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!