Tough Nut to Crack
Pecans, it seems to me, are thought of as a particularly Southern nut. I cannot tell you anything about its growing condition or to what region or country the pecan is indigenous, but the trees proliferate around here. And the nuts feature prominently in Southern cooking from classic pie to divinity candy to pecan cheese straws.
You rarely see pecan trees in residential areas. But out in the country, they are everywhere. Driving through the Delta, you’ll see the evidence. One lone tree in front of a farm house, or two long rows making an alley up to a site where there clearly used to be a house. And often the plot of land between the house and the cotton fields or the bean fields will be a pecan orchard, dark and shady and inviting.
Pecan trees are beautiful, with an arching canopy and dense foliage. But do they ever produce nuts. That’s the point, I know, but these trees produce a lot of nuts. I have oak trees in my yard and the acorns that drop from those trees is nothing compared to what a pecan tree produces. And pecan nuts are hard. I was once beaned on the head by a falling nut and it really hurt! Woe to the unwitting person who parks the car under a pecan tree. Not only could falling nuts ding the paint job, but any tree with that many nuts naturally attracts a lot of birds.
So even with one tree, the proud keeper of a pecan is likely to have an overwhelming supply of nuts. Paying kids a nickel a nut to pick up all the fallen from the grass is a common ploy. Those nuts are gathered and scooped into brown paper grocery sacks which tend to sit out in the laundry room or screened porch until someone figures out what to do with them. Pecans are hard to shell. The outer shell is tough and hard and the nutmeat really clings to the interior walls. I think this may be why many Southern brides through the ages received nutcracker sets as a wedding gift. A pretty silver nutcracker and a set of picks that look like decorative dental tools. Shelling pecans is labor intensive, arduous and just plain frustrating. Now, this being the South, and the folks being hospitable, the general method for riding oneself of the bounty is taking one of those grocery bags full of little brown devils to a neighbor or relative. As the recipient of such blatant kindness, one can only be gracious and say “thank you” and “how sweet” and “ooh, I love pecans.” But the truth is that the passing on of the pecan is an evil. It is impossible to say no thank you or to complain, but nobody wants a big bag of unshelled pecans. That’s why the giver brought them – to get rid of them. And there is always that vague feeling that in return for the pecan pest sharing the bounty, you just have to shell a mess of them and make a pie or some cookies to return the favor.
Pecan season is gearing up here. Fortunately, there are enough farmstands selling shelled pecans that we don’t have to forego our favorite sweets, a classic pecan pie ranking at the top of my list.
Southern Pecan Pie
Lightly toasting the pecans enhances the nutty flavor of the pie. I prefer dark corn syrup for a rich, deep pie, but there are those who prefer to use light. The bourbon is theoretically optional, but really? It seems to add to the Southern flavor. And I will never tell if the crust did not originate in your kitchen.
For the crust:
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
8 Tablespoons (1 stick) cold butter, cut into small pieces
2 to 4 Tablespoons ice water
For the filling:
1 ½ cups pecan halves
4 large eggs
1 cup dark corn syrup
4 Tablespoons melted butter, cooled to room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons bourbon
For the crust: Place the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Drop in the small pieces of cold butter and pulse several times until the mixture is crumbly, but some minute pieces of butter are still visible. Sprinkle the water over, a tablespoon at a time, and pulse to combine. When the pastry just comes together, dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat into a disk about ¾ inch thick. Wrap the disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before rolling.
When ready to roll, place the disk on a lightly floured surface and using a floured rolling pin, roll out the pastry to a round about 14 inches in diameter, to fit a nine inch pie plate. Carefully drape the pastry over the rolling pin and transfer to the pie dish. Gently fit into the bottom and sides of the dish. Trim any overhanging pastry and lightly dust the bottom of the prepared crust with flour. Set aside.
For the filling: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the pecan halves in a dry skillet and lightly toast over medium heat. Watch carefully and move the pecans around the pan with a spatula or wooden spoon. You do not want to brown the pecans, just toast them gently until you can smell a nice, nutty aroma. This will only take about five minutes. Remove the pecans from the heat and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients until thoroughly blended. Add the pecans and stir to distribute evenly. Pour the filling into the prepared crust, pushing the nuts into the filling to make an even layer.
Bake the pie for 40 – 50 minutes until the center is puffed up and no longer wobbly. I recommend that you shield the edges of the crust with foil or a crust shield before the pie goes in the oven. It is hard to do when the pie is hot. Remove the cooked pie from the oven and leave to cool completely. The pie will keep wrapped tightly for two days, or can be wrapped in plastic wrap, then foil and frozen for up to six months.
Serves 6 – 8