Pecan Pie, Me Oh My!

omnomnom

Holy cow, pecan pie is NUTS. Pun fully intended. I’ve never made pecan pie before this adventure, & now that it’s over, I know why. I’m fairly certain that the time spent on this recipe – research, prep, more research, cooking, more research, cooling – is the most I’ve spent on anything I’ve ever made. The hours of reading, weighing conflicting opinions, searching for the best substitutes for corn syrup, the uncertainty caused by a pie that will not set up, by the air bubbles that rose from my carefully spoon-mixed filling, by the blind trust I’ve put in my oven’s temperature – why would I, or anyone, put myself through this when I can buy a pie that everyone will love in any grocery, market, or gas station? I have to say, having expended great effort, slaving away & melting in my steamy apartment, driving the cats to spend the thick afternoon lolling on the bathroom tile to escape my madness, the result is completely, 100% worth it all. I don’t think I have ever been prouder, & I don’t think one of my pies has ever been tastier. & in a weird way, I owe it all to the Amish & NYC drivers who suck at parking.

Thank you, the Amish, for pie & good parking etiquette.

Thank you, the Amish, for everything.
Things I have learned about pecan pie from this experience:
1. This pie is hard.
2. There are (give or take) 875 different ways to prepare this pie.
3. Every one of these variations is “the best,” “foolproof,” & the way to fix/avoid whatever problems you might have making this pie.
4. You will have problems making this pie.
5. Corn syrup is a major ingredient in the modern recipes for this pie.
6. Cane syrup, the most popular alternative to corn syrup for this pie, has corn syrup as its first & most prominent ingredient.
7. Other non-corn syrup ingredients call for molasses, whose first & most-prominent ingredient is corn syrup.
8. Blanching & toasting pecans makes them insanely delicious.
9. Oven temperature is unreliable, but it hardly matters until you use lower temperatures. Then it matters, a lot.
10. This pie is hard, but once you have made it & it doesn’t suck, you kind of feel like you can do anything. Avoid settings that offer the possibility of extreme or death-defying activities.

Pecan pie, why oh why, you ask? You probably don’t, but I’ll tell you anyway! Boyfriend & I recently visited Angelica, NY for a weekend out of the city. The campground we stayed at was adorable & lovely, with cozy (one-room, bed in a loft under the eaves) cabins, trails for hiking (read: throwing rocks at trees, splashing Boyfriend with creek water, & chasing toads), a ring for fire & a charcoal grill for cooking (& what-else-can-we-burn contests), & other Great Outdoors experiences.

In addition to the campgrounds, we got a chance to hit up the farmer’s market/craft fair in the center of town. The town of Angelica is Christmas-card perfect, fit for a Norman Rockwell picture, as the owner of the campgrounds put it. It’s like a postage-stamp of nostalgia, tiny & brimming with small-town charm (enough that I could ignore how weird it was to be the only brown person). The town’s only bar is attached to its best restaurant in a large blue & white country house, & the nearest fast-food chains & supermarkets are 20 minute drives away, & the market was completely fresh, real, & cheap, priced for the people who lived & worked there, not for the tourists they hoped were coming through. Boyfriend & I were losing our minds. Freshly made blueberry lemonade that tastes like real blueberries & real lemons! Watermelon, $3! No weighing by the pound here! Farm fresh eggs: $2 on the dozen! Toy chest from 1916, original shipping labels still affixed: $80! Those shipping labels alone in an NYC antiques shop would be at least $50. Nuts, y’all.

Is this quaint enough for you city slickers?
Oh just playing some bucolic American sports in the town center, like we do. (source: espn.com)

Speaking of nuts (easy now), one of the many amazing things at the fair was the table of Amish baked goods & jams, where Boyfriend was immediately drawn to the pecan pie. It’s his favorite, but he had never had one that was homemade. He physically barred me from moving away from the table until we bought one. The Amish family staffing the booth was very friendly, clearly aware of & amused by Boyfriend’s pie-lust. (Hours later, as I stood on the porch of the campground store, they rode by in their horse-drawn buggy, recognized me from earlier – only brown person + pie-crazy boyfriend + we’d asked about a butcher – & waved big.) The pie, which Boyfriend dove into right after our late breakfast, was unlike any pecan pie I’d ever seen. The top layer was crunchy brown pecans, whole, but inside the rather thick pie was pale, jiggly custard. It was…interesting. I don’t think there was any brown sugar in it at all. Boyfriend was a fan, though it also contradicted all of his previous pecan pie experience, but we didn’t have much time (or room) for pie over the weekend. There was watermelon, after all.


[Total aside: has anyone else realized how infrequently you buy a watermelon with seeds anymore? We noticed I was just eating the seeds in our farmer’s market watermelon whole because I’ve grown so accustomed to seedless ones. Sometimes I’d bite down on one & be so surprised to find them there. I hardly remember how I ate them carefully when I was a kid, worrying out all the black seeds & hiding them in my cheek so my friends & I could have seed-spitting contests. End wistful recollections of childhood.]

One thing that was not so lovely about our trip was the driving. All kinds of crap was thrown at us & I tapped into a well of road rage I didn’t even know was within me, that had never been unleashed even when I drove the NJ Turnpike every day. So we were overjoyed when we pulled up to Boyfriend’s apartment at a reasonable hour. All we had to do was unload, drive the car 15 minutes into the Bronx to drop it off in the garage of the friend from whom we’d borrowed it, & cab back home to shower & sleep. Instead, we had to park illegally to unload, while nearly biting our tongues off trying not to curse out the jerks leisurely hogging all the legal parking, & when we set off for the Bronx, we ended up pulled into the riptide that forces you through the Lincoln Tunnel & into Hoboken. What should have been about 30 minutes of transportation back & forth became an hour & a half, & it wasn’t until we staggered grouchily into Boyfriend’s apartment for the night that I realized the barely-eaten, Amish-made pie was missing, having been rested on the roof of the car during the unloading process & promptly forgotten. It was now lying somewhere on the road between Boyfriend’s apartment & New Jersey, & it was entirely my fault.

Losing the pie kind of completed the perfect storm of conditions that prompted me to attempt making my own. I was ashamed of my sitcom-stupidity, setting the pie of the roof & not remembering to pick it back up, & feeling deeply guilty for depriving Boyfriend of his first homemade pecan pie. Add those feelings to the itch that comes from not having made anything new in awhile, the curiosity inspired by that unusual Amish pie-filling, the opportunity to try out a new pie crust & have half left over to use on bourbon peach hand-pies, & the anxious desire to hang onto the freedom of summer days that I can spend in my kitchen, & there’s only one solution: pecan pie adventure time.

As mentioned, I embarked on a ton of research. I spent half of Pie Day One reading. I started at Smitten Kitchen, obviously, because everything Deb makes is in-freakin-credible. There was this ridiculousness (pecan shortbread squares), but the shortbread instead of crust made me wonder about the flavors & thickness. A general Google search for pecan pie recipes revealed the corn syrup issue. The basic core of most pecan pie recipes is: pecans, corn syrup, sugar, eggs, butter, & vanilla. I am grossed out by corn syrup & its omnipresence, & I also know that the corn syrup is a texture (or “mouthfeel,” if you fancy) ingredient in this pie – in addition to working as a preservative (which is why you can find it in everything), it also prevents sugar from crystallizing during the baking process, keeping the texture smooth. So I figured that there was an old-fashioned alternative to corn syrup that I could use, & because I don’t have any of these old-fashioned American recipes to inherit from anyone, I always like to find other people’s family recipes. But mostly, ew corn syrup.

So, logically, let’s just go for another kind of syrup, right? Most non-corn syrup recipes call for cane syrup, or a combination of honey & molasses. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, corn syrup is hard to get away from these days – it’s the leading ingredient in cane syrup & molasses &, um, everything (In syrups, the texture & preservative functions of corn syrup work hand in hand to prevent crystallization as the syrup ages & as it is cooked). There is a British alternative called golden syrup, but I couldn’t get my hands on any & it got some terrible reviews as a pie ingredient. There are, of course, organic versions of products like molasses & honey (I would assume cane syrup, too) which do not use corn syrup as an ingredient, but another thing to consider with syrup substitutes, & this comes up in the anti-golden syrup stuff, is flavor. Corn syrup is virtually tasteless, but molasses has a very distinct flavor, & not one that is universally appreciated. Golden syrup is also said to have a distinct taste. I don’t actually know Boyfriend’s opinion on molasses, but I’ve never been a huge fan of that bittersweet smokiness it leaves behind. I wanted the more even sweetness of brown sugar, so I was on the lookout for recipes that featured it.

Recipe variations for this pie abound. They hail from all over – the labels of Karo corn syrup bottles, Betty Crocker cookbooks, Martha Stewart’s website, Ina Garten, mothers & grandmothers, Southern farmers with pecan groves. The differences are sometimes minute (4 eggs instead of 3, a pinch of flour or cornmeal to thicken, a dash of cream to mellow), sometimes major (1 tablespoon of bourbon vs. 1/3 cup), sometimes drastic & brilliant (just make a chocolate pie & put some pecans in it!). In the end, I narrowed it down to two recipes that seemed the closest to what I wanted: the John Thorne recipe so beloved at Chowhound, & another recipe found in the comments of Chowhound, from the user Candy. Both of these had a good amount of “this is like my grandmother’s recipe!” comments & they seemed to have the right balance of egg, sugar, & butter. I did not want something as custardy as our Amish pie. Candy’s recipe is syrup-free, so I went in that direction. I didn’t have any bourbon in the house, & I prefer dark brown sugar, so my recipe came out as follows (sorry I forgot to take photos! next time!):

brown sugar goodness

Well, I took this photo. Because, come on.
Ingredients:
2 & 1/2 cups blanched, toasted, & chopped pecans
1 lb dark brown sugar
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 – 1/4 tsp almond extract (started with 1/8 & upped it by little splashes until I liked the taste)
3 eggs

Procedure:

A note on mixing – I do everything by hand because I don’t have a stand mixer (saddest face) & I hate my electric handheld mixer. It is a demon. This pie works in my favor, because it’s really easy to over-aerate your stuff when you use electric mixers. Slow & by hand is the best way to keep the air bubbles to a minimum, & one thing the many pecan pie connoisseurs agree on is that air is the enemy of a good pecan pie.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Blanching & toasting: You know you need to blanch if the pecans are bitter when you taste them. The oils of pecans rise to the skin & turn rancid very quickly, so the blanching process will remove the oils & the bitterness, leaving behind insane deliciousness. But if your pecans are fresh & already insanely delicious, you don’t need to blanch & toast, so skip this & yay for you! If you are blanching, do as follows. Fill a medium/large saucepan with water & bring it to a boil. (I eyeball the measurements here. You want it to be full enough that your pecans will all fit & boil.) Boil the pecans for a minute or two. Drain them, then spread them out on a cookie sheet, as close to a single layer as you can manage. They don’t need space, just don’t stack them or clump them. Put them in the oven for about 10 minutes. Carefully eat one (or seventeen) & if they’re not soggy, take them out. If they are, leave them in a little longer & check often, like by the minute. Burnt nuts are terrible; toasted nuts are awesome. I am giggling like crazy right now. Lay them on a cutting board & chop roughly. Feel free to save some whole ones for the top of your pie, if you are so inclined.
1. Beat eggs until creamy. This means that the whites & yolks are fully blended together, so when it settles, you don’t have those little transparent islands of egg white. The color will be a little lighter than the yolks were & it will all look smoothly blended. You do not have to mix very quickly or with a lot of power to achieve this. You can spare your arm as long as you mix until you get that creamy smoothness. Stop & check often.

2. Mix in sugar, extracts, salt, & butter. I don’t like to mix warm butter into eggs for fear of curdling or cooking, so I let my butter come to room temperature & then mixed it in until it melted. A lot of recipes warn against whisks or forks here, because they bring in air. I started with a wooden spoon & finished with a whisk. I keep the air to a minimum by avoiding that oh-so-fancy folding technique the whisk just begs for. Folding = folding in air. So I hold my whisk like a spoon, keep it buried in the mix, & set a steady, medium-pace. Even spoon-mixing will bring in some air, so, again, stop & check often. A few bubbles are going to rise when you stop mixing no matter how you do it, but it should never foam. That’s too much air.

3. Mix in the pecans. I more than doubled the amount called for in Candy’s recipe. Even Thorne’s only calls for 2 cups. But those blanched & toasted pecans are so good! I wanted them in every bite. More pecans = denser pie. For a lighter pie, try less pecans & an extra egg, some cream, etc.

4. Pour this mix into your pie crust, bake at 350 for about 30 minutes, & then lower the heat to 225 for an hour or however long it takes for the pie to set. (Set = jiggly, jam-like filling)

Step Four was where I ran into my most major problem. All that research on Pie Day One had me starting on the crust & filling pretty late in the evening, so I saved the baking for the next morning. But Step Four carried this pie into the evening of Pie Day Two. I just could not get the pie to set. After 2 hours on 225, I pulled my pie out in hopes that it would set as it cooled, but it was just liquid inside (to the point that the filling poured into the vacancy left by my test slice & made a full pie again). Desperate Googling wished me better luck next time, recommending I add cornmeal or flour or minute tapioca on my next venture, & eat my ruined liquid pie out of bowls of ice cream. That was a great enough idea that I was a little bummed I found a solution – someone suggested that the culprit was actually my oven. Rather than buying thermometers to check on that possibility, I went the lazier route & just boosted my setting by 25 degrees. After an hour at 250, the liquid under the deliciously crunchy, caramelized top was no longer bubbling, the knife was coming out clean, & test scoops were yielding an appropriately jammy filling. I realized that I’ve never used my oven at such low settings before; I’ve always baked at 350 or higher, where I suspect the apparent inaccuracy of the temperature doesn’t matter as much. Were I not moving by the end of this month, I’d buy a thermometer to figure this out now, but I’ll just wait until I have a new appliance to doubt.

So there it is: 2 days of research, shopping, mixing, cooking, research, cooking, & cooling. The pie is incredible. Boyfriend & his roommate both reacted to the end product with an appropriately impressed “Whoa,” & the slices I set aside for my roommate inspired this email: “THE PIE WAS EXCELLENT. Thank you for leaving the pie.”

Because I am a devoted self-critic, here are my notes:
1. It is intensely rich. I would consider adding cream the next time around. (Recipes involving cream recommend 1/4 cup.)
2. I would like a denser crust, again to offset the rich sweetness. Next time, I’d use more than half of my mixed dough & roll thicker.
3. Pecans in every bite makes for an unruly pie. It doesn’t slice well with so many pecans, so I would (sadly) scale back to 1.5 – 2 cups next time.

But, even with these notes, I am really happy with the results &, as I pointed out up top, I feel awesomely accomplished. I might wrestle a bear or something this weekend, just because. Or maybe those hand pies will be challenge enough.

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One thought on “Pecan Pie, Me Oh My!

  1. I am following you. This is an excellent concept and I can’t wait for you to teach me how to do more stuff as you learn. And again, I’d like pie.

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