It’s a part of every Thanksgiving spread.
No, we’re not talking about turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce or mac and cheese, though those are most welcome around any table.
We’re talking about the stuff you’re really looking forward to once you make it through all of that — the pie.
But when the fall holiday rolls around, you’re stuck with the decision of which delicious, sweet, long-awaited pie to choose. You’ve got to pick between pumpkin or pecan, assuming you don’t spring for both.
“I mean, in the battle between the two, I would definitely say that pecan pie wins out,” said Amanda Wilbanks, owner of Southern Baked Pie Co., which has a location in Gainesville. “It's our No. 1 seller at Thanksgiving. I think pumpkin pie is traditional and it's something that you need to have on your table, but I think if you had to pick between the two, which one tastes the best, I think people would go with pecan for sure. Especially in the South.”
Wilbanks is the expert on pies — she’s built a career and more than a little fame around it. And the trick to making a good pecan pie, she said, is twofold. First, it’s important to roast the nuts you’re using before you mix them into the filling.
“It releases the natural flavors and it just makes it a little more nutty and gives your pie a little bit of a deeper, richer flavor,” Wilbanks said.
After roasting the nuts, she said her trick for getting a gooey filling is to boil the sugar and corn syrup, not just combine them with a whisk.
“It gives you a more caramelized sauce rather than just throwing it in the bowl,” Wilbanks said. “You actually cook the sugar and Karo to give you that great flavor.”
If you’re going for the less popular but almost-as-delicious pumpkin pie, though, it’s best to keep things simple.
Wilbanks said you just need to make sure there’s the right amount of spice inside.
“A lot of people try to do nutmeg and cinnamon and all of it separate, but I think just using a good pumpkin pie spice and giving it that little kick is the way to go,” Wilbanks said.
And since pumpkin pie “can sometimes be a little basic,” she said to “jazz it up” with a nice topping — maybe a bourbon-infused whipped cream, caramelized nuts or brown sugar. At Southern Baked, they do a brown sugar pecan streusel on top.
But don’t get too fancy. That's where some at-home bakers go wrong. Sometimes, simple is better. Whether it’s with pumpkin or pecan pie or even apple or cherry pie, as long as you’re working with good ingredients, the pie will speak for itself.
“You don't need a ton of flavors if you work with good products,” Wilbanks said. “You don't have to do all the funky stuff. Just keep it simple and traditional.”
For Wilbanks, traditional doesn't necessarily look like pecan and pumpkin pie. It looks more like her mother-in-law’s sweet potato praline casserole. That’s become a staple at her Thanksgiving. She said it’s always important to bring in family recipes to the holidays, because they’re often the best and most loved.
“We have that every single Thanksgiving as a side dish,” Wilbanks said. “And I always incorporate my grandmother's sweet potato pie. I know, I do both. I have sweet potato casserole and sweet potato pie, but one is spicy with the fall flavors of nutmeg and cinnamon and the other one is just butter and sweet potatoes and sugar. Simple and sweet.”
If you’ll be sticking with pie, though, Wilbanks said the base is the most important part. Everything starts with a good crust and the only way you're going to get that is by making it on your own.
She said it’s as simple as using flour, butter, sugar, salt and water. She only uses all-purpose White Lily flour and just a little salt and sugar to “balance each other out.” She likes unsalted Land O’Lakes’ butter for her crusts because of its low water content.
“The key is to not add too much water to your pastry,” Wilbanks said. “If you do, you'll end up with a tough, kind of brittle pastry.”
And since being thankful for and with family is the whole point of Thanksgiving, she said to prepare things ahead of time. As long as the pie filling is shelf stable, you can make it all a couple days in advance.
“People try to do everything themselves on the day of Thanksgiving,” Wilbanks said. “But if you can prep a couple of dishes ahead of time … it starts making things easier for you so you can enjoy your guests as opposed to slaving over the stove and the oven.”
Sweet Potato Praline Casserole
3 cups cooked sweet potatoes (approx. 4 large sweet potatoes)
8 tablespoons melted butter, divided in half
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Praline Topping Ingredients
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup melted butter
3/4 cup chopped pecans
Peel sweet potatoes. Cut into quarter-inch thick slices. Place slices on a parchment lined sheet pan. Brush slices with a mixture of half the melted butter and cream. Bake slices in a preheated oven at 325 degrees for approximately 25 minutes or until fork tender. Mash slices with a potato masher.
Mix sweet potatoes, brown sugar, reserved 4 tablespoons butter, eggs, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and cloves together in a large mixing bowl. Place mixture in a 10x7 inch glass dish that has been sprayed with nonstick spray.
In a separate bowl, mix praline topping ingredients. Sprinkle mixture over sweet potato casserole. Bake in a preheated oven at 325 degrees for 30-35 minutes