The last detail

Special to The Times

Thanksgiving is the only day of the year when pie is an out-and-out requirement. Yet a pie can be, even for the experienced baker, an intimidating thing -- especially on a day when a million other things are going on in the kitchen. You can't solve the problem by making pies ahead: You want a flaky, crisp crust and a bright filling bursting with firm fruit.

Pie is, by nature, a last-minute thing.

But there's a solution: a very easy, yet extremely flaky and flavorful crust, and spectacular fillings that are simple to prepare. We've created three: a classic apple enlivened with roasted quince; a caramelized pear and brandied prune; and a "pumpkin" custard with maple meringue. They're all festive and traditional, but each has a twist.

First, the crust. The goal was the flakiest, most flavorful crust we could manage short of making puff pastry. We spent two weeks developing a recipe, comparing versions with varying ratios of butter to shortening and flour to fat. We mixed some doughs using the electric mixer, some by hand and some using the food processor. (We were suspicious of the food processor, worried about overworking the dough.) We tried doughs rolled out, then folded and turned and chilled like puff pastry -- then rolled and folded and chilled again.

We learned that we needed butter for flavor and shortening for tenderness, but we were bothered by the fact that, with all the chilling in between steps, it was taking several hours to prepare.

Finally, we hit upon it: a pie crust dough that takes a mere 10 minutes to make, chills for half an hour and is ready to roll. And it's made in the food processor.

The winning dough uses equal amounts of butter and shortening. Because it comes together in just a few pulses, the dough is worked very lightly and quickly, so the butter doesn't break down too much. The streaks (or "feathering") remain when it's rolled out, resulting in a most desirable layered effect in the final crust. Flakiness!

We use more salt than is customary; that boosts the flavor. And we add a touch of sugar -- that's for color; it doesn't impart any discernible sweetness.

But proper browning is the key to superlative pie crust flavor, and most of us are not used to leaving crusts in the oven to brown nearly long enough.

The trick is to bake pie in a glass pie plate. You may think it's done when the crimped edge is golden brown. But look at the side of the crust under the glass -- that takes longer to brown. In fact, we baked our pies so long that we made the Times Test Kitchen staff nervous. Patience is a pie virtue, though: We let the crusts bake until the sides were golden-brown, and they were fabulous.

A few other tricks:

Keep the ingredients cold. The butter should be well-chilled. It's helpful (though not essential) to roll the dough out on a marble slab, because stone stays cooler than wood or plastic.

When you remove the dough from the food processor, flatten it gently into a circle about 1 1/2 inches thick before wrapping it in plastic. It will chill more quickly than will a ball, and it will be much easier to roll out.

Use a light hand with the flour: When you buy it, transfer it to a large resealable container so you can fluff it up before measuring. When you flour a board, pick up a little flour in your fingers and use a flick-of-the-wrist motion, like rolling dice, to scatter it lightly.

Rolling out pie dough requires a light hand, as well. This particular dough is easy to work and requires little pressure on the rolling pin. Lightly flour both sides of the dough and begin to roll in a circular motion, gradually increasing the size of the circle. Resist the urge to press harder when you get to the edges. If it sticks at any point, gently lift it up and flour the surface. If it starts to feel elastic, pop it in the fridge for a few minutes and start again.

When fitting the crust into the pie pan, leave some slack in the dough; that way you'll compensate for its natural tendency to shrink.

Fillings of a higher order

And now for the fillings. Tempting though it may be to settle for pies that are easy as, well, you know, we refrained from simply plopping in a lot of fresh fruit and calling it a day. You'll get a good enough pie that way, but not one extraordinary enough for Thanksgiving.

We took our pies up a notch by filling them with roasted, caramelized or macerated fruit or winter vegetables. The results are outstanding, and well worth the extra time, which is largely unattended. And much can be done in advance (tonight!). These are less sweet than ordinary pies, and therefore less cloying -- a fitting end to the most auspicious feast of the year.

The apple-quince pie has a double crust, so much the better to seal in all those wonderful juices (though we're secretly happy when they ooze out a little in the baking, caramelizing so irresistibly.) The quince is a little-understood fruit -- at least in the United States. It looks a bit like an underripe mutant pear, and if you try to eat it raw, you'll get a mouthful of astringent. Slice it up and roast it an hour or two, though, and it gets soft and brightly sweet, its flesh a pretty pink; let it go another hour, and it becomes dark rosy-orange and takes on the concentrated, intense flavor of quince paste.

Yet the slices hold their shape. What an ideal candidate for a pie!

Put the quinces in the oven to roast this evening, and you can make your stuffing or play Boggle while they roast.

As far as apples are concerned, fairly tart ones work best in this pie: Braeburn are ideal, though Granny Smith also will do nicely.

Our recipe actually yields five cups of extra apple-quince mixture; the stuff is so delicious that we place the excess in a baking dish, top it with an improvised streusel and bake it for about an hour. It makes a heavenly breakfast.

For the pear and prune pie, which is topped with an oat streusel, macerate the prunes in the brandy tonight. If your pears aren't quite ripe, put them in a paper bag overnight to ripen. You don't want to use unripe pears or they won't bake up soft and luscious and have a lovely pear aroma.

When the pears are caramelized to a glorious deep brown, stir into the caramel the brandy in which the prunes have macerated. (The aroma that wafts up when the prune brandy goes in, mingled as it is with ginger and star anise, is reason enough to make this one.) For the streusel, we use brown butter, rather than plain melted butter; this gives it a deeper nutty flavor.

The "pumpkin" meringue pie is actually faux pumpkin made from butternut squash and yam roasted with butter, brown sugar, salt and pepper to creamy perfection. We had intended to use real pumpkin, but found that the squash and yam yielded deeper flavor.

Choose a butternut squash with a nice, big bulb; when you halve it, the extra-large cavity will hold more butter and sugar. Puree it with the yam, and the depth of flavor will make you wonder whether you'll ever open a can of pumpkin again.

Pour the custard into a crust that already has been blind-baked. (After lining the pie plate with dough, trim it flush with the side; no crimping necessary on this one. Then mist the crust lightly with vegetable spray, line it with opened coffee filters so that they come up a little on the sides, and fill it with metal pie weights, dried beans or rice.)

After filling the crust with the "pumpkin" custard and baking it again, it will be topped with an Italian meringue flavored with maple syrup. We love Italian meringue because it's beautifully glossy; unlike French meringue, it doesn't get dried-out and cracked. The difference between the two is in the cooking: Italian meringue is partially cooked by adding hot syrup to the whipped egg whites, while French meringue relies solely on the oven.

Cooking the syrup to the soft-ball stage isn't as tricky as it sounds: If you don't have a candy thermometer, you can use our six- to eight-minute gauge. Have a bowl of ice water handy, drop in a bit of syrup after 5 minutes and put it in your mouth: It will be soft and chewy. If it's not ready, it won't hold together; if it's overdone, it will be brittle.

When you top the pie with the meringue, have some fun with your spoon, pulling up tall peaks and creating low valleys. They'll look even more dramatic once they're browned.

Again, you'll probably have some custard left over. Bake it on its own in a ramekin. It's delicious.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pie crust dough

Total time: 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes chilling time

Servings: Makes 1 (9-inch) crust

Note: This recipe may be doubled.

1 1/2 cups flour, plus additional for working the dough

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) chilled, unsalted butter

6 tablespoons shortening

3 tablespoons cold water

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon cream

1 egg

1. In the bowl of a food processor, place the flour, sugar and salt. Process to combine.

2. Chop the butter into 1/2-inch pieces and add it, along with the shortening, to the flour mixture. Pulse 6 to 8 times to combine, just until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Do not allow the dough to come together.

3. Whisk together the water, cream and egg. Add the mixture to the flour mixture. Process about 5 seconds until the dough just starts to form a ball. It will be very sticky and some of the dough will be left on the sides of the bowl. Do not over-mix.

5. Remove the dough from the bowl of the processor and place it on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle the dough with about 1 tablespoon of flour, and gently fold it together, just enough so it does not stick to your fingers. Shape it into a ball and flatten it to about 1 1/2 inches thick. Cover it with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or as long as 3 days.

Each of 8 servings: 273 calories; 3 grams protein; 20 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 20 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 53 mg. cholesterol; 187 mg. sodium.

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Apple-quince pie

Total time: 5 hours, 45 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: The quinces may be roasted the day before and held in the refrigerator overnight.

6 medium quinces

2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice

1 cup dry white wine

2/3cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided

1 vanilla bean

1 double-recipe pie crust dough

6 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch slices

3/4teaspoon cinnamon, divided

1/4teaspoon ground nutmeg

Pinch of ground cloves

1 teaspoon sifted cornstarch

1/2cup unsweetened applesauce

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 tablespoons melted butter

1 egg

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel, quarter and core the quinces, and cut them into one-fourth-inch slices. Place them in a 9 1/2-by-11-inch baking dish, along with the orange juice, white wine and one-third cup sugar. Slice the vanilla bean and scrape the insides into the dish. Stir to combine, cover with foil and roast for 1 hour.

2. Opening the oven briefly, lift the foil and stir the quinces. Roast another hour. Repeat twice, for a total of 3 hours of roasting time. Let the pan cool, then chill for 1 hour.

3. Divide the dough in half. Keep half in the refrigerator and roll out the other half into a 13-inch circle one-fourth-inch thick. Fit it into a buttered, 9-inch pie plate. Fold the edges in and down to form a three-fourths-inch overhang all the way around the pie. Chill it in the refrigerator.

4. In a large bowl, toss together the apples, one-third cup sugar, one-half teaspoon cinnamon, the nutmeg, cloves and cornstarch. Add the applesauce, vanilla extract, melted butter and roasted quinces and gently toss again. Fill the pie, mounding the filling gently. Chill.

5. Roll out the remaining dough into a 13-inch circle, one-fourth-inch thick. Take the pie from the refrigerator and drape the dough over the top of the filling. Fold the edge forward, dropping the dough into the crevice between the mound of filling and the side of the plate. Lay the overhang of dough onto the bottom lip. Use scissors to trim, leaving one-half-inch beyond the edge of the plate. Crimp in a rustic fashion. Chill for one hour.

6. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk the egg. In another small bowl, combine the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar and one-fourth teaspoon cinnamon. Brush the surface of the pie with the egg, then sprinkle it with the cinnamon sugar. Use the tip of a sharp knife to imprint a star design onto the top of the pie, cutting only halfway through the dough, or decorate with leaves cut out from extra dough. Pierce a hole into the center of the pie to allow steam to escape.

7. Bake until shiny, dark golden-brown and bubbling at the edges, 1 hour and 50 minutes to 2 hours.

Each serving: 728 calories; 8 grams protein; 75 grams carbohydrates;4 grams fiber; 44 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 132 mg. cholesterol; 382 mg. sodium.

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Pear and prune oat streusel pie

Total time: 3 hours, plus overnight macerating

Servings: 8

30 pitted prunes (about 2 cups)

1 cup brandy

1 recipe pie crust dough

1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons

unsalted butter, divided

1/4cup whole unblanched

almonds

3/4cup flour

3/4cup sugar, divided

3/4teaspoon salt

1/4cup oats

10 ripe Bartlett pears

2 tablespoons lemon juice

4 star anise, divided

1 (2-inch) piece of ginger, peeled and sliced into 4 pieces, divided

1/4cup light brown sugar, not packed

1/8teaspoon ground ginger

1/8teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1. Cover the prunes with brandy and macerate overnight. The next day, strain the prunes, reserving the brandy. Cut 20 prunes in half; quarter the remaining 10.

2. Roll out the dough and place in a buttered 9-inch pie plate. Trim the edge, leaving one-fourth inch beyond the pie plate. Roll the edge of the dough up and on top of the edge of the plate. Do not crimp. Refrigerate.

3. Cut 6 tablespoons of butter into half-inch pieces and place in a heavy one-quart pot over medium-high heat until the butter foams and begins to brown. Remove from the heat, swirl the pot a few times and set aside to cool slightly.

4. Place the almonds in a food processor and grind until fine. Add all the flour, one-fourth cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar and all the salt. Pulse to combine and remove to a bowl.

5. Add the warm brown butter and, using your hands, toss and squeeze the topping until you have crumb- to walnut-size pieces. Add the oats and quartered prunes; toss together; set the streusel aside.

6. Peel, halve and core the pears; cut 10 halves in half again. Sprinkle with the lemon juice.

7. In a large heavy saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons sugar over medium-high heat until bubbly. Add 5 pear halves (cut side down), 2 star anise and 2 pieces ginger. Swirl the pan so the butter and sugar coat the pears. Set the pan back on the burner to caramelize the butter and sugar. When the butter begins to brown, swirl the pan to incorporate the browned butter. (The pears should just begin to soften while the butter and sugar caramelizes.) Cook the pears until the cut surfaces are dark golden, about 12 minutes. If the butter browns too quickly, lower the heat.

8. Remove the pan from heat and add 3 tablespoons of the reserved brandy. Return the pan to the heat, gently swirl and reduce the liquid until a spoonful poured over a pear sticks slightly. Remove the pears to a plate, scraping the caramel sauce over them. Discard the star anise and ginger. Wash the pan and repeat steps 7 and 8 with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons sugar, 2 star anise, 2 pieces ginger and 5 pear halves.

9. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the quartered (raw) pears in a large mixing bowl and toss with the brown sugar, ground ginger and nutmeg. Add the caramelized pears, caramel sauce and halved prunes; toss together.

10. Remove the pie crust dough from the refrigerator and crimp the edge of the crust. Place the filling in the shell, and evenly distribute the streusel over the top. Bake 1 hour, 45 minutes, or until any liquid bubbling is a dark caramel color.

Each serving: 809 calories; 8 grams protein; 108 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams fiber; 38 grams fat; 18 grams saturated fat; 92 mg. cholesterol; 412 mg. sodium.

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'Pumpkin' custard meringue pie

Total time: 4 hours, 30 minutes, plus chilling time

Servings: 8

Note: Use light brown sugar and pack it lightly.

1 recipe pie crust dough

1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds)

1 small yam (about 1/2 pound)

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) softened unsalted butter, divided

3/4cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar, divided

2 teaspoons salt, divided

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

4 eggs

1/2cup whole milk

1 cup whipping cream

3/4cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided

1/8teaspoon cinnamon

1/8teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch of clove

3 tablespoons water

1/4cup plus 3 tablespoons maple syrup, divided

2 tablespoons corn syrup

1 teaspoon sifted cornstarch

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Roll out the pie dough one-fourth-inch thick, cut it into an 11-inch circle, and fit it into a 9-inch pie plate, allowing the extra dough on the edges to hang over. Chill for 30 minutes.

2. Trim the dough to the edge of the plate. Spray the surface of the dough lightly with vegetable spray. Line it with coffee filters or a circle of parchment paper and fill it with pie weights. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes. Remove the weights and bake until golden brown, about 20 more minutes. Remove from oven; set aside.

3. Increase the oven heat to 375 degrees. Slice the squash and yam in half lengthwise and remove the seeds from the squash. Place them in a glass baking dish and sprinkle with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and the pepper. Cut 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter into small pieces and divide it between the yam and squash, pressing it into the surfaces (place most of the squash's butter into the cavity). Sprinkle with one-fourth cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar. Place in the oven. Baste every half an hour with the melted butter mixture. Bake until tender, about 1 hour for the yam and at least 1 1/2 hours for the squash. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

4. Reduce the oven heat to 300 degrees. Melt and cool the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Scoop the meat from the yam and squash and puree until smooth in the food processor. Add the melted butter, 2 eggs, 2 egg yolks (save the whites for the meringue), milk, cream, the remaining one-half cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons sugar, one-fourth teaspoon salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Puree until very smooth.

5. Pour the custard into the pre-baked pie shell and bake until the center just slightly wiggles when moved, about 1 hour. (Pour any extra into ramekins and bake to the same point.)

6. Increase the oven heat to 325 degrees. In a small saucepan, combine the remaining three-fourths cup sugar and the water. Add one-fourth cup plus 2 tablespoons maple syrup and the corn syrup. Cook on high heat, washing down the sides with a pastry brush, for 6 to 8 minutes, until the soft-ball stage, or until a candy thermometer reads 238 degrees. Remove from heat.

7. Pour the egg whites into a mixing bowl. Using high speed on an electric mixer, whip the whites to medium peaks. With the mixer running, add the cornstarch and one-fourth teaspoon salt, then continue whipping just until the peaks are firm and shiny. Turn the mixer to low, then slowly stream in the hot syrup. Whip for 1 to 2 minutes on high until the meringue is glossy and shiny, marshmallow-like in texture and holds firm peaks. Fold in the remaining tablespoon of maple syrup.

8. Spread the meringue onto the top of the warm pie, creating lots of peaks and valleys. Bake until the peaks of the meringue are dark golden, 30 to 35 minutes.

Each serving: 721 calories; 7 grams protein; 80 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 43 grams fat; 22 grams saturated fat; 203 mg. cholesterol; 710 mg. sodium.

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