Pumpkin Gingersnap Pie
Photo: Anna Williams
It looms at the end of the Thanksgiving feast, the Thing That Shall Be Eaten before satiety does you in. Pie is as iconic a part of the holiday menu as the turkey itself. But even an icon needs shaking up from time to time. So this year, we tinkered with the formula, playing with the components until each dessert was as delicious as it could be—the crusts crisp and tender, the fillings meltingly sublime, the toppings fresh and surprising. Then we recombined them in unexpected ways.

Pie was overdue for a makeover. It has graced our kitchens for thousands of years, and not just as a holiday treat. Pie once offered cooks a practical way to bake and store all kinds of perishable ingredients. Meat, game, fish, fruits, vegetables, grains, and spices, along with more familiar fillings like berries, nuts, and custards, were mixed and matched in piecrusts that could be more than an inch thick. If fat was poured into a hole in the crust's lid after baking, the contents could be preserved for months. Small, folded-over hand pies were given to travelers and field laborers, who kept them stashed safely in their pockets or rucksacks until mealtime—a messy-sounding practice, until you realize that the crusts were probably more like papier-mâché shells than the flaky delicacies we admire today.

America didn't invent pie—ancient Egypt gets credit for that. We didn't even come up with the most outrageous ones, a distinction that belongs to medieval Europe, where, for the delight of dinner guests, piecrusts were baked hollow in fanciful shapes, then filled with live birds or frogs that would burst out when the dish was cut into. "Four and 20 blackbirds..." isn't just a nursery rhyme after all.

But America is the country that truly embraced pie. Over open hearths and in cast-iron stoves, New World cooks baked partridge pies, lobster pies, squirrel pies, macaroni pies, and quichelike fiddlehead-fern pies. They'd follow a meal of savory pie with a dessert of, say, buttermilk pie. Or raisin pie. Or gooey, molasses-rich shoofly pie. So ubiquitous was pie that a character in a 19th-century tale griped about sitting down to "pie 21 times a week." And a British journalist visiting the United States in 1882 wrote, "Almost everything that I behold in this wonderful country bears traces of improvement and reform—everything except pie.... Men may come and men may go...but pie goes on forever."

As it turns out, "forever" lasted just a half century more. Homemade pie fell out of fashion about the time the Second World War came to an end and convenience elbowed its way into our diets. But pie is a marvel, which is why we've revived its anything-goes spirit—not with shellfish or live frogs, no. But with fresh ideas designed to maximize the tastiest parts and minimize the overload, on both your time and your appetite. Our pecan pie becomes bite-size truffles, for example, and our apple pie turns up as a warm apple compote with crisp pastry cookies served alongside. There's a quince tart for those who prefer their sweets a bit less sweet, and even a chocolate pie for anyone who ever balked at the unholy notion of giving thanks for a meal without chocolate waiting at the end of it. All in all, we've given you seven inarguable reasons to turn down a second helping of stuffing this Thanksgiving and save plenty of room for dessert.

Bottomless Lemon Meringue Get the recipes:
7 Desserts to Give Thanks For