Pies, cakes and puddings are the last act of a Thanksgiving feast. They steal the show with their flaky crusts, luscious fillings, moist crumbs, creamy custards, crunchy strudels and ethereal frostings.
To make them showstoppers, pastry chef Duff Goldman says home chefs should first understand the fundamentals of baked goods. Yes, baking is a science and requires a lot of measuring, the former star of the reality television series “Ace of Cakes” writes in his latest book, “Duff Bakes.” Yet that doesn’t mean you have to have a doctorate in math, physics or chemistry.
The king of gravity-defying cakes and froufrou fondant likens baking to a slow dance. “It’s a measured pace of placing every foot and every hand in just the right spot at just the right time and moving with, not at, your partner,” he writes.
At home, Goldman usually takes a break from sweets for Thanksgiving. “My mom likes to bake all the desserts for the feast. I bring the bread,” he says.
He even shuts down his Baltimore bakery, Charm City Cakes, for the week. “People don’t want crazy cakes. They want pies.”
But that doesn’t deter him from giving advice when it comes to desserts for turkey day. When choosing a Thanksgiving dessert, first find out what everybody else is making because you don’t want duplications, Goldman says.
“Then you want to make something that you feel good about and want to share. Don’t make it if it is not you.”
It is best to prepare pie and cookie doughs ahead of time and keep them in the refrigerator. For any dessert with a crust, “most of the time is usually spent in preparing the dough,” he says.
“This way it is done and is out of the way. So when it comes to filling the pie, you won’t be running out of time.”
Goldman says the earliest a pie should be made is the night before Thanksgiving. “Baked goods are best when fresh.”
A common mistake by home bakers, he says, is overmixing the dough. They need to be gentle when mixing the flours.
He suggests using browned butter to take baked goods to a whole other level of nutty flavor. Try crinkling sugar on top of a pie and then bruleeing it, or adding a drizzle of chocolate on top, too.
Goldman says holiday hosts should always have some extra frozen pie dough in case a recipe fails or the guest list unexpectedly grows longer. Some extra whipped cream would be good, too.
It’s tough to store leftover pies because the crust starts to get soggy, but if you must, cover them tightly with a plastic wrap and leave at room temperature, Goldman says. They should be consumed within a day or two, and can be warmed in the oven for a few minutes.
Pies are the best choice if you’re contributing to a nearby feast, but “they are annoying when you have to go miles with them as they could damage easily. That’s when you volunteer to take cookies, brownies and blondies,” he says. Cobblers also travel well and are easy to make. He advises bringing extra streusel and adding it at the host’s house for a fresh touch.
His favorite Thanksgiving dessert of all time was a pecan pie he had when he was 9 years old. “It was at a friend’s place and it smacked me in my face. It was the most delicious and incredible pie. These days, I judge all pecan pies against that one,” he says.
Goldman is a judge on the Food Network’s “Holiday Baking Championship,” whose second season premiered last Sunday, and has seen a fair share of the ridiculous. One to join that list would be his own creation — a cake stuffed with a pie. He calls it the Turducken of Thanksgiving desserts.
He cuts out the center of a cake, fills it with strips of pie dough and then adds a fruit filling. He finally tops the “pake” with frosting.
“It is like a pinata. When you cut a slice, everything just spills out,” he says, laughing. “It’s great.”
PECAN PIE WITH PRETZEL CRUST
This pecan pie sheds its old-fashioned modesty with the pretzel crust. The original recipe called for 1 tablespoon of sea salt in the filling, but I found the result to be too salty and used 1/2 teaspoon instead.
1 1/4 cups salted pretzels, crushed well
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus 6 tablespoons, cut into pieces
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups pecans
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Add crushed pretzels, flour, sugar and melted butter to a medium bowl and stir until combined.
Dump the crumb mixture into a 9-inch pie plate, and press it evenly around the bottom of the pan. Bake for 10 minutes, until the crust is firm.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine brown sugar, corn syrup, butter pieces and salt and bring to boil, while stirring.
Remove from the heat and cool. Whisk in eggs and then stir in pecans with a wooden ladle.
Pour mixture into the pretzel crust and bake for 50 minutes. Cool the pie completely before serving.
— Adapted from “Jamie Deen’s Good Food” by Jamie Deen.
LEMON CHESS PIE
This lemony version of the Southern chess pie with cornmeal in it is destined to become an annual favorite. To brown butter, slowly simmer butter over medium-low heat until the solids have separated and are lightly browned. Remove from heat but make sure it stays melted.
1/2 recipe Pie Dough
2 large eggs, plus 6 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup browned butter
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Roll out pie dough into a 14-inch round that’s 1/4-inch thick. Lay it gently into a 9-inch pan, making sure the pan is completely lined with the dough. Trim and crimp the edge.
Lay a circle of parchment paper and some pie weights or dry beans on the bottom of the crust. Blind bake the crust for 5 minutes. Remove weights and bake for 4 more minutes, until crust is a matte blond color. Set aside.
In a large bowl, lightly whisk eggs and salt. Then one at a time whisk in the sugars, vanilla cornmeal, flour, buttermilk, browned butter, lemon zest and lemon juice.
Reduce oven heat to 350 degrees. Pour mixture into the crust, and cover edges of the crust with foil.
Bake for about 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 15 more minutes, until the pie looks mostly set, just slightly jiggly in the very center.
Let it cool completely, then chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Let the pie return to room temperature before slicing and serving.
Makes 1 9-inch pie.
— Adapted from “Duff Bakes” by Duff Goldman (William Morrow; Nov. 3, 2015; $27.50).
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of kosher salt
Big pinch of sugar
1 stick cold butter, cubed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup cold water
In a big bowl, combine flour, salt and sugar; make a claw with your hand to mix it up well. Add butter cubes; massage flour mixture so you get big clumps.
Combine lemon juice with water and add to flour mixture. Gently work the dough until a ball is formed.
Wrap dough in a plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
When baked, the batter turns into a creamy custard, and with the cranberries, it is sweet and tart at the same time. Make sure ingredients are at room temperature.
1 (12 ounce) bag fresh cranberries
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
4 large eggs
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Grease a 9-inch round baking dish, and spread cranberries evenly over the bottom.
Whisk together milk, cream and eggs in a bowl. Add granulated sugar, liqueur, vanilla and salt. Gradually add flour, whisking constantly until smooth. Pour egg mixture through a sieve over cranberries.
Bake until edges puff but center still jiggles slightly, for about 30 minutes.
Let cool 30 minutes, then dust with powdered sugar.
— Allrecipes magazine, November 2015.
COCONUT TRES LECHES CAKE
If you like coconut, you will love this moist and rich twist on a tres leches cake.
1 cup sugar, divided
5 eggs, separated
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup coconut flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
For soaking mixture:
1 (13 1/2 ounce) can coconut milk
1 (14 ounce) can condensed milk
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sweetened, shredded dried coconut
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
Zest of 1 lime, finely grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
In a large bowl, beat 3/4 cup sugar and egg yolks until light and fluffy. Stir in milk, vanilla extract, flours and baking powder, and combine to mix gently.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites to soft peaks; add cream of tartar after 20 seconds. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and continue beating until the whites are glossy and firm. Gently fold the whites into the yolk mixture.
Spoon batter into prepared pan and bake for 15 minutes. Then rotate pan and bake for another 10 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let cool for at least 1 hour. Pierce the cake all over with a fork.
Prepare soaking mixture by combining the 3 milks and vanilla. Slowly spoon the liquid over cake. It will look like a lot of milk, and the cake might even float briefly. Don’t panic.
While the cake soaks, prepare the topping. After cake is baked, spread coconut onto a baking sheet and pop into oven to toast. Check on it every 3 to 4 minutes and make sure it does not burn. It should be toasted in about 8 minutes.
In a bowl, whisk cream, sugar and lime zest until stiff peaks form. Spread whipping cream over the cake and sprinkle the toasted coconut on top.
Serves 10 to 12.
— Adapted from “Food52 Baking” by editors of Food52; Ten Speed Press; $22.99.
SALTED CARAMEL STREUSEL PUMPKIN PIE
Packed with flavor and fragrance, the spices intensify the pumpkin filling to the nth degree.
1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin
1 (14 ounce) can caramel-flavored sweetened condensed milk, divided
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie crust
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cold butter
1/3 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
Coarse sea salt, optional
Whipped cream, optional
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Reserve 2 tablespoons condensed milk for garnish.
Whisk pumpkin, condensed milk, eggs, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt. Pour into unbaked pie crust. Bake for 15 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake for an additional 10 minutes.
Combine brown sugar, flour and butter until crumbly. Then stir in pecans and oats. Sprinkle streusel evenly over pie. Cover crust with foil to prevent it from overbaking.
Bake for an additional 25 minutes or until inserted knife comes out clean. Cool 20 minutes. Chill. Serve each slice drizzled with some of the reserved condensed milk. Sprinkle sea salt and serve with whipped cream.
— From Eagle Brand.