You don't need a psychic to tell you that Thanksgiving will be a smaller gathering this year. So do you still want to bother baking pies?
There's another option if you're serving just a few people: a frozen dessert that can echo the flavors of that Thanksgiving pie, pecan or pumpkin (or both), something that you've made well in advance and can have ready to scoop.
But you will need an ice cream maker and some forethought, as several hours must be devoted to chilling and freezing. (The ice cream mixture needs to be very cold before you begin to churn, and the churned dessert must then be frozen.) Although it would be possible to freeze a sorbet in a shallow pan, stirring it every hour or so as it solidifies to keep the texture smooth, that method is far from ideal and will yield an icier consistency, like a granita. There's just no substitute for the texture a machine can offer.
This pecan pie ice cream is built on a base of French vanilla, with toasted pecans, cloaked in maple syrup, swirled in. Making the custard is a delicate operation, like producing hollandaise, because of the fragile nature of eggs when heated. Perform this part of the recipe when you can give it your full, undisturbed, text-free attention.
For the pecans, chopping them by hand with a sharp knife, instead of using a food processor, will yield more uniform results. Although many pecan pie recipes call for dark corn syrup, I make mine with maple, which I find to be lighter, so that's what I used for the ice cream.
The pumpkin-ginger sorbet is a lighter option that can be made vegan-friendly by substituting agave syrup for the honey. Although canned pumpkin would be perfectly fine, try roasting little honeynut squashes, 40 minutes at 400 degrees, then scraping out the insides, which become a smooth purée under the heat.
Honeynuts are a delicious, relatively new variety of squash, dulcet of flavor and dense of flesh, with none of the stringiness of some other types of winter squash or pumpkin. For one cup of purée, two of them are perfect. Butternut squash would be another option.
The sorbet is excellent served with slivers of candied ginger on top or with pieces of pumpkin seed brittle. And it's surprisingly amenable to tracings of chilled dark chocolate sauce.
The desserts can be prepared up to a week in advance. Whatever containers you use for freezer storage, place a circle of parchment paper directly on the top surface of the ice cream or sorbet to keep the air out. If you tackle both varieties you could serve a scoop of each side-by-side. And should you bake those pies after all, these frozen desserts will be your à la mode.
Pecan Pie Ice Cream
Yield: 5 cups (about 8 servings)
Total time: 30 minutes, plus at least 8 hours' chilling and freezing
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
2/3 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Place milk and cream in a heavy saucepan. Stir in the sugar. Heat on medium until scalded (about 180 degrees) — bubbles will form around the edges. Remove from heat.
Beat eggs in a small bowl until well-blended. Gradually whisk several tablespoons of the hot milk mixture into the eggs, then slowly pour the egg mixture back into the pan, whisking all the while.
Place over medium-low heat, and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the spoon, 6 minutes or so. As soon as you see the first wisps of steam, remove the pan from the heat. Keep stirring another 5 minutes or so as the mixture cools down. Stir in the vanilla. Transfer the custard to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until very cold, about 6 hours or overnight.
Place the pecans in a small, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Toast them, stirring, until lightly browned. Remove from heat. Pour in the maple syrup, and add the butter and salt. Stir to coat pecans completely. Transfer to a bowl, and refrigerate.
Add the cold custard to your ice cream maker, and churn until the mixture reaches the consistency of soft ice cream, 40 to 50 minutes. Transfer it to a bowl. Fold in the cooled nuts and syrup, swirling them in so they are not thoroughly mixed in.
Transfer the ice cream to one or more containers, and freeze until firm, at least 2 hours. If necessary, let the ice cream soften a bit in the refrigerator or at room temperature before scooping.
Yield: 1 quart (6 to 8 servings)
Total time: 20 minutes, plus at least 6 hours' chilling and freezing
1 cup pumpkin or winter squash purée, fresh or canned
3 cups fresh apple cider
2 tablespoons peeled, finely minced ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon honey
3 tablespoons dark rum or bourbon (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small saucepan, mix the pumpkin or squash with 1 cup of the cider until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in the ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper and honey. Bring to simmer on low heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.
Transfer to a medium-size bowl, stir in the remaining 2 cups cider, add the rum or bourbon if using, and the vanilla. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight, until very cold.
Churn the mixture in your ice cream maker for about 45 minutes, until it reaches the consistency of mashed potatoes. Transfer to a container, and freeze at least 2 hours to firm up. To serve, transfer the sorbet to the refrigerator, and allow to soften for about an hour before scooping.