Thanksgiving 101

The Essential Dessert Handbook

Updated on 05. Nov. 2020
Sweet Potato Pie: A Thanksgiving favorite
Sweet Potato Pie: A Thanksgiving favorite

Come Thanksgiving, many people savor the desserts even more than the roast turkey. Pie, of course, is the iconic holiday sweet, but it would be a shame to stop there when there are crisps and cobblers, tortes and cakes (notably cheesecake) and even cookies to go with. All can feature the flavors of the season: fresh and dried fruits, toasted nuts, warming spices and chocolate (always in season). It's also fun to tweak tradition and create something utterly unexpected: Cupcakes decorated like turkeys? Why not! After all, having a selection of desserts will encourage everyone to linger at the table, in the Thanksgiving spirit. ​

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Thanksgiving Sweet Spot

You'll want to give Thanksgiving desserts the same consideration as the turkey and trimmings, especially since these sweets are likely what people will remember most. If you like, recruit some of your guests to bring their favorite desserts (or maybe you are that guest who is bringing a dessert) to ensure a variety--and to help lighten your load. There are other ways to make the holiday baking preparations more manageable, too, starting with a few dos and don'ts of the day.


  • Go with desserts (or components, like pie dough) that can be prepared in advance.
  • Look for no-bake or quick and easy recipes.
  • Strike a balance in taste, texture and appearance.
  • Pick recipes and techniques that you are comfortable with; now is not the time to try something totally unfamiliar.


  • Decide on a dessert that's especially labor-intensive, unless you are only making the dessert (in which case: go for it!)
  • Choose more than one or two desserts that require last-minute tending-to.
  • Load up on too many rich desserts, since the meal itself is rich enough.
  • Forget to calculate in available refrigerator space if making desserts that require chilling.

Keep these general guidelines in mind as you plot your dessert menu (or cherry-pick the one you'll be supplying) from the following options.

More Pie, Please

It's hard to imagine Thanksgiving without pie, especially when there are so many delicious versions. For starters, you can't go wrong with good ole' apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies, and there are as many variations on each pie as there are bakers. If you're feeling adventurous, look beyond the traditional trio to discover a world of pies that are ripe for the baking this holiday or in the years to come. See also How to Make Pie Dough Like a Pro and Pie Crust Primer for some hands-on tips and techniques to bake pies by.

Perennial favorites

Update the fillings

Switch up the crusts

  • Crushed cookie crusts (like graham cracker crust for cheesecake) are a great no-rolling-required option; think gingersnaps for pumpkin pie.
  • Ground nuts can also be used to form crusts, when mixed with sugar, butter and flour or oats. Two to try: Lemon Tarts with Nut Crust
  • Another press-in-the-pan option is shortbread dough, as in Shortbread-Crusted Pumpkin Pie.
  • Puff pastry from the freezer section of the grocery store is another foolproof option; just thaw according to package directions, roll out and fit into a pan or use to make a free-form tart. Try Apple Tarte Tatin or Puff Pastry Pear Tartets with Cinnamon Sabayon.

Vary the shape

Think Outside the (Pie) Box

Round out your dessert selection with any of these delicious sweets, culled from the EatSmarter! archives.

Cakes, Cheesecakes, and Tortes 

Not the most obvious choice, but certain types (especially sans frosting) are just right for finishing off the rich meal.

Strudels and Pastries

Fruity goodness in a delightfully flaky package.

Cobblers and Crumbles

Easier to make than pie, but with the same fruit-to-buttery-goodness satisfaction and rustic, old-fashioned appeal (and whimsical names).

Cookies and Bars

Always a hit and a good way to introduce more flavors and textures, in small packages.

Baked and Poached fruit

Lighter than typical baked goods, for a refreshing change of pace.

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