Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away. And while normal folks are beginning to stress that this year’s turkey will again resemble something on the autopsy table in an episode of CSI, or on the whereabouts of the good china, the seating arrangement, side dishes, or the inevitable family drama that unfolds as reliably as winter follows fall, you and I are laser focused on the one piece of the feast that really matters: our beloved pies.
Which ones shall we serve? How many? At what temperature? On which dessert plates? Whipped cream, ice cream, or both? Over thinking these things is second nature to us, an undeniable piece of our culinary DNA.
I belong to an even more exclusive subset of Thanksgiving pie extremists, and if you count yourself among us please be brave and step forward: those who suffer from pecan pie perplexia.
Pecan pie perplexia is a condition characterized by concerns that seem micro to most but paramount to us: should we toast the pecans first, before they go into the pie, or will they toast inside the pie as it bakes? Do I have to prebake the shell? Chop the nuts or leave them whole? And – perhaps the most anxiety inducing question of them all – how can we cut the blessed thing without crushing the slices and squirting soft filling hither and yon, an ignominious finale, if ever there was one, to the most important course of the most important meal of the year.
Well pay attention my pie loving friend, because I’m about to divulge the answers to these pecan pie conundrums and lay them to rest once and for all.
Let me begin with this finding: the perfect Thanksgiving pecan pie turns out to be not a pie by appearances, but rather a pie disguised as a tart. Let me explain.
Look at the photos here; there is no filling squirted hither or yon. Indeed, you see precision cuts. If the Marine Corps taught pecan pie slicing, this is how it would look.
Why is there no squish, especially in light of the fact that you see lots of pecan halves? (Big pieces of pecans = more filling squish.) Answer: because I par-froze the tart before slicing it with a long, sharp, serrated bread knife. I held the knife parallel to the top and began sawing my way down through. Because the pecan topping and filling were semi-frozen – and by that I mean the tart went from thoroughly refrigerator-cold to the freezer for about 75 to 90 minutes before slicing – the knife cut cleanly through the tart.
Entire pean halves are essential for maintaining your pie cred; mere pieces raise silent concerns that you’re hiding lesser nuts in the mix.
Naturally, you can’t do this if you’ve baked your pie in a pie pan; the sides of the pan don’t allow it. So instead of a pie pan, I bake the pie/tart in a 9 1/2-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and then remove the tart from the pan before slicing it. I think pecan pie tastes best only slightly chilled, so I leave the slices on the removable bottom, in the fridge, until about an hour before serving. Then I let them sit at room temperature until serving.
But let’s back up for a moment and tackle some of these other issues, like prebaking the shell. In a word, no, you can’t skip this step. Prebaking assures that you will get a firm, nicely browned and crusted bottom crust. I know a lot of cooks consider this step a hassle, but to me it’s dedication to the pie maker’s craft and the mark of a genuine pie artist. Whenever I see a pecan pie recipe that calls for an unbaked pie shell, I cringe because I know the baker is going to wind up disappointed and, likely, embarrassed to serve a flabby bottomed pie to guests.
The shell I used here is my whole wheat crust. (I recommend others below.) There’s plenty of dough to beef up the sides and pinch them good and high. You’ll want that height in order to end up with a nice full pie. After I chill the shell in the pan and it’s good and firm – at least one hour and preferably two or three – I line the pan with foil and weight it down with beans before putting it in the oven. (PLEASE NOTE: You can, of course, use this pastry – and bake this pie – in a regular pie pan instead of a tart pan with removable bottom.)
Note that whenever I bake a shell, pie, or tart in a removable bottom pan, I put it on a rimmed baking sheet, preferably one lined with parchment. You inevitably get butter leaking out the bottom of the pan and you don’t want it dripping all over your oven. (The parchment paper helps absorb the butter and minimizes smoking.)
When the shell comes out of the oven, I’ll toast the pecan halves because lightly toasted pecans have more flavor than untoasted ones, nor will they get properly toasted if you use them raw in the pie. Entire pecan halves are essential for maintaining your pie cred; mere pieces raise silent concerns that you’re hiding lesser nuts in the mix. I just spread them on a baking sheet and put them in a 350° oven for about 5 to 6, maybe 7 minutes, but no more. They can go from just right to over toasted very quickly, so watch them closely. And don’t leave them on the sheet after they come out; immediately dump them on your counter because the residual heat in the pan will continue to toast them.
Next, I’ll spread the pecans in the shell, then slowly pour the filling over all of them. Whether you’re making a pecan pie or a quiche, always add the filling slowly. If you dump it like a tsunami, you’ll displace the solids already in the shell and wind up with an unevenly filled tart. I love my large, spouted Le Creuset batter bowl for this purpose. Even if I haven’t mixed the filling in it, I’ll transfer it over to the spouted bowl before pouring it into my tart. The spout allows for a much more controlled pour.
Then into the oven it goes. I’ll start my pecan pie at 350° but I like to turn it down to 325° about halfway through. I don’t like to take any chances, with egg-based pies, that they’ll bake too hot. Excessive heat can cause eggs can “break” and make your pie weepy. Low and slow is better and safer.
When is your pecan pie done? There are visual clues, like a slight puffiness. A lot of puff typically means your oven is too hot or you’ve baked the pie too long. Avoid that. Give the pie a nudge: if you can see the filling roll like a wave beneath the nut topping, it isn’t done and probably needs at least 7 more minutes. If the filling jiggles rather than rolls, it’s done.
Transfer the pie to a cooling rack, cool for several hours, then refrigerate overnight before partially freezing it for slicing.
Shame on me for not mentioning until now how rapturously delicious this pecan pie is. There’s more to pecan pie than just slicing and prebaking the crust – much more, in this case. I sometimes call this my North Meets South Pecan Pie because it uses my favorite sweetener from my New England days – maple syrup – and marries it with one of the south’s showcase crops, pecans. Our version is unabashedly rich, sweet, and – like the title says – perfect. Let me know what YOU think, ok? And by the way, rich and sweet as it is, you can easily get 10 to 12 servings out of the pie. A small slice of this decadence is plenty.
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