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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

With Thanksgiving just a couple of days away, you've probably already got the turkey and fixings going. But when it comes to desserts, if you'd consider a change from pumpkin or pecan pie, how about indulging in some Thanksgiving treats from yesteryear?

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: To help us explore some of our culinary past, Chris Kimball, host of the public television show "America's Test Kitchen." We joined him in his test kitchen just outside Boston to take us through the rich history of holiday treats.

Mr. CHRIS KIMBALL (Host, "America's Test Kitchen"): We went back and wondered what people actually ate for Thanksgiving, going back over 100 years. We didn't make up any of this.

MONTAGNE: So the desserts we're going to be tasting, these are old recipes done as they would have been done in their own moment.

Mr. KIMBALL: That's correct.

MONTAGNE: And here they are, laid out before us, ready for us to put each dessert through a rigorous taste test, judging with our pallets and the patent-pending MORNING EDITION taste-o-meter. A delicious confection gets a�

(Soundbite of bell chime)

MONTAGNE: A less-than-tasty offering gets a�

(Soundbite of buzzer)

MONTAGNE: So, time to begin our excursion through holiday dessert history.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KIMBALL: In the 19th century, mincemeat pie was the thing you found most often on the table. And it turns out, mincemeat pie is actually made with meat.

MONTAGNE: Which will be a surprise to a lot of people.

Mr. KIMBALL: Back in the early 19th century, you just didn't go buy, you know, a steak for one. You had to buy a large piece of meat. And you cook it, and then you had to preserve it, because it went bad. So you would soak it in rum. You would add candy fruits to it, spices, sugar.

MONTAGNE: I think for the American palate, I'm not sure that the idea of sweet meat is going to be an obvious one. But it is�

Mr. KIMBALL: So I shouldn't start a series of bakeries called Sweet Meats? Come on.

MONTAGNE: Well, but it obvious - but it was a hugely popular dish.

Mr. KIMBALL: Absolutely.

MONTAGNE: Shall we take a taste?

Mr. KIMBALL: Sure.

MONTAGNE: It looks appetizing enough: a tiny pie with a brown, sugary filling bubbling through a golden crust. As for the taste�

(Soundbite of bell chime)

MONTAGNE: That's wonderful.

Mr. KIMBALL: Isn't that good?

MONTAGNE: And I was hitting meat, right? It's not hidden in the center or anything like that.

Mr. KIMBALL: No. So that was a hit?

MONTAGNE: It came out perfect. I'd say so, yeah. I like it. Now I can tell I'm eating meat.

Mr. KIMBALL: So the culinary time machine's working for you?

MONTAGNE: So far.

Mr. KIMBALL: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Let's stay in the 1800s for our next dessert, a treat named after the Russian diplomat Count Nesselrode. It's a frozen concoction called Nesselrode Pudding.

Mr. KIMBALL: It's based on chestnuts, and there'd be also currants, raisins. Sometimes candied fruit would also go into it. It was one of the most popular desserts of the 19th century.

MONTAGNE: And, I mean, no disrespect to Count Nesselrode, it seems a little raw-looking. In other words, to describe it, it's a little like vanilla ice cream in a circle with white�

Mr. KIMBALL: With specks in it.

MONTAGNE: With specks in it of undetermined origin. I guess I would think you would want to drizzle something across the top if you were doing it today.

Mr. KIMBALL: Or serve it in a very dark dining room. Well, I'm going to take a lick.

MONTAGNE: And how did Nesselrode Pudding rate with Chris and the MORNING EDITION taste-o-meter?

(Soundbite of buzzer)

(Soundbite of coughing)

Mr. KIMBALL: I would say�

MONTAGNE: Hm.

Mr. KIMBALL: I like the chestnut flavor.

MONTAGNE: You'd probably have to like things with preserved fruit in them, going in.

Mr. KIMBALL: It's a very, very old-fashioned recipe.

MONTAGNE: If only out of curiosity, you might want to try Nesselrode Pudding. All of today's recipes, plus a few more are at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Flash-forward now to the 1950s and a dessert that mixes substance with questionable style.

Mr. KIMBALL: This is mid-20th century horror. This was from the Dole Pineapple Company that was trying to sell canned rings of pineapple. And they decided they needed a Thanksgiving dessert, so they came up with - I can't believe I found this - a mock plum pudding. It's based on gelatin. It has melted chocolate in it, dates and walnuts in it as well, which goes along with a traditional plum pudding. And then you surrounded it with alternating green and red preserved cherries.

MONTAGNE: I mean, and a color not known in nature.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yes.

MONTAGNE: We are talking about red and green maraschino-style cherries looking very much like pearls around perhaps the neck of Doris Day.

Mr. KIMBALL: It looks like it was filmed in Technicolor. Remember the late '50s, that saturated color? That's what it is.

MONTAGNE: And the taste?

(Soundbite of buzzer)

MONTAGNE: Ooh, Chris, there's something really�

Mr. KIMBALL: I know.

MONTAGNE: �preserved on the inside here, like, a preserved�

Mr. KIMBALL: Make sure you don't get one with cherries in it.

MONTAGNE: Should I be eating a cherry for the whole affect?

Mr. KIMBALL: I wouldn't. I think this is consistent in taste and looks.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Skipping ahead a few decades to today, and an "America's Test Kitchen" original: Skillet Apple Pie - so simple, Chris Kimball's going to make it for us right now.

(Soundbite of chopping and skillet clanging)

Mr. KIMBALL: All right. So we have a skillet with two tablespoons of butter. And we have two-and-a-half pounds of cored, skinned, sliced apples.

MONTAGNE: Start by melting the butter, then add the apples.

Mr. KIMBALL: And, you know, we'll toss a few times, and our objective is simply to brown the apples.

MONTAGNE: You're browning apples the way you'd brown potatoes. They've got a nice little brown edge to them.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah. And they have a lot of sugar in them, so they'll brown nicely. That's why you saute anything, is to add flavor.

MONTAGNE: Next, pour in a mixture that includes apple cider, maple syrup and cinnamon.

(Soundbite of pounding)

MONTAGNE: Then it's time to make the crust. Roll out some dough and place it like a blanket over the apples in the skillet.

Mr. KIMBALL: There you go. It's pretty simple. Throw it in the oven.

MONTAGNE: And the oven, again, is?

Mr. KIMBALL: We're in a 500-degree oven.

MONTAGNE: And 20 minutes later, the skillet apple pie is done.

(Soundbite of bell chime)

MONTAGNE: Mm. That's wonderful.

Mr. KIMBALL: Isn't that good? What sold me, it's really caramelized, almost. And I love the maple syrup in it. That's also really nice. So, you know, it's an easy apple pie for Thanksgiving or any time of year.

MONTAGNE: And that brings us to the end of our tour of Thanksgiving desserts. Time now to tally up the score.

Mr. KIMBALL: If we had to pick a winner, it would mincemeat pie. It's really good, and I think also the meat balances the sweetness with the fruit. I mean, it's just a great balance.

MONTAGNE: The close runner up is skillet apple pie, and in last place, the mock plum pudding.

Mr. KIMBALL: What can I say about mock plum pudding with the cherries? I mean, you just have to admire it as sort of a cultural icon.

MONTAGNE: And you have to also be thinking, if you're going to do this, you really have to go all out.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah. Or�

MONTAGNE: Costuming, decorations.

Mr. KIMBALL: Or take a picture and send it as an attachment to you email, but don't eat it.

(Soundbite of song, "Que Sera Sera")

MONTAGNE: Well, Chris, happy Thanksgiving.

Mr. KIMBALL: Same to you.

MONTAGNE: And I'll be thinking about you on my Thanksgiving, because I'm making the skillet apple pie.

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, I'll do the grilled mincemeat.

MONTAGNE: OK.

Mr. KIMBALL: And we'll call each other.

MONTAGNE: Deal. OK.

Mr. KIMBALL: We'll compare notes.

(Soundbite of song, "Que Sera Sera")

MONTAGNE: Chris Kimball, who joins us every Thanksgiving, is host of the public television show, "America's Test Kitchen." And here's to the sweet tradition of the holiday.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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