Last year, I had some friends over to test potential Thanksgiving pie recipes. I got lots of great data, and on Thanksgiving ended up serving two out of the four pies I tested.
One of my main conclusions from last year’s testing was that traditional pies were better than experimental pies. People preferred traditional pumpkin over ginger pumpkin pie, and the maple-anise pecan pie wasn’t very popular.
This year I once again wanted to explore how far beyond traditional I could get before tasters complained. The three most popular Thanksgiving pies are pumpkin, apple and pecan. Could I serve variations on those pies without upsetting my guests on Thursday?
Instead of apple pie, spiced apple-cranberry pie: I wanted a pie that was bright and tart, yet was still familiar to apple pie lovers. I found a great recipe at Williams-Sonoma and didn’t modify it at all.
Instead of pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie: Sweet potato pie is Barack Obama’s favorite pie. I searched diligently to find a President-approved recipe, but came up empty. In the Washington, D.C. area Henry’s Soul Cafe is known for the best sweet potato pie but they don’t publish their recipe, either. After studying a variety of recipes, I went with Ruth Reichl’s. I added an extra quarter-cup of sugar and more cinnamon to try and capture the flavors (sweet and aggressively spiced) as described in news articles about the Soul Cafe pies.
Instead of pecan pie, chocolate bourbon pecan pie: Chocolate pecan pie is commonly served around the time of the Kentucky Derby. I had one main choice to make: corn syrup or no corn syrup? Corn syrup produces the classic gelatinous texture in pecan pies. Even though I was adding chocolate, I wanted to keep that familiar component (even though some people dislike it). I found a great recipe from Food and Wine.
For my wild card pie, I made crack pie: This pie was created and popularized by Christina Tosi and Momofuku Milk Bar. It is extremely sweet, hence the name – you get a great sugar high, and crash.
I asked all my tasters to rank the four pies on a scale of 1-4. For the three “alternative” pies, I also asked if they wished they were eating the “traditional” pie instead. To evaluate the results, the lowest total score wins.
Spiced apple-cranberry pie: 1.88 rating, 8/9 tasters liked it as much or more than apple pie. Three tasters rated it first.
Key quote: Very flavorful and wonderful crust. Much better than traditional apple pie.
Analysis: Tasters liked the tartness of the cranberries, but also advocated for more apples. When I make this for Thanksgiving I’m going to back off on the cranberries slightly.
Chocolate bourbon pecan pie: 2.22 rating, 6/9 tasters liked it as much or more than pecan pie. Two tasters rated it first.
Key quote: This is heaven if heaven were made of chocolate.
Analysis: Tasters recommended backing off on the amount of chocolate slightly, so it wasn’t too overpowering. When warm, the bourbon flavor is hard to taste, but it stands out much more when cooled completely.
Sweet potato pie: 2.33 rating, 6/9 tasters liked it as much or more than pumpkin pie. Three tasters rated it first.
Key quote: So good. Better than pumpkin. Sooooo good!
Analysis: I don’t think I’ll be tweaking this recipe at all before baking it again. Even though it finished in third place, this was the only pie to get no last-place votes.
Crack pie: 3.55 rating. Seven tasters rated it last.
Key quote(s): Pure sugar, good but I can’t take more than a couple bites … Just too sweet for me, can’t handle it … gives me a head rush …
Analysis: This is a novelty pie that most people didn’t like. On top of that, it doesn’t play well with others. The sweetness in the crack pie blows out your taste buds completely, affecting the flavor of any pie you’ll taste afterward.
With these results in hand, I feel secure in serving all three “alternative” pies. They have plenty in common with their more familiar brothers and sisters, and just enough difference to be an enticing end-of-meal treat.