Friday, November 18, 2016

Classic Pecan Pie

This year, my parents will come up for the holiday, like they always do. And we will feed a lot of friends, like we always do. And my mom and I will cook together, like we always do. Only this year, it will be a balm to my soul, this action of turning the radio to American composer Aaron Copeland on NPR, of putting our hands to beautiful ingredients, our minds and hearts to shared purpose. 

My mom will do all the hard tasks, effortlessly and uncomplainingly: she will make and roll out the pie crusts while I stir eggs and nuts in a bowl; she will trim all the horrible Brussels sprouts and peel the fifteen pounds of potatoes, while I do the easier high-profile roasting and the mashing in of outrageous gobs of sour cream and butter. I will ask her to reach into the turkey hole to retrieve the giblets--but I will be only kidding. She is so lovely! I would never. That one gross thing I will actually do myself. 

We will have a small glass of wine and start a jigsaw puzzle while the bird roasts, and then we will try to get it put away well before people arrive, though I am famous for looking at my watch and saying, "Fuck! I'm still in my pajamas!" before darting around to light all the candles and change into something festive. People of all ages will come. The evening will be heavenly. 

And then, the next day, I will be back at it: calling my elected officials and demanding justice and safety for all of us living inside these borders, on this piece of land.

(Please note, because I am a font of weird juxtapositions: I'm going to post some gravy recipes early next week, including one for a really delicious vegetarian gravy. If you're going to want to make it, and you're shopping this weekend, you'll need: veggie broth/bouillon, shallot, butter, flour, red wine, nutritional yeast, miso, soy sauce, maple syrup, thyme, and garlic powder.)

Classic Pecan Pie
Serves 8
Active time: 30 minutes; total time: 1 1/2 hours

If we didn’t make this, then my dad would go crazy. And if we didn’t have leftovers, then my day-after holiday pie breakfast streak would be broken. It’s the quintessential pecan pie, with a thick, sweet filling that is salty and crunchy with butter-crisped nuts. If you want to use a store-bought or cheater pie crust, please do! Or if you want to make this crust with all butter, go ahead. We always make two pies at a time, and I am glad.

For crust:
1 1/2 cups of flour
3/4 teaspoons kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 stick of butter (mine is salted), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons of shortening or lard
1/3 cup ice water (put some ice in the water, and when you're ready to use it, fish out the ice and measure the water)

For filling:
3 eggs
¾ cup white sugar
¾ cup dark corn syrup
3 tablespoons butter, cut in bits
1 teaspoon vanilla
a large pinch kosher salt (or half a large pinch table salt)
1 ½ cups pecan halves

To make the crust:

Food processor method: Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of your food processor, then distribute the butter and shortening over it. Pulse for a second or two at a time, 5 or 6 times, and then check to see what it looks like: you want to see a mix of butter sizes at this point: some should be the size of peas or even a little bigger, like, hm, the tip of your thumb, say, and some should be mealy and crumbly looking. If you see giant pieces of butter at this point--the size of dice still--then pulse a couple more times. Those butter pieces are going to create the flakes, though, so be judicious. Now dump the mixture into a large bowl, and proceed from the asterisk, below.

By-hand method: Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl, and distribute the butter and shortening over it. Use a pastry blender or your fingertips to work the fat and flour together. For the former, you're on your own, since I've never used a pastry blender; for the latter, you want to lift handfuls of the mixture up out of the bowl, then gently let it fall through your fingertips as you rub it lightly together. Eventually, you'll have a bowl full of clumpy lumps, some the size of peas or fingertips, some the size of fish-tank gravel and cornmeal, and this is perfect. You don't want to spend too long doing this, or the crust will be tough and unflaky; nor do you want the fat left so big that when you go to roll out it sticks all over the place and you curse me.

* Now, whichever method you've used, drizzle the ice water over the flour and fat mixture, and stir it with a fork until it starts to cling together in shaggy crumbs. Gather a little clump in your hand and squeeze: if it creates a shaggy dough, you're good to go; if it seems to dry to stick together, then drizzle another tablespoon or two of water over it, stir, and try again (this part's a bit tricky: too little water, and the dough will crack and break as you try to roll it; too much and your crust will be tough). Dump it onto your clean countertop and gently gather it into a ball, squeezing and pressing and very slightly kneading just enough to hold it together. Flatten the ball into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap or wax paper, and refrigerate it while you prepare the filling.

To make the filling:

Beat the eggs in a large-ish bowl. Add the sugar, corn syrup, butter, vanilla, and salt, and stir vigorously. Stir in the pecans.

To assemble the pie:

Heat your oven to 350 and roll out the dough:

Sprinkle your clean, dry counter with flour, put the unwrapped disk of dough down, sprinkle it with more flour, and use a rolling pin to roll it thin. The thing is, this is more dough than you'll actually need, so the size is less important here than thinness. It should be about as thick as, geez, metaphors are eluding me. Glove leather? I don't have leather gloves, but I once did. About an 1/8th of an inch is what you're going for. Roll from the center out to the edges, pressing as evenly as you can to make a roundish shape, and checking to be sure the dough is not sticking beneath; sprinkle more flour as you need to, but cheat it as much as you can (sticking is a disaster, but too much flour will make a tough crust). If the dough tears, wash your hands and dry them, sit on the couch for a minute to take a few deep breaths, then patch it as best you can.

When the dough is rolled out, fold it loosely into quarters, center the point in the bottom of your pie plate, and unfold it. Now lift the edges as you use the flat of your hand to press the dough down into the pan--that is, you don't want to just press down, or you'll tear it, so you want to offer it some slack and a certain generosity of spirit. When the plate is lined, use a pair of clean scissors or a knife to trim it, leaving about an inch of overhang. Tuck the overhang underneath itself all the way around the crust to make a thick lip, then flute the rim by pressing it with your thumbs and index fingers all the way around. (You could crimp it with a fork instead, which might be a look you have some affinity with from your own childhood.)

Pour in the filling and, if you like, top it with little cut-out shapes from your leftover dough.

Bake the pie in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, then check it to make sure nothing bad is happening. Go ahead and bake it another 15 minutes, until the bottom is golden, and the top is set. Cool on a rack, then serve with whipped cream or ice cream. Refrigerate leftovers.


  1. Don't put your jigsaw puzzle away! One of the most enjoyable things about Thanksgiving is people gathered around, some watching football and some working on a jigsaw puzzle. Peace and happiness to you and your family!

  2. I love you already for the promised veggie gravy recipe. My brother in law is a foodie & vegetarian, and his wife is still carnivorous LOL Every year I make her the "I'm thankful for turkey!" meal, at which we celebrate meat and side dishes and our family's traditional oyster dressing. (yum!) And he loves sides, so I always make them spectacular...but potatoes are a must and it's a sin to serve them naked. The rest of us enjoy them drowning in delicious turkey gravy and I am beyond thrilled at the idea of making (and trying) veggie gravy that isn't sad and disgusting!

  3. Anonymous3:02 AM

    Catherine- I'm new-ish around here but wanted to say that your writing is wonderful, your family lovely and something about your words today made me feel safer than I have since November 9. Up here in Canada, calling my elected representatives too! Thank you, just thank you for your words and your spirit. My phone is being odd so I'll put my handle here- Mtbakergirl!

  4. Haven't been by in a spell, but your prep work with your mother was described in such a lovely way, as was your pecan pie. Hope the holiday was magical and the ensuing ones as well. And I don't know if I bragged about Sweetbitter yet but oh was it good and I met the author and she was charming and wise for being a first time writer. She reads a lot of poetry and it informs her writing well. Check it out.