Thanksgiving is a major production if you’re the host, and generally I encourage cutting a few corners. If it eases your workload, I say go ahead and buy the gravy or use the canned cranberry sauce.
But I draw the line at dessert.
As a baker, I give my all to the pie spread, making my own crusts, assembling fillings from scratch and softly whipping fresh cream for serving.
No matter the number of guests we’re expecting, I insist on preparing the pie trifecta (pie-fecta?) of apple, pumpkin and pecan, with some twists.
Rather than overload my apple pie with spices, I marry a dark caramel with chunky apple slices, so the end result is slightly reminiscent of tarte Tatin. My pumpkin pie is fairly traditional, save for the crunchy layer of toasted pumpkin seeds. Coated in maple syrup and baked on top, it gives an otherwise soft pie some texture. And the pecan pie, baked in a slab, uses a filling of pecan cream — no corn syrup — that is lightly sweet, slightly savory and deeply nutty.
Each of these pies uses an all-butter crust. Over many years, I’ve developed a method for making pie dough that’s as foolproof as possible, and I encourage you to try it. At the same time, pie dough can be an Achilles’ heel for many home cooks, so if you have a go-to recipe, feel free to use it. Or, if past experience has taught you that you’re better off using a frozen crust, you can and should.
The other two pies featured here — a fruit-centric cheesecake and a lemon cream pie to help keep the spread slightly on the lighter, brighter side — employ a press-in crumb crust, so they’re a bit friendlier for novice bakers. The cheesecake is made with goat cheese covered in a glossy fresh-cranberry topping. And the pie, with a smooth lemon filling, is still light enough to feel a little refreshing after a heavy meal.
Most important, these desserts can all be made at least a day ahead and served chilled or at room temperature. Since pies made scratch always require a lot of time, feel free to make just one or several. I highly recommend no actual pie-making on Thanksgiving Day, to keep your oven free for turkey and sides. The effect is less stress and fewer moving parts in the kitchen on the day itself. I guarantee that by the time you cut into the pies, no one will care — or even remember — if your stuffing came from a box.
Toasted pumpkin seeds, coated in maple syrup and baked directly on the filling, gives otherwise one-note pumpkin pie a little bit of crunch. Thoroughly parbaking the crust before adding the custard prevents a soggy bottom.
Recipe: Pumpkin Pie With Pepitas
This tart layers toasted, sugared pecans over brown-buttery pecan cream, recreating the flavors of traditional pecan pie but with greater depth of flavor and a lot less sugar. To prevent the filling from puffing and pushing out the walls of the tart during baking, it’s baked in a 9-by-13-inch pan.
Recipe: Pecan Slab Pie
Like tarte Tatin, this pie combines the classic flavors of apples, butter, pastry and caramel, with no cinnamon, allspice or nutmeg needed. The filling is roasted first to draw out and concentrate the apple juices, ensuring soft, cooked fruit and a fully baked bottom crust in the finished pie.
This easy cheesecake, finished with a bright cranberry topping, comes together in the food processor and bakes without a water bath. The key to the smooth texture of the filling is a low oven temperature, which means it bakes for a long time; if you’re serving it on Thanksgiving, definitely bake it the day before to free up oven space. The shiny top layer is made from unsweetened cranberry juice and whole cranberries that are just barely poached, so they preserve their fresh flavor and satisfying pop.
Recipe: Cranberry Cheesecake
A citrusy cousin of coconut cream and chocolate cream pies, this pie is filled with a lemon pudding that’s tart like curd but also rich and creamy. Infusing the filling with fresh ginger gives it a more autumnal flavor, but omit it if you prefer. For the crust, make sure to use only very thin, very crisp, wafer-style gingersnaps. Otherwise, it will most likely slump as it bakes. If you can’t find those, graham crackers work just as well.