Friday, December 15, 2006

Pecan Pie

The art of pecan piery is a wild intersection of practice and passion, of ideology and indulgence. And yet, as with many of life’s fundamental pleasures, the basic principles are relatively straightforward.

For example, pecans are pecans. They are not, however, PEE-cans. A PEE-can is what, in Australia, we call a dunny. The most tasty and cultivated of the hickories, the pecan is a core ingredient, the presence of which defines this particular dessert. As a result, the only question when dealing with pecans is clast-supported vs. matrix supported. But I will leave that argument to diamictite and periglacial specialists.

A bit more variation is found in the caramelized substrate in which cements the pecans together. Here they are two independent binary choices, which yield a 2x2 matrix of sugary possibility. The first and defining choice is syrup: dark or light. The second choice is sugar: brown or white. Of the four possibilities generated, only two are widely used.

The light/white combination may only be consumed by pasty-lipped, precious Yankees, and has no place in the pantheon of pecan pie. If you want something that bland, move to Sweden, or replace the pecans with cashews. Or macadamias.

At the other extreme is the dark syrup, brown sugar pie. I’m sure that deep in the steamy bayous of the Mississippi Delta, there exists a testosterone-fuelled, hairy-chested John Henry of the pastry-rolling industry, who might just be man enough to bake such a dessert. But short of augmentation by an East German swimming doctor, my masculinity is nowhere near the level required to attempt such a pie.

This leads two possibilities: light syrup with brown sugar, and dark syrup with white sugar. My down-home, good ol’ boy and girl Southern friends and relatives tell me that the dark syrup is the more authentic of the two. But I prefer the light syrup for two reasons.

The first reason I prefer the light syrup is a matter of upbringing. My parents, who possess the professional drive and career development acumen that has thus far eluded me, chose my fate when I was born. Hoping I would grow up to be a classical hero, they bundled me up as a baby, put me in a chest, and cast it into the James River, hoping that it would be found by a fisherman with the capabilities of raising orphans into monster-slaying demigods.

The chest floated up the Chesapeake Bay, through the intracoastal waterway, and across the Delaware River, washing ashore on the Jersey shore, just north of the Mason-Dixon line. True to form, once ashore I was adopted by the wolves, mallrats, and members of the Gotti family that call New Jersey home.

As a result of this peculiar upbringing, I am not a real southerner. My palate sometimes reflects this high latitude upbringing, as my tastebuds have been ruined by overexposure to hoagies and bagels.

The second reason that I prefer light syrup is that dark Karo is hard to find in Australia. The light stuff is more widely available, and can be replaced with non-corn glucose syrup sourced from domestic sources. With Karo going for over $6 a bottle, this is not a bad thing.

My current recipe is a blend of book-pie, internet heresy, and old-time tradition passed down through several families not my own. Experimentation has warped the recipe beyond recognition, so I present the current version herewith.

Composite pecan pie

3/4 cup white corn syrup
Tablespoon maple syrup
Tablespoon honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups quartered pecans
Handful of unbroken pecans
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon each
ground cloves and allspice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Boil sugar, honey, and syrups together for 3 minutes. Blend eggs with fork (not beater). Melt butter in syrup, and stir together over low heat for 30 seconds. Pour egg into syrup, stirring vigorously so the egg does not cook. Add vanilla, salt, spices and broken pecans. Pour into raw pie crust. Cover with surface layer of whole pecans. Bake at 180C for 45 minutes, or until steel skewer comes out gooless.


ScienceWoman said...

I prefer matrix-supported pecan pie but I have not done extensive research into my favored sugar-syrup combination. However, I suggest that next time you feel like experimenting, you try the recipe for Maple Walnut Pie found in the Moosewood Cookbook. It is an easy to make, clast-supported bit of yumminess. And walnuts have so much more character than pecans.

C W Magee said...

I was wondering if a maple/walnut pie could be adapted- evidently my
inadequate knowledge of the literature has blinded me to the answer.
But here in Australia, maple syrup is even more expensive than karo,
and black walnuts are impossible to find. Maybe the next time I go
home to visit the folks- especially if it is in the autumn, when the nuts are falling. I'll check out the recipe anyway- thanks.

ScienceWoman said...

I suppose that maple syrup and walnuts, being totally non-indigenous, would be rather hard for you to find.

C W Magee said...

English walnuts are grown here- they are a popular yard tree here in Canberra, and one of the challenges of a succesful harvest is figuring out how to stop the cockatoos from eating the nuts while they are still green.

Maple syrup is imported from North America- the climate isn't quite right. I've seen a few sugar maples grown as street trees, but they look almost as miserable as the spruce trees, and they are generally not very large.

RatRacer said...

This very special pecan pie recipe was gifted to me on a tiny securely bound scrap of carefully folded notebook paper back in 2000. I promised not to reveal the contents until safe passage past Australian and US customs. Now, I make this pecan pie every Christmas holiday with the nuts from my very own tree--can't get more character or flavor than this allows. Must admit though--I'm lazy and just don't do stovetop cooking for the pie, yet it still turns out great.