Bake better pies this holiday season by embracing the joy of experimentation (2024)

According to a 2017 report by the National Grocers Association, approximately 18.9 million pies are sold each Thanksgiving.

The chances that Jerry Brimeyer’s mother was responsible for even a single one of those purchases are slim to none. When Brimeyer and his five siblings asked for pie, their mother didn’t drive to the grocery store. Instead, she instructed them to head out to the pastures of their Iowa farm to gather whatever fruit they could find. Some days, they’d return with crab apples; other days, pears or wild blackberries. Whatever ingredients they presented to their mother, she’d find a way to turn them into a pie.

If she ever used a recipe, Brimeyer saw no evidence of such, only handfuls of mulberries turned into pies so fresh that their taste bore very little resemblance to store-bought varieties.

And so, when Brimeyer opened a handheld pie shop called Oggies at a Brooklyn food hall, there was no possibility of replicating his mother’s creations. Instead, he worked off of the lingering memories that remained long after those days on the dairy farm.

During the holidays, a home-cooked pie made with ingredients foraged from one’s own property and a sprinkle of motherly love sounds certain to be a hit on the often overcrowded dessert table. But this sort of approach may be a touch too ambitious for the average baker, or anyone who doesn’t live on a farm with the bounties of nature at their disposal. On the other hand, picking up a prepackaged pie at the grocery store and calling it a day could feel like the bare minimum. Plus, you're likely to spend more than what the pie's quality should dictate, as supply chain issues have led to major price hikes for ready-made baked goods this holiday season.

In the very center of that spectrum lie those who carefully follow a well-established recipe to guarantee edible, if not necessarily innovative, results. If you’ve been landing squarely on this midpoint and want to boost your reputation as a baker this holiday season, look no further than these tips from Brimeyer and other pie pros in the New York City area. Perhaps you’ll find that last-minute motivation to whip up a dessert for your Thanksgiving gathering that will have your family and friends reaching for seconds.

Or your first attempt won’t turn out the way you expected, so you’ll tweak your recipe, and you’ll try again. You’ll try again and again and again, adjusting proportions, ingredients, and toppings along the way. And maybe, by Christmas, it will be perfect.

1. Don’t be afraid to combine flavors.

When asked if he prefers savory or sweet, Brimeyer smoothly dodged the question.

“I am a comfort food person,” he declared.

Accordingly, Oggies sells both savory and sweet pies from a booth in DeKalb Market Hall. Inspiration for the savory pies, called pasties, comes from another period in Brimeyer’s life, the years that he spent living in England. But whereas a traditional Cornish pasty contains beef, potato, rutabaga, and onion, Oggies has a diverse menu including a pulled pork pasty with a pickled slaw and a steak and mushroom pasty with a stout beer sauce.

“I like different, interesting flavors, and that’s what you’re going to find at Oggie’s,” said Brimeyer. He credits his affinity for unexpected combinations to his mom, who would often mix multiple fruits in a single pie.

That same spirit of innovation is just as evident in the pie shop’s “Sweetie Pie” selection. There’s the blueberry lemon lavender pie, the proportions of the ingredients perfected such that the lavender is evident but not overpowering. There’s the Mexican chocolate pie, getting its kick from a spice blend of cayenne, smoked paprika, cinnamon, and nutmeg. And then, there’s the cranberry pear pie, one of Brimeyer’s current favorites.

“I love that one, because it’s a great blend of flavors,” he said, “and I love it when flavors blend together in a sort of alchemy that changes the whole profile of a pie.”

In Ridgewood, Queens, a bakery called Buttah turned sweet potato casserole, one of Thanksgiving’s most polarizing side dishes, into a pie.

The combination of sweet potatoes and marshmallows seems far less controversial when it’s in the form of a dessert, versus sitting next to a bowl of mashed potatoes and a platter of turkey. And the appeal of Buttah’s Sweet Potato Soufflé Pie is heightened by the baking mastery of Kristin Viola, co-owner of Buttah.

“I know sweet potatoes with the marshmallow topping can sometimes be a little sweet, so I balanced the sweetness with a little tartness from the filling that we make,” said Viola, who runs Buttah with her sister Stacy.

But of all Buttah’s holiday offerings, Viola’s favorite is the apple crostada, which also plays heavily with the balance of different flavors through its savory cheddar crust, the spiced apple filling, and the salted caramel topping.

“It’s not something you’ll necessarily find at other bakeries,” she said.

2. When it comes to seasonal produce, look beyond the obvious.

In what should come as no surprise to those who have witnessed the pumpkin spice craze creeping towards an even earlier start date with each passing year, pumpkin pie reigned supreme as America’s favorite pie in Instacart’s annual report on Thanksgiving food trends. In 2020, pumpkin pie sales on Instacart increased by 316% in the seven days leading up to the late November holiday. The 2019 report revealed similar findings, with 31% of survey respondents choosing pumpkin pie as their Turkey Day favorite.

But this year, there are a couple of reasons to forgo pumpkin in your pie in favor of other seasonal produce.

Early reports of a pumpkin shortage may have been largely exaggerated, but an annual survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation confirmed that the cost of canned pumpkin pie mix has, in fact, increased by 7% from last year to this year. By contrast, sweet potatoes went up only 3% in price during that same time period.

There’s also the fact that — and I say this as someone who drinks pumpkin spice cold brew in August and hoards pumpkin beer well into winter — pumpkin is almost too obvious of a choice if you’re looking for your dessert to truly stand out.

Luckily, there are plenty of other crops in season right now.

At Oggies, the cranberry pear pie incorporates two different varieties of pear, the D’Anjou pear and the Bosc pear, both of which are harvested in the fall. The latter is particularly well-suited to this time of year with notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, compared to the hint of citrus in the all-purpose D’Anjou.

“How often do you eat a pear pie?” said Brimeyer.

The same question could be asked of persimmon pie.

In New York City, you can find it seasonally at Rawsome Treats, a plant-based dessert shop on the Lower East Side. Like all of the desserts at the specialty shop, the persimmon pie is raw and vegan. Its shortbread crust is filled with a coconut vanilla cream and topped with slices of persimmons.

Watt Sriboonruang, the founder of Rawsome Treats, believes that the best recipes start with cravings.

Prior to launching Rawsome Treats, Sriboonruang had no culinary background. But as a Muay Thai fighter, she did have a personal interest in plant-based eating. It began with a two-week-long juice diet to cut weight for an upcoming fight. When Sriboonruang found that she was performing better than ever in the absence of processed food and animal products, the athlete’s discovery launched a still-ongoing period of experimentation with vegan cuisine, with the intention of finding the best-tasting recipes to fuel her training.

In 2013, Sriboonruang launched Rawsome Treats to share her delectable creations with others seeking desserts that would allow them to feel good about the choices that they’re making for their bodies without needing to sacrifice that moment of pure bliss when the first bite of a really good piece of pie passes through the lips. You might be tempted to call the pies “healthy,” but Sriboonruang eschews that word choice, reasoning that each individual body has different needs. Nuts, for instance, aren’t a healthy choice for someone with an allergy.

Instead, she likes to say that she gives her customers options.

Following the guidance of her cravings has served Sriboonruang well, resulting in a wide variety of options sure to suit any taste preference. Some items remain on the menu year-round. Others are only available seasonally, like the persimmon pie, sold in the fall, and a lychee pie with a white chocolate fudge topping offered during the summer.

3. And if you do gravitate toward pumpkin, make it your own.

Liv Breads in Millburn, New Jersey is not a typical American-style bakery. Modeled after the type of European cafe that you might stumble upon while strolling down a narrow cobblestone street flanked by historic architecture, Liv Breads specializes in laminated pastries and the slow art of sourdough bread. And the cafe’s head baker, Bary Yogev, is Israeli.

Pumpkin pie, on the other hand, is a very American dessert, save for its inclusion in 17th-century French and British cookbooks.

It makes sense, then, that Liv Breads didn’t sell the Thanksgiving classic during the business's first year of operations. But as Liv Breads became known as a beloved addition to the neighborhood, devoted customers who had already fallen in love with the bakery’s sourdough loaves and chocolate babka were eager to purchase pies.

“We don’t really specialize in pies, but obviously, for Thanksgiving, it’s very popular,” said co-owner Elana Livneh, who first dreamt up the vision for the bakery alongside husband Yaniv Livneh and then partnered with Yogev and Yaniv’s brother to bring the concept to fruition in 2018.

For a place that “doesn’t really specialize in pies,” a tremendous amount of thought and experimentation went into Liv Bread’s kuri squash pumpkin pie, an indication of the high level of quality control that has earned the bakery its current reputation for serving top-notch breads and out-of-this-world pastries.

First, there was the matter of the pumpkin.

“This is the season of the pumpkin, so we have so many kinds here,” said Yogev. “Each one has a different taste and a different structure. So I think it was two or three weeks of making all kinds of pumpkin puree.”

The team concentrated their efforts on pumpkins that didn’t need to be peeled, because, as Yogev informed me, most of the taste is in the peel. After the lengthy audition process, the kuri squash, a teardrop-shaped winter squash with edible red-orange skin, came out on top.

From there, other difficult choices had to be made. For instance, should it have a meringue topping or a layer of cream? (The decision: a layer of fluffy vanilla-flavored mascarpone.) How would it be decorated? (With toasted pecans, served on the side to both maintain the crunchy texture of the nuts and appeal to those who’d rather enjoy their portion of the pie sans pecans.)

At Rawsome Treats, there are two different kinds of pumpkin pie on the menu: a “traditional” pumpkin pie that combines plant-based ingredients like cashews, butternut squash, coconut oil, and carrot juice with fall spices for a raw take on the classic dessert and the Pumpkin Leche, which builds on the richness of the pumpkin with a layer of vanilla leche, a buttery almond crust, and a dusting of pumpkin spice.

And to add more interest to what would otherwise be too similar to a typical pumpkin pie, Brimeyer, working in collaboration with his team of bakers, landed on the solution of replacing the recipe’s brown sugar with maple syrup, resulting in Oggies’ popular Maple Pumpkin Sweetie Pie.

4. Find inspiration in your roots.

The day that I visited Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pie was one of the first bitterly cold days in November. Situated in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, the pie shop’s proximity to the Buttermilk Channel invited a relentless wind to whip through the outdoor-only seating area at breakneck speeds. The sun, ducking behind one cloud and then another as if too shy to show its face on that particular afternoon, offered little to no warmth.

Still, I was far from the only person who had traveled nearly a half-hour walk from the closest subway stop to eat one of Steve Tarpin’s legendary key lime pies. A group at the table next to me huddled together to share body heat as they ate their pies, while another family wandered off to see if the benches by Valentino Pier would be any warmer before soon returning to their original spot in defeat.

Tarpin’s key lime pies are not magical in the most literal sense of the word — on chilly days, they cannot bring the balmy weather of Key West, Florida to the peninsular corner of Brooklyn where Tarpin has been selling the iconic Florida dessert since 1995. And nor would that be a fair thing to expect any pie to do.

But surely, they must have some sort of magical touch in order to draw a steady stream of customers to the Red Hook pie shop no matter the temperature.

Or perhaps the success of Steve’s Authentic stems from Tarpin’s unwillingness to ever waver from his mission of authenticity, resulting in a far superior product to that which you’d find elsewhere, a pie so good that you’ll still savor it slowly even as your hands go numb from the cold.

Eating key lime pie as a kid left a lasting impression Tarpin, ultimately shaping the Miami native’s determination to serve a truly authentic key lime pie, always made with the freshly squeezed juice of real key limes.

“I think my first taste was on a Boy Scout trip down to the Keys in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. There used to be an old smokehouse selling fresh smoked fish and key lime pies,” said Tarpin. “Years later, I would make my own because it was difficult to find the real deal from local bakeries.”

Over the years, Tarpin’s basic five-ingredient recipe hasn’t budged, but there have been several changes to the ingredients themselves. As the business grew, safety regulations required him to switch from fresh raw eggs to pasteurized egg yolks for the unbaked filling. And due to the pandemic’s supply chain issues, Tarpin’s graham cracker crumb supplier raised the minimum order to a level that Steve’s Authentic is not able to meet. Currently, Tarpin is experimenting with making graham cracker crumbs in-house.

“It’s a bit daunting, but we’re excited to make this move. We’ve always invested in anything that would improve the quality. We’ll come out the other end of this with an even better, fresher product,” he said.

Just a couple neighborhoods away, a Park Slope resident with no formal training is serving some of the city’s best pies from a nondescript brownstone.

Occasionally, Molly Shepard will announce a stoop sale via Instagram and set up shop on the sidewalk, selling miniature pies for $8 and bigger ones for $25. For the larger pies, orders can also be placed through her website with a corresponding Venmo payment. The current flavors are listed on Shepard’s Instagram bio, but she’s happy to discuss custom requests over email.

If you want to try Shepard’s homemade pies, you’ll have to be quick on the draw. Thanksgiving pies were sold out by Nov. 14; the stoop stand is often completely cleared within an hour of opening.

The secret to her success? Shepard credits her grandmother’s pies as a major source of inspiration.

"My grandma made the best pies and had secret tricks to make them look and taste amazing. She in turn taught my mom, who then taught me the tricks of the trade," Shepard wrote on her website.

Much like Tarpin’s impetus to open a key lime pie shop came from his unsuccessful attempts to find an authentic version in New York City, Shepard found that nearly every pie she tried, whether at a restaurant or from a farm stand, was overwhelmed by the preservatives used to extend its shelf life. So she took matters into her own hands and launched Molly’s Pies in November of 2020. Her goal is to remind people of the pies that their own grandmothers used to make. And although her pies, just like Grandma’s, may not last as long as store-bought options, the lack of preservatives means that they’re far too tasty to hold onto for more than two or three days anyway.

The dessert menu at Purple Yam, a Pan-Asian restaurant with a focus on traditional Filipino fare, is the type to tempt even those diners too full for another bite with a wide variety of sweet dishes popular in the Philippines. Choosing just one option may prove difficult, but you can’t go wrong with the buko pie.

For 26 years now, Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan have been sharing their love of Filipino food with New Yorkers, first with the 1995 opening of Cendrillon in Manhattan’s SoHo and then with the move to Purple Yam in the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn after closing Cendrillon in 2009. At both locations, the married couple has emphasized not only Dorotan’s cooking but a level of hospitality that creates a welcoming environment beyond that of your usual restaurant.

Buko pie has been on the menu since Cendrillon, and at both of the couple’s restaurants, the pie has stayed fairly true to its traditional form found in the Philippines.

The invention of buko pie is typically credited to the Pahud sisters, who resided in the Laguna province in the Philippines. According to the pie’s most common origin story, one of the sisters had become enamored with apple pie while working in the United States, but she was unable to find the fruit upon returning to the Philippines.

A typical recipe for the Laguna specialty mimics the substitution that the Pahud sisters made in the absence of their intended fruit. Rather than apples, the filling is made from young coconut, known as “buko” in the Tagalog language and giving the pie its name. Buko differs from mature coconuts in the consistency of its flesh, which is soft and jelly-like. It can be scraped off with a spoon, whereas the hard flesh of a mature coconut is most easily removed with a grater.

Orders of buko pie at Purple Yam come topped with macapuno ice cream. And at their second location of Purple Yam in Malate, a district of Manilla in the Philippines, Besa and Dorotan launched a widespread trend when they added a layer of ube haleya, or purple yam jam, to the bottom of their buko pie.

Because of the pandemic, Purple Yam’s Malate location is currently operating as a takeout and delivery outpost with a focus on desserts. The buko-ube haleya pie has been their bestseller.

5. Let the natural flavors shine.

If you’re using high-quality ingredients in your pies, there’s consensus among professional bakers that you should allow those ingredients to bask in the spotlight.

Sometimes, it’s this mentality that allows sugar-laden store-bought pies to triumph over pies from specialty baked goods in blind taste tests.

If a pie so sweet that it hurts your teeth is your preference, I’m not here to change your mind. But maybe a Sweetie Pie from Oggies could.

“It doesn’t have to be packed with tons of sugar to taste good,” said Brimeyer. “I like a pie where you can minimize the amount of sugar. It allows the other flavors to shine through, and I think that’s the best way to make a pie.”

Yogev’s approach to the kuri squash pumpkin pie at Liv Breads also aims to put the dessert’s star ingredient at the forefront. “This year, we chose to emphasize the pumpkin taste, so we lowered the amount of spices. I think that is what gives this pumpkin pie a very fresh aftertaste,” he said.

6. And don’t neglect the crust.

The price of frozen pie crusts is up 20% this year, but you likely wouldn’t want to use that anyway. Ask any baker what differentiates an incredible pie from an average pie, and they’re almost guaranteed to mention the crust in their answer.

“I think you need to start with a great crust,” said Brimeyer. “If the crust is great, that crust is going to hold up whatever kind of pie you decide to make.”

Yogev shared this sentiment. “Usually, when you use a pie with a liquid filling, you’ll end up with a really thick crust, like a biscuit. But we wanted it so that it melts in your mouth,” he said of the kuri squash pumpkin pie.

To complement the filling of Liv Bread’s seasonal special, Yogev settled on a French-style shortbread crust. Playing around with the proportions of flour and butter allowed Yogev to perfect the formula for a flaky, melt-in-your-mouth pie crust that would still be strong enough to support the filling without breaking.

If it's your first time making pie crust from scratch, try to release any expectations about how it'll turn out. And if it's your 50th time? Well, it's still not a bad idea to release your expectations. Even for the professionals, the pie making process is a constant journey of dreaming up new combinations of ingredients and then refining the recipes to find the formula that will ultimately allow them to breathe life into their mind's creations. On this endless route of experimentation, there is often no final destination in mind, but there are plenty of sweet stops along the way.

Bake better pies this holiday season by embracing the joy of experimentation (2024)
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