Thanksgiving: The Pie Holiday

Friday November 16, 2012

Thanksgiving is next week. I am hardly prepared, yet somehow it doesn’t really matter much. Our family’s menu changes very little from year to year as we each insist on having our personal favorites on the table. Turkey is a given, and mashed potatoes must be there, along with the gravy, green beans and homemade rolls. Squash is also a required vegetable, along with the "fruit," cranberry relish. And for dessert? Pie.

Thanksgiving is the Pie Holiday. My grandmother used to make sure that everyone’s favorite was served which generally meant that there was a 1:1 ratio of pie to person. No one ever complained though -- it guaranteed leftovers for all which meant pie for breakfast for at least a couple of days following Turkey Day.

As I would choose pie over any other dessert option out there, I do give this course a bit of thought as Thanksgiving comes closer. Pumpkin is an obvious choice, but as we have two people who do not think so highly of this spicy, brown custard cradled in a perfectly salty-crisp crust we have other options as well. Although far from grandma’s dozen or so pies, we also serve apple pie as well as a wild card, which sounds as though it will be blueberry with a lattice crust, as seven-year old Margot wants to see exactly how to weave the top crust.

But what of all these pies that grandma used to make? Sure, pumpkin, apple, lemon meringue, chocolate, coconut and blueberry were usually present, but so were a couple of others that seemed to only appear at Thanksgiving, whether they were requested as a favorite or not. These are the pies that I associate with fall and the harvest, with family sitting down together to give thanks for all that we have. Perhaps not the most common, but then again, maybe more common than I think, I will be adding a couple of these to our table as well.

I remember grating the nutmeg over the custard of this pie before it went in to the oven. Silky smooth and creamy, my mom tells me this recipe came with the brown Pfalzgraf pie plate that my grandparents bought at the gift store that used to be where the KOA campground is on Route 5 in Dummerston. Watching to make sure that the custard is done just right is the key.

Prize Winning Custard Pie

4 eggs

Two-thirds cup sugar

One-half teaspoon salt

2 and two-third cups milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pastry for one-crust pie

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line heavy, preferably ceramic, pie plate with rolled pastry and set aside. Beat eggs gently with sugar and salt until well-combined, but not foamy. Add milk and vanilla and beat gently, again avoiding bubbles. Pour mixture into pie plate and grate fresh nutmeg over the top. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 15 minutes. Bake just until a silver knife inserted 1 inch from the crust edge comes out clean. Center should still have a little "wiggle" when the pie is removed from the oven. Don’t worry, the residual heat will continue to cook the custard as the pie cools.

Pecan pie is quite common on Thanksgiving tables. As a kid, I wouldn’t go near it. As an adult, it’s hard to stay away. What I have come to realize recently is that it’s a lot easier to make than you think. This is my great-grandmother’s recipe from Ohio, long the standard of nutty greatness in our family. By baking the pie a bit on the longer, you achieve a dark, nutty crust that goes beautifully with the toasty pecans.

Great-Grandma Grace’s Pecan Pie

3 eggs

1 tablespoon flour

Three-quarter cup sugar

One-half teaspoon salt

1 cup light corn syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon melted butter

1 cup coarse pecans, plus halves for decoration

Pastry for one crust pie.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line heavy pie plate with rolled pastry and set aside. Beat eggs, flour, sugar and salt until mixed, but not frothy. Mix in corn syrup and butter, then add coarse pecans and mix well. Pour into prepared pie plate, and of desired, arrange pecan halves on top for decoration. Bake for about 1 hour, until center is just about set. Serve at room temperature.

I made this harvest pie for Thanksgiving when I was about 16. I will never forget the compliments that I received, especially from my grandfather. The rich crust is a bit finicky, but goes perfectly will the filling and is well worth it.

Harvest Tart from The Silver Palate Cookbook

1 cup pitted prunes

1 cup dried apricots

1 cup chopped, peeled apples

One-half cup golden raisins

One-third cup sugar

One-half cup shelled walnut halves

One-quarter cup melted butter

Two-third cup Grand Marnier (or orange juice)

Double-recipe of Sweet Buttery Tart Crust (recipe follows)

1 beaten egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a nine-inch pie plate with half of rolled out tart crust and set aside. Combine prunes, apricots, apples and raisins in a heavy saucepan, cover with water and simmer over medium heat until fruit is tender, about 20 minutes. Drain well and chop. Return fruit to saucepan and add sugar, walnuts, butter and Grand Marnier or orange juice and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Let cool to room temperature. Spoon filling into prepared crust and cover with remaining dough, rolled out. This can be cut and woven on tart in lattice style, if desired. Brush top with beaten egg and bake for 30 minutes, or until filling is bubbling and top is golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Sweet Buttery Tart Crust from The Silver Palate Cookbook

One and two-thirds cup flour

Quarter-cup fine granulated sugar (can easily pulse in food processor or blender)

One-half teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled

2 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons cold water

Sift dry ingredients into mixing bowl. Cut chilled butter into pieces and add to bowl, working quickly to keep cold. Using fingers, rub butter and dry ingredients together until the consistency of coarse meal, still working rapidly to maintain temperature. With a fork, stir eggs, vanilla and water together in a small bowl. Blend in to dry ingredients, still using the fork, until dough begins to form a ball, not more than 30-45 seconds. Place dough on a counter and using heel of hand, smear about one-quarter cup of dough away from you. Repeat until all dough has been smeared, then gather up, reform into a ball, wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate for 2-3 hours.

I am so grateful for this day of thanks that is set aside to reflect and show gratitude for what we have. I hope that you and your family and friends enjoy a wonderful and bountiful Thanksgiving together and maybe even enjoy one of these old traditional family favorites. One thing is for sure -- it’s not hard for me to be thankful for pie!

Julie Potter is a wife, mother of two, avid gardener and passionate cook who believes good food doesn’t have to be complicated. Share your thoughts with her at


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