Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nearly Perfect Pecan Pie

If you read my previous post on pecan pie, you know I've been trying to perfect the recipe for some time. Quite some time. In general, I'm very critical about my own food (and much less so of others), but that's only because I'm trying to learn to get things just right. And, frequently, I do get things just right, at least for me. We all of our own preferences. For example, I wouldn't change anything about my granola, carrot soup, roasted garlic soup, carne asada, M'n'M cake, or chocolate chunk cookies. Most other things may change a bit, depending on the day.

The pecan pie has slowly been evolving. It has gone from good to better to very good indeed. The funny thing is that the original recipe was from a Cooking Light magazine, though it hardly resembles that rendition now. Theirs was good, but why make a light pecan pie? And, in fact, the secret to their "light" pie was that it was about half the filling. So a slice would have half the calories and be half as tall. Portion control is an important aspect of food consumption, so I'm not against the trickery, but I wasn't fooled.

You may be wondering why the title is "nearly perfect" rather than "perfect". Or maybe not. In any case, it's the crust that's at fault. My darn crust always shrinks up. I'm sure it's because I use an all-butter crust. I even tried chilling it for 45 minutes before baking it, a suggestion from Cook's Illustrated, but to no avail. It doesn't shrink below the filling, though, because the filling holds it up if it falls that much. If I ever fix this problem I'll let you know. But I won't be fixing it by substituting anything for butter. I love my butter crust too much. Have you tried it? I mentioned it before with the peach pie, but I'll add it below again.

At last, I'm willing to share the recipe. So many hours of labor went into it, so if you make it, follow the recipe carefully and you should be happy. And if not, you should be nearly happy.

Pecan Pie

1 9" deep-dish unbaked pie shell (recipe follows)
6 large eggs
2 c. light corn syrup
1 1/3 c. dark brown sugar
9 T. butter
1/4 t. salt
3 c. pecan halves, toasted at 350˚ for 8-10 minutes, cooled
1 1/2 t. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350˚.

In a medium saucepan, stir together the corn syrup, brown sugar, salt, and butter over medium heat. Bring to a boil and boil for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Pour out of saucepan into a bowl and cool by stirring over a water bath or setting in the refrigerator and stirring occasionally, until just a bit warm. (Until it's cool enough to add eggs without any danger of cooking them prematurely. This also provides a good opportunity to roll out your pie dough.)

Whisk the eggs until smooth and consistent. Whisk in the vanilla. Stir the eggs into the caramel. Stir in the pecans. Pour into the pie shell. Bake for about 30 minutes, then cover it with foil to prevent the crust from browning too much. Continue to bake another 40-50 minutes, until the center of the pie is well set. This is difficult to figure out...if it's sufficiently baked. With a deep dish pecan pie, it's going to take a while, but it shouldn't be in the oven more than 90 minutes. 75-80 should be about right, unless your dish is shallower.

Remove to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature, then chill before serving. I prefer to serve pecan pie at about 50˚-60˚, so if it's not cold enough in your garage to chill it there, chill it in the refrigerator and let it set at room temperature for 30-60 minutes before serving.

Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream: about 2 c. cream, 3 T. granulated sugar, and 1/2 t. vanilla, whipped to soft or medium peaks.

Pie Dough
adapted from The Secrets of Baking by Sherry Yard
makes 2 crusts

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 T. sugar
1 t. salt (table, or finely ground Kosher)
1/2 c. ice water
1/2 t. white wine vinegar

Cut the butter into 1" pieces and place in the freezer for 15 minutes (no more).

In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix the flour and sugar. This lightens the flour to make the dough more tender. Add the butter and salt. Mix on low speed for at least 30 seconds and no more than 2 minutes, until most of the butter is about the size of walnut halves. Stop the machine and pinch all the large pieces of butter flat. Be careful not to just mash the pieces; the goal is to create flat, flaky layers in your dough.

Combine the ice water and vinegar, then add the liquid all at once to the flour mixture. Blend for no more than 15 seconds, until much of it is just coming together.

Spread out two sheets of plastic wrap. Bring the dough together just a bit with your hands, just enough so that it's not all crumbs, but do not work it much at this point, as working the dough while it's slightly warm from this process will damage the layers of flakiness and cause the dough to be tough. Divide the dough a little unevenly into two lumps and wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. If you refrigerate it an hour or more, let it set at room temperature for a few minutes before rolling out. Also, before you remove it from the plastic, make sure each lump of dough is shaped into a nice round, semi-flat disc. This will help you in the rolling-out process.

To roll it out,
I highly recommend using a French rolling pin, as it's more easily controlled and lightweight enough to avoid mashing the dough, which is not what you want. Lightly flour a work surface, then dust both sides of your disc with flour. Begin rolling out your dough, taking turns which direction your are rolling. You should go in all directions, and you should dust the top of your dough with flour and turn it over once or twice during this process, so that it doesn't stick to the work surface or get unwanted clumps of flour in spots underneath. Feel free to use lots of flour while rolling out your dough; just be sure it's evenly used across the circle.


Alaskan Dave Down Under said...

Hi Rachel. A couple of things that make pie crust (especially the good buttery ones) shrink. If your oven isn't hot enough or not preheated properly the crust will shrink. Also, if you have to pull or stretch the rolled out dough into the pie tin it'll shrink.

If neither of those are the culprit, have you thought about accounting for the shrinkage and having the crust overlap the top of the pie tin by a cm or so?

BTW, your filling sounds awesome!

Rachel said...

Thanks, dave. I always preheat my oven much longer than necessary, but I might try baking the pie at a higher temperature for the first 15 minutes and see if that helps.

Also, I know dough shrinks if it's recently been rolled out (even though I roll it out much bigger than the pie pan, and I push it out beyond the edge of the pan), which is why I rest the rolled out dough for about 45 minutes before filling and baking. This is supposed to reduce the elasticity of the dough and thus reduce shrinking, but hasn't helped me a lot.

I think the major problem is that my dough has a high content of fat, and being made of butter, it's a softer dough, which makes it shrink up more. I will have to see if starting the pie at 400˚ for the 1st 15 minutes will help. I'll keep you posted, whenever it is that I make another single crust pie.

Thanks for the suggestions!

Dan Metcalf said...

Rachel, I don't make many pies, cakes and like, but next time I make a pie I'll have to finally give your pecan pie a go. It's a little rich for Fujiko, but I love a good pecan pie. I'll even give your crust a go to see how it goes.