long been a fan of using butternut squash for my pumpkin pie, I improved the roasting method to get the most caramelization and deepest flavor.

Then there’s the crust. While I’m still devoted to all-butter dough, I no longer bother parbaking. I’ve learned that a metal pie pan placed on a hot sheet pan conducts the heat well enough to create a shatteringly crisp, golden-brown crust without having to break out the foil and dried beans. (This doesn’t work with glass or ceramic pie plates, which aren’t 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 tweaking next year.

Pumpkin Pie: Skip the Actual Pumpkin

Have you ever gone to the trouble of slicing, seeding, peeling, cooking and puréeing the flesh of a big orange pumpkin to make a pie — only to conclude that, after all that work, it’s not as good as if you’d used the pulp from the can?

The reason is a dirty little secret in the canned goods aisle: The purée in Libby’s, one of the leading supermarket brands, isn’t made from big orange pumpkins; it’s made from a variety of squash called Dickinson. Beige-skinned and oblong, they look more like bloated butternuts than anything you’d carve to make a jack-o’-lantern.

Though the designation may be misleading, it’s perfectly legal. According to the Food and Drug Administration, any canned purée “prepared from golden-fleshed, sweet squash or mixtures of such squash with field pumpkins” can be labeled pumpkin.

Meredith Tomason, a senior innovation chef at Nestlé (which owns Libby’s), said that the Dickinson variety tastes like a cross between a butternut squash and kabocha.

“Butternut squash is a safe bet if you’re trying to get a similar flavor to Libby’s at home,” she said.

All of this means that everything you’ve heard about canned pumpkin being better than homemade purée isn’t exactly true. Yes, canned pumpkin is better than homemade puréed field pumpkins. (Orange field pumpkins, even the small sugar pumpkin variety, don’t make great eating.)

But homemade puréed winter squash is delicious and a whole lot better than anything in a can — sweeter, brighter and fresher. It’s also a snap to make, especially if you buy a container of peeled, cubed butternut squash.

To get the most flavor, I roast my squash cubes rather than steam or boil them. In the oven’s high heat, the cubes condense and turn golden, and caramelize at their edges. A sprinkling of sugar and a drizzle of heavy cream aids the cause.

Puréed with more heavy cream, eggs and spices, roasted butternut squash makes for the best pumpkin pie you’ve ever had, no pumpkins required.

Apple Pie: Precooking Fruit Does Wonders

Although it’s doubtful that apple pie was served at the first Thanksgiving feast, the tradition of apple pie baking was brought to America with the colonists, who planted apple trees when they arrived.

The earliest apple pie recipes were similar to what we still make today — sugared, seasoned apples baked in a crust. In what’s thought 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 cooked apples and one with sliced raw apples.

This divide, between cooking the apples before baking and piling raw slices into a crust, was what I focused on when creating my best apple pie recipe.

Most apple pie recipes in the United States today call for raw sliced apples. But once I started precooking, I became a convert, for two reasons.

Raw apples release their liquid into the pie crust as they bake, which steams and pools, making it harder to get a crisp crust, no matter how many vents you cut into the top or how much thickener you add. Raw apple slices also collapse as they bake, creating a gap between the sunken filling and the mounded top of the crust.

Precooking the apple slices helps stabilize them, so they don’t dissolve into a saucy heap. You end up with glossy, perfectly cooked apples sandwiched in a crunchy, buttery crust.

To get a supple and consistent texture in the filling, use only one kind of apple. You may lose some nuance in flavor, but you gain big in mouthfeel. And if you’re adding the likes of cinnamon and other spices, you probably won’t notice the difference between using one kind of apple and several.

I tested pies using Granny Smiths, Ginger Golds (a tangy Golden Delicious hybrid), Honeycrisps and Gala, and all were excellent in their own way. The Granny Smiths were the tartest, but also the softest and most liable to break down. The Honeycrisps and Galas had excellent texture — tender but not mushy — but were on the sweeter side. And the Ginger Golds split the difference: a little tart, with slices that kept their shape.

You can use any of those apple varieties here, and just balance out the sweeter ones by adding an extra squirt of lemon juice.

Precooking the apples may add a step, but you can do it a few days before baking. This gives you much needed flexibility leading up to Thanksgiving, something every pie-loving cook can appreciate.

Pecan Pie: More Nuts, Less Goo

Indigenous to North America, pecans had been a staple of Native American cooking for millenniums before European settlers arrived. The nuts made their way into American pies in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the pecan pie recipe we know today was popularized — by being printed on the back of a can of corn syrup.

Based on a sugar pie, the combination of sugar, eggs and syrup yields a jellylike filling (affectionately called “the goo”) that can be flavored in myriad ways. Whole or chopped pecans, which practically candy in the syrupy mix 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 cloying while adding complex earthy and floral notes. Simmering the maple syrup for a few minutes helps concentrate its flavor, making the pie even more intensely maple flavored.

I made another tweak, too. Most pecan pie recipes contain melted butter, but, in my mind, in every pot of melted butter, there’s brown butter waiting to happen. To make it, just 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 adds a layer of heady flavor to all sorts of baked goods, pecan pie included.

And finally, there’s the nut-to-goo ratio. The more nuts you can fit into your pie pan, covered with the least amount of goo to hold them in place, the better the final pie. I don’t bother toasting the pecans first: They’ll get somewhat toasty while baking in the pie. But if you love the flavor of deep browned, roasted nuts, consider toasting them for five to 10 minutes at 325 degrees before adding them to the syrup mix.

Of all the Thanksgiving pies I tested, pecan pie holds up the best and is practically as good served the day after baking as it is baked the same day. It also freezes reasonably well. Pop the well-wrapped pie in the freezer for up to a month, then let it thaw at room temperature overnight. The crust won’t be quite as crisp, but the crunch of all those pecans will more than make up for the lack.

Ultimate Pumpkin Pie

Did you know that the variety of pumpkin used in canned pumpkin purée is very close to sweet winter squashes like butternut and honeynut? Making your own fresh purée from these varieties will give you the best possible pumpkin pie, one that’s both ultracreamy and richly flavored. Just don’t be tempted to halve the whole squash and bake it still in the skin. Cutting it into cubes allows for the most evaporation and condensation for the best texture and taste. If using a glass or ceramic pie pan, you might want to parbake the crust. Since glass doesn’t conduct heat as well as metal, the crust may not cook through if you don’t parbake.

By Melissa Clark

Yield: 8 servings

Total time: About 2 hours, plus 1 1/2 hours’ chilling


  • 2 pounds butternut squash (1 small squash), peeled, seeded and cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks (about 3 cups)
  • 1 cup/240 milliliters heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • All-purpose flour, for rolling out the dough
  • Dough for a single 9-inch pie crust
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup/132 grams light brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice or pinch of ground cloves
  • 1 tablespoon bourbon or dark rum, or use 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt


1. Place two racks in the oven: one in the lower third and one in the upper third. Place a rimmed baking sheet on the lower oven rack and heat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Line another rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and spread butternut squash on it. Drizzle squash with 2 tablespoons of the heavy cream, sprinkle with granulated sugar and dot the top with butter. Roast on the upper rack, stirring once or twice, until squash is very tender, 40 to 50 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, on a lightly floured surface, roll pie dough into a 12-inch circle. Transfer to a 9-inch metal pie pan. Fold over any excess dough, crimping the edges. Transfer to the freezer for at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours. (This helps the crust hold its shape so the edges don’t slump.)

4. When the squash is soft, transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for at least 10 minutes (and up to a few hours). Raise the oven temperature to 425 degrees.

5. In a food processor or blender, purée the squash with the remaining cream until smooth. Add eggs, brown sugar, spices, bourbon and salt, and pulse to combine. The mixture should be very smooth.

6. Pour mixture into the chilled pie shell. Carefully transfer pie to the hot baking sheet on the bottom rack. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 300 and continue to bake until the crust is golden and the center jiggles just slightly when shaken, 35 to 45 minutes longer. Transfer pie to a wire cooling rack and allow to cool completely before serving. Pie can be baked up to 24 hours ahead of serving; do not refrigerate before serving.

TIP: If you are buying peeled, cubed squash, you will need 1 1/4 pounds. If you want to substitute canned pumpkin, you will need 1 1/2 cups (the remaining purée in the can is great stirred into oatmeal).

Classic Apple Pie

In this very classic, cinnamon-scented pie, the apples are sautéed in butter before they’re piled in the crust, ensuring that they’re tender but not mushy. Use firm, crisp apples here, preferably all one kind so the slices cook evenly. Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious, Ginger Gold and Granny Smith apples are good options. (Honeycrisps will give you the sweetest pie, while Granny Smiths the most tart.) If using a glass or ceramic pie pan, consider parbaking the bottom crust. Glass doesn’t conduct heat as well as metal, so the crust may not cook through if you don’t parbake.

By Melissa Clark

Yield: 8 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling


  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 1/2 pounds firm, crisp apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch wedges (about 11 cups)
  • 1/2 cup/110 grams light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or a little more if your apples are very sweet
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • All-purpose flour, for rolling out the dough
  • Dough for a 9-inch double crust pie
  • Heavy cream, milk or a beaten egg, for glazing (optional)
  • Demerara sugar, for glazing (optional)


1. Melt butter in a large skillet set over medium-high heat and add apples to the pan. Stir to coat with butter and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter is evenly distributed, about 1 minute.

2. In a small bowl, whisk together sugars, spices and salt. Sprinkle over the apples and toss to combine.

3. Lower heat to medium and cook until apples have softened completely but still hold their shape, about 17 to 25 minutes. (Some varieties cook more quickly than others.)

4. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the apples and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the apple mixture comes to a simmer and thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat, and stir in lemon juice and zest. Allow apples to cool completely (spreading them onto a rimmed baking sheet speeds this up). Apples can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerated.

5. On a lightly floured surface, roll half of the pie dough into a 12-inch circle. Transfer dough to a 9- or 10-inch metal pie plate, trimming it to leave a 1/2-inch overhang. Place crust in the freezer for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

6. When ready to bake, place a rimmed baking sheet on the middle oven rack and heat oven to 425 degrees.

7. Roll out the remaining dough on a lightly floured surface to a 10- to 11-inch circle. Remove pie crust from freezer and add the cooled filling in an even layer. Cover apples with remaining dough. Press the edges together, trim the excess dough, and crimp the edges with your fingers or a press down with the tines of a fork. (Using a fork might be easier if the bottom crust is too cold to crimp.) Brush the top of the pie with cream, milk or some beaten egg, then sprinkle lightly with sugar if you like. Using a sharp knife, cut some steam vents in the top of the crust.

8. Place pie on the hot sheet pan and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until the filling bubbles in the steam vents, and the crust is golden brown. Transfer pie to a wire cooling rack and allow to cool for at least 2 hours before serving. The pie can be baked up to 24 hours ahead of serving; do not refrigerate before serving.

TIP: Honeycrisp, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith are good options, though you might want to increase the lemon juice if your apples are on the sweet side.

Maple-Honey Pecan Pie

Substituting a combination of maple syrup and honey for the usual corn syrup in pecan pie makes for a complex and richly flavored confection that’s still wonderfully gooey in the center. This recipe also has double the amount of pecans compared with most recipes, giving it plenty of crunch. You can bake it the day before serving; it keeps very well at room temperature for at least 24 hours. It also freezes reasonably well for up to 3 months, though the crust won’t be quite as flaky.

By Melissa Clark

Yield: 8 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling


  • All-purpose flour, for rolling out the dough
  • Dough for a 9-inch single crust pie
  • 1/2 cup/115 grams unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup/85 grams maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup/85 grams honey
  • 1/2 cup/110 grams light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup/75 grams maple sugar or use more light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups/180 grams pecan halves
  • Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon (optional)


1. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 12-inch circle, and transfer to a 9-inch metal pie plate. Fold over any excess dough, crimping the edges. Transfer crust to the freezer for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

2. When ready to bake, place a rimmed baking sheet on the middle oven rack and heat oven to 425 degrees.

3. Heat a small saucepan and melt the butter over medium heat. Cook, swirling occasionally, until the foam subsides, the milk solids turn golden brown and the butter smells nutty and toasty, about 5 minutes. Add maple syrup to the pan and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and reduces slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat, and whisk honey into the warm syrup mixture. Let cool at least 10 minutes.

4. While the syrup mixture cools, combine sugars, eggs, bourbon (if using), vanilla and salt in a large mixing bowl. Gradually pour syrup mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly, then use a rubber spatula to scrape in all the brown bits at the bottom of the pot.

5. Remove pie crust from freezer and place pecans along the bottom of the crust. Carefully pour the filling over the pecans. Place pie plate on the hot sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake for another 35 to 45 minutes, until the center of the pie has puffed up and turned golden brown.

6. Transfer pie to a wire cooling rack, sprinkle with flaky sea salt, if you like, and allow to cool for at least 2 hours before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.

TIP: If using a glass pie plate, line chilled crust with foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees; remove foil and weights and bake until pale golden, 5 minutes more. Cool on rack until needed.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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