We did some over-the-top things at the end of aughts—practicing duck faces, seeking the perfect cranium-topping Bumpit for our on-trend hairstyles, spending the majority of the day mastering Angry Birds—but perhaps nothing embodied the excess of the decade better than our growing national obsession with engastration.
That’s the cooking technique in which one animal is stuffed inside another, often multiple times. Some examples include what was essentially
edible nesting doll of Medieval times, a turkey stuffed with a goose that’s stuffed with even more birds, all baked in a pie crust (kinda like those four and 20 blackbirds, but for a crowd). There’s also an ancient Bedouin recipe for a camel stuffed with a lamb stuffed with a chicken stuffed with rice and hard-boiled eggs. And leave it to the French to create something called rôti sans pareil, a 20-animal affair that begins with a large game bird called a bustard and ends with a garden warbler stuffed with an olive stuffed with an anchovy stuffed with a single caper.
But while engastration has long been a show-stopping chef move, its journey from Ancient Rome to our modern Thanksgiving table is one that involves a celebrity chef, a sportscaster, and American football. In 1986, Paul Prudhomme trademarked Turducken, a chicken-inside-duck-inside-turkey dish. The Cajun chef’s entrée received a major publicity boost from sportscaster John Madden, that eternal beacon of dietary restraint, when he began talking up the Turducken in the late 1990s during the annual Thanksgiving Day football broadcasts.
As America grew to embrace Turducken, it was perhaps inevitable that the fantasy of dessert engastration soon grabbed hold of our collective imagination. We wanted layers upon layers of sweet stuff too, dammit. And eventually, in 2009, one man finally gave it to us: a Southern California hepcat named Charles Phoenix.
Charles Phoenix is the universally acknowledged father of the first Thanksgiving dessert engastration. He also is an expert on midcentury American pop culture, so he speaks with authority when he says that Thanksgiving is our most boring national holiday. But he’s certainly done something to jazz it up, like the fun uncle who shows up near the end of a party to lighten the mood. The idea for the Cherpumple first came to him one Thanksgiving when he saw the huge stack of dirty plates after everyone had sampled “just a sliver” of various pies. He vowed to find a way get all those desserts on one plate.
Phoenix’s creation is a three-layer affair: a layer of spice cake with an apple pie baked inside, topped by a layer of yellow cake with a pumpkin pie inside that, crowned with a white cake layer concealing an entire cherry pie. The country responded to Phoenix’s engastration, to say the least; he even received coverage by Geoffrey Fowler in the Wall Street Journal. In his unofficial role as the Ambassador of Americana, he even rode in a Cherpumple float in Anaheim’s annual Halloween Parade in 2018.
As Phoenix says in the 2009 video that unleashed what he calls his “monster pie-cake” on the world, “If the Cherpumple Pie Cake isn’t Americana, I don’t know what it is.”
Cost: You can’t buy a Chermpumple from any bakery—you have to make it yourself. Get started with Phoenix’s book on celebrations, Holiday Jubilee ($29.95), which includes the original Cherpumple recipe, photos, and plenty more insider information. “It’s a party on every page,” he says.
Try this at home: As befits a devotee of midcentury cooking, Phoenix suggests a 100% packaged goods approach: frozen pies and boxed cake mixes all the way, baby. “There is no shame in Sara Lee,” he says.
“However you do this, you’ve got to plan ahead,” Phoenix advises. “You really should give yourself three days to make a Cherpumple—one day to bake the pies, the next day to bake the cakes with the pies inside them, and then the last day to stack and frost. The most important part of the whole thing is the slicing, which should be a big, big moment. Insist that everyone gather round and watch, because it’s a conversation piece as much as it is an edible creation.”
Greg Morago, food editor of the Houston Chronicle, saw Phoenix’s Cherpumple and believed that Texas deserved its own version—an outsized one, naturally. In 2010, he approached Bobby Jucker, owner of Houston’s Three Brothers Bakery, with an idea that seemed to stem chiefly from his conviction that cherry pie, one-third of the Cherpumple, is an abomination on Thanksgiving. (It’s a holiday that brings out some strong opinions, in case you haven’t noticed.) Jucker developed a dessert unsullied by those cursed cherries, using from-scratch elements at each stage of the production.
The Pumpecapple Piecake (pronounced pump-uh-cap-puhl) weighs in at 24 pounds and has three layers: pumpkin pie/pumpkin spice cake, pecan pie/chocolate cake, and apple pie/apple spice cake. The original Chronicle story led to a segment on the Food Network, and the Texas-sized dessert has since been covered by Good Morning America, CNN, the CBS Morning Show, and even on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” The edible behemoth remains popular to this day. “It may have started as a joke, but it’s a real revenue stream for us now,” Jucker says.
How does Jucker eat his towering creation? “I like to tackle each part individually,” he says. “I personally don’t like that many different flavors on my tastebuds at the same time, but one of our customers described getting all the parts on one forkful as ‘a symphony in his mouth,’ so everyone has their own approach.”
Try this at home: Like Phoenix, Jucker says you’ll need plenty of lead time for a culinary feat of this magnitude. “Make sure you’ve baked your pies in advance and that they’re totally cool,” says Jucker. “That way they won’t interfere with the batter’s ability to bake correctly. Be sure to put a nice layer of batter down first for the pie to land on.”
New York is home to the world’s most famous two-in-one baked good, the Cronut, which made its first appearance at the Dominique Ansel Bakery in 2013. Two years after that earthshaking moment in FrankenDessert history, another pastry chef, Zac Young, strode into the arena and emerged with PieCaken (pronounced pie-CAKE-en). Young didn’t work for Ansel but, like him, had a gift for cramming multiple treats together. His 2015 creation had pecan pie on the bottom, pumpkin pie in the middle, and spice cake on top, frosted with cinnamon buttercream and topped with apple pie filling.
“It started as a joking sort of ‘chef battle’ to make a dessert that could compete with Turkducken,” Young recalls. “I posted a few pictures of the process on my Instagram page.” Soon afterward, Young awoke one morning to frantic texts from friends: “You’re on with Kelly!” “I knew I was still in bed, but then I realized it was the PieCaken that was on TV,” he says. He tuned in to see Kelly Ripa tasting his dessert on air and saying, “This is pretty much the greatest thing that has happened to me, besides the birth of my children.” After that, Young’s creation was featured in Oprah’s O-List, CNN, the New York Times, and Bon Appetit. Sales have continued to grow. “I certainly didn’t invent this idea, but it kind of blew up on my watch,” Young says.
“My approach is a little different, in that I don’t bake a whole pie inside a cake,” he says. “It’s more like classic French pastry that has mousse layers, cream layers, and fruit layers. All those different textures and tastes work together very well. As silly as the whole thing is, it’s kind of fun to appreciate what each separate flavor brings to the party.”
Cost: $99 for one original-size PieCaken, which serves 12 to 16 people. The XL version, which costs $129, serves 20 to 24 people. A package of eight pre-cut slices, each of which serves 1 to 2 people, costs $99. Shipping is free through Goldbelly.
Try this at home: “It depends how much effort you want to expend,” Young says. “You certainly can buy pre-made pies and cake mixes. But if you’re going to make one part of this at home, make the frosting yourself. From-scratch buttercream is the ‘secret ingredient’ that makes all the difference.”