Monday, November 5, 2012

Thanksgiving Traditions -- Pecan Pie

My grandparents were farmers in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and raised a whole bounty of crops -- cotton, lettuce, onions, green chiles (before they were trendy!), and pecans being the primary ones. I grew up in Washington, DC, and every year after the fall harvest, my grandparents would ship a box of whole, shell-on pecans to us. We would have "quality family time" by sitting around, cracking the pecans, and prying the nut-meat out of the shells. It's literally a dirty and laborious job -- pecan dust, jagged shells poking your fingers, nuts that don't come out whole....but the end result is worth it. Meaty, fresh pecans, ready for eating!

Thanksgiving at our house always, ALWAYS meant it was pecan pie time! We usually shared our Thanksgiving with some close family friends, alternating each year who's house it was held at. Between the stuffing (dressing) and pecan pie, that's what I came to look forward to the most, and that still holds true today!
This is the pecan pie recipe that my mother typed up (yes, on a typewriter!) for me in the late 1990s, when I was starting my own Thanksgiving traditions. It comes from the 1975 Williamsburg Cookbook (as in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia), and is fairly fool-proof. In recent years, I have exchanged the light corn syrup for brown rice syrup or Lyle's Golden Syrup, both of which work fine, and gives it a bit of a deeper flavor, and I have reduced the white sugar to about 1/2 cup; I have left the original recipe intact here though. I am also a stickler for making my own pie crusts, which I love doing! A crust makes the pie!

Pecan Pie

unbaked crust, fitted into a 9" pie pan (recipe below)
4 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt (I use Redmond Real Salt for baking)
1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
1 tablespoon melted, cooled butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup pecan halves or pieces (I add a 1/4 - 1/2 cup additional, just because)

-- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
-- Beat eggs lightly in a medium bowl, and add sugar, salt, corn syrup, butter and vanilla. 
-- Stir until mixed well.
-- Spread pecans on the bottom of the pie crust, evenly distributing; pour filling over.
-- Place on a cookie sheet or baking pan (to catch any spills from the filling) in oven and immediately reduce temperature to 350 degrees. 
-- Bake 45 - 55 minutes, or until mixture is firm in center; give the pie pan a little shake -- if it's still pretty jiggly in the center, bake a few minutes longer until set.
-- Remove from oven and let cool completely before serving; real whipped cream is my ideal accompaniment to this pie. Also good for breakfast the next morning if there are leftovers.

* You might not need all of the filling; if you've got tartlet shells, through some extra pecans into them and use the leftover filling. They'll bake in about 25 minutes.
* For Thanksgiving, I try to bake this the night before or first thing in the morning on T-day so it has plenty of time to cool if we don't eat until at least late afternoon.

Pie Crust -- good for any pie! 

* Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum's Basic Flaky Pie Crust recipe in the Pie and Pastry Bible. It's not quick, but it's GOOD!

1 1/3 cups all purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 teaspoon table salt (again, I use Redmond Real Salt)
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (frozen is fine too)
4 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening (like Earth's Balance sticks) OR good lard, like from Austin's Dai Due
3 - 4 tablespoons icy cold water
1 1/2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar

-- In a medium bowl, combine the flour and salt; set aside.
-- Working quickly with your fats, cut the sticks into individual tablespoon-sized pats; then cut each pat into 9 smaller, pea-sized pieces. You may want to dip your knife into the flour to help prevent the butter/shortening/lard from sticking to the knife. Once you have the smaller pieces, add to the flour, and toss to coat.
-- For this next step, I prefer to use my hands, but some people prefer a pastry blender tool or a large metal fork. I have more control with my hands, and I like the feel of it. Try to move the fats to one side of the bowl, again, working quickly, rub the pieces between your fingers and thumb to flatten them out; try to place the flattened pieces on the other side of the bowl. It's a quick motion; the pieces don't need much handling, and the object is NOT to make them flat like a piece of paper, just thinner than what they were. Think light and airy, not heavy and clumpy.
-- Have a piece of wax paper or a silicone pad handy.
-- Once the fats are flattened and dispersed evenly through the flour, sprinkle the ice water and cider vinegar over the flour (don't just dump it all in the middle); start with the minimum amount of water, and add more as needed. I don't think I've ever used less than 3 1/2 tablespoons, and sometimes as much as 5+. Will depend on your climate that day.
-- With a large fork, gently toss the flour so it incorporates the water; I usually then move to my hands, and start pressing the dough together. If it does not readily stick, add a little more water. Bring dough together into a shaggy ball, and turn out onto wax paper. Keep pressing all the little scraps and pieces of dough together. You're not KNEADING the dough (which activates the glutens and can make it tough), but pressing it all together into a ball or disc.
-- Form into a disc, about 5 inches in diameter and an inch thick. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes. This allows the glutens to relax and the fats to re-chill.
-- When ready to roll out, remove from fridge and let sit on the counter for another 10 minutes.
-- Have your pie pan ready, a couple table spoons of extra flour for dusting, along with a rolling pin and a bench/pastry scraper (or large, flat turner). You can roll the dough out on wax paper, silicone pad, or a clean counter top.
-- Roll your dough out, using a few strokes with the rolling pin, and then using the bench scraper to help loosen the dough, and give it a quarter turn and dusting with flour as needed; as your "circle" (I can never make a perfect circle!) gets larger, you can give it a half turn or no turn at all, but use the scraper to keep the dough from sticking to the rolling surface. You will need to roll it out to about a 12" diameter circle for a 9" pie pan. 
-- Carefully roll your dough onto your pin and unroll it over the pie pan; reposition as needed, pat down the center, and up the sides; if there's a huge amount of overhanging crust, you may want to trim it back a bit before crimping or making a decorative edge. I usually like about a 3/4" overhang from the lip of the pie plate; I will fold it under, leaving about a 1/4 - 1/3" overhang, and then crimp. Crusts will shrink when baked. 
-- This next step is optional, but I find it helps -- place the pie pan back in the fridge for at least 20 minutes so the fats can rechill. This is what helps to make a flaky crust -- when the cold fats hit the hot oven, the water content of those fats turns to steam, thus making a little flaky pocket in your crust. The butter you laboriously flattened earlier got nicely distributed through the flour and is making nice steam pockets throughout your dough.
-- Pull your crust back out of the fridge and either blind bake if that's what your recipe calls for, or assemble your pie fillings and bake to directions. 

* You can make this crust a day or two in advance, and place the unbaked, fitted pie crust into a large resealable bag and refrigerate until ready to use.
* You can use all of one type of fat... butter gives flavor, whereas shortening/lard give flakiness, hence I like a mix.

I've made myself hungry, and now I want pie!