Pecan Pie Pedigree

Pecan Pie Pedigree

Come the holidays and pecan pie is sure to come to mind. I’ve seen many oblique claims that this American favorite originated in New Orleans soon after the French founded the city.  This is plausible, since it closely resembles the classic tarte aux noix and sooner or later someone would substitute the more readily available local pecans for the walnuts.  Pecan pie is unquestionably popular there today—only second to bread pudding as the dessert of choice. Oddly, unlike the rest of the South where every manner of pie is revered, only pecan pie holds that status in the Big Easy.

 However, recipes for pecan pie seemingly don’t show up in any cookbooks (I would love to know if someone has evidence to the contrary) until after the introduction of corn syrup in1882.  Popular cookbooks like Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School and Joy of Cooking don’t include it before 1940.

I’ve scoured the copies of many New Orleans restaurant menus dating back to the 1870s and none list pecan pie.  In fact, desserts mimic those popular in Paris in that era:  fruit, cheese and crêpes for the most part.  Back then a home-style dish like pie would be too pedestrian for dining out, especially in a city that prized all things French.

Today, many New Orleans restaurants are proud of their pecan pie, including Tujagues in the French Quarter that opened in 1856.  The confection, however, didn’t show up on its Creole table d’hôte menu until the latter half of the 20th century.  The restaurant best known locally for the sweet treat, though, is the  Camellia Grill.  But this landmark diner on the edge of the Tulane campus didn’t open until 1946.  Here, slices of pie are heated on the grill and served warm.

If pecan pie indeed was around prior to the advent of Karo syrup, how was it made?  French walnut tart uses a combination of cream and granulated sugar.  Cream was a luxury product in the Old South since it was hard to keep and rarely appears in early recipes.  My guess is necessity was the mother of invention and a Creole cook concocted tarte aux noix using eggs, cane syrup and pecans.  Cane syrup is produced by boiling down the cane juice to make thick syrup (unlike molasses that’s a byproduct of processing cane into sugar). Two of the best known brands still around today are Steen’s Syrup from Louisiana and Lyle’s Golden Syrup from Great Britain.

 I’ve tried making tarte aux noix substituting pecans for the walnuts.  For me, it was more Christmas cookie than pie.  I’ve also tried making pecan pie with Steen’s Syrup alone, but didn’t like the clotty texture, even after adding flour and cornstarch.

Ironically, I came across an English recipe for pecan pie that I think might actually replicate our early pecan pies. even though the dish was unknown in the UK 40 years ago.  Obviously, pecans don’t grow there or anywhere else in Europe for that matter.  But postwar Brits have developed a fondness for uniquely American foods like cornflakes, ketchup and Häagen-Dazs ice cream.  It’s not surprising that pecan pie would eventually become popular there as well.  It was probably inevitable that a cook there would substitute the much loved Lyle’s Golden Syrup for corn syrup—an American product not embraced by the British!   That said, I thought I’d give it a try.  Lyle’s Golden Syrup produced a filling with a wonderful rich toffee flavor, but it was much too dense.  Making it again with a combination of corn syrup and Lyle’s turned out to be just the right combination for a filling with superior taste, perfect texture and as a glorious golden hue.

 My guess is that when corn syrup was conceived, the Karo people wanted it to emulate the already familiar cane syrups with a dark and lighter version.  Regardless, its invention certainly gets credit for popularizing pecan pie; not just in the South, but across the country if not the world.

 Corn syrup is processed from cornstarch.  It’s clarified to make the light variety and then mixed with high fructose corn syrup along with salt and real vanilla extract.  The dark variety gets its brown color from the addition of a small amount of refiners’ syrup (like molasses, a byproduct of sugar making) and caramel coloring.  Caramel flavor, salt and sodium benzoate (a preservative) are also added. 

 Most pecan pie recipes differ in whether they include dark or light corn syrup or sometime a combination.  Having experimented, I prefer light corn syrup, both for appearance and taste. The dark variety overpowers the natural buttery flavor of the pecans.  If you like a richer, more molasses-like flavor, I think adding a little Steen’s Syrup or even dark brown sugar to light corn syrup results in a more successful outcome.

 There are a couple of other contentions. First is the baking temperature.  Some prefer a slow baking—up to three hours—at a low temperature which produces a very gooey almost candy-like filling.  The other approach is a moderate oven for about an hour.   The other big argument is whether to leave the pecan halves whole or to chop them.  I prefer a compromise: roughly breaking the pecans by hand which gives you more surface area for the glorious caramelizing of the nut topping.  Mechanically chopping them—especially very fine—destroys their character.  Regardless the nuts should be lightly toasted—about 10 minutes at 350 degrees—which will improve their freshness and flavor.  Because of their high fat content, pecans burn easily so watch them closely!

The biggest faux pas in pecan pie making is a soggy crust.  Despite some advice to the contrary, you shouldn’t have to prebake the pie shell—and doing so because of the long cooking time will more than likely result in an overbrown edge.  To solve this problem, make sure there are no holes or breaks in the pastry, that the pie pan is absolutely clean, and chill the rolled-out shell exactly 20 minutes in the freezer before filling and baking. Pecan pie is best eaten the day it’s made, but will keep 24 hours or so need be.  Regardless, never refrigerate pecan pie since it tends to make the filling syrupy.

I know there are those that insist more is better, but for pecan pie to taste as I know and love, I prefer to keep it simple.  Adding chocolate, bourbon or rum are well-intentioned but unwelcome attempts to gild the lily.


Anglo-American Pecan Pie

This recipe is based on one in a cookbook, Gourmet’s Guide to New Orleans published in 1933, adding Lyle’s Golden Syrup.

 One 9-inch pie shell made, chilled

4 large eggs

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup light corn syrup

½  cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup

1 tablespoon melted butter

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups pecan halves, roughly broken by hand and lightly toasted

Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream (optional)

 Preheat oven 350 degrees with the rack in the lower position.

Place the pie shell in the freezer for exactly 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, in a medium-size bowl whisk together the eggs until frothy.  Beat in the sugar and salt; then the syrups. When the mixture is thoroughly combined, whisk in the butter and vanilla. Stir in the pecan pieces.

Add the filling to the chilled pie shell.  Bake in the preheated 350-degree oven for about 1 hour or until firm.

 Let cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before cutting. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream if desired.

 Makes 1 9-inch pie.