The Secret to the Perfect Pecan Pie is Bourbon
An obsession with the historic dessert leads to American whiskey.
I would estimate the number of pecan pies that I have baked in my lifetime falls solidly in the four digits.
That’s a lot. But to be fair, I worked for a while in a restaurant without a dedicated pastry chef and keeping pecan pie on the menu was my responsibility. That was easily two dozen pies a week, which certainly adds up. They were good pies. Not great pies, but solid. It wasn’t my recipe, but I’ve got no beef with it. Sometimes I added chunks of chocolate and dotted the top with raspberries, which was good, but unnecessary. I admit that at the time I did get caught up in the widespread (and mistaken) impulse to adorn the pecan pie, as if the path to greatness lay in complication.
Some recipes call for only egg yolks, or to spike the eggs with more yolks. It’s not necessary. Some bakers want you to pre-cook the filling. You should do it if you’re making their recipe, but it’s not an improvement. Some folks add cream to the mix. But why bother with all these steps?
With all these different recipes you get the impression that pecan pie itself is somehow not good enough. That what we need is pecan pie gilded with lilies.
I suspect that the constant attempts to re-invent or improve pecan pie is because most pecan pies are like the ones I made in the restaurant — sort of so so. As folk singer John Prine would say: “Pretty good, not bad, I can’t complain.”
While I don’t think we need to rethink pecan pie completely, there are three core building blocks—I won’t call them “tricks”—to making it better.
The first element is the pecans themselves. Last year, the pecan trees on our farm didn’t fruit, and I spent some curious hours doing Google searches to see if there was some sort of decorative pecan tree that didn’t make nuts. Apparently, the trees are just finicky and they like to take a break every once in awhile.
This year, the branches are heavy with pecans. I would never have known how much difference homegrown nuts can make, but let me tell you: There is no comparison. These nuts are oily and tasty. Toasted in a dry pan with a little salt, they burst with flavor and fill the air with an aroma reminiscent of Christmas in New York City, when all the nut vendors hit the street, but without the bitterness (literal and metaphorical) of the Big Apple. I would suggest skipping the supermarket and finding a nearby nut farm or ordering a few pounds of them online. And buy them whole and crack them yourself, it will be worth it, since the nuts won’t dry out.
The second key is using cane syrup, as opposed to the standard corn syrup. Uncle John’s Ribbon Cane Syrup is fantastic, and you can order it online. Ribbon cane was once widely grown, but is not a commodity sugar cane crop, so it’s now a specialty item. The juice from the ribbon cane is cooked slowly and evaporated from an open pot—think of this as Southern maple syrup. It has a more complicated flavor than corn syrup, and is less harsh than molasses.
The third secret to splendid pecan pie is adding a jigger of bourbon. You might try to say that this is one of the decorations I’m snubbing above, but I would disagree. I now consider bourbon more like vanilla extract in pecan pie, not an adjunct but a fully tenured member of the faculty.
The simplest, most straightforward recipe for pecan pie is still the best place to start, the following is more or less my adaptation of Florence Fabricant’s recipe which appeared in the New York Times, and Annie Laura Squalls’s recipe out of Creole Feast. Creole Feast is an important cookbook, gathering up the recipes from African American chefs who worked in the classic kitchens of New Orleans. Squalls was the chef at the Caribbean Room of the Hotel Pontchartrain.
After baking hundreds of pecan pies, I think I can finally stop tinkering with my recipe. For the moment.
Bourbon Pecan Pie
3 Eggs, beaten lightly
1 cup Syrup—I use .75 of a cup of ribbon cane syrup, and .25 of a cup of light corn syrup
.25 cup Turbinado/demerara/raw sugar
5 Tbsp Melted unsalted butter
2 tsp Vanilla extract
2 Tbsp Bourbon
1.25 cups pecans—more if you can fit them in the pie
Add everything, except the pecans, to a bowl and mix well. Fold in the pecans.
Many recipes will tell you to put the pecans in the pie shell first, do whatever you are comfortable with. I’ve found that in attempting to distribute the pecans thusly, I end up pushing them off the side when I pour in the mix.
Pre-cook your crust (with weights, at 350 degrees F, for about fifteen minutes). Fill the crust and bake the pie at 350 degrees F for 35 or 40 minutes.
When the edges are set and the center is still slightly wobbly, the pie is done. It will firm up as it cools on a rack.
This holiday season my mission will be to experiment with how much bourbon I can put in a pie before someone says “Oh, that’s strong!”