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No Pumpkin? No Worries!

Pam offers three mouth-watering alternatives for holiday dessert

Thanks to various weather conditions across the country, it's entirely possible that pumpkin will be hard to find this holiday season. With that in mind, I decided to share three non-pumpkin pie desserts for the fall and winter holidays, all of which can use refrigerated pie dough, making them delicious AND doable.

First up is sweet potato pie. Sweet potato is a dead ringer and a wonderful stand-in for pumpkin. Cooking the sweet potatoes in the microwave takes only 10 minutes, compared with the usual one hour in the oven. And pureeing the sweet potato filling in a blender before pouring it into the pie shell guarantees a light silky texture. The use of bold spices and evaporated and condensed milks — both sweetener and dairy in one — result in a highly flavorful, substantial pie filling.

If pumpkin is plentiful in your area, you can easily turn this sweet potato pie into that other traditional dessert. Just substitute a 15-ounce can of pumpkin for the two sweet potatoes. So, sweet potato or pumpkin, this is your go-to pie recipe.

Fried Apple Hand Pies remind me of my grandmother, who used fry them up nearly every time we'd visit. It was her way of showing love. My version is simpler. While she made her crust from scratch — with lard from the pigs she raised — I make mine with pie dough from the grocery store's refrigerated section. She cut her dough circles with a well-worn paring knife. I use cookie cutters. She drained her pies on brown paper sacks; I set mine on wire racks. If I'm not mistaken, her filling was straight-ahead apple while I spice mine up with ones she'd never heard of. And while I've got state-of-the-art thermometers for testing oil temperature; she had her ways. Would she approve of all of my shortcuts and gadgets? While she was an old-fashioned country cook, she was a forward-thinking woman. If she were alive today I think she'd give me her blessing.

Last, there's a Chocolate-Pecan Galette, a super easy alternative to another holiday classic. It's chocolate, cheesecake and pecan pie all rolled into one. The cream cheese offers a light sweet tang to this rich, intense pie. It also creates a naturally dry layer, which allows the pie bottom to bake up crisp and golden. No more soggy-bottomed pie! And no pie plate needed either. Just spread the cream cheese layer over the rolled out refrigerated pie dough, top with the chocolate pecan filling, fold the dough over and bake.

So — canned pumpkin, or no, you've got some really tempting options to end your holiday meals.

Next: Pam's sweet potato pie recipe. >>

Sweet Potato Pie

Makes 1 9-inch deep-dish pie

You can also make this pie with canned pumpkin substituting 1 can (15 ounces) pure pumpkin for the 2 cups of cooked sweet potatoes

1 pre-baked 9-inch pie shell

2 sweet potatoes (about 12 ounces each), pricked with a fork

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 can (14 ounces) canned condensed milk

1 cup evaporated milk

2 eggs plus 2 yolks

Whether you're using homemade or boxed refrigerated dough, have pre-baked pie shell ready. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Microwave sweet potatoes on high power until fork-tender, 9 to 10 minutes. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and mash flesh with a fork.

Along with ginger, cinnamon, allspice and salt, add mashed sweet potatoes to a large saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until potato starts to stick to pan bottom, about 5 minutes. Add condensed and evaporated milks; cook until sputtery. Whir eggs and yolks in a blender. With blender running, add a cup or so of the hot pumpkin mixture, a large spoonful at a time, to temper eggs. Add remaining pumpkin mixture; continue to puree to form a silky texture filling.

Pour warm filling into warm pie shell. Bake until a thin-bladed knife inserted into the center of the filling comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack until warm or room temperature. Serve.

Next: Fried Apple Handpies. >>

Fried Apple Hand Pies

Makes 16 pies

If you don't have the right size cookie cutter, there are plenty of tops around the house that are the about the same size. The tops to my deli containers, mayonnaise jar and cocoa were all about right.

2 9-inch pie rounds from a 15-ounce box refrigerated piecrust

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons brandy (optional)

3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided

Pinch salt

1 1/4 pounds crisp apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into small dice

1 tablespoon butter

3 cups vegetable or canola oil

One of the following: 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon, 8 teaspoons curry powder, 4 teaspoons ground cardamom, 2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder

Working one round at a time, unroll pie dough on a lightly floured surface and roll to 14 inches in diameter. Using a round 4 1/4-inch cookie cutter cut dough into 8 circles. Repeat with remaining round of dough. Refrigerate until ready to use. (Can be double-wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for a couple of days.)

Whisk cornstarch, vanilla and optional brandy in 1/3 cup of water; set aside. Mix 1/4 cup of sugar and the salt; toss with apples. Heat butter in a medium (10-inch) skillet over medium-high heat until pale nutty brown. Add apple mixture; cover and cook until soft and juices release, about 7 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook until juices thicken to light syrup consistency, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Stir in cornstarch mixture; continue to cook until it thickens, less than a minute. Transfer apples to a rimmed baking sheet; refrigerate or set aside until room temperature. (Can be refrigerated in an enclosed container up for a couple of days.)

When ready to serve, mix remaining 1/2 cup of sugar with one of the spice options of your choice. Working eight at a time, spoon a heaping tablespoon of the filling onto the lower center of each dough circle. Working one at time, brush around the edge of the lower half with water. Fold upper half of dough over filling to make a turnover, pressing on edges to seal. Repeat with those remaining, to make 16 turnovers.

Heat oil to 375 degrees in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Working in three batches, drop five or six pies into the hot oil. Fry until crisp and golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes turning as needed. Transfer to a wire rack, sprinkling each turnover with spiced sugar. For a more aromatic pie, lightly sprinkle each with additional spice.

Next: Chocolate-pecan galette. >>

Chocolate-Pecan Galette

Makes 1 galette, serving 8

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch, divided

3 egg yolks, plus 1 egg white

1/2 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

6 tablespoons light corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch salt

4 ounces semi- or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 refrigerated pie crust from 14.1-ounce box

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix cream cheese, confectioner' sugar, two tablespoons of the cornstarch and one of the egg yolks in medium bowl; set aside.

Meanwhile heat remaining tablespoon of cornstarch and 1/3 cup of water in a medium saucepan over low heat, whisking frequently, until pasty thick.

While cornstarch heats, warm brown sugar and corn syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar has almost dissolved. Whisk remaining two yolks, vanilla and salt in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk warm sugar mixture into yolks and then egg-sugar mixture into cornstarch mixture. Whisk in chocolate, and then pecans. Cool slightly to thicken

Meanwhile, unfurl pie dough on a lightly floured surface and roll to about 13 inches in diameter. Slide onto a cookie sheet or pizza pan and spread evenly with cream cheese mixture, leaving a two-inch border. Pour tepid chocolate mixture over cream cheese mixture. Fold pastry border over the chocolate. Brush dough perimeter with egg white and sprinkle with a little sugar.

Bake galette until golden brown and bubbly, 25 to 30 minutes. Loosen with a metal spatula and slide onto a wire rack to cool slightly. Serve warm.

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