After several accidental years of not eating pecan pie, I have had it three times in the last month, and I’ve realised something: everybody – everybody – loves pecan pie. Each time it arrived in front of me and on the plates of those around me, faces lit up. It is the definition of a crowd pleaser. America’s traditional celebration dessert doesn’t suffer from the same problems that those of the UK do: Christmas pudding has as many detractors as it does evangelists, a yule log is more of a cake than a pudding, stollen is a no-no for marzipan haters, and even trifle is divisive (to jelly or not to jelly?).
No such problem for pecan pie: its sweetness is catnip for children, but its a dark, complex sweetness that wins over grown ups too, and the toasty, nubbly nuts, bringing texture as well as richness to the pie. It’s no wonder that Americans adopted it as their Thanksgiving pudding. I can’t think of anything lovelier than bringing a pudding into a roomful of people knowing that every person, no matter how full and sated they think they are, will be truly thrilled to eat. I like it baked with a sea of pecans on the very top of the pie, it feels generous and celebratory, and means you get different pecan-y textures between the crunchy whole nuts set into the crust and the softer, rubble of nuts beneath.
Dark corn syrup is the classic sweetener for a pecan pie, and while not impossible, it is tricky to get in the UK. For my money, dark muscovado and golden syrup combined are a pretty good imitation, and far easier to source. They bring caramelly, treacley notes to the pudding, making the flavour darker than that of the British treacle tart.
Toasting the nuts that will be submerged in the filling brings a deeper flavour to the pie, and boiling the syrup mixture for a couple of minutes before leaving it to cool means that the pie is still gooey when you cut into it, but will hold its shape and not just dribble onto the plate.
Pecan pie is an extremely sweet pie, and it needs a robust, almost savoury pastry. I use American pie crust as my pastry here: an unsweetened, flaky pastry that is as easy to make as it is satisfying to eat. It’s best to make with a pastry cutter as this cuts the butter into the flour, but it’s absolutely fine to do it with your hands (I do). Just ensure that you stop short of the breadcrumb consistency you’re looking for in classic short crust pastry: you want to be able to see pea-sized pieces of butter in the pastry, as this will give the flakey texture.
Pecan pie recipe
Makes: An eight inch pie (serves 8)
Takes: 30 minutes
Bakes: 45 minutes
For the pie crust:
160g plain flour
¾ teaspoon salt
120g butter, cold and cubed
60ml very cold water
For the filling:
200g pecan (50g whole, others roughly chopped)
3 eggs, beaten
200g dark muscovado sugar
150g golden syrup
1 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
- First, make your pie crust. Mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Add the butter, and rub the flour and butter together until the butter is in pea sized lumps. If you’re nervous about overmixing, or warming up the butter too much, you can use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut the butter into the flour. Add the very cold water slowly to the pastry, until the dough comes together; you may not need all the water. Knead very briefly with floured hands until you can push the dough into a thick disc; wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour.
- Once the pastry has rested, remove it from the fridge, unwrap, and place on a lightly floured worktop. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the pastry out into a circle until it is about the thickness of a pound coin, and about 10 inches in diameter.
- Flour the top of the pastry, then roll up onto the rolling pin and unroll over the pie tin. Gently ease the pastry into the tin so it sits flush against the sides of the pan. Line the pastry with oven-proof clingfilm, tin foil or baking paper, and fill with baking beans or dry rice. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the baking beans and lining and return to the oven for a further five minutes, until the pastry has taken on a golden colour and is dry to the touch. Remove from the oven and set to one side. Reduce the oven temperature to 160°C.
- To make the filling, first toast the chopped pecans (leave the whole pecans to one side): place them in a dry frying pan over a medium heat, and shuffle the nuts until they start to smell toasty. Nuts can burn easily, so pay attention, and remove from the heat as soon as you can smell them.
- Put the butter, golden syrup, sugar, vanilla, and dark muscovado into a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Leave to boil for a couple of minutes, and then set to one side to cool a little. When the mixture has cooled enough that you can touch the outside of the pan, mix the eggs thoroughly through the mixture, and then stir through the chopped nuts.
- Pour the nutty syrup mixture into the pie crust, then top with a layer of whole pecans. Bake for 25 minutes, until the pie is set – check after 15 minutes, you may wish to cover the top of the pie to prevent the pecans burning. Leave to cool before serving.