How to Master Thanksgiving Desserts

If you’re like most people, your favorite part of Thanksgiving dinner is the desserts! Hosting Thanksgiving is a big job requiring the family to clean the house and prepare many different dishes.

Most of us have fond memories of the family Thanksgiving feast made up of a variety of savory and sweet treats, including a juicy roast turkey, fluffy mashed potatoes, rich bread dressing, creamy green bean casserole, tart cranberry salad, and an array of dessert options including everything from pecan pie to apple crisp to pumpkin dump cake. Thanksgiving desserts are everyone’s favorite part of the feast!

Thanksgiving desserts are where bakers have a chance to shine. Cooking is a fun and creative process, but baking allows experimenting with flavors, fillings, and decorations. Desserts are a great way to showcase culinary skills and creativity in the kitchen.

Many Thanksgiving desserts feature fall flavors like apple, pumpkin, and cranberry. These seasonal ingredients are harvested in the fall in the United States, making them taste the best during this time of year. However, a few Thanksgiving desserts feature standard pantry ingredients that are available and taste great all year round.

The best thing about Thanksgiving dinner for many people is enjoying leftovers, especially for Thanksgiving desserts! A slice of cherry pie or cheesecake makes a great breakfast the following day, and of course, it’s always nice to enjoy dessert after other meals in the days following the Thanksgiving feast.

The Most Popular Thanksgiving Desserts

While there are variations in the dessert menu for many families across the country, some standard dishes are popular everywhere. These include:

Pumpkin Pie

Perhaps the most iconic Thanksgiving dessert, a typical pumpkin pie recipe is made from a spiced pumpkin filling composed of pureed pumpkin, sugar, eggs, and a blend of spices that includes cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves (sometimes called “pumpkin pie spice”), and baked in a pie crust.

Some recipes have a delicious pecan streusel topping, which adds a bit of crunch and sweetness to the pie.

One thing to note is that the canned pumpkin pie filling sold in stores has a lot of spices mixed in and is often unpleasant to many people. It is almost always better to buy 100% pure pumpkin and add your own spices. That way, you can add a little spice, taste the filling, and add more only if you think it’s needed.

Pecan Pie

Pecan pie is another classic Thanksgiving dessert. It features a rich, gooey filling made from chopped pecans, sugar, corn syrup, eggs, and butter, all baked in a pie crust until set. Pecan pies are sweet and nutty, making them my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.

Cherry Pie

Cherry pie has a filling of sweet cherries, sugar, cornstarch, almond extract, and lemon juice baked between two pie crusts until it’s thick and bubbly. It’s famous for its blend of tart and sweet flavors and also the combination of firm cherries and sweet sauce.

Because cherry pie filling is readily available in grocery stores, cherry pie is easy to shortcut. It can be prepared in under five minutes (it has to be baked for an hour, of course).

Cherry pie, like pumpkin pie and pecan pie, can be served warm or at room temperature and is often enjoyed with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.

Cobblers and Crisps

Fruit cobblers (such as blueberry cobbler) and crisps (such as apple crisp) are often very easy to prepare. They all consist of a sweet fruit filling topped with a crumbly mixture of flour, sugar, butter, and sometimes oats or nuts. Sometimes, the topping is made from a dry cake mix, making a crisp even easier to prepare.

Apple Pie

Apple pie is a year-round favorite, but it’s often included in Thanksgiving spreads because apples are in season in the fall. Sliced apples are typically mixed with sugar and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, then baked in a pie crust (often two crusts) until tender and golden brown.

Sweet Potato Pie

Sweet potato pie is similar in texture to pumpkin pie but has a distinct sweet potato flavor. It’s prevalent in the southern United States and made from mashed sweet potatoes, sugar, eggs, and spices. It’s often topped with toasted marshmallows or pecans for added texture and flavor.

Cranberry Desserts

Since cranberries are a quintessential part of Thanksgiving dinner, they often find their way into desserts. Cranberry sauce, cranberry bread, and cranberry bars are popular choices for many families, showcasing the tartness of cranberries balanced with the sugary sweetness of traditional desserts.

Cheesecake

Cheesecake is a versatile and impressive dessert for any time of the year. It can be made in various flavors, including pumpkin, pecan, or cranberry, all extremely popular during the Thanksgiving season.

Chocolate Desserts

While less traditional than many of the other desserts on the list, chocolate cream pie, chocolate cheesecake, chocolate pecan pie, and chocolate fudge cake can also make an appearance on Thanksgiving tables for those who prefer a decadent, creamy treat.

Tarts

Fruit tarts can be a delightful addition to the Thanksgiving dessert lineup. They are made from flaky pastry crusts filled with a sweet, creamy filling and topped with seasonal fruits like cranberries, apples, or pears.

Tarts come in various sizes, from individual mini-tarts to larger pie-sized tarts. They are not only visually appealing with their colorful fruit arrangements but also offer a delightful blend of flavors and textures, with the sweetness of the fruits complementing the creaminess of the filling and the crisp flakiness of the pastry crust.

Because they take some work, fruit tarts are often saved for special occasions, and Thanksgiving is certainly that!

Bread Pudding

Bread pudding is a warm and comforting dessert made from cubed stale bread soaked in milk, eggs, sugar, and spices. It can be flavored with added ingredients, including raisins, cinnamon, rum, or vanilla. It is often served with a sauce or glaze.

Pumpkin Dump Cake

Pumpkin dump cake is often served at Thanksgiving because it’s so easy to prepare and makes dessert one less thing to worry about. A pumpkin dump cake recipe is typically pureed pumpkin, evaporated milk, sugar, spices, butter, and a dry cake mix, quite literally dumped into a baking dish, layered in a specific order, and then baked. The result is a warm and comforting dessert with flavors reminiscent of pumpkin pie with a cake-like topping.

Like most pies, pumpkin dump cake is typically served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream.

How to Make Preparing Thanksgiving Desserts Easier

Making Thanksgiving desserts from scratch can be a rewarding experience for those who enjoy baking and want complete control over ingredients, flavor, and texture. It ultimately depends on your preferences, time and energy constraints, and baking skills when deciding whether to bake from scratch, use shortcuts with pre-made ingredients, or buy already-baked desserts.

Even though preparing the Thanksgiving feast is a lot of work, I prefer to make my Thanksgiving desserts myself, usually the day before the holiday. However, I use shortcuts by buying pre-made pie crusts from the grocery store’s refrigerated section for my pumpkin, pecan, and cherry pie. I have done this for years and will continue to do it for as long as I host the holiday. The crusts may not be identical to crusts made from scratch, but they are good, and no one cares that I didn’t make them by hand.

Here are a few reasons why you may want to shortcut the dessert process and use pre-made pie crusts:

  • Save Time – Making a pie crust from scratch is time-consuming, especially if you’re not an experienced baker. Using a pre-made crust significantly reduces the time and effort required to prepare a pie.
  • Convenience – Refrigerated pie crusts are readily available in almost all grocery stores, making it easy to grab one when you’re in a hurry – as you will be the week before Thanksgiving.
  • Consistency – Pre-made pie crusts are manufactured to meet specific quality standards, so you can expect a consistent and reliable result each time you use one. Homemade crusts vary in texture and quality depending on your skill level and the recipe you follow.
  • Beginner-Friendly – If you’re new to baking or unsure about your pie crust-making skills, using a pre-made crust is a beginner-friendly way to ensure your pies turn out well.
  • Reduced Time When Making Large Meals – This goes hand in hand with convenience and time savings, both of which I included above, but it is worth repeating. When preparing multiple pies for a large family gathering (such as Thanksgiving dinner), using pre-made crusts saves significant time and effort, allowing you to focus on other aspects of the meal.
  • Reduced Margin for Error – Making a pie crust from scratch involves precision in measuring ingredients and mixing techniques. Pre-made crusts eliminate the risk of errors like over-mixing or overworking the dough, both of which can result in a tough or uneven crust.
  • Shelf Stability – Refrigerated pie crusts have a longer shelf life than homemade crust ingredients like butter and flour, so you can buy them well before the holiday meal prep. They will stay good until you’re ready to use them.

How to Lighten Up Thanksgiving Desserts

While diets may take a back seat for Thanksgiving dinner, it’s always wise to consider reducing the calorie and sugar content in the foods you’ll serve your family. Here are a few tips for creating lighter Thanksgiving desserts:

Use Better-for-You Ingredients

  • Whole Grains – Consider substituting half of the flour required by the recipe with whole wheat flour in pie crusts, crumbles, crisps, and cookies. This adds fiber and nutrients to the dish. Do not substitute more than half of the flour with whole wheat flour, though, or your dessert may be bitter.
  • Natural Sweeteners – Substitute half of the sugar with natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar. Keep in mind that all these sweeteners contribute calories, so use them in moderation.
  • Greek Yogurt – Incorporate Greek yogurt into your dessert recipes for creaminess and added protein while reducing the need for heavy cream or sour cream.

Reduce Sugar

You can often cut the sugar in a recipe up to 25% without significantly affecting taste. Just leave it out. Or use sugar substitutes like stevia, erythritol, or monk fruit sweetener to reduce calories–but be mindful of how these may affect the texture and taste of your desserts. 

Use Lighter Dairy Options

Use low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt, and cream cheese in recipes that call for dairy products. You may be able to opt for coconut milk or almond milk as dairy alternatives in some recipes.

Portion Control

Serve desserts in smaller portions to indulge in moderation. Mini pies or individual tarts, for example, are an excellent way to offer a taste of desserts without the temptation to go overboard.

Fruit-Based Desserts

Fruit-based desserts like fruit salad, fruit skewers, or fruit parfaits can be a lighter and more balanced alternative to traditional pies and cakes. Baked fruit with minimal added sugar and plenty of spices can make a warm and satisfying dessert. Baked apples and baked pears are especially delicious.

Use Nut flour

Consider almond flour or coconut flour as a substitute for regular wheat flour in some recipes. These options can add a nutty flavor and reduce the overall carbohydrate content of the recipe.

Light Whipped Topping

Use light or fat-free whipped cream or non-dairy whipped topping instead of heavy whipping cream as a garnish.

Creative Presentation

Serve desserts in individual portions or shooters to encourage smaller servings. Garnish desserts with fresh fruit, herbs, or a dusting of cinnamon for added flavor and visual appeal without added calories.

Modify Traditional Recipes

Modify traditional dessert recipes by removing the crust from a pie or cheesecake. Finding a new crustless recipe may be necessary, as many traditional fillings won’t get firm enough to serve without a crust.

Experiment With Substitutes

In baking recipes, explore egg substitutes like applesauce, mashed bananas, or silken tofu to reduce cholesterol and calories.

Remember that lightening up desserts may result in slightly different textures or flavors compared to traditional recipes. It’s always a good idea to test the modified recipes in advance to ensure they work and meet your taste and texture expectations.

For example, you can’t make a pecan pie without both sugar and corn syrup. I once tried to substitute half of the sugar with sucralose; the filling didn’t set up and was a liquidy mess. And I didn’t follow my own advice and did this on the morning of Thanksgiving. Needless to say, we had no pecan pie that year!

With some creativity and experimentation, you can enjoy delicious Thanksgiving desserts better suited to your dietary preferences and wellness goals than the traditional versions.

This article originally appeared on Pink When.

Tara Gerner
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