For Thanksgiving dinner, we were asked to bring a pie for dessert. To me, that could only be interpreted one way — that we should bake, not buy, the pie, so I volunteered for pecan. I hadn't baked a pie in at least 15 years, so I was filled with trepidation and awe at my own hubris.
My husband's family has a tradition of making pecan pies but, to be frank, I always felt there was always something lacking. Often it was pecans themselves. Over the years, my sweet mother-in-law, who taught herself French cooking in the 1960s by watching and reading Julia Child, got increasingly chintzy with the pecans in her pies. By the time she hit 80 or so and stopped baking, she was mixing up the Caro Corn Syrup recipe (corn syrup, butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla), pouring it into a store-bought frozen piecrust, and dropping a few pecan halves around the top. It was corn syrup pie with a pecan garnish. I counted a total of eight pecan halves (less than one per serving) in one of her last pies.
Her other economy was to make many pies at once (store-bought crusts come in packages of three) and freeze them. Often for years. I have often pondered why some people, especially my relatives, believe against overwhelming proof that their freezer can stop the march of time, granting immortality to steaks, pies, and so on.
So freezer burn was always a memorable part of holiday dinners.
My pie would have a scratch crust and lots of pecans. I knew that. I just didn't remember how to make pie. I have a marble rolling pin, a pastry-blending tool, and a couple of pie pans. I bought corn syrup, brown sugar, and butter. I bought a pound and a half of pecans, mostly for show. (My husband used to make his mother's recipe with what he considered a reasonable quantity of pecans; I considered it skimpy, barely adequate.
As Thanksgiving loomed, I got more worried. I knew I needed to research pie recipes and read up on making piecrust. I got busy and didn't. Then it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and I realized we had lots of things to do. And I'd forgotten that pie dough needs to be chilled and to rest, and I was running out of time. Suddenly, in the late morning, the pie had to be started NOW.
Plus, if I wrecked it, we needed enough time run out and find one in a store.
I have lots of cookbooks. Almost none of them had pecan pie recipes. There wasn't even one in Martha's Stewart's Pies and Tarts, the book that introduced me to Ms. Stewart and pie-making a few decades ago. (It also got me started on collecting pretty china and antique silver; I owe that woman a lot.)
I read about pie crust in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything:
Though dedicated pie makers do get better and better at producing flaky, flavorful, nicely shaped, and beautifully colored crusts, it need not take years and years of trial and error to get the technique tight [sic]; in fact, you can make good crusts for pies, tarts, cheesecakes, crisps, and more your first time out, and quickly.Emboldened, I used his recipe. It's an all-butter crust, and he insists that it be mixed in a food processor. I only have a mini one, so I figured it would get gummed up and I'd waste a stick of butter and a cup of flour. But it didn't. It took 10 seconds to combine the ingredients, just as he said. Then I transferred the mixture to a bowl, added the correct amount of ice water, and got a very nice ball of dough, which went into the fridge. (I should mention that I used salted butter against his advice, and then added only half as much salt to compensate. And it tasted fine.)
While the crust chilled, I looked online for pecan pie recipes. On Epicurious.com, I found one for Old-Fashioned Pecan Pie. This is it. I liked it because it calls for lots of pecans, less corn syrup, lots of vanilla, and some orange zest, which sounded intriguing.
When it was time to roll the crust, I decided to sandwich it between two sheets of parchment. Then I gave up and floured the dough and rolled it with only one slippery sheet of parchment sliding around on my counter. (Next time, I'll wet it, which is supposed to help it stay put.) I have a small kitchen and making a pie crust pretty much wrecked it. There was flour everywhere, and all over me, even though I had managed to keep the top on the food processor when it was working. I must just be getting messier in my old age. (Yes, I could have taken a photo for you. But I still have some self-respect.)
I rolled and rolled that dough and patched rough spots with more dough and a little ice water. I got it into the pie pan (I buttered it) with no problem. I made cute little pinch marks around the rim, muscle-memory from the pie days of my youth. I put it in the fridge, even though Mr. Bittman wanted it in the freezer; my freezer cannot fit a can of tuna these days let alone a pie.
Before making the filling, I asked my husband how he'd toasted his pecans. He said he never did. I debated between chopped pecans or halves. I decided on chopped because they make the pie easier to cut, serve, and chew. I poured them on a cookie sheet and baked them at 350 F for 5 minutes. They smelled great. Then I mixed up all the ingredients. I didn't have ordinary oranges, but I had Halo mandarins. (And I just Googled them, and I guess maybe we're all going to die. But what an interesting way to go.)
I scattered the nuts into the shell and poured the filling on top, and threw in more pecans because I can never have too many. I placed the pan on a hot cookie sheet in the oven, figuring I'd probably burn it, but I didn't.
As it baked, I restored order to the kitchen and read the recipe's reviews. I also worried about how the recipe called for twice as much vanilla as every other recipe I'd considered. It had smelled very strongly of vanilla as it went into the oven.
One should always read reviews first. While lots of people loved the orange zest, some people hated it. "Oh, well," I said to myself. "When people ask me for a pie, they'd better be prepared."
The pie finally seemed set after baking an extra 10 minutes or so. I must have a slow oven. The crust was a lovely brown but my pinch design had softened and blurred because I don't have a grown-up freezer to set pie crusts. But it nevertheless had a certain rustic charm, as you can see.
The pie was served with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. It was amazing. The crust was tender and flaky: Mark Bittman was right! The citrus zest was a near-universal hit, balancing the sweetness of the syrup and sugar.
My mother-in-law thought there were too many nuts.
I can't wait to make another one. I might double the pecans this time....