Perfect Pecan Pie


Oof, I’ve gone and done it again, haven’t I? Thanksgiving is only three days away and and here I am, bringing you a recipe at the eleventh hour when surely your menu was set in stone weeks ago (it was…wasn’t it?). The problem, if you must know, is that I’ve been having a hard time formulating a balanced, diplomatic description of this recipe’s merits, something that doesn’t start with ‘dispose of any other pecan pie recipes currently in your possession’, but since I don’t seem to be able to, I hope you’ll forgive me when I tell you that is exactly what you should do.

This pie is, in fact, the product of many years of evolution. It made its way into the family via my mother, a woman who by her own admission is pretty hopeless in the kitchen but in this case demonstrated a remarkable nose for sniffing out a good recipe when she clipped it from the paper around the time I was born. It appeared in one of Pauline Phillips’ (aka Abagail Van Buren, aka ‘Dear Abby’) advice columns, who herself claimed to have gotten it from the pastry chef at the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky at some fancy dinner she attended there. I don’t know when the recipe was originally published or which reprint my mother clipped out, but apparently the pie was so popular among her readers that Abby was forced to run it nearly every November for years.

In my family it was a huge hit, and quickly became an indispensable part of every holiday table, as first my mother, and then I, dug out that dog-eared clipping year after year. Over time, though, it began to undergo some changes. First, I discovered that lightly toasting the nuts before putting them in the pie improves both their flavor and texture. Then, after having one too many pies come out burnt on top and soupy in the middle I adjusted the heat and discovered that pecan pies are best baked gently. The biggest breakthrough of all, though – the one that takes this pie out of the clouds and catapults it into the stratosphere – happened when I moved to corn-syrup-less Europe and discovered that not only was one of the most delicious sweetening agents ever invented all but unknown in my country, but it makes the best pecan pie this side of Kentucky (if not even better!). The miracle nectar? Lyle’s golden syrup.

I know abandoning the traditional corn syrup may sound like heresy to some, but not only is golden syrup (a by-product of cane sugar refining) probably more historically accurate in pecan pie (which has been around considerably longer than corn refining technology…), it tastes so much better that even making the comparison is not really fair. Corn syrup, after all, has very little flavor of its own; golden syrup, on the other hand, is full of a caramel-toffee complexity that simultaneously manages to seem more intense, yet less sweet. Pecan pie made with it tastes – if this makes any sense – more like it should. And oh, there are so many delicious things you can do with the leftover syrup: slather it on buttered toast, drizzle it on yogurt, even eat it straight from the green and gold tin in great silky, slippery spoonfuls – but I’m sure you’ll quickly figure that out for yourself. Then again, you might just decide you want another pie.


Perfect Pecan Pie

Okay, okay, so where on earth can you buy golden syrup? If you’re in Canada, Australia, or most of Europe, it should be a cinch. In the U.S., unfortunately, it’s not that common. You can buy it on amazon, but I realize that’s pushing it a little for Thanksgiving unless you want to exchange a kidney for overnight delivery. Major chain stores that usually carry it are Whole Foods and Cost Plus World Market (although the latter seems to be having some supply problems, at least in the Seattle area). Other good bets are gourmet or specialty-food stores, or any place that carries British products. In the Seattle area, De Lauenti in the Pike Place Market normally carries it (although they too were out when I was in recently), and Central Market in Shoreline, Mill Creek and Poulsbo do too. If you really can’t find any, though, rest assured that this pie has still won millions of devoted fans with corn syrup – just promise me you’ll get ahold of golden syrup at some point and give it a try. Deal?

p.s. Lyle’s golden syrup is made by an acid-based inverting process that creates sodium chloride as its by-product, i.e. salt. This gives the syrup a distinctive (and delicious) salty tang and means that recipes in which you substitute Lyle’s for, say, corn syrup should have the salt reduced. Likewise, if you use corn syrup in the recipe below (or a non-salty brand of golden syrup—taste it if you’re unsure), the salt needs to be increased to 3/4 teaspoon.

Yield: one 9-inch pie

2 cups (200g) shelled pecan halves
1 cup (250ml) Lyle’s golden syrup, or if you must, white corn syrup
1 cup (200g) firmly-packed dark brown sugar (the darker the better – my favorite is dark muscovado)
1/4 teaspoon salt (if using corn syrup, increase to 3/4 teaspoon)
5 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs, at room temperature, slightly beaten
9-inch (23cm) unbaked deep-dish pie shell (your favorite, or this one would certainly fit the bill)

unsweetened whipped cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C. Spread the pecans on a large baking sheet and toast in the oven until just fragrant, about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool.

In a large bowl, whisk together the golden syrup, sugar, salt, butter and vanilla until smooth. Whisk in the eggs. Pour the mixture into your 9-inch unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle the cooled pecans over the top. Place on the center rack in the oven and bake for about 1 – 1 1/4 hours, or until the center puffs slightly and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If the crust begins to brown too much, cover it with foil.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Poulet and Presidents

Poulet au Vinaigre


There now, that’s better, isn’t it? It feels like the world has just heaved a tremendous sigh of relief, and even those of us who tried to bury our heads in the sand and avoid the whole election drama (who, me?) feel like a very heavy weight has been lifted from our shoulders. It’s funny, since despite my best efforts to not think too much about it until the whole thing was over (including, for example, forbidding Manuel from sharing the latest poll results he devoured eagerly each morning), I seem to have been reduced to a nervous wreck by this election. On Monday afternoon, for example, I walked into a coffee shop, paid for my cafe au lait, and walked out without my purse. What’s more, I didn’t even notice until eight o’clock that night when our phone rang and it was one of the staff calling from my cell phone to let me know someone had handed it in.

It only got worse on election day, though. I couldn’t even sit still, let alone get anything useful done; all day I paced around the house like a caged animal, a growing knot of anxiety gnawing away at my belly. It felt like I imagine it would feel if if I were waiting for news of an injured loved one in the hospital, helpless and impotent. After obsessively refreshing the homepages of every major news provider and realizing that no, there really wouldn’t be any results posted until after polls had closed somewhere in the country, I did the only thing I could to take my mind off it: I made dinner.

Thankfully, the chopping, frying and simmering not only did wonders for my frazzled nerves, it also reminded me that the very dish I was making is something I’ve been meaning to tell you about ever since our trip to Lyon in June – which, now that I think about it, I never told you about either. Well, it was pretty last minute and not very long; we were asked to contribute to a publicity campaign for the beautiful Hotel Le Royal for which they asked us to ‘experience’ the city as any first-time visitors might, then write our experiences up into a kind of blog-inspired scrapbook for their website. Since Lyon is considered the gastronomic capital of France, it didn’t seem too much of a stretch to equate ‘experiencing the city’ with ‘eating’, or at least that’s how I rationalized it when we came up with an itinerary that included exactly two museums, one cathedral, and oh, seven or eight restaurants.

Well, to make a long story short, Lyon is a beautiful city, particularly in June when the lavender is blooming and the scent wafts through the narrow streets of the old town, and the architecture and cultural attractions are certainly first-rate, but really, the undisputed highlights of our trip were the restaurants, and in particular the famed bouchons. These cheerful working-class eateries, whose praises I’m certainly not the first to sing, offer little in the way of innovation or imagination, but that’s quite alright when you have a traditional cuisine as delicious as Lyon’s. We ate in four of them, I believe, which was just enough to be able to compare the various versions of quenelle de brochet (pike dumplings in crayfish sauce), saucisses aux lentilles (fat sausages with lentils), and boudin noir (blood pudding), and to decide that as delicious as all of these might be, my favorite might just be the only one I actually had a shot at recreating at home: the poulet au vinaigre, chicken in vinegar sauce.

The best analogy I can come up with for this dish is what you might come up with if you stripped a coq au vin of its embellishments, focused and clarified its flavors, and made the whole thing, well, more honest. It’s a deceptively simple dish, actually, just a plump chicken simmered for a while in a syrupy reduction of vinegar and wine, the kind of thing you might imagine a resourceful Lyonnaise housewife first threw together when the larder was nearly bare, pairing it with some humble potato puree or a hastily assembled gratin. It’s easy enough that we’re having it on at least a bi-weekly basis, but special enough that it always seems like an occasion when we do. In fact, this is one of those rare dishes that seems to be at home in just about any situation: as the centerpiece of an intmate dinner with good friends, as belly-warming fortification after an afternoon of raking leaves or shoveling snow, or even, I am happy to report, as the prelude to an evening of jubilant post-election celebration.


Poulet au Vinaigre (Chicken with Vinegar)

There are plenty of differing opinions on poulet au vinaigre (both in the Lyonnais version and the versions found all over France); some insist on tomato while others reject it, some use cream while others prefer butter, and some use only vinegar and no wine, so feel free to play around with the recipe if you like. What everyone seems to agree on, though, is that the sauce should be a good balance of rich and tart, and that the chicken should be a good, sturdy free-range bird, the kind that can stand up to long, slow cooking. As for accompaniment, something starchy and creamy seems to be a natural; in Lyon we had it served with a nutmegy macaroni gratin, but I find I’m partial to a bowl of good old mashed potatoes, which soak up the delicious sauce particularly well.

Source: adapted from Saveur Cooks Authentic French

1 3.5-lb (1.5kg) chicken, cut into 8 pieces (I usually use 3-4 lbs. of bone-in thighs)
salt and freshly-ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons (90g) unsalted butter
8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 medium shallots, peeled and minced
1/2 cup (125ml) red wine vinegar
1 cup (250ml) dry white wine
1 tablespoon honey
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup (250ml) chicken stock

Season the chicken to taste with salt and pepper. Heat the oil and 2 tablespoons (30g) of the butter in a large frying pan over medium high heat. Working in batches, brown the chicken on all sides, removing them when done and setting aside on a plate. Pour off all but a thin coating of fat from the pan.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the minced shallots and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until slightly soft, about 5 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the vinegar and wine, add honey and scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Reduce the liquid by about one-third, about 3-5 minutes, then stir in the tomato paste. Add the stock and the browned chicken, lower the heat to medium-low and cover the pan. Simmer the chicken, turning and basting it every ten minutes or so, for about 45 minutes, or until the meat is fork-tender (I usually remove the breasts about 10-15 minutes before the thighs and legs).

Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside again. Increase the heat to medium-high, and continue cooking until the sauce is thick and glossy, about 5 minutes. Cut the remaining butter into small pieces. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter one piece at a time. Adjust the seasoning; add salt and pepper and additional vinegar if needed – it should taste rich yet tart. You can also strain the sauce at this point for a more elegant presentation, though I don’t bother. Return the chicken to the pan, turning to coat evenly with the sauce. Serve hot.