A Writer at Home: The syrup and the pie

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that Americans like to do by the book.  Turkey, potatoes, stuffing.  Something orange, something green, something cranberry.  Throw in a few creamed onions, a pumpkin pie, and a pecan pie too.  There’s comfort in tradition, and also in knowing that if you looked in your neighbors’ windows at mealtime, they would be eating exactly what you are.  Tell the truth, how often do you feel such oneness with your fellow Americans?  And on the rare occasion you do, doesn’t it feel nice?

I too like the parameters of the Thanksgiving dinner but truly, only just in outline: a bird, a starch, a vegetable, a pie.  For me, the menu is a line drawing waiting to be filled in with my own choice of colors.

In the past I’ve been cool toward turkey, so we’ve opted for a capon, a brace of ducks, a quartet of Cornish hens.  A few years ago, when both my children wondered aloud what turkey might taste like, I decided I couldn’t release them into the world without having eaten turkey.  What kind of American mother would that make me?  And worse, what kind of cultural pariahs would that make them?  I succumbed to the traditional bird that year, and have done so ever since.  Now, I have fun with my sides.  Gingery plum sauce, braised leeks, riced peppered turnip.  And the desserts.  Have a pumpkin crème brûlée?  Slice of lemon-macaroon pie, anyone?

So how, exactly, did I arrive at this year’s menu?  To the most straightforward turkey-stuffing-Brussels sprouts-cranberry chutney-pumpkin and pecan pie menu I have ever written down in a planning notebook?  I have no clue.

Well, actually I do have a clue, but I’ll write about that in August, when I watch my youngest packing up for college.

I will say this, though.  Sometimes I think of tradition as a very long rope.  Rope can be fashioned into a restrictive binding that begs escape, or into a tether that anchors us to the past and to each other.  This year, I seem to be relying on the second application of rope more than I am fighting against the first.

That said, I can’t help playing around with the versions of each traditional item.  I really cannot help myself.  If I’m having the standards, I would like the best darn standards possible.  Thus, when I started noticing the mention of subbing Lyle’s Golden Syrup for the more usual Karo corn syrup in a lot of pecan pie recipes, I thought a little pie filling experiment would be a good idea.

Joan’s Pecan Pie, Three Ways

When making pecan pies, I always use my sister’s recipe.  Where she got it – perhaps the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook she got as a shower gift? – I’m not sure.  But I have always liked this recipe because in addition to the cup of corn syrup, it uses much less refined sugar than other recipes call for, which means one can actually taste the sweetness of the pecans themselves.  Where other pecan pies are tooth-achingly sweet, this one is just sweet enough.  What a wonderful pie filling.

But Lyle’s Golden Syrup seemed like a good switch from corn syrup.  First, it has more flavor.  Made from boiled cane juice, Lyle’s is allowed to cook to an amber color.  It tastes, well, golden: a little nuts-and-caramel, a lot sweet – but more complex than the straightforward sugar blast that is corn syrup.  Maybe Lyle’s would make the wonderful pie filling even better.

The next step in cooking cane syrup results in molasses, most complexly flavored of all these three syrups.  Molasses is of course smoky and rich, and a little rough around the edges.  In other words, very American.  There is quite a long history of using molasses in Southern pecan pies.  Maybe molasses would make the best pie of all.  At the very least, molasses guaranteed a different pie.

As you can see, I set out on my experiment.  One recipe, three syrups, three very different pies.  I have confirmed my favorite, and I know which I’ll serve at my traditional Thanksgiving table this year.

Maybe you’ll find your new favorite among the three.

  • 1 single-crust 9” pie shell
  • 1 ½ cups pecan halves
  • 3 eggs
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 cup of either: light corn syrup or Lyle’s Golden Syrup or molasses
  • 1 Tbsp. of either: light rum or golden rum or bourbon
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 4 Tbsp. butter, melted and cooled

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Line a 9” pie plate with the pastry (recipe and instructions follow).  Place pecan halves on the bottom of the pastry in the plate.

Using a hand mixer set to medium speed, beat the eggs until well blended.  Add to the beaten eggs the remaining ingredients (use one of the rums in the corn syrup or golden syrup pies; use the bourbon in the molasses pie) and beat until well blended.  Pour over the pecans and gently shake the pie back and forth on the counter to settle the nuts and filling.

Bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes.  After 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake for an additional 40-50 minutes, or until crust is nicely browned and filling is set.

Fannie Farmer Tart Pastry

This pastry is buttery and pretty much no-fail.  The egg yolk makes it a little less persnickety than an all-butter or -shortening crust, and the end result is something like a French sable, slightly sandy and crumbly in texture.  Here, butter in the pastry plays up the buttery qualities of the nuts and filling.  A perfect match.

Use the food processor.

  • 1 cup flour
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 6 Tbsp. cold butter, cut up
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 Tbsp. cold water

Blend the flour and salt together in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.  Add the butter pieces and process until the mixture resembles very coarse crumbs.

Blend the yolk together with the water, and add it to the processor through the feed tube, motor running, until the dough begins to hold together in the bowl.

Remove the dough from the bowl, press it into a disk, wrap the disk in plastic wrap, and chill the dough for about 30 minutes.

Roll out to fit a 9” pie plate.  Fill and bake as directed above.

©2010  Jane A. Ward