The Dish on Pie

Try these tricks for lightening up the classic holiday dessert.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Pumpkin, berry, lemon meringue, caramel apple, chocolate cream ... these are all my favorite pies. Most everyone has at least one favorite pie (some of us have five). Many of us have fond memories of eating our mother's (or grandmother's) home-baked pies. If you're really lucky, you have memories of making pies with your mother or grandmother.

And nothing says "pie" like Thanksgiving and the holiday season that follows. Of course, all those holiday delights can really pack on the calories. But there are some foolproof ways to lighten almost every pie, from top to bottom. This way, you can get your pie fix, but with fewer calories and fat grams. And sometimes, these tricks help you work in more fiber and nutrients to boot.

Baking a lighter pie is as easy as 1-2-3. We'll start with the crust and work our way up.

Tips for Lighter Piecrust

You know that nice, flaky piecrust you love so much? It's flaky because of the particles of fat layered in between particles of wheat flour. Some recipes call for shortening and some use butter. The one my mom always made called for vegetable oil.

With health in mind, you have a few options when it comes to piecrust:

  • Use one crust, not two. Look for pie recipes that only call for a bottom piecrust (instead of two crusts). This will save you at least 120 calories and 8 grams of fat per slice (if you get 8 slices per 9-inch pie).
  • Embrace the brown. Add fiber and nutrients to your piecrust by using half whole-wheat pastry flour and half white flour. This adds about 1 1/2 grams of fiber per slice (for a one-crust pie serving 8).
  • Switch to a better fat. Use a crust recipe that calls for oil instead of shortening (like the one below). Then choose a healthier oil like canola, which contributes the more desirable monounsaturated fats and plant omega-3s.
  • Use less fat. Add a little less fat (maybe 5 tablespoons instead of 8) to your piecrust dough. Substitute an equal amount of something else, like low-fat buttermilk, maple syrup, or fat-free or light cream cheese.
  • Lose the crust and add crumbs. For some pies, you can eliminate the crust. First, choose a filling that stands well on its own (nothing too gooey). Then, coat your pie dish with canola cooking spray or light margarine. Add about 1/2 cup of crumbs, and tilt the dish to cover the inside well. What kind of crumbs should you use? If you're making quiche, use wheat and herb cracker crumbs or seasoned croutons, crushed. For lemon or lime pie, use gingersnap or SnackWells shortbread cookie crumbs. For chocolate cream pie, use graham cracker or chocolate cookie crumbs.

One more note about crust: Maybe it's the "cutting in" of the fat, maybe it's all that rolling you have to do to get the dough just right, but for some reason I loathe making pie crust.

I've been playing with my mom's awesome oil piecrust recipe to try to boost the fiber and take the amount of oil down as far as possible. Check out the results in the recipe below. It tastes so good that I've found myself eating the raw dough straight from the bowl -- always a good sign.

Keep in mind, though, that since the crust is part whole wheat and lower in fat, it boasts a brown color and a slightly tougher texture than your typical crust. I really like it, though. I especially like that I can pat the dough straight into the pan, no rolling required!

Tips for the Pie Filling

Pie fillings range from tart (lemon or Key lime) to fruity (apple, berries, etc.) to nutty (pecan) to creamy (chocolate cream) to veggie-like (pumpkin and sweet potato).

When you're trying to lighten pie filling, you've got two things to look out for: sugar and fat.

Many pie filling recipes call for a cup of sugar. That adds up to about 100 calories per serving, just from the sugar in your filling! You can cut the sugar calories in half either by using half the sugar the recipe calls for (this usually works well in a fruit filling) or by substituting Splenda for half the sugar.

Then there's butter. One sweet potato pie recipe I looked at called for 1/2 cup of butter. That's a tablespoon per serving, adding about 100 calories and 12 grams of fat per serving -- and that doesn't even include the crust!

You can usually trim the butter in fillings to 2 tablespoons, then add in a few tablespoons of orange juice, rum, or even maple syrup (especially if you've cut the sugar in half). Some fruit pie recipes don't include butter in the filling, but call for dotting the top of the filling with butter. This is, in a word, unnecessary. Don't dot, and save yourself the fuss and calories.