Thanksgiving: It’s all about the pie, right? I wanted to determine if it was better to serve traditional versions of our favorite pies, or do twists on the old standbys. Ultimately I want to bake three pies for Thanksgiving dinner. Which ones should they be?
I baked four pies, then had friends come over and rank their favorites. We’ll get to the data in a minute; first, what pies did I bake?
Maple pecan pie: In my family, the two go-to pies we always had at Thanksgiving were pumpkin and pecan. Pecan pie is known for one thing: Its sweetness. When I saw this highly praised recipe on Food52 I was curious to try a recipe that used different sugars (maple instead of corn syrup) as well as different and potentially stronger flavors : rum and star anise.
Ginger pumpkin pie: I was looking for a different take on pumpkin pie when I came across this recipe on The Kitchn. With lots (3 tablespoons) of fresh ginger and a graham cracker crust, this was just the type of recipe I wanted to try. It’s plenty different, while still keeping enough things constant (i.e., it’s still a custard pie with no topping).
Traditional pumpkin pie: There are many traditional pumpkin pie recipes that vary every so slightly. I opted to use King Arthur Flour’s “Thanksgiving pumpkin pie” recipe, also published in their Baker’s Companion book as “classic pumpkin pie.” Either title was good enough for me.
Apple, pear and cranberry crumble: Earlier this week I made a version of this dish in a deep-dish crust. This time I wanted to take a more simple route. I used a recipe for a pear crumble from KAF, then modified it slightly to add apples and cranberries.
Here’s how the testing worked: 10 people tasted all four pies and then ranked them in order of preference. Everyone also had lots of comments and feedback. The first takeaway? There was very little agreement. Only two people ranked the pies in the same order, and each pie got at least one first-place vote. After analyzing the data, however, there are some conclusions to draw.
First things first: Traditional pumpkin pie was the winner with four first-place votes, while ginger pumpkin pie was the loser with six last-place votes (and only one first-place vote). Two voters were especially vocal with their praise for the traditional pie. “Awesome,” one wrote. “Great texture. Perfect level of sweetness. It may be the best pumpkin pie I’ve had.”
But while the traditional pumpkin might be considered the favorite in some circles, it wasn’t the runaway winner. The voter who ranked the ginger pumpkin pie first also ranked the traditional pumpkin last. This voter said about the traditional pumpkin, “Great crust, tasty pumpkin, but ginger pumpkin is bigger and better.”
Bigger and better wasn’t good for all of the tasters, at least when it came to the amount of ginger. That was the main disagreement of the night. Pro ginger pumpkin pie tasters said things like, “I really liked how you can actually taste the ginger” and “Perfect amount of ginger.” Others said “The ginger is a little strong;” “Fresh ginger is nice but almost overpowering” and “A little less ginger would make the ginger pumpkin better.”
In this land of division, is there one pie that is pleasing to all? That’s where determining the average rating might help. With this metric, the lowest average rating is considered the best pie. The results are suprising:
2.2 – Apple, pear and cranberry crumble
2.3 – Traditional pumpkin pie
2.4 – Maple pecan pie
3.1 – Ginger pumpkin pie
I think it’s fair to call the crumble the Mitt Romney of pies. It’s not everyone’s first choice, but it will win the nomination! Tasters said it was “perfectly tart” and “A great balance to heavier pies. Feels light and tasty.” It’s also not nuts like the pecan pie. Or Michele Bachmann.
So, what three pies am I going to make for Thanksgiving? The traditional pumpkin pie and the crumble are no-brainers. The maple pecan pie got third place either way you calculate the rankings (first-place votes or average rating). It had supporters, and a number of people preferred it to the traditional pecan pie. Multiple tasters called it “light” and “not overly sweet.”
This pie was the most difficult one to make by far, however. I had to discard the star anise-infused maple syrup mixture the first time I made it because it crystalized and seized up. The rum was undetectable and the star anise flavor was barely there. To at least one taster, that was a good thing. “How could you ever think licorice flavor would taste good in anything?” he said to me later. I think in the case of pecan pie, traditional is better (and certainly easier).
That’s one of the main conclusions I’m drawing as I test recipes this week. It’s much better to master a traditional recipe than spend time hunting down a good “twist” that will still be inferior to much of your audience no matter how well you make it. People want constancy on holidays like Thanksgiving. And when someone tells you the pumpkin pie you made was probably the best he has ever had, that’s a compliment worth savoring.