Thanksgiving at the home of Karen Morgan, founder of the gluten-free Blackbird Bakery in Austin, Texas, never includes fewer than three pies. "We always have a fruit pie, like a deep-dish apple pie; a pecan pie; and a pumpkin pie," she says. "And my mother always made a buttermilk chess pie that was just to die for."
Holiday pies are some of the first things the vinyasa yoga practitioner remembers baking with her mother and grandmother. When Morgan founded her online gluten-free bakery in 2008, after being diagnosed with celiac disease, she was not surprised that her deep-dish apple and blueberry pies were among her best-selling desserts.
"There's something so comforting about pie. It's the nostalgia. I remember sitting on the counter as a little girl and rolling out the dough and preparing the filling," she says. For Morgan, her gluten-free pie crust recipe allows her to continue an important family tradition with her son. "To be able to make something delicious that I can pass on to future generations, that means a lot to me."
Classic pies evoke nostalgia, but their recent resurgence in popularity, with a shelf full of pie cookbooks having been published in the past year and pie shops opening around the country, has spurred innovations that make them better suited to diverse tastes and dietary preferences.
The current interest in pie is, according to cookbook author Terry Hope Romero, actually a trend toward connection—and the new generation of gluten-free crusts and vegan fillings is a reflection of pie's roots as a dessert for everyone. "After years of the single-serving cupcake, it's no surprise that we're returning to inclusive, bring-the-friends-and-family-around desserts like pie," says Romero, who co-authored Vegan Pie in the Sky with Isa Chandra Moskowitz. "Pie will always be in style, but our palates change and evolve, and so do our requirements for our food, whether nutritionally or ethically."
A few generations ago, there were three choices when it came to pie crusts: butter, butter and shortening, or lard. Today, you can find crusts made with vegan fats like olive oil and coconut oil as well as with whole-wheat and gluten-free flours (such as this recipe for gluten-free pie crust).
Pie fillings are even more adaptable. Unlike cakes and cookies, whose texture relies on refined sugar, pie fillings are well suited to natural sweeteners. In fact, the deep, complex flavors of honey, molasses, date sugar, and maple syrup can give pies new dimensions of taste.
Deborah Madison, the author of Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm, and Market, says, "Honey, molasses, and maple syrup are so dynamic—they're more like foods in their own right than just sweeteners." Maple syrup goes beautifully with nuts, she says, and can replace the corn syrup in pecan pie. For pumpkin or sweet-potato pies, Louise Miller, a pastry chef who worked at a macrobiotic restaurant in Boston, suggests a combination of barley malt and maple syrup. "Barley malt has a deep, nutty flavor, and it's a good substitute for corn syrup. It's less sweet, but I substitute it cup for cup."
Maple and date sugars, which can be substituted for granulated sugar, give pies a deep, caramelized flavor. And different varieties of honey lend their own flavors to fall fruits. Miller suggests sweetening an apple raisin pie with a strong honey like buckwheat, while Madison likes to use honey in a mincemeat pie made of dried fruits like raisins, figs, and sour cherries.
You Can't Hurry Pie
No matter what kind of pie you're making this Thanksgiving—fruit or nut, custard or cream, double crust or lattice, gluten free or vegan—the basic process is the same: make the dough, let it chill, prepare the filling, roll out the dough, line and fill the pan, and then wait for the delicious aromas to fill your kitchen. None of these steps takes very long, but if you rush through the process, you'll miss a lot of what's so appealing about pie making.
"I always encourage people to not use a food processor or a stand mixer when making dough," says Tricia Martin, a hatha yoga teacher in Washington, DC. Martin has perhaps spent more time than most thinking about pie. Four years ago, as she was contemplating ways to live her life more authentically, she says she realized the iconic dessert could be a vehicle for expressing some of the values she held most dear: community, connection, and communication. On a whim, she developed a pie-themed essay contest called Pietopia, inviting contestants to answer the question, "What does your life taste like, in a pie?"
"Break the cold butter down with your fingers as you pinch it into the flour mixture," Martin advises. "Notice how every single ingredient—each with a distinct flavor, texture, and color of its own—has formed something new in your hands. Notice the stages it goes through, from fluffy flour with hunks of butter, to shaggy, to a round, lumpy ball of dough." The reward, she says, is a dessert for your loved ones that embodies the attention and care that went into it.
Keep in mind that not even the most carefully made pies are perfect. Sticky pumpkin custard or fruit juices may bubble over the side; the crust's edges may brown unevenly. These are the sweet imperfections that sing "homemade" and beckon family members to snap off a crimp of crust when no one's looking.
"Pie crusts were my nemesis for years," says Madison. "They stuck to the board during rolling; they came out too thin or too dry; they had to be patched. But really, what's important is not the looks, the repairs, the flaws, or the imperfections, but the fact someone makes a pie at all. Now that is a true gift!"
Naturally Sweet Pies
Looking to skip the white sugar in your holiday pie? Here's a rundown of the alternatives.
Evaporated Cane Juice: Made by crushing cane sugar and extracting the juice, this crystallized sugar is less refined than granulated white sugar and comes in varieties that range in color and flavor from the tawny, mild turbinado to the dark Sucanat, which has a molasses-like flavor. Substitute any variety for white sugar in fruit or custard pies.
Maple Sugar: This golden granulated sugar, with its distinct and delicious concentrated maple flavor, can be substituted for the same amount of granulated sugar. Try it in apple or pumpkin pie.
Honey: Honey's robust flavor pairs nicely with tart apples. It's sweeter than sugar, so use about three-fourths of the amount of sugar called for. You may want to add a little more.
Maple Syrup: Maple syrup adds a mellow sweetness to fall fruits like apples and pears. Grade B is thicker and more flavorful than grade A. Use about three-fourths of the amount of sugar called for and consider adding a little more thickener to make up for the added liquid.
Barley Malt Syrup and Brown Rice Syrup: Mild in flavor and significantly less sweet than granulated sugar, these syrups can be substituted for corn syrup in nut pies and tarts or combined with maple syrup or honey for added flavor.
Molasses: Dark and rich with a sharp, slightly acidic flavor, molasses is a natural byproduct that's produced when cane sugar is processed. Blend a little with a milder sweetener like barley malt or brown rice syrup and use in pumpkin or pecan pie.
Kate Winslow is a writer living in New Jersey.