A few years ago, I was working as a cook in an exploration camp in the Arctic. One of the requirements of my job was to make sure that at least two kinds of pie graced the dessert buffet every evening. (I know, don’t you all want to work as Arctic geological explorers now?)
One day, I made four beautiful pecan pies (and I make amazing pecan pie). For the first night, no one touched them. I couldn’t figure out why. I was feeling crushed until I suddenly remembered that pecan pie is usually not so good.
Yes, pecan pie has a bad reputation, and no wonder. Teeth-achingly sweet, rubbery filling, soggy flavourless nuts, gummy pastry… There are a lot of awful examples out there. I had tackled pecan pie as a recipe rehab project many years ago. I love to rehabilitate recipes – to find out what was once delicious about a now fallen-from-grace or over-processed common recipe – and pecan pie is one of my greatest success stories. So much so that I had forgotten how bad pecan pie can often be.
Luckily, my Arctic cooking tale has a happy ending. Sometime on Day Two, someone in camp dared to try a piece, and pretty soon the pies were all gone. (I like to imagine that the news of pecan pie awesomeness spread through the camp, but possibly the geologists just got sick of the berry pies.)
Yesterday, my mom and I spent the day baking pies for Thanksgiving. It’s one of our favourite activities of the holiday weekend. We each make a couple of pies in Mom’s big roomy kitchen and gloat over them for a day, before they disappear into the maws of our eager family members. We each always make an apple pie (the family favourite, so we need two); Mom makes her famous pumpkin pie made with her own home-grown sugar pumpkins; and I always make a Maple Pecan or Maple Walnut pie, because nuts are so evocative of fall and harvest bounty and thankfulness. I only make it once a year, but I love the baking magic every time.
It’s so nice to have a different dessert to try other than just pumpkin or apple pie. Maybe this can be the year you fall in love with nut pies and add some autumn nutty decadence to the Thanksgiving dessert menu.
After the first bite
Maple Pecan Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
Just sweet enough, with a crisp golden crust and the rich flavour of toasted nuts and real maple syrup, this pecan pie is a cut above the rest. The hardest part about this recipe is making the dough and pre-baking the pastry shell. The filling is super quick to throw together. The reason for precooking the shell, and then baking the filled pie at such a low temperature, is so that you can enjoy both a beautifully crisp crust and a tender, smooth, gently-cooked filling. This recipe is one that I created and adpated, with inspiration from both Canadian Living Desserts and Cooks Illustrated The Best Recipe.
1 -1/4 cups (6.5 oz) all-purpose flour, measured by the dip-and-sweep method
1- 1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tb (3 oz) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
4 Tb (2 oz) cold lard or Earth Balance shortening, cut into small cubes
2 Tb cold vodka mixed with 3 Tb cold water (OR use 4 Tb total cold water)
2 cups pecan halves
5 Tb unsalted butter, melted
1 cup packed light brown sugar (yellow sugar)
1/4 tsp salt
3 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
Prepare the pecans first:
Preheat oven to 350 F. Cover a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Spread the pecans out on the baking sheet and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 5 to 9 minutes, stirring occasionally, until nuts are lightly toasted and fragrant. Remove the nuts from the oven and let cool. Once the pecans are cool, chop one cup of the pecans into small pieces, and leave the other cup whole. Set aside.
Instructions for crust:
Ina medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Whisk to combine. Add the cold butter pieces and use your fingers or a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour. Rub the butter pieces gently between your fingers, coating them in flour, until they are half the size. (You can also use a food processor to cut the butter into the flour – I prefer this method, since the fat stays colder). Add the lard or shortening pieces and continue cutting in, until the fat is the right size, ranging from very small peas to cornmeal. There should be more smaller pieces than big.
Slowly sprinkle in the water-vodka mixture (or just plain water), one tablespoon at a time, using a fork or rubber spatula to mix the dough. Even if the dough still looks dry, don’t add any more liquid. Use your hands to gather a dough into a ball, using gentle pressure to make the dough hold together. Form the dough into a round, flat disk and place on a floured counter.
Turn oven up to 400 F. Roll out the pastry using gentle even pressure. The dogh should be about 12 inches in diameter and about 1/4-inch thick. Gently fold the dough circle into quarters and place in a pie pan, with the point in the middle of the pan. Gently unfold the dough and settle the dough into the pan. Trim edge to 1/2-inch beyond pie plate edge, fold edges under and flute the edge with your thumbs and forefinger.
Using two long sheets of foil, line the pastry shell all the way up and over the edges. Fill the foiled-lined shell completely with ceramic pie weights or pennies (in a pinch, use dried beans). Place the weight-filled pie on the bottom rack of the oven and back for about 15 to 17 minutes, until the dough looks dry.
Remove pie from oven and reduce heat to 375 F. Carefully fold foil together and remove the pie weights by lifting the foil package up and out of the shell.
Place the shell back in the oven and bake for 10 to 12 minutes more, until the shell is light golden brown.
You should be making the rest of the pie filling while the shell is baking, so that the filling is ready to go as soon as the shell is finished baking. If you want to use a pre-made crust, make sure to put it in the oven for several minutes before you add the filling.
Instructions for filling:
In a large bowl, whisk together the melted butter, the light brown sugar, and the salt. Whisk in the whole eggs and the egg yolk, the maple syrup, and vanilla. Whisk until well-blended. Just before the pie shell is ready to come out of the oven for the second time, stir the chopped and whole pecans (toasted in step one, remember?) into the filling mixture.
As soon as the pie shell comes out of the oven, reduce the heat to 275 F and pour the filling directly into the HOT crust (if you have used a pre-made crust, heat it in the oven for several minutes first). Return the pie immediately to the oven (now at 275 F) and cook for 50 to 60 minutes until the pie is just set. It will jiggle like jello in the middle, but will be firm and slice beautifully after it cools. Transfer pie to cooling rack. Let pie cool for 4 hours before serving (or it won’t slice.)
After 4 hours, slice and enjoy a toasty-nutty-mapley crisp-crusted super delicious pecan pie.