Pecan pie begins with pecans. (Whoa! Who’d’a thunk?)
We have several pecan trees on our place. Two of them are highly-bred modern varieties; one produces fairly large nuts with thin shells, the other nothing much — the green hulls never open and drop the pecans. My wife calls them “Choctaws”. I don’t know. Back in East Texas we would simply have referred to them as “paperhulls”. There is a third, much smaller tree that yields pecans a little smaller than the “Choctaw”, but it’s been in the shade of a big ugly hackberry all its life.
There’s also a big, old tree along the road fence line that produces what East Texans call “field” pecans — a little bigger than the first joint of a man’s little finger, aspect ratio about 3, with extremely durable shells, and a number of smaller ones that yield the same nuts. Then there are a few that make a somewhat larger nut, more nearly round, but just as hard, which is an “Indian” pecan in my childhood terminology.
Now, it’s long been my theory that the amount of flavor in fruits, nuts, berries, etc. is fixed based on species. Breeding and genetic engineering create varieties that produce larger and prettier ones, but the bigger, fancier versions don’t have any more flavor than the little hard originals, so the big ones taste bland and mealy in comparison. That’s certainly true of the pecans on our place. The “field” and “Indian” pecans are hard to shell and virtually impossible to get whole meats out of, but are oily and intensely flavored, where the “Choctaw” or “paperhull” pecans are big and pretty but relatively bland.
So when I decided to make a pecan pie — the first one I’ve ever personally made — I started by shelling Indian pecans. You need a specialized instrument to get much from the field pecans, but only persistence is required for the Indians. In half an hour I collected about half a cup of nutmeats, none of them whole, mostly in one-millimeter fragments. Since I wanted a bit over a cup of nutmeats, I caved in at that point and shelled enough of the Choctaws to fill it out.
Pecan pie, to me, is my mother’s recipe plus inferior imitations. Some of the latter use milk, for heaven’s sake. Note that my mother was, overall, a lousy cook — it took me years after leaving home to figure out that the reason I hated cruciform vegetables was because of the way she cooked them, especially cauliflower — but when it came to dessert, well, mmmm. She maintained the recipe in arch, imitation-old-fashioned form, but it’s pretty much the Joy of Cooking one, which I will give first as she did, then with “real” measurements:
9″ shallow pie shell, normal flour/shortening crust (but use lard, guys, it just tastes better), NOT “deep dish”
A lump of butter the size of an egg (1/4 cup)
A double-handful of brown sugar (one cup, packed)
A generous handful of corn syrup (half a cup)
A capful of vanilla (one teaspoon)
A dash of salt (1/4 teaspoon)
Two handfuls of pecans (1 to 1-1/2 cups) BROKEN UP
Which type of brown sugar and which of corn syrup is up to you. Mother used dark brown sugar and light corn syrup, or light brown sugar and dark corn syrup, according to what was available. Don’t omit the salt in a misplaced attempt at “low sodium”. The pie won’t set up properly. Pecan pie is not a health food, anyway.
It is important that the pecans be mostly fragments, especially if all you can get is pre-shelled packaged ones from the supermarket. The flavor-laden stuff from the nutmeats leaches out into the batter when the pie is cooked, so you get a pie that tastes like pecans rather than a sweet clear stuff with nutmeats on top. (If you want a pretty pie, with nicely arranged whole nutmeats arrayed across the surface, go elsewhere, please.)
Take the ingredients out of the fridge. Prepare the pie shell. The time needed to mix, roll, etc. the pie crust will give the ingredients time to warm to room temperature, which will help a lot.
Turn the oven on. You want it preheated to 350F (180C). While the oven is heating, cream the butter and sugar to a more or less consistent mixture, then add the eggs one at a time. (Don’t beat or overstir unless you want a sort of crusty browned meringue over the top of the finished pie — I like it that way, but lots of people don’t.) Add the corn syrup, vanilla, and salt, and stir thoroughly. Fold the pecans in throughout the mixture, then pour the batter into the crust.
When you get done with that the oven will be preheated, so put the pie on the middle shelf. Check it after half an hour. If the crust is starting to brown all the way ’round, the pie is done. If not, leave it in up to ten more minutes. I overcooked mine as well as over-beating it, so it came out a bit more toasted than I really liked, but hey! — like I said, it was my first personal effort thataway.
Important: Let it cool for a while before diving in. I like for pecan pie to have just a hint of warmth remaining. If you have done all that right, the pie will “set up” — that is, the filling will be a semi-solid, not runny. If you must garnish it, stay away from the ice cream. Barely-sweetened whipped cream is nice.
You can make the same pie with walnuts, and if you are a VERY patient and persistent nutcracker you can do it with hickory nuts, which puts the pecan version in the shade. Some people like to add chocolate chips, but I don’t like that. While making the pie it occurred to me: has anybody ever tried it with mesquite beans? They’re edible, with an odd smoky flavor that isn’t at all disagreeable. Maybe next year I’ll collect some and try it.
Enjoy. Things have been a bit hectic ’round Chez Locke the last couple of weeks, so I haven’t been at the keyboard much. How ’bout them CRUdites?