My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2017
Everyone is convinced that their, or their mother’s, pecan pie is the world’s best.
I can see several reasons for this conviction. Possibly, it’s just because most of us have a rip-roaring sweet tooth, and pecan pie is essentially a gigantic piece of really good candy in a crust, and eating something this sweet makes us happy, and the version we most often eat is our own, or our mother’s.
Possibly this is because, given that one cannot possibly rationalize eating a gigantic piece of really good candy in a crust with frequency, it is a rare treat, indulged in once — maybe twice — a year, max, so it gains extra allure, served up with the whipped cream of superlatives.
Or possibly it’s because pecan pie is a food you encounter at home far more often than at a restaurant. This means it is likely to be homemade, with all the associations of familial care and tradition; it’s Aunt Sudie’s recipe that Memaw just had to make, and Boudreaux will have no other.
I understand, and respect, these rationales for why your or your mother’s pecan pie is the world’s best. But, meaning no disrespect, there is one definitive reason why, no matter what you believe, your or your mother’s version cannot be the world’s best.
And that reason is this: My pecan pie is the world’s best.
Here’s why, and before you get all bent out of shape, relax; I’m going to give you the recipe at the end of this, and you’ll be able to make it and see for yourself.
My pecan pie is not the same old, same old.
Look, all pecan pie fillings are essentially the same thing: a sweetened liquid mixture that is, like a custard, bound and thickened by eggs. But where a custard pie uses sweetened milk or buttermilk for the liquid, in a pecan pie the liquid is all sugar and sugar equivalent, say, corn or some other syrup. For the vast majority of Americans, that syrup is Karo. And, again, for the vast majority of Americans, that recipe is the one right on the Karo bottle. And it’s a fine recipe, as far as it goes, and I know you have always enjoyed it and would be happy to have its shoes under your bed … but it is the same one you have eaten your entire life.
Forthwith, here are some persuasive points of difference where my pecan pie is concerned:
My pecan pie’s sweetness is not a Johnny-one-note.
Yes, it has that same old, beloved, so-sweet-it-sets-your-teeth-on-edge goo, but it is sweetness that has dimension. Instead of a goo made of just-sugar-plus-corn-syrup, mine includes honey and a tiny lick of molasses. (And, these days, in a variation I have grown right fond of since moving to Vermont, real maple syrup…. If this appeals to you, substitute maple syrup for honey, and add 2 teaspoons cornstarch to the food processor mixture.)
My pecan pie has more butter.
Way more butter. And — this is a fact — if you’re going for all-out indulgence for dessert, you can hardly have too much butter. The traditional Karo pecan pie uses a mere 2 tablespoons. But for an iconic, looked-forward-to-all-year dessert, I call that stingy. My pecan pie uses ½ cup of butter. You might call that excessive. But I call it appropriate.
My pecan pie is made with browned butter.
Will you allow me to take a little side trip into a bit of food science, if I promise it’ll make your pecan pie exponentially better? Yeah, I thought so.
I know you think butter is a fat, and you’re right, up to a point. That point is, if we are talking about American butter, it’s 80 percent fat. The remaining 20 percent, though, is not actual butterfat but a combination of milk solids and water. Most of the time we just ignore this.
But if we are making so-called clarified butter — or, in Indian cooking, ghee — we cook the butter, all by itself, very gently and slowly, to drive off the water, and then we strain it, discarding (or saving for another use) the little crumbles of lightly browned milk solids that sink to the bottom of the pot.
But if we are making browned butter, as I am going to have you do for my pecan pie, we cook the butter a bit more quickly, and we deliberately take the milk solids to a slightly deeper brown. And we don’t separate these milk solids from the melted butterfat; rather, we include them. Indeed, that’s the whole point: These brown crumbles have caramelized, and their flavor is hold-the-phone, intoxicatingly good.
Add browned butter to a pecan pie and, heavens, it goes into the stratosphere of rapturous deliciousness. And, no, it is not a lot of trouble to make browned butter. It’s easy, like they say, as pie. Here’s how, since I’m about to call for it: Place the butter (for this recipe, ½ cup) in a saucepan over low to medium heat and cook, watching closely but not stirring, until golden brown, with deeper browned bits at the bottom. This will be no more or less than 5 to 8 minutes. Do not burn. Pour browned butter into a bowl and set aside, unrefrigerated, to add while still liquid to the pie.
My pecan pie mixes chopped pecans with whole ones.
Whole pecans are decorative. But chopped pecans allow that nutty pecan-ness in every single bite, get evenly browned, get a nice all-the-way-through crunchiness, and make for cleaner, neater slices. A mixture is just better.
My pecan pie recipe does not gild the lily.
Here’s the thing: Why muck around with greatness? Every change rung on the classic traditional pecan pie recipe in my version still sticks to the basic goodness; it just enhances it. In my opinion, anything much beyond this is complication and overkill. Add chocolate chips, thereby making it Kentucky Derby Pie? In my view, ewww; that’s taking something that already skirts the edge of too-sweetness into the territory of sugar shock. Add cinnamon? No, no — save it for the apple pies, the pumpkin pies. Ditto ginger. Bourbon for flavoring instead of vanilla? Okay, if you insist; that’s pretty good (though you could just as well add the bourbon to the whipped cream, or have a shot on the side).
But when you’ve got the world’s best, it’s best to just let it be. Perfect is perfect.