More butter, less syrup (and maybe a touch of booze) help the nuts shine
Creamy filling: The point is to make the pecans the star. The filling is best as the supporting cast. Add a flaky but crisp crust to contrast the creamy filling. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
It's a holiday dessert tradition in many households, especially in the South. The rich flavor of the nuts, burnished with a dark custardlike filling, makes the pie so appealing. For those who may be tired of that Thanksgiving standard, pumpkin pie, perhaps it's time to pick pecan.
If anyone quibbles about pecan pie, it's usually that the filling is too sweet. But after several trials, we've found ways to remedy that problem. Many recipes call for molasses in addition to corn syrup. But adding too much molasses can easily detract from the nuts. Some recipes use dark corn syrup, but we found the light version a better fit. We also cut back on the usual amount of corn syrup.
Adding flavorings also helps balance the sweetness. A hefty shot of booze, for example. Chef Alex Seidel likes to use bourbon in the pecan pie he serves at his Denver restaurant, Fruition. About 2 tablespoons should do it.
"Pecan pie is the most well-known nut dessert in the South," Seidel says in "Made in America: Our Best Chefs Reinvent Comfort Food" (Welcome Books, $45). "We have taken this traditional pie and transformed it into an elegant dish. The filling is very easy to put together and requires no cooking before baking the pie except toasting the nuts and melting the butter."
Other chefs often use dark rum to jazz up the filling. Vanilla is the standard flavoring in most recipes, but we found many don't use enough to make an impact against the sugar. One of our favorite recipes, from the cookbook "The Best Recipe by the Editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine," uses a whole tablespoon of vanilla extract.
Finally, recipes that add more butter seem to work better. The fat mellows that sugar overload. Some recipes use 2 tablespoons, but we liked the result with 6 tablespoons of butter, for a creamier flavored filling.
The point is to make the pecans the star. The filling is best as the supporting cast. Add a flaky but crisp crust to contrast the creamy filling, and it's a holiday dessert with an all-American flair.
Toward better pecan flavor
• Toasting first brings out the pecans' flavor.
• Use pecan halves arranged on top of the pie for a dressier look. Coarsely chopped pecans are fine, too, especially if you are going to cover the pie with whipped cream or ice cream anyway.
• Buying pecans in bulk can save money. But make sure the store has plenty of turnover, so the nuts are fresh.
• If you are not using the pecans within a few days, keep pecans in the freezer in an air- and moisture-proof freezer bag.
Bourbon pecan pie
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 50 minutes
Note: Adapted from a recipe by chef Alex Seidel in "Made in America" by Lucy Lean. Seidel serves the pie drizzled with a butterscotch sauce that's thinned with more bourbon, and tops it with vanilla ice cream, but the pie is great on its own too.