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The story of my pies, or how I graduated from a canned recipe to three variations worth trying

Melissa M. Martinez
Three Thanksgiving pies with a twist, made with the same basic crust. Top: Caramel-topped sweet potato pie. Bottom: Apple pie. Right: Bourbon pecan pie.

One of the first things I baked on my own was a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie for my family when I was 12. Every year after, pies were my contribution to the holiday feast — made from the recipe on the back of the can of pumpkin in a store-bought crust.

Now that I’m a much more accomplished baker — even making cakes for several friends’ weddings — I’ve tried some variations on the theme. I once started completely from scratch, using a pie pumpkin that I roasted, pureed and pressed through a sieve (truly, not worth the trouble), mixed with freshly ground spices (worth the trouble), and baked in a homemade crust (not as much trouble as you think). I eventually even branched out into the worlds of pecans and apples.

The base for all these pies is a simple, all-butter crust known as pâte brisée. It has a fancy French name, but mixing it up is a snap and worth learning to make as it works as a flaky, light dough for pie, quiche, tarts, or anything else you can imagine. With just a few whirs of the food processor, you have an impressive homemade crust. It is Thanksgiving, though, so I’m sure your guests will forgive you for going with a store-bought crust should you choose.

This year, I’m forgoing the trusty can of pumpkin puree for three pies, including a new tradition: a caramel-topped sweet potato pie. By far the most labor intensive of the recipes included here — you have to boil and puree the sweet potatoes yourself, make the caramel topping, and cut out tiny leaves of pie crust (OK, that last part is optional) — it’s a definite winner for those who prefer a more subtle sweetness to their dessert.

Moving up the sweetness scale, I also went for an apple crisp pie over the typical double crust fruit pie. The crunchy topping is a more satisfying companion to a scoop of vanilla ice cream. If you’re feeling particularly anti-crust, no problem: Leave out the bottom crust and simply layer the apples, some store-bought caramel sauce and the crisp topping for an impressive sounding and tasting caramel apple crisp.

The most traditional pie on my table this year will be my go-to, simple pecan pie, with a splash of bourbon added because something about the words bourbon and pecan just begs you to mix them together. Year after year, I’ve made this pie, a modified version of the only recipe I could find that uses no corn syrup, which sometimes gives an unfortunate gooey texture to pecan pie. Reminiscent of a cone full of candied nuts at a fall festival, this pie will probably be the first finished. It usually is.

Pâte Brisée

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. coarse salt (sea or kosher salt)

1/2 tsp. granulated white sugar

1/2 cup chilled, unsalted butter cut into one-inch cubes

1/8 to 1/4 cup ice-cold water

extra flour for work surface

1. In a food processor, process flour, salt and sugar to combine.

2. Add cubes of butter and process until it resembles coarse meal, about 10 seconds.

3. Add the ice water and process until dough just holds together, no longer than 30 seconds.

4. Empty the dough onto a floured work surface. You can add small amounts of ice water if the dough isn’t staying together, but be careful not to overwork the dough.

5. Form the dough into a flattened disc and wrap in plastic wrap.

6. Refrigerate at least one hour.

To prepare for filling: Roll out pastry into a 12-inch round. Line a 9-inch pie plate, trim and crimp edges to fit pan. Makes one 8-10 inch single crust.

— Adapted from “10th Anniversary Cookbook; Martha Stewart Living Cookbook,” Clarkson Potter, 2000.

Apple Crisp

Filling:

2 1/2 pounds peeled, cored and sliced apples

Zest and juice of one lemon

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. allspice

1/8 tsp. salt

2/3 cup sugar

Topping:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup brown sugar

3 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. cinnamon

1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 cup rolled oats

1 pâte brisée dough for single-crust pie rolled out and pressed into a 9-inch pie pan

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Whisk together zest, spices, sugar and flour in a large bowl; toss with apples and lemon juice.

4. Spoon apple filling into prepared pie crust.

5. Make topping: Combine flour, sugars, salt and cinnamon in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender, fork or your fingers, mix the butter into the flour mixture. Add rolled oats and mix to a crumbly consistency.

6. Sprinkle topping over apple filling in shell.

7. Bake on a baking sheet for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 and bake for about 40 more minutes, or until crust is golden and filling is bubbling.

Note: I typically use a mix of tart (Granny Smith, Pink Lady) and sweet (Fuji, Gala) apples.

— Filling adapted from “The Gourmet Cookbook,” Ruth Reichl, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006. Topping adapted from “Cutie Pies: 40 Sweet, Savory, and Adorable Recipes,” Dani Cone, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011

Caramel-Topped Sweet Potato Pie

1 pâte brisée dough for single-crust pie, rolled out and pressed into a 9-inch pie pan

2 eggs

2 cups mashed sweet potatoes

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk

3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

11/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract, divided

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

3 Tbsp. dark brown sugar

3 Tbsp. light corn syrup

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, sweet potatoes, milk, sugar, cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of the vanilla, ginger, and nutmeg. Pour into the pastry crust and bake 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake 25 minutes longer.

3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the brown sugar, corn syrup, and butter to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining vanilla.

4. Drizzle the caramel over the pie and bake 12 to 15 minutes more or until the caramel starts to bubble. Cover the edges with foil if necessary to prevent over-browning. Cool completely on a wire rack before serving.

— Reprinted by permission. “Farm Fresh Southern Cooking: Straight from the Garden to Your Dinner Table,” Tammy Algood, 2012, Thomas Nelson Inc. Nashville, Tenn. All rights reserved.

Bourbon Pecan Pie

2 large eggs

1/2 cup butter, melted

1 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup white sugar

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 Tbsp. milk

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 Tbsp. bourbon

1 cup chopped pecans

1 pâte brisée dough for single-crust pie, rolled out and pressed into a 9-inch pie pan

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Beat eggs until foamy.

3. Stir in melted butter, brown sugar, white sugar and flour, mixing well after each addition.

4. Stir milk, vanilla, bourbon and nuts. You can add more or less bourbon to your taste.

5. Pour into prepared pie crust.

6. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 35 to 40 minutes.

— Adapted from Pecan Pie V recipe at allrecipes.com.