Thanksgiving Dessert Tips and Ideas

For some families, the crowning glory of Thanksgiving dinner is the turkey: crisp, lacquered skin, perfectly cooked meat, cavity spilling lemons, rosemary and onion. The star of some families' Thanksgiving meals is the stuffing: oyster, apple and wild rice, chestnut, sausage. And while I am a fan of succulent and photogenic turkey as well as The Perfect Stuffing, it should come as no surprise that I view dessert as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving spread.

Desserts have a lot to compete with on Thanksgiving, though. Aside from the vast quantities of other foods, there are also parades and football and napping with which to contend. With that in mind, I have put together some Thanksgiving Dessert Tips and Ideas so people will stand up (or rather, sit down) and take notice.

Thanksgiving Dessert Tips

There really are no hard and fast rules about what sorts of desserts you can serve at Thanksgiving. You want a brownie sundae? Have at it! Thanksgiving desserts are generally pie-ish, though. Maybe because pies were really prevalent back in the day and people want to honor tradition at Thanksgiving. Pies can be intimidating though, so here are some General Pie-ish Tips (in no particular order), followed by tips for making specific kinds of Thanksgiving-centric pies.

  • You can make your dough in advance, roll it in sheets between two pieces of parchment and freeze it to use later.
  • Feel free to add a bit of citrus zest or some ground spices to your pie dough. Just make sure that what you choose complements your filling.
  • Keeping pie dough cold is half the battle. Chill all your ingredients, even your flour.
  • Bake your pie on a preheated baking stone and start at a stupidly high temperature (about 450F) for about ten minutes. This will help to set the crust and ensure that it's baked through and crispy, not soggy on the bottom. (Thank you, A&J Artisan Bakers, for that gem) This can also eliminate the need to blind bake (bake the crust without filling it) beforehand.
  • When you line your pie pan with your dough, patch any thin or Suspect spots with a bit of leftover dough. Do that now, and you won't have to worry about the crust having any holes in it where the filling can leak out.
  • Lift the dough and press it into the pan. Don't tug or stretch it, or it will shrink.
  • Freeze your lined pie pan for a good 30 minutes or even overnight. You'll have minimal shrinkage if you do.
  • Prick the bottom of the crust all over (dock) with a sharp knife. This is more effective than using a fork since a fork will leave holes where the filling can leak out. And we don't want that.
  • You can use blitz puff or rough puff to make your pies to get flaky layers, but since it will puff, you'll want to check your pie frequently and stab it with a think knife wherever it seems to be puffing up too much. Or, blind bake to minimize puffing once you put the filling in.
  • There is no rule that says you can't make a tart instead of a pie. Just in case you were wondering.
  • Rather than making a full top crust, consider a lattice, or a bunch of cutouts scattered across the top (either pre-baked and placed after the pie comes out of the oven or baked right along with the filling. Your choice. You can also opt for a crumb or streusel topping.

Here are my pie crust videos. I hope you find them helpful!

In Which I Answer Pie Crust Questions:

In Which I Actually Make Pie Crust Instead of Talking About It:

And in which I Line the Pan and Blind Bake the Crust:

Pumpkin Pie Tips

I have only recently become a pumpkin pie fan, and that is largely due to putting enough salt in the mix to let the pumpkin flavor really shine. Still, for many folks, Thanksgiving just wouldn't be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. I give you This Song as evidence:

  • Use the amount of salt given in the recipe as a starting point. Do not be afraid to add more, just a little bit at a time, tasting as you go. You will probably find that the filling takes on added dimension and the spices begin to differentiate themselves as you add more salt. My general rule of thumb is using double what the recipe calls for, but do go by your own taste. "Add salt, to taste," really means "Add salt, to your taste."
  • Once you make your pumpkin custard filling, let it sit out for an hour or two or refrigerate it for several hours. This rest works magic on the filling and makes it creamier. Honest.
  • Before filling your pie crust, whether you blind bake or not, strain your filling. This will get out any errant pumpkin strings or bits of chalazae (those white stringy bits) from the eggs so your pie will be smooth and creamy throughout.
  • It's never a bad idea to strain your pumpkin puree before adding it to your filling through some cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer for at least a few minutes. This holds true for homemade or canned pumpkin. If you are afraid that your puree is a bit too wet, even after straining, you can add a tablespoon or so of starch (flour, corn starch, arrowroot) to your filling. This will bind the water so it doesn't leak out once the pie is out of the oven. Nobody wants wet pie.
  • Use brown sugar or a mixture of white and brown sugar for more depth of flavor. There is no rule that says you can't use all brown sugar even if the recipe calls for half and half. You can also experiment with liquid sweeteners like honey, molasses and/or maple syrup, although you will have to adjust the amount of liquid in the rest of the filling.
  • I know I tend to go on and on about spiced candied pecans, but your pumpkin pie will thank you if you make some for garnish.
  • Consider painting the inside of your pie crust (blind bake, in this case) with some melted chocolate. Pumpkin and chocolate are friends.
  • Need a vegan pumpkin pie option? Try this Maple Cream Pumpkin Pie from Kristina of SpaBettie.

Apple Pie Tips

The saying might be "as American as apple pie," but there are many ways to flavor and tweak an apple pie or tart to give a nod to a wide array of cultures. And there is no rule that says you can't add Other Fruits or Nuts to your filling, either.

  • Plump up some raisins, dried cranberries or figs in some apple-friendly alcohol (brandy, rum, Bourbon, etc) and toss those into the mix.
  • Lighten and brighten up an apple pie by flavoring with lemon zest and juice and leaving out the cinnamon.
  • Toss your fruit in a tablespoon or two of alcohol (see above for some standard options). Some flavors are only alcohol-soluble, so adding some alcohol to the mix gives them a chance to come out and play. (Ditto on the pumpkin pie, now that I think of it).
  • Use at least 2 different types of apples in your pie for more depth of flavor and some contrasting textures. There is also no rule that says you can't plump up some dried apple slices to use as part of the filling either.
  • Flavor options you may not have thought of (not necessarily to be used all together, of course): cardamom, Chinese five spice, crystallized ginger, maple, toasted walnut...
  • Slice your apples relatively thinly. If you have one of those all-in-one apple corer-sectioner things that only makes 8 slices, you'll want to cut each of those eight in half or even thirds.
  • Overfill your pie crust and mound those apples up high. They'll shrink down as they cook, and you don't want a sunken-in pie.
  • If you have particularly juicy apples, spread a 1/4" layer of cake or cookie crumbs in your lined pie pan before adding the apple filling. This will soak up the extra juices. You can go neutral with yellow cake or vanilla wafers or get fancy with spice cake or gingersnaps, if you want. Just make sure the crumbs are very fine.
  • If you choose to make a tart, a nut crust is always lovely. Hazelnut, pecan, walnut or pistachio would be particularly nice with apple.
  • As with pumpkin pie, please make sure you use enough salt. Your pie will thank you.

Pecan Pie Tips

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of pecan pie, but that might be because I haven't ever had one that I think is spectacular. But I always say that a non-example is a more powerful teaching tool than an example, so here we go.

  • Most pecan pie I have ever had is too sweet. Add enough salt (salted nuts, anyone?) to help temper the sweetness.
  • Many pecan pie recipes call for a ton of corn syrup. Consider using real maple syrup if you have that option since it is less processed.
  • Toast the pecans that you add to your filling, especially if your recipe calls for using chopped nuts in the filling and lovely halves on the top. The halves will toast during baking, but the chopped nuts in your Goo will appreciate being toasted beforehand.
  • Make a pecan tart and use ground toasted pecans in your dough for a doubly pecan-y dessert.
  • Nuts also like some booze, so adding a tablespoon or so of nutty alcohol to your filling would be a great plan. I bet Frangelico would work nicely. There is also a new Texas Pecan Liqueur called Pecaño that should be out in time for Christmas (thank you, Google).
  • A little dark chocolate in the mix helps to temper the sweetness of the pie and bring a bit of "brownie-ness" to the dessert.
  • Well, looky here! I bet I'd like this version.

Thanksgiving Dessert Ideas (Other than the Big Three Pies)

Since I have discovered that I actually do like pumpkin after all, I've come up with a few pumpkiny and other fallish desserts that would absolutely fit the bill as a Thanksgiving dessert. I'll be sharing those in a minute, but I know that there have to be plenty of folks out there who don't like The Big Three, or who are allergic to gourds, pecans, etc, so I've asked some Bloggy Friends from around the Internet to share some of their outside-the-box Thanksgiving dessert ideas as well. Enjoy!

Gluten-Free Maple Sweet Potato Cheesecake from Irvin Lin of Eat the Love is brimming with the flavors of the season, but is not brimming with gluten. Lovely!

Caramel Apple Bars from Lisa of Snappy Gourmet sound delicious. You get apple-y, caramel-y goodness, but in a more manageable bar which can be quite welcome after a heavy meal.

Pear and Almond Tart from Karen of Karen's Kitchen Stories: Very fancy, very French, very wonderful. Enjoy!

Browned Butter Pumpkin Spice Cake with Salted Caramel Buttercream Frosting from Kate of I Heart Eating. There really isn't much more to say. You should probably scrap your pie dreams and make this!

Upside Down Apple Pie is what happens when a tarte tatin, a sticky bun and an upside down cake collide. Love this from Kathy of Noble Pig!

Pumpkin Cheesecake Parfaits are lovely, individual, no-bake cheesecakes to enjoy at Thanksgiving. Thanks to Camille from Growing up Gabel for these little gems!

Gluten-Free Cranberry Bundt Cake with Cranberry Glaze is a retro recipe remake from Sabrina of The Tomato Tart. Not only does it sound delicious, it is beautiful as well. And the story that goes with it is precious.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Fillo Straws from Rachel of Rachel Cooks are a fun twist on a classic pumpkin pie, and I can think of all sorts of interesting ways to display them, as well. Fun!

Spicy, Molasses-y Hermit Bars from Liz from The Lemon Bowl make a perfect smackerel with coffee, a welcome part of your Thanksgiving cookie tray or even a hostess gift if you're eating at someone else's place this Thanksgiving.

More Thanksgiving-ish Desserts from My Archives

Here's a round-up of some of my pumpkiny, apple-y, nutty and otherwise festive and Thanksgiving-worthy dessert recipes.

Caramel Spice Pound Cake with Caramel Custard is my take on a cake-based bread pudding. Use the recipe as is or use your favorite pound cake recipe, cut it in chunks and then pour the gelatin-stabilized caramel custard over it. Delicious and different.

Plum Pudding This is my Auntie Ev's recipe. If you so desire, you can read the whole series from that link, including the video unveiling for Uncle Ray and Auntie 'Leenie at Christmas, 2010. Really, really special.

Ridiculously Good Hazelnut Flan, the first dessert I "created" as pastry chef. It really is ridiculously good.

Pumpkin Chai Panna Cotta: a nice, light ending to a big Thanksgiving meal.

Pudding Chomeur: Maple-y, Cinnamon-y goodness. Very rich, but pretty much worth it!

Caramel Pumpkin Latte FlanPumpkin Caramel Latte Flan made an appearance at several readers' Thanksgiving tables last year, I am humbled and honored to say.

Indian Corn Panna Cotta: layers of rich chocolate, pumpkin and dulce de leche panna cotta

Maple Pumpkin PuddingMaple Pumpkin Pudding with Maple Spiced Pecans: easy, stove-top pumpkin pie minus the crust.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Brownies These won an award, sort of. The story is pretty hilarious. Click through to read or if you just want to make these brownies.

Espresso Pumpkin Butter Sweet Rolls and Sticky Buns would make a great Thanksgiving morning breakfast with coffee while watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television.

Pumpkin Profiteroles are little bites of crisp choux filled with just-sweet-enough pumpkin cream. Poppable.

And that pretty much does it, I think. If you have any other specific questions, please do not hesitate to ask in the comments!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you have wonderful day and a perfectly marvelous Thanksgiving.






  1. Joana says

    Thank you so much for all the great tips. I was wondering if you might have a good recipe for pumpkin fudge? I tried some recently that was purchased at a pumpkin patch and it was amazing. Would like to try making some!

    • says

      Funny you should ask, Joana! I just posted a link to a yummy sounding pumpkin fudge recipe on the thread on the facebook page where you asked the question yesterday! =) That site is hinky right now, or I’d post the link here too.

      • Joana says

        Sorry about that. I had been waiting for a response from you for yesterdays facebook post and since you are always quick to respond I figured my posting yesterday had failed 🙁 so I posted a comment here! I did go back to facebook and see my posting and your response. Thank you very much. I will let you know how things turn out! 🙂

  2. says

    What a fabulous fabulous post!! The write up informative and entertaining, as only you know how to do, plus wowee what great pie tips! And love love love the choice of alternative desserts! And not just for Thanksgiving! Sharing!!

  3. says

    Jenni, your straightforward approach in the demonstrations is empowering. I realized we have the same measuring cups! From the opening video to the dessert alternatives in closing—this is a first-rate post. Thank you for sharing it with us.


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