Monday, November 17, 2008

So many good things going for it

Pecan pies make me happy.

A homemade pecan pie has so many good things going for it. It is packed full of nuts and sugar. (You already know how I feel about nuts, and you might be able to guess how I feel about sugar.) It is completely easy to make; foolproof, even. And if it's coming out of my kitchen, then it was baked from the recipe my father uses, a recipe that is imbued with a lifetime of warm kitchen memories and pecan nostalgia.

Pecan nostalgia? Yes, pecan nostalgia. You all have met Luta before, right here in this space. She is the wonderful southern woman who, though not related by blood, always has been a sort of surrogate grandmother to me. Phenomenal in so many ways, Luta and her beloved husband Jack would outdo themselves each year when they would send a generous shipment of in-the-shell pecans all the way from Texas to snowy Ohio. Once they even sent along this totally bad-ass nutcracker, this horizontal slingshot-looking torture device which hooked onto the edge of the table and used a great deal of inertia (and a very large rubber band) to crack the shells loudly but gently, revealing two perfect nut meats. Growing up, the holidays simply were not the holidays without that noisy popping-cracking sound, echoing and reverberating around the house.

And when my family was cracking pecans, that meant Dad was baking pies. He thinks his recipe comes from the wonderful old standby, Helen Corbitt, but he says he can't remember for sure. Since Dad has made this pie for as long as I can remember -- and since the recipe is recorded on a tattered old card in his perfect all-caps handwriting, which he developed over a lifetime of writing on blueprints -- I shall call it his. It is a wonderful recipe. It is all nut, with little of the gooey sickly-sweet filling that comprises some lesser pecan pies. The ratio is perfect: a taste of sugar with each forkful of toasty pecan. A shot of Grand Marnier ups the flavor ante, adding just a hint of liquor. Just enough to get the holiday revelry going.

In my childhood I never thought to ask why the majority of the cooking tasks fell to Mom, while nearly all the baking fell to Dad. I just remember that Mom was the one making hearty soups that would "outgrow" the pots in which she began cooking them, while Dad was hunched over the butcher-block counter tops rolling out dough or braiding a loaf or, thank heavens, sitting at the table with me, creating a ruckus with the slingshot-inertia-hardcore-nutcracker. I now understand that the division of labor reflected a very simple truth: while Mom can bake if cajoled and Dad can cook if he's hungry and nobody is around, Mom is the gifted cook while Dad is the skilled and patient baker.

And Luta was the pecan distributor. How much joy and memory is contained in a humble nut pie.



You can use any pie shell recipe you like, but this simple one is the one Dad always uses. I think it's from the back of a can of Crisco. It's a simple, no-fuss, very forgiving, flaky and delicious crust.

For the crust:

1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/2 c. Crisco
3-4 T. ice water

For the pie:

12 oz. raw unsalted pecans
1/4 c. unsalted butter
1/2 c. light brown sugar
1/2 c. light corn syrup
Pinch kosher salt
1 1/2 T. Grand Marnier
2 large eggs

First, make the crust. In a medium bowl, combine the flour and salt. Cut the Crisco into the flour with a pastry blender. Add the water, 1 T. at a time, mixing with your hands until the dough comes together in a ball. Shape into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

When the dough is chilled, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 10-inch round. Place the dough in a pie plate, trim and flute the edges and return to the refrigerator to chill while you assemble the filling.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the butter is melted, remove from the heat and add brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, Grand Marnier and eggs. Whisk the mixture until well-combined.

Remove the pie shell from the refrigerator and fill about 3/4 full with pecans. Pour the filling over the pecans and bake for 35-40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for about 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

Makes one delectable pie.

No comments: