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The perfect pecan pie: more nuts, less goo

  • PHOTO COURTESY NEW YORK TIMES

Indigenous to North America, pecans had been a staple of Native American cooking for millenniums before European settlers arrived. The nuts made their way into American pies in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the pecan pie recipe we know today was popularized — by being printed on the back of a can of corn syrup.

Based on a sugar pie, the combination of sugar, eggs and syrup yields a jellylike filling (affectionately called “the goo”) that can be flavored in myriad ways. Whole or chopped pecans, which practically candy in the syrupy mix while baking, add substance and crunch.

The problem with most pecan pie recipes is their toothache-inducing level of sweetness.

This recipe is different. Instead of corn syrup, I use a combination of maple syrup and honey, which makes the mixture less cloying while adding complex earthy and floral notes. Simmering the maple syrup for a few minutes helps concentrate its flavor, making the pie even more intensely maple flavored.

I made another tweak, too. Most pecan pie recipes contain melted butter, but, in my mind, in every pot of melted butter, there’s brown butter waiting to happen. To make it, just continue to heat the melted butter for a few extra minutes until the milk solids fall to the bottom of the pan and caramelize, turning golden brown. This adds a layer of heady flavor to all sorts of baked goods, pecan pie included.

And finally, there’s the nut-to-goo ratio. The more nuts you can fit into your pie pan, covered with the least amount of goo to hold them in place, the better the final pie. I don’t bother toasting the pecans first: They’ll get somewhat toasty while baking in the pie.

But if you love the flavor of deep browned, roasted nuts, consider toasting them for five to 10 minutes at 325 degrees before adding them to the syrup mix.

Of all the holiday pies I tested, pecan pie holds up the best and is practically as good served the day after baking as it is baked the same day. It also freezes reasonably well. Pop the well-wrapped pie in the freezer for up to a month, then let it thaw at room temperature overnight. The crust won’t be quite as crisp, but the crunch of all those pecans will more than make up for the lack.

Maple-Honey Pecan Pie

Ingredients:

All-purpose flour, for rolling out the dough

Dough for a 9-inch single crust pie

• 1/2 cup unsalted butter

• 1/4 cup maple syrup

• 1/4 cup honey

• 1/2 cup light brown sugar

• 1/2 cup maple sugar or use more light brown sugar

• 3 large eggs, at room temperature

• 1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

• 1 1/2 cups pecan halves

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon (optional)

Subhead:

On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 12-inch circle, and transfer to a 9-inch metal pie plate. Fold over any excess dough, crimping the edges. Transfer crust to the freezer for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

When ready to bake, place a rimmed baking sheet on the middle oven rack and heat oven to 425 degrees.

Heat a small saucepan and melt the butter over medium heat. Cook, swirling occasionally, until the foam subsides, the milk solids turn golden brown and the butter smells nutty and toasty, about 5 minutes. Add maple syrup to the pan and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens and reduces slightly, 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat, and whisk honey into the warm syrup mixture. Let cool at least 10 minutes.

While the syrup mixture cools, combine sugars, eggs, bourbon (if using), vanilla and salt in a large mixing bowl. Gradually pour syrup mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly, then use a rubber spatula to scrape in all the brown bits at the bottom of the pot.

Remove pie crust from freezer and place pecans along the bottom of the crust. Carefully pour the filling over the pecans. Place pie plate on the hot sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake for another 35-45 minutes, until the center of the pie has puffed up and turned golden brown.

Transfer pie to a wire cooling rack, sprinkle with flaky sea salt, if you like, and allow to cool for at least 2 hours before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling, serves 8.

Tip:

If using a glass pie plate, line chilled crust with foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees; remove foil and weights and bake until pale golden, 5 minutes more. Cool on rack until needed.

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