Apple, pumpkin, key lime, lemon meringue, Hoosier, Boston cream, cherry, chess: Americans excel at pie. For true enthusiasts, the Thanksgiving turkey is but a pit stop en route to the dessert. And when they get there, the wisest gluttons will come to a halt by the pecan pie. It is a celebration of traditional American ingredients – pecans and highly refined sugar.
Pecans are a domestic nut, the only major variety to grow naturally in north America. Propagated by Native Americans, their name comes from an Algonquin word meaning “all nuts requiring a stone to crack”. They flourished throughout the south – and still do, particularly in Georgia – after a slave, known as Antoine, who was a talented gardener, successfully grafted different varieties of pecans together. Pecan harvest time, which is around November, coincides neatly with Thanksgiving – and a sugary pie is the ideal destination for this bounty.
The earliest recipes date to the 19th century in Texan cookbooks. But it was only in the 1920s that pecan pie secured its place in American hearts and on their tables – thanks to the decision by the manufacturer of Karo syrup, a sticky refined corn syrup, to start printing a recipe for pecan pie on their cans. It called for a bushel of pecans to be mixed together with eggs, butter, vanilla, sugar and corn syrup – and baked in a pie crust, that could be home-made or bought from a shop.
Standard recipes have changed surprisingly little since then. Many still call, if not for Karo by name, for some kind of corn syrup, dark or light. It may be untraditional, but maple syrup is a plausible alternative – although it will bring a distinct flavour. The intense sweetness that the adds to the filling means that a traditional plain pie crust, rather than a sugary crumble of crushed cookies, is a more suitable vessel for the filling. Southern Living, that authority on life below the Mason-Dixon Line, suggests layering two pie bases on top of each other, to ensure the filling does not seep out.
Toasting the pecans is crucial: it deepens their flavour, helping them to stand up to the gooey sweetness of the rest of the filling. Whether or not to leave them whole is more debatable. Chopped nuts distribute themselves more evenly throughout the pie but concentric rings of unbroken ones make a tempting topping: use both.
The buttery nuttiness of the pecans, with their faint hint of bitterness, and the pie’s toothsome interior are flavourful enough. But those willing to mess with tradition could splash in some bourbon to add another dimension. Some chefs – including Paula Deen, the now-disgraced queen of Southern comfort food – suggests the addition of dark chocolate. Desiccated coconut is another possibility but runs the risk of introducing a note of grittiness. Serve it à la mode, with your ice cream on the side the better to admire your pecans, or with whipped cream and a dollop of heartfelt gratitude.
How to make the perfect pecan pie
You will need:
Pie crust (can be shop-bought or home-made, but avoid any with sugar)
1 cup (125g) pecans
½ cup (115g) melted butter
¾ cup (150g) sugar
1 cup (340g) corn syrup
I tsp vanilla essence
Crimp the edges of the pie crust and heat the oven to 350F (180C)
Melt the butter
Whisk together the melted butter with the eggs, sugar, corn syrup and vanilla essence
Toast the pecans, making sure they don’t burn
Stir through a generous portion of chopped pecans and pour filling into the pie crust
Adorn the top with more pecans and bake for 30 minutes
Allow to cool thoroughly before serving with whipped cream or ice cream.