Few things say Thanksgiving better than turkey for dinner and pie for dessert.
Whether it’s apple, pumpkin or pecan pie, Americans have a love affair with this pastry.
“Pies are an American thing,” says Thaddeus DuBois, executive pastry chef at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. “They have always been a popular dessert in this country.”
They were brought here by the first English settlers, who came with a rich tradition of savory pie-making — think mince meat and shepherd’s pie — as well as fruit pies and tarts. As the pilgrims continued their traditions here, dessert pies became firmly entrenched in American culture.
They’re particularly popular around Thanksgiving as fruit yields much of its harvest in autumn.
“As we get closer to Thanksgiving, pies become part of the holiday scene,” says George Fritzsche, regional pastry chef at Caesars and Bally’s Atlantic City, and Harrah’s Resort. “All this fruit has been harvested, and in the past, people made pies to use it. They didn’t do individual desserts back in the day.”
Traditional dessert pies, mostly pumpkin, have a firm place in the heart of Americans at Thanksgiving. But for those who want a sweet adventure when they sink their teeth into a fruity piece of pie, chefs — whose kitchens double as playgrounds — are happy to oblige.
Fritzsche made a S’mores pie, a creation his sous chefs initially dismissed. “They said they didn’t think it would taste good. But I wanted to try it,” says Fritzsche, who was making S’mores bon bons for an event at one of the casinos. As he made the S’mores bon bons, the S’mores pie idea came to him.
For this take on the campfire staple, Fritzsche mixes graham crackers into the pie dough. He then fills the pre-baked shell with soft chocolate genache and little bits of chocolate and marshmallow to create sweet surprises in the filling. Then he tops it with freshly made marshmallow, which he torches to give it that campfire flavor.
“It was a big hit,” recalls Fritzsche. “It was almost like a lemon meringue (in appearance), but with a S’mores’ taste.”
At Borgata Baking Company, DuBois makes salted caramel chocolate pie. For this dessert, he pours caramel filling into a graham cracker crust, tops it with milk chocolate mousse and whipped cream, then dusts it with sea salt and chocolate shavings.
DuBois has also created a banana split pie, a spin on the famous ice cream sundae. For this, he layers vanilla pudding, strawberries, then chocolate pudding in the shell. He tops it with whipped cream, chopped nuts, sprinkles and syrup. “When you eat it, you’ve got three flavors, just like the ice cream version,” DuBois says.
Rocky Road is another ice cream riff, but in pie form. For this, DuBois places chocolate pudding in the shell, along with nuts and marshmallows, which he torches to a toasty finish.
Strawberry cream cheese crumb pie is favorite of Fritzsche’s creations. He places macerated strawberries into the pie shell, then layers cream cheese with lemon zest on the strawberries, and tops it with almond streusel. The cream cheese, streusel and strawberries work together to create a fresh, creamy surprise.
“It would be perfect with a cup of coffee or tea, and a little ice cream,” Fritzsche says. “It was light because the cream cheese had powdered sugar in it along with the lemon zest. It was a great dessert.”
DuBois doesn’t entirely forgo fall traditions when it comes to his beautiful pies. He cleverly pairs pecan, pumpkin and apple together, individually pouring each layer in the shell and allowing each the time to set before the next layer. The pecan is sweet and heavier than the other two, so it’s placed in the pie shell first. Then the pumpkin, followed by the apple. Finished with whipped cream and streusel, it’s all three of the most popular Thanksgiving pies in one.
While pastry chefs enjoy creating new desserts, sometimes they do things just to be trendy, says DuBois. He cites the pie-cake, which is exactly what it sounds like: a pie topped with cake. He isn’t entirely sold on the idea.
“People like to combine things to create something different,” says DuBois, “but a lot of times they’re just a fad and don’t last long.”
The pie would be the bottom layer because it’s heavier, he notes, with cake on top. “Texturally, it’s OK,” DuBois says. “But you’d have to control the sweetness.” For example, if DuBois made this dessert, he’d place pumpkin pie on the bottom layer and top it with a spice cake.
If you’re making pies at home, both chefs advise you to make your own dough. And they offer a little trick to make it flaky: Place pea-sized pieces of butter or shortening in the dough. Do not roll those pieces out. They will melt in the baking process and make the dough flaky and crusty.
And if you’re going to make an apple pie, don’t cook the fruit first. “You don’t want mushy, gooey apples,” says Fritzsche. “Which is what happens when you cook them beforehand.”
“The freshest tasting apples need to be baked in the crust,” agrees DuBois “Anything that’s cooked numerous times loses flavor.”
So fast-track the process and put the freshly cut apples in the pie shell with the all the other ingredients, then bake.
While the chefs appreciate the unique desserts they’ve created, their favorites are still the more traditional pies. DuBois likes apple pie best, and Fritzsche enjoys pumpkin pie, but only on Thanksgiving.
“I have it once a year, and I don’t want it after that,” he says.