Your Thanksgiving Dessert FAQs, Answered

November 24, 2015

One of my favorite parts about Thanksgiving is the flood of emails and text messages I receive from friends, colleagues, family members, and friends of friends of family members about how to pull off desserts that will wow as much as the bird.

I’m always happy to share tips—especially because I usually get excited texts/emails/Instagram pics of the bountiful results after the meal.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions, along with my answers:

I love pie, but am awful at making crust. What do I do?
What are some easy options for making a pie look impressive?
HELP! I’m baking for guests who can’t eat gluten!
My custard pie cracked! What do I do?
What kinds of baked goods can I make ahead?
What’s an easy, fast, adaptable dessert I can make for Thanksgiving?

Photo by James Ransom

I love pie, but am awful at making crust. What do I do?
First, don’t be scared! You can make crust! Try using my guide.

Shop the Story

But if you’re really too nervous, there’s plenty of other options. Try a crumb crust, which is great for custard pies, or a press-in tart crust, which is as easy to make as cookie dough.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Or, opt for a pre-made option you can just finish. I’ve yet to find a pre-made pie dough in stores that matches homemade, but I love to use thawed phyllo dough. Brushed with butter and layered, it makes a delicious, crisp crust (like in my recipe for Honey Nut Phyllo Pie.)

Another option is puff pastry: Make a tarte tatin or puff pastry galette: You’ll get all the fall flavors, without fussing over the base. (Note: The best ever store-bought puff pastry is Dufour, which I can usually find at Whole Foods or specialty markets.)

This Ferrero Rocher Pie is made with a phyllo dough crust. Photo by Alpha Smoot

What are some easy options for making a pie look impressive?
Usually, the best advice is keep it simple. There are some awesome finishing techniques out there, but if you’re worried about baking from beginning to end, forgo those and opt for simpler finishes: crumb toppings instead of lattice, candied nuts instead of pie crust cut-outs—you get the idea.

Another easy way to make a “whoa!” sort of pie is to not skimp on the filling for fruit pies. Pack your fruit in the base of the plate, then make a dome upwards—up to 2 to 3 inches over the edge of your pie plate. The finished pie will look perfectly mounded, and the slice will be deep and impressive when cut out.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

And for every single one of my pies, I use an even coat of egg wash and a hefty sprinkling of coarse sugar on any exposed crust; it makes the pie golden and sparkly.

HELP! I’m baking for guests who can’t eat gluten!
My younger cousin has a wheat allergy, so I’m familiar with a disappointed face overlooking the dessert table. While there’s lots of amazing gluten-free recipes out there, I often suggest choosing a recipe that’s gluten-free from the get-go or easily adaptable.

Some of my favorite options are pavlovas, ice cream pies (use store-bought gluten-free cookies for the crumb crust), and cheesecake (same deal with the cookie crumbs).

Also: Be sure to check about the severity of the allergy/intolerance. If you’re dealing with a full-fledged celiac, it might behoove you to order a pie or dessert from a nearby gluten-free bakery. Folks with advanced issues of this sort can’t eat anything prepared in a kitchen that regularly uses gluten, so save yourself the trouble and keep the dessert separate.

Just a teeny tiny little crack in this sweet potato pie. Photo by James Ransom

My custard pie cracked! What do I do?
A common problem, a cracked pie means it has been overbaked. There’s lots of advice to avoid this problem, but once it’s happened, what do you do? Top that pie of course. Yup, sometimes the best way to hide a food problem is to cover it up with something delicious enough that no one (including you) will notice. Whipped cream is a good choice. I also like candied nuts, baked cut-outs of pie crust, crumb topping/streusel, meringue, or even a layer of ganache! You may end up with an even more impressive pie due to your impromptu multiple layers.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

What kinds of baked goods can I make ahead?
Whether you’re working right up until the big feast or you’re just worried about timing, making things ahead is a great way to keep yourself calm and your desserts looking sharp.

  • Pie dough can be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen. If you need to store the dough for more than 3 days, freeze it instead of refrigerating it (the dough will eventually begin to oxidize under refrigeration and can turn sort of grey in color).

  • You can go one step further and roll out your dough, transfer the dough to the pie plate, crimp the edges, and then freeze. Once the crust is solidly frozen, you can wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. You can even stack multiple crusts in your freezer in this state to save space.

Photo by James Ransom
  • Opt for a slow rise with your bread. You can use a recipe that already includes a slow rise, or alter your favorite recipe by using room temperature water (as opposed to warm) and allowing the dough to rise in the fridge overnight. Bring the dough to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.

  • Alternatively, make a bread item that can be frozen. Biscuits benefit from freezing before baking, so you can make your biscuit dough a day ahead, cut out the biscuits, and freeze them on a baking sheet. When ready to bake, brush with egg wash or melted butter and proceed with the recipe.

Photo by Posie Harwood
  • Another great holiday bread is popovers! Yes, they’ll take up oven space, but only at the last minute when your turkey is resting and/or being carved. The batter is so easy to make that you can have it ready and waiting on your counter to throw in right before sitting down.

  • If you’re going the non-traditional dessert route, many cakes can be easily frozen. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and bring to room temperature before frosting and finishing. Same, of course, with logs of cookie dough!

More: 9 Thanksgiving desserts you can make now and defrost on Thursday.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

What’s an easy, fast, adaptable dessert I can make for Thanksgiving?
The question I’m asked the most often: What’s something I can make for two people, or twenty people? What’s something that I can make quick or last-minute? What’s something that tastes really Thanksgiving-y, but is minimal effort?

The answer: hand pies, of course! I love to make hand pies for smaller Thanksgiving dinners because it’s a great way to have variety without tons of leftover dessert. But I also love to make them for a crowd because I can prep and assemble them ahead of time and freeze. Since they're so small, they're quick to make, need less chilling time, and don’t take long in the oven.

Photo by Samantha Seneviratne

Hand pies are pre-portioned, so no serving dishes are required, and they’re adaptable; you can fill them with anything that suits your tastes and flavors. This includes leftover stuff from other Thanksgiving prep (that half-used can of pumpkin, the 2 cups of cranberry sauce that's lingering, etc).

Plus, for those of us in the pie-for-breakfast clan, these are an amazing morning-after feast treat.

Keep the tradition alive! Tag me in/message me some Instagram pics of your Thanksgiving baking, and don’t forget to comment on your favorite recipes!

I can’t wait to spend another year basking in a whole bunch of successful endeavors, post-turkey coma.

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Kenzi Wilbur
    Kenzi Wilbur
  • Erin McDowell
    Erin McDowell
I always carry three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's pie. My first cookbook, The Fearless Baker, is out on October 24, 2017.


Kenzi W. November 24, 2015
Thank you Erin! I have been one of those emails. You are gracious.
Author Comment
Erin M. November 24, 2015
Keep 'em coming! It's a new tradition :)