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Pass The Dessert: America's Thanksgiving Recipes

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Pass The Dessert: America's Thanksgiving Recipes

Pass The Dessert: America's Thanksgiving Recipes

Pass The Dessert: America's Thanksgiving Recipes

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Pumpkin pear pie

Pumpkin pear pie Emily Ochsenschlager/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Ochsenschlager/NPR
Rolled up cornucopia sponge-cake dessert

Rolled up cornucopia sponge-cake dessert Emily Ochsenschlager/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Ochsenschlager/NPR
Skillet Apple Pie

Skillet Apple Pie Emily Ochsenschlager/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Ochsenschlager/NPR
mock plum pudding

For many of us, Thanksgiving is linked to memories of turkey, stuffing and cranberry dressing. But a culinary history of the "other" American holiday shows that a rich variety of desserts have been in and out of fashion over the decades. Chris Kimball of America's Test Kitchen features Thanksgiving favorites from days gone by.

For many of us, Thanksgiving evokes memories of turkey and cranberry dressing. But a culinary review of the "other" American holiday finds that a rich variety of desserts have shared the table with sweet potatoes and stuffing. Chris Kimball of America's Test Kitchen talks with NPR's Renee Montagne about Thanksgiving favorites from days gone by -- and how to make them.

Old-Fashioned Mincemeat Pies

Old-Fashioned Mincemeat Pies
Emily Ochsenschlager / NPR

Early Thanksgiving Table

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American cookery before the Civil War was, to a large extent, about food preservation, as there was little refrigeration. Most foods were local; railroads had not yet been built out from coast to coast. Mince pie is part of that tradition. Beef was a large part of the American diet, and there was always a great deal of leftover cooked beef. Mince pie was an obvious and easy way to use leftovers creatively. A real mince pie was more than just dried fruit and spices; it was based on leftover meat that was minced and combined with spices, rum, dried fruit and sugar. The process helped preserve the meat, which was an added benefit. Mince pie was so much part of the culinary landscape in the early days of the republic that it even made its way into song:

Can she make mince pies, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make mince pies, Billy Boy?
Yes she can make mince pies
Quick's a cat can wink its eyes;
But she's a young thing and cannot leave her mother.


  • 1 pound venison or lean beef, boiled and chopped
  • 4 ounces suet
  • 1 pound tart apples, peeled, cored, and chopped fine
  • 3/4 cup beef broth (or reserved cooking liquid from meat)
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup cider
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • Juice from one lemon
  • Juice from one orange
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • Pie:
  • Pastry dough for 9-inch double-crust pie
  • 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
  • Makes a dozen mini pies


  1. For the filling: In large stock pot or Dutch oven, combine all ingredients except brandy and bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add brandy and cool to room temperature.
  2. For the pies: Place oven rack in middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees.
  3. Roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness and cut into 12 4-inch circles and 12 2-inch circles.
  4. Line standard capacity muffin tin with larger circles, pressing dough firmly into pan edges; chill for 30 minutes if dough becomes soft.
  5. Fill each cup to the top with about 1/3 cup mincemeat, top with smaller dough circles, then cut a slit or small circle in the center of each. Brush with egg white and bake until dough is golden brown and filling is bubbling, about 30 minutes.
  6. Cool on wire rack 15 minutes, remove pies from pan, and continue to cool another 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thanksgiving Cornucopia

Thanksgiving Spongecake Cornucopia
Emily Ochsenschlager / NPR

The Victorian Age

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Desserts of the late 19th century often featured sponge cakes -- and they liked to play with their desserts to "fancy them up" as is the case with this recipe for Thanksgiving sponge cakes, found in The Boston Globe from Nov. 25, 1896. One baked individual rounds of sponge cake in 5-inch tins, took them out and rolled them slightly, put them into paper cornucopias made from writing paper, and then filled them with colored whipped cream and perhaps a bit of jelly as well. This is classic Victorian cooking from the age of Fannie Farmer.


  • 6 large eggs, separated
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 2/3 cup sugar, divided
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
  • Filling
  • 2 cups heavy cream chilled, preferably pasteurized or pasteurized organic
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 to 3 drops red food coloring
  • 1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled slightly


  1. For the cake: Place oven rack in middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease and flour 2 6-inch cake pans, line with parchment paper circles, and set aside. Cut four 12-inch squares of parchment paper in half diagonally to form 8 triangles. Fold each triangle into a cone about 3 inches across and tape to secure. Place upright into eight drinking glasses and set aside.
  2. Place egg whites and salt in bowl of standing mixer and beat at medium-high speed until frothy. Add 1/3 cup sugar in slow, steady stream and continue beating until mixture forms stiff peaks. Transfer whites to large bowl and wipe out mixing bowl. Add yolks, remaining sugar, water, and vanilla to now empty bowl and beat on medium-high speed until pale yellow and thick. Add yolk mixture to whites and sift 1/3 of cake flour over top.
  3. Gently fold batter until traces of flour remain, then repeat twice more with remaining flour. Scrape 1 cup batter unto each pan and smooth to edges of pan. Bake 7 to 8 minutes, until edges of cake are just turning brown and top has set.
  4. Run spatula around edges of cake to loosen and dust tops with confectioner's sugar. Flip each cake out of pan, remove parchment paper, and quickly roll cake into cone shape. Drop each cake into parchment cone and let cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Wipe out each cake pan, grease, flour, and line with parchment paper, and repeat 3 times with remaining cake batter.
  5. For the filling: Chill deep bowl and beaters of electric mixer in freezer for at least 20 minutes. (If freezer is too crowded to fit bowl, place beaters in bowl, fill bowl with ice water, and chill on counter. When bowl and beaters are well chilled, dump out water and dry thoroughly.)
  6. Add cream, sugar and vanilla to chilled bowl. Beat on low speed until small bubbles form, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium and continue beating until beaters leave a trail, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to high and continue beating until cream is smooth, thick and nearly doubled in volume, about 20 seconds for soft peaks or about 30 seconds for stiff peaks. If necessary, finish beating with whisk to adjust consistency.
  7. In 3 small bowls, divide cream evenly into thirds, setting one aside. To another, add a couple drops of red food coloring add fold gently to combine evenly. To last third, gently fold in melted chocolate until combined. Remove parchment paper from cake cones, fill each with desired cream and arrange on serving platter, seam-side up. Dust with confectioner's sugar and serve immediately.

Nesselrode Pudding

Nesselrode Pudding
Emily Ochsenschlager / NPR

Early 20th Century

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Named after a Russian diplomat, Count Nesselrode, this is a chestnut pudding made by mixing a chestnut puree with a sweet custard, lightened either with whipped egg whites or whipped cream. The mixture is then poured into a mold, decorated with glaceed fruits, steamed and served with a fruit syrup.


  • 4 ounces candied fruit, cut into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup sherry
  • 1/2 cup dried currants
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup chestnut puree
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons rum
  • 1 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
  • 1/2 cup shredded pineapple, drained
  • Makes 6 to 8 servings


  1. In a small bowl, combine candied fruits and sherry and macerate for 30 minutes. In separate small bowl, cover currants and raisins with boiling water, and let sit until plumped and softened, about 30 minutes; drain well and let cool.
  2. In medium bowl, whisk yolks, sugar, chestnut puree, vanilla and rum together until pale yellow and thickened, and then fold in whipped cream. Freeze in ice cream machine according to manufacturer's directions, until frozen but still soft.
  3. Add fruits, raisins and pineapple, folding gently, then scrape mixture into mold and freeze until firm, 24 hours. To serve, unmold onto chilled platter and decorate with whipped cream if desired.

Cranberry Chiffon Pie

Cranberry Chiffon Pie
Emily Ochsenschlager / NPR


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Chiffon pies usually require no cooking and are refrigerator pies, usually thickened with gelatin (think key lime pie). This variation is made for Thanksgiving -- after all, it features cranberries.


  • 1 envelope gelatin
  • 1 cup cranberry juice
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup corn syrup
  • 1 baked 9-inch pie shell


  1. In small saucepan, sprinkle gelatin over cranberry juice and let stand 5 minutes. Over low heat, add sugar to pan and cook until dissolved, stirring constantly.
  2. Remove from heat, pour into medium bowl and add lemon zest; chill until slightly thickened (should have jam-like consistency).
  3. In bowl of standing mixer, beat whites with salt until stiff, then add corn syrup in a slow, steady stream. Continue beating until stiff and glossy.
  4. Fold whites into cranberry mixture, scrape into pie shell and chill until completely set, about 3 hours, or up to 1 day ahead.

Mock Plum Pudding On Pineapple Slices

Mock Plum Pudding
Emily Ochsenschlager / NPR

1950s through the 1970s

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Studies done by Woman's Day, California State University at Long Beach and the University of Arizona in the early 1970s found that 43 percent of the respondents served molded Jell-O salads at Thanksgiving -- a larger percentage than served wine. Although these recipes were considered either a side dish or a “salad,” they could also be served as a dessert, as in this truly horrendous offering from the Dole Co. However, it is an excellent example of mid-20th century culinary butchery.


  • 1 envelope gelatin
  • 3 tablespoons cold water
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 3/4 cup chopped dates
  • 1/4 cup chopped candied citron
  • 6 slices pineapple
  • Red and green candied cherries for garnish
  • Whipped cream for garnish
  • Makes 6 servings


  1. Sprinkle gelatin over water in small bowl and let sit for 5 minutes.
  2. In small saucepan, combine milk and sugar together, and cook over medium-low heat until sugar has dissolved and mixture begins to simmer.
  3. Place chocolate into medium bowl, and pour hot milk over top; whisk until chocolate has melted and mixture is smooth.
  4. Add gelatin and whisk until dissolved. Chill until mixture just begins to thicken, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Add walnuts, dates and citron and fold until well combined. Divide mixture evenly between 6 ramekins and chill until completely set, at least 3 hours.
  6. On serving platter or individual plates, arrange pineapple rings and unmold one pudding onto each; garnish with whipped cream and decorate the base with cherries.

Pear And Pumpkin Pie

Pear and Pumpkin Pie
Emily Ochsenchlager / NPR


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This recipe from Gourmet magazine reflects the upper end of the Thanksgiving dessert repertoire, when the desserts went from rustic and simple to elaborate and made for presentation. One poaches pears, places them on a partially baked pumpkin pie filling in the crust, finishes the baking and then serves with a ginger creme anglaise. Phew!


    Poached Pears
  • 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)
  • 4 cups dry red wine
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 firm-ripe pears, such as Bosc, peeled
  • Filling
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup apricot jam, heated and strained
  • Pie
  • Pastry dough for single-crust 9-inch pie
  • 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
  • Makes 8 servings


  1. For the poached pears: In large saucepan, combine first 6 ingredients and bring to boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low, add pears and simmer until firm-tender, about 20 minutes, turning occasionally. Cool pears in poaching liquid to room temperature, turning occasionally for even color, about 2 hours (pears can be made 1 day ahead and stored in poaching liquid in refrigerator overnight).
  2. Once cool, remove pears (reserve liquid for another use or discard), half lengthwise, and remove stems and core with melon-ball cutter. Cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick slices and set aside. Place oven rack in lower-middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees.
  3. Roll dough out to 12-inch circle. Fit into 9-inch pie plate and trim edge, leaving 1/2-inch overhang. Cut edge of dough with scissors every 1/2 inch to form curved points and brush with egg white. Chill shell 30 minutes.
  4. For the filling: In large bowl, whisk all filling ingredients together until well combined. Pour filling into chilled shell and bake until edges have puffed slightly but center is still liquid-y, about 35 minutes. Remove pie from oven; arrange pear slices decoratively on top of filling.
  5. Return pie to oven and bake until center is set but still jiggles, another 15 to 20 minutes. Cool pie on wire rack to room temperature, about 2 hours, and then brush pears with jam. Chill pie, covered loosely, at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours. Serve at room temperature with ginger creme anglaise.

Ginger Creme Anglaise


  • 1 3/4 cups half-and-half
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Makes about 2 cups


  1. In small saucepan, combine half-and-half, vanilla bean and ginger and heat over medium heat until mixture just reaches simmer; remove from heat and let sit for 30 minutes. Fill large bowl with ice and cool water, set medium bowl on top and fit with strainer; set aside.
  2. In medium bowl, whisk eggs and sugar together until thickened and fluffy. Slowly pour warm half-and-half mixture into eggs while whisking constantly. Return mixture to saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with heat-proof spatula or wooden spoon until mixture reaches 170 degrees. Immediately remove from heat and strain mixture into bowl set over ice bath. Stir until mixture cools to room temperature.
  3. Chill sauce, covered, at least 2 hours or up to 2 days ahead.

Skillet Apple Pie

Skillet Apple Pie
Emily Ochsenschlager / NPR

Test Kitchen variation, 2009

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Apple pie is an essential dish for Thanksgiving, yet it's perhaps the hardest dessert to master: making two layers of pie crust; getting flavor into the apples; making the filling sliceable but tasty; making the bottom crust crispy instead of soggy. Here's our quick and easy answer to the Apple Pie Problem. This recipe takes less than an hour to make, is foolproof and actually tastes better than the real thing (at least we think so).


  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (5 ounces), plus more for dusting work surface
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, chilled
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 3/4 tablespoons ice water
  • Filling
  • 1/2 cup apple cider (see note)
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 1/2 pounds sweet apples and tart apples (about 5 medium), peeled, cored, halved and cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges (see note)
  • Pie
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • Makes 6 to 8 servings


  1. For the crust: Pulse flour, sugar and salt in food processor until combined. Add shortening and process until mixture has texture of coarse sand, about ten 1-second pulses. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture and process until mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse crumbs, with butter bits no larger than small peas, about ten 1-second pulses. Transfer mixture to medium bowl.
  2. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons ice water over mixture. With blade of rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix. Press down on dough with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding up to 1 tablespoon more ice water if dough does not come together. Turn dough out onto sheet of plastic wrap and flatten into 4-inch disk. Wrap dough and refrigerate 30 minutes, or up to 2 days, before rolling out. (If dough is refrigerated longer than 1 hour, let stand at room temperature until malleable.)
  3. For the filling: Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position (between 7 and 9 inches from heating element) and heat oven to 500 degrees. Whisk cider, syrup, lemon juice, cornstarch, and cinnamon (if using) together in medium bowl until smooth. Heat butter in 12-inch heatproof skillet over medium-high heat. When foaming subsides, add apples and cook, stirring 2 or 3 times until apples begin to caramelize, about 5 minutes. (Do not fully cook apples.) Remove pan from heat, add cider mixture and gently stir until apples are well coated. Set aside to cool slightly.
  4. To assemble and bake: Roll out dough on lightly floured work surface, or between 2 large sheets of plastic wrap, to 11-inch circle. Roll dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll over apple filling in pan. Brush dough with egg white and sprinkle with sugar. With sharp knife, gently cut dough into 6 pieces by making 1 vertical cut followed by 2 evenly spaced horizontal cuts (perpendicular to first cut). Bake until apples are tender and crust is a deep golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes; serve.
  5. Notes: If your skillet is not heatproof, precook the apples and stir in the cider mixture as instructed, then transfer the apples to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Roll out the dough to a 13-by-9-inch rectangle, place on top of the apples, and bake as instructed. If you do not have apple cider, reduced apple juice may be used as a substitute: Simmer 1 cup apple juice in a small saucepan over medium heat until reduced to 1/2 cup (about 10 minutes).
  6. Serve the pie warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Use a combination of sweet, crisp apples such as Golden Delicious and firm, tart apples such as Cortland or Empire.
  7. Keys to a flaky, flavorful pie: 1. Caramelize Apples: Precook apples in butter to deepen their flavor. 2. Add Cider: Coat apples with 1/2 cup apple cider to create juicy, flavorful filling. 3. Cut Dough: Score before baking to allow juices to bubble up and caramelize around edges. 4. Bake in Hot Oven: Precooked apples need less time in oven than traditional apple pie.

from Cook's Illustrated, Sept. 2008


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