Master Pie Stylist Helen Nugent’s Holiday Recipe and Tips

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By Jill Brooke

To inspire your Thanksgiving baking, check out the creative work of Helen Nugent, who also is the author of “Pie Style.”

She’s amazing and so talented. What is her tips for making creative pie crusts?

“Make sure your pie dough is thoroughly chilled so you can get nice, clean cuts, and freeze your design before baking it so keeps its shapes in the oven,” says Helen. “Other than that, let your imagination run wild! There is so much inspiration all around us every day.”

And inspiration can be multi-layered. This design was inspired by “a needlepoint design that I saw in a second-hand store and the Beyonce’s shots from Vogue magazine where she is wearing the flower crown.”

With smaller gatherings, you have less stress this year so perhaps more time to try something creative. Enjoy and send pix of what you’ve done. Or just do your thing and enjoy looking at Helen’s creations since they are truly artfully done, don’t you think?



Here also is a recipe for a yummy pumpkin pie along with master tips to do a jaw-dropping conversation triggering pie crust.

Maple Ginger Pumpkin Pie

This exceptionally flavorful pie is my favorite pumpkin pie recipe for the holidays. Rich and smooth, it’s perfect with a dollop of whipped cream!

Makes one 9-inch, deep-dish pie

Adapted from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year in the Life of a Restaurant 

Prep Time 2 hours

Cook Time 1 hour 30 minutes

Cooling Time 1 hour 30 minutes

Total Time 3 hours 30 minutes

Servings 8 people


  • 1 1/2 batches (3 discs) All Butter Pie Pastry (save the extra disc for another purpose)
  • 1 Sugar Pie Pumpkin (approx 2 1/2 lbs)
  • 1 thumb-size piece of ginger, cubed into 1/4″ pieces
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed into 1/4″ pieces
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into quarters
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1/4 cup water, room temperature
  • 1 medium sweet potato, whole, skin on
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups 35% or heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tbsp milk


Preparing the shell:

  1. Prepare the dough as directed in the recipe.
  2.  On a piece of parchment paper, roll out one disc of dough to an 11-inch circle. Transfer and fit the dough into a 9-inch pie pan and trim to a 1/2-inch overhang all around. Tuck the excess neatly under the lip of the pie plate. Transfer the pastry-lined plate to the refrigerator while you make the puree. Add any pie dough scraps to the bottom of one of the other pie dough discs.

Making the puree:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375° F and adjust the oven rack to the middle position.
  2. Using a sharp knife, cut the sugar pumpkin into quarters and then cut each quarter again so you have a total of  8 segments. Place the pumpkin pieces, skin side down, in a baking pan and sprinkle the butter, ginger and brown sugar over top of the pumpkin. Nestle the cinnamon stick pieces between the pumpkin pieces.  Sprinkle the salt over the pumpkin.  Add the water to the baking tray and cover tightly with aluminum foil
  3. Wrap the sweet potato tightly in aluminum foil.  Place the baking tray and the wrapped pumpkin next to each other on the middle rack of the oven.
  4. Bake the pumpkin and sweet potato for 45 minutes or until they are easily pierced with a knife (the pumpkin may be ready before the sweet potato. If so, remove from oven while you wait for the potato to finish baking). Let both cool until they can be handled.
  5. Using a spoon, scrape the flesh from the skin of the pumpkin and place in a food processor bowl. Carefully unwrap the sweet potato (it may be steaming inside), and run a knife down the length of it to split it like a baked potato.  Scrap out the flesh and add it to the processor bowl. Scrap the ginger that was in the pan into the bowl with the flesh. Discard the cinnamon sticks and skins. Puree the pumpkin and sweet potato until it is completely smooth with no lumps. Allow the puree to cool to room temperature before proceeding. You should have approximately 2 cups of puree. While you’re waiting for the puree to cool, build the pastry wreath (if making)

Making the pastry wreath:

  1. On a piece of parchment, roll out one disc of dough to an 11-inch square (or as close as you can get). If you are using the wood fondant embosser, lay the embosser over the dough and press to make the wood impression. Move the embosser around the dough, repeating this process, until the dough is covered in wood impressions.
  2. Using a sharp knife and a ruler, cut the following pastry strips: four 1″ width X 10″ length strips and fourteen 1/2″ width X 10″ length strips.  Use six of the 1/2″ strips to make two braids (3 strands each).  Carefully place the braids and your remaining strips on a parchment-lined baking tray and set to one side.
  3. Mark out a 9″ circle on a piece of parchment. Turn the parchment over so the circle marking shows through. Working from left to right, lay your pastry strips top to bottom, across the parchment circle marker in the following order (use the photo for reference on spacing):  two 1/2″ strips (side by side), one 1″ strip, one braid and two 1/2″ strips (side by side).  Turn your circle a quarter turn, and weave the remaining strips in the same order, left to right top to bottom so they intersect with your first set of strips. Set the lattice circle on the parchment to one side.
  4. On a fresh piece of parchment, roll out the third disc of pastry to a 10″ circle. Using fall leave cutters of your choice, cut out approximately 40 leaves (the actual number will depend on the size of your cutters). Use a knife to vein the leaves. Start arranging your leaves decoratively around the edge of your lattice circle, using the circle marker as a guideline and bending some to give them dimension and flow. If you wish, handroll some acorn shapes and caps and small berries and tuck them into the leaves. Once you are happy with the placement, trim the edges of the lattice to the edge of your marker circle. Slide the parchment sheet onto a flat baking sheet and place in the freezer for 10 minutes.

Blind baking the pie shell and pie top (if using):

  1.  Reduce the oven temperature to 350° F.  Make an egg wash by whisking together one whole egg with 1 tbsp milk.
  2. Arrange two oven racks in the middle and lower-middle positions. Line the pie shell with a piece of parchment paper and fill with uncooked rice, dried beans or pie weights. Remove the wreath from the freezer and brush with some of the egg wash. Place the pie shell on the middle rack and the wreath on the lower rack. Bake the shell and wreath for 30 minutes until golden brown. Watch both carefully. If the wreath browns sooner, remove it from the oven first. After removing the pie shell from the oven, carefully remove the pie weights. Allow the shell and wreath to cool to room temperature.

Making the filling:

  1. While your pie shell and top are baking, make the filling.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk the cooled pumpkin/sweet potato filling puree with the eggs, egg yolk, heavy cream, brown sugar and maple syrup until well combined. Whisk in the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and salt.

Baking/decorating the pie:

  1. When the pie shell and wreath have finished baking, reduce the oven temperature to 325° F. Pour the filling into the pre-baked pie shell until it reaches the top of the pie plate. Place the pie on a baking sheet (this will make it easier to move the pie in and out of the oven) and transport it carefully to the center rack of the oven. Bake for approximately 50-60 minutes. The pie is done when the edges look dry but it wobbles in the center ever so slightly when you nudge it. Do not overbake. It will continue to bake as it cools. If you have a digital thermometer, place it in the center of the pie to check for a temperature of between 175° and 180° F.
  2. Add your baked decorations to the top of the pie. Let the pie cool on a rack for at least one hour and then refrigerate until chilled.

Cook’s Tips:

  1. If you don’t have time to tackle this pie at all once, do it in stages.
    Day One: Make Filling and Pastry (store in fridge), Create lattice wreath if using (cover and store in fridge)
    Day Two: Blind bake shell, bake wreath and pie
  2. Use the egg white leftover from the egg yolk used in the filling to create an extra barrier against sogginess. Immediately after taking your pie shell from the oven and removing the weights, brush the pie bottom and up the sides with a light coat of egg whites. This will cook slightly and help to seal the pie pastry off from the custard.
  3. Be sure to cool the pie to room temperature before refrigerating to avoid condensation building on top of the pie.
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