OK, then, enough about the crusts. Let's talk filling, or what the settlers & pioneers called pie timber--the good stuff that gives the crust a reason for living. The Thanksgiving must-have pies in my house are apple, pumpkin, and cranberry, so that's what we'll be discussing here today.
First off, the cranberry, since it's the least well known. The original recipe came from Martha Stewart, way way back before she was such a big deal, and seems to pull in elements of her Eastern European heritage--a buttery crust similar to Polish walnut cookies, and a tart berry filling topped with whipped cream that's an American version of kissel, the Russian fruit-and-cream parfait. Tweaked around, it's become a family fave for several reasons. The glistening ruby-red color is simply gorgeous. Since it needs to chill ahead of time, it can be made the night before and tucked out of the way (always a plus). And finally, it's the best excuse I know to eat a lot of whipped cream, which balances the tart-bitter of the cranberries perfectly. The walnut tart crust is a crunchy and pleasant change from the usual deal, and adding a hit of tangerine keeps it from tasting too much like cranberry sauce in a crust.
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
3 TB sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 stick (4 oz) butter, softened
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1-2 TB water (optional)
Mix walnuts, sugar and flour together in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, mix and mash in the butter (this is more like a cookie dough than a typical pie crust). Stir in egg yolk and vanilla to form a dough, adding water as necessary. Chill dough for 1 hour.
Press into a pie pan. Preheat oven to 350F and bake until light golden and firm, about 20-25 minutes. Let cool before filling.
1 envelope (1 TB) unflavored powdered gelatin (like Knox)
3 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (cranberries freeze like a dream, so I'd advise stocking up now while they're plentiful so you can enjoy them all winter long)
1 1/4 cup sugar
rind and juice of 1 tangerine (you may not need all the rind--add half first, then more if you want a stronger orange flavor)
2 TB water
a splash of good orange liqueur, if you like (Grand Marnier or Cointreau, not the cheap stuff that tastes like baby aspirin)
Whipped cream for serving
Soften gelatin in 1/4 cup water. In a saucepan, combine cranberries, sugar, rind and juice, and water, and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes, until berries have popped and mixture is thick. Remove pan, cool slightly, then stir in gelatine and liqueur. Let cool to room temp, taste for sweetness (adding more sugar or liqueur as desired) then spread in pie crust. Chill. Served with fresh whipped cream.
Now, pumpkin. You know what's coming here, don't you? Put away that can opener! I don't know what kind of large, watery, fatuous squash they use over at the Libby's factory, but you can make any pumpkin pie instantly better by using butternut squash.
Just poke your squash with a few good holes (so it doesn't explode in the oven), stick it on a baking sheet and bake at around 350F until it's soft and nearly collapsing. Let cool, then slice in half and scrape out the seeds and goo. Put the flesh into a colander and let drain for a little while. Then push it through a strainer (an annoying task that will make you start thinking fondly of those orange cans), crank it through a food mill (much more fun!) or buzz it in your food processor. Whatever--get it smooth and bob's your uncle. Now you can launch into your fave recipe--usually some variation on a custard, with eggs, cream/evaporated milk, spices, and brown sugar/white sugar/molasses. I usually like to parbake my bottom crust a little, to prevent sogginess, but don't bake it too long, otherwise the second baking will turn it into cement. Also, underbake the pie a little. The center should still have some jiggle, since it will continue baking as it cools. Giving it a little wiggle room for this will keep your finished pie from looking like Olema after the 1906 earthquake.
(Have I mentioned how boring I find pumpkin pie? I take pride in making a less-sucky one than most--the fresh squash really does add a fluffy lightness--but I agree that the best pumpkin pie isn't that much different from the worst. However, many people seem to go insane without it. But if you're all pie-ed out, skip the whole crust deal and just bake the filling in a souffle dish popped in a baking dish of hot water--the bain-marie method--and serve it as pumpkin custard.)
And now, finally, the piece de resistance, APPLE. Most important are your apples. You need fresh, tasty, non-mush-disintegrating apples. Macintoshes--too soft. Granny Smiths--too hard. Northern Spies, Rhode Island Greenings, and Pippins are all longstanding East Coast pie apples, but really I like to stand at the farmers markets bins and mix and match. I would say Galas, Fujis, and Red Delicious are all way too bland and watery for pies, but otherwise, suit your own taste.
My one apple-pie trick is to toss the apples (peeled, cored, and sliced) with some raw sugar, spices, and a pinch of salt, then let them stand for 30 minutes. The sugar will draw the excess water out of the apples, so you can avoid an excessively juicy pie without having to use tons of thickener. Drain off the liquid and boil it down with a good pat of butter until it's nearly syrupy. Sprinkle the apples slices with a little cornstarch or flour, toss to mix, then add the syrup. Mix all together and pile into your crust. (I adore raisins in my apple pie filling, but that's because it's tradition chez PQ). Bake until crust is well browned and filling is spattering and bubbly--here at PQ Castle, a pie's not done until the bottom of the oven is smoking.