Last holiday, I ran into my old high school pal Chris at a potluck party. I knew he had become a successful writer in Los Angeles and married a witty, beautiful dancer. I didn’t know that he has a knack for baking and makes a perfect pecan pie.
A big Whipped welcome to Chris Nowak and many thanks to him for sharing this guest post, his recipe, his wit, humor and fool proof step-by-step instructions. A perfect pecan pie, just in time for Thanksgiving!
PIE CRUSTS ARE EASY.
That’s right – easy. I don’t know who started the rumor that they’re difficult. Maybe the same person who came up with saying that drinking a Guiness is “like drinking a loaf of bread.” Or that an exotic protein “tastes like chicken.” Or that “typhoid fever can be fatal.”
“Homemade pie crusts are difficult” is every bit the empty cliché those previous statements are. Okay, maybe not all of them. I had typhoid fever once and, trust me, it ain’t a day the beach. But pie crusts really are easy, especially if you arm yourself with the following three secret weapons:
3) Common sense.
I’ll start with the first one. Pork. More specifically, rendered pork fat. Most specifically, lard. There is no easier way to improve the taste of any pie crust recipe than by adding a little lard. I’m sure you’ve noticed the (relatively) recent trend of high-end pastry chefs leavening intensely sweet desserts by adding conspicuous amounts of salt. Well, they’re basically re-discovering what pie bakers in the American Southeast have known for well over a hundred years: sweet + salty = good.
And now for the booze. Most pie crust recipes call for anywhere between 2 – 4 Tbs of ice water to be added midway through the mixing process. Do yourself a favor and swap out half that water for chilled vodka. I have no idea why this makes the crust noticeably lighter and flakier. I just know that it does.
Finally, there’s common sense. Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of pie crust recipes seem designed to scare people off. “Do not over-pulse! Do not over-mix! Do not run with scissors! Do not take that tone with me, young man!” Well here’s a little advice from a guy who’s made well over 50 homemade pie crusts despite having exactly zero formal cooking instruction: Relax. Your crust is fine. No matter how badly you think you’ve botched it, it’s still a hundred times better than a pre-baked crust from the store.
A NOTE ABOUT PECAN PIES:
There are two types of pecan pie recipes, those that use corn syrup and those that don’t. I’m SQUARELY in the “those that don’t” camp. Sugar and toasted pecans are sweet enough. Trying to cram in even more sweetness by adding corn syrup is like bringing sand to the beach.
This recipe has no corn syrup. Just butter, eggs, sugar, pecans and vanilla -which basically means it’s more like a pecan-flavored custard pie.
Pecan Pie Recipe
(Note: This recipe is for a 10” pie crust, which is what I always use even when the recipe calls for an 9” or even an 8” pie pan. It gives you a much better margin for error when you roll it out, and it’s not like any of these ingredients are expensive. Unless you’re using really good vodka, I guess. But who cooks with Belvedere?)
FOR THE CRUST:
1 ½ cups unbleached flour (6.65 oz)
¾ tsp salt (.1 oz)
1 ½ tsp sugar (.2 oz)
7.5 Tbl cold, unsalted butter (3.7 oz), chopped into eight or nine pieces of mostly equal size
2.5 Tbl lard (1 oz)
1 Tbl chilled cheap vodka mixed with 1 Tbl very cold water.
Two sheets plastic wrap
1 sheet parchment paper
Pie weights. (Or about a pound of dried kidney beans.)
FOR THE FILLING:
2 cups shelled pecans
6 Tbs unsalted butter, softened
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
½ cup granulated sugar
1 Tbs vanilla extract
1) Start by making the crust. Add the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor fitted with the dough blade. Pulse to combine. Go ahead and over-pulse. Get it out of your system.
2) Add the cold butter and lard. (Try and break the lard off into a few different clumps, if you can. Don’t worry if they’re not even; you can’t really “chop” lard as easily as butter, no matter how cold it is.) Pulse to combine.
3) Keep pulsing until the mixture is the size of very small peas. There will still be some dry ingredients stuck to the sides of your processor. Don’t panic. Just tap the side until it falls into the center. Or take the top off and scrape it off with a rubber spatula.
4) Pulse a few more times.
5) Transfer everything to a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle about half the vodka-water over the mixture. Mix it all up a bit with a wooden spoon. Add the rest of the vodka-water, and mix again.
6) Can you gather the dough up into a ball with your hands? If you can, do so. If the dough is too dry to form, just add a little bit more of the vodka-water mixture and try again. (Still too dry? Keep adding small amounts of vodka-water until the mixture congeals enough to ball it up with your hands.)
7) Flatten the ball on both sides until you form a large-ish disk.
8) Wrap disk in plastic wrap. Plastic wrap is another secret weapon of pie crusts. Here’s why: If, when shaping your disk, you notice the outer rim start to crack, just press them back together after you encase your disk in plastic wrap. The heat from your hands and the tightness of the plastic allows you to repair any cracks now, well before they can cause trouble during the rolling-out process.
9) Put the disk in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes.
10) Unwrap newly-chilled disk, spread the plastic wrap on a flat surface and put the disk on the plastic wrap. Sprinkle each side with a little flour, just to keep the plastic wrap from sticking. Place a second layer of plastic wrap over disk and begin the roll-out process.
11) Work slowly, from the middle. Seriously, take your time. If any cracks appear in the outer rim again, just repair them while they’re between the two sheets of plastic wrap.
12) Take a 9” pie tin and place it upside-down on top of plastic wrap/dough. If the dough extends a good couple of inches past the rim of the plate, you’re done. If it doesn’t, keep rolling, then check again.
13) Carefully peel off the top layer of plastic wrap. Lift up the bottom layer of plastic wrap by the corners and carefully drape the pie crust over the pie tin – dough side down. Now (carefully!) peel off the top layer of plastic wrap again. Gently lift the edges of the pie crust all the way around, so the dough can “settle” into the sides and bottom of the pie tin. (Try not to stretch out the dough by pressing it into the sides with your fingers.) Fold any of the excess crust hanging off the side back under itself, until it sits nicely on the rim of the pie tin.
14) Place uncooked crust in freezer for about 15 minutes. Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. Meanwhile rip off a piece of parchment paper large enough to cover the uncooked crust. Butter one side, then set aside.
15) When the oven reaches 425 degrees, spread the two cups of shelled pecans onto a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 3 MINUTES ONLY. (It’s really bad if you burn them – so be careful.) Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
16) Remove pie crust from freezer and place parchment paper, butter-side down, onto pie crust. Fill pie tin with pie weights. (Or about a pound of dried kidney beans.)
17) Place weighted-down pie crust in oven and cook for 12 minutes.
18) Prepare the filling while the crust is cooking. Start by beating eggs well. Then add softened butter, salt and both sugars. Set aside.
19) Once pecans have cooled, roughly chop all of them. It’s okay if you make a little pecan dust along the way – it helps flavor the filling.
20) Remove from pie crust oven, reduce heat to 350 degrees. Carefully remove parchment paper and pie weights. Using a fork, poke about five or six sets of holes all over the bottom of the crust.
19) Place pie crust back in oven and bake for at least another 15 minutes. At least. Personally, I hate it when the bottoms of pie crusts are soggy, so I really try to give the pie crust a good blast in the oven. (If you’re worried about the sides burning you can always throw some tin-foil around the edges later on.) So wait until the bottom of the crust starts to get some color.
20) Meanwhile, pour the cold filling mixture into a medium saucepan set over medium-low heat. Stirring pretty often with a rubber spatula, raise temperature of filling until it’s hot to the touch. The goal is to get the filling hot enough to melt all the sugar, but not so hot that the eggs begin to set.
21) Once filling is hot, slowly stir in chopped pecans and vanilla extract. Reduce heat to very low.
22) When the bottom of the pie crust has some color, remove from oven. Increase oven temp to 360 degrees. Pour filling into still-hot pie crust and back for at least twenty minutes. I wish I could tell you the exact baking time, but I’ve made this pie in four different ovens and it has varied each time. The trick is to wait until the sides are set, but the middle sort of jiggles like Jello.
23) Remove from oven, let cool. Serve at either room temperature or slightly warm.