Thursday, March 11, 2010

Crusty Me, And a Pecan Pie Recipe

March 11, 2010

I have made pies from scratch ever since I started cooking at the age of 17. I need not tell you that was many years ago.

When I started baking pies, the only shortening I knew of was margarine. It was the South; my mother was not much of a cook, and the table spread in our home was the artificial yellow stuff that nobody much (including me) would think of touching nowadays.

I found a recipe for pecan pie and one for pie crust, and used to make it to show off every chance I got. I collected pecan pie recipes and selected the best of them and it became my basic go-to pie for the rest of my life.

As I conferred with other cooks I learned that the shortening of choice for pie crusts was usually Crisco, which delivered a consistently flaky and melt-in-the-mouth crust. I switched to that with good results. Then I moved to Geneva for six years, and discovered the French custom of all-butter pie crusts, which was not as satisfying to me, but became an option. The French add an egg to the recipe, and a little sugar, which I did not find to improve the product. I even heard that the best American cooks used lard in the crust, but could not bring myself to do that. I never put any sugar in a pie crust--to me the slightly salty tang is the perfect complement to a sweet filling.

In the 1980's we discovered that all the pie crust shortenings were absolutely life-threateningly high in trans-fat and should be shunned. This created the dilemma: No-crust pies, or just cut it down to one pie or so a year? I can tolerate a no-crust quiche or savory pie, but knew that pecan pie and fruit pies were greatly enhanced by a crust. And I love pie crust!

I decided to accept the fact that the crust, delicious as it may be, was not something one should eat much of, and pies were something to save for very infrequent ingestion. I then experimented again with combinations of shortenings to achieve the irresistible pie crust experience. I hit on this recipe, which I guarantee will deliver an absolutely perfect pie crust for a 10-inch pie (if you only make a pie every other year or so, why not go ahead and make a big one?):

1 1/2 Cups Flour
5 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter
5 Tablespoons Lard
3/4 teaspoon Salt
4 Tablespoons Ice Water

Sift the flour and measure. Combine with the salt and cut in the chilled shortenings by hand with a pastry cutter until well and evenly blended. This takes some patience and elbow grease, but you can tell when it is well mixed, and you are unlikely to overwork the mixture. Sprinkle the water on and mix until the dough holds together when gathered by hand into a ball. You should not need more water than this, but if absolutely necessary you may add another teaspoon or so. Form into a disc using the least handwork possible, wrap in plastic film and chill several hours or overnight.
It should be rather easy to roll out.

Now that I've taken you this far, I'll give you the ultimate traditional Southern recipe for pecan pie filling.

1 1/2 Cups clear Karo Syrup
1 1/2 Cups pecan halves
1 Cup light brown sugar
1/2 stick butter
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
Dash of salt

Mix the Karo Syrup with the sugar in a saucepan and heat until the sugar is dissolved. It may boil--but stir, and remove from the heat when the sugar has melted. Add the butter to this while you beat the eggs. When the sugar mixture is cool enough, add a little at a time to the egg mixture, add pecans, vanilla and salt. Pour this into an unbaked 10" pie shell.

It will bake at 325 degrees for about an hour. Keep an eye on the pie during the last 15 minutes of baking.

It's probably best not to tell your guests what shortening you used. They will love the pie until they hear--I had a friend stop eating when I told her about the lard, saying that it tasted like pork as soon as she heard that.

Being from the South, tasting pork is never an excuse for me to stop eating.