Hold the phone, people! This pie is beautiful. This pie is poetical. The filling is buttery, the notes of vanilla definite and sure. It tastes almost like caramel; and the thick, smooth texture of the filling is actually quite reminiscent of caramel, only it holds its shape. The secret to the filling’s unbelievable, and atypical, smoothness is that the filling is cooked to 130˚F before being added to the just-baked pie crust, and then baked at 275˚F for an hour. The character of the pecans really comes to life against this butter-and-vanilla majesty. Crivens*, but I could eat this filling all day long.
And the crust! Oh, the crust! As if this amazing filling weren’t incredible enough by itself!
The crust, a vodka pie crust from Cook’s Illustrated, blew my socks off. It was such a scunner** to work with, being very wet compared to more typical pie dough, and it needed a lot of patching; but it’s so flaky, tender, and mildly sweet – the perfect backdrop for the rich filling – that I forgive it its scunnery. This is hands-down the best pie crust I’ve ever encountered. I am wowed. I am amazed. I am in love.
And I almost passed it by! Why? Because it has vodka in it, and I thought that vodka would make the crust taste of strangeness. But it doesn’t! It leaves no vodka flavor whatsoever in the pie crust. I was skeptical of this claim, but my skepticism was silenced by my first bite of this flaky wonder. I am a believer.
The cool thing about using vodka in a pie crust (aside from boozing while you bake) is that vodka retards the formation of gluten during the mixing process. Gluten forms when flour absorbs water and is subsequently physically manipulated, as with kneading. Gluten toughens the dough and too much of it, as would form with too much handling of the dough, makes for a tough baked product. With vodka, you can handle the dough practically all day long, and it won’t form much gluten compared to using water. The alcohol content of the vodka evaporates in the oven, leaving behind absolutely no taste of vodka. A bit of caution: This crust must be made in a food processor to get the flour both evenly coated and not coated with butter. (When you’re blending flour and butter, some of the flour is coated with butter and thus will not absorb water, while the rest of the flour is not coated with butter, and thus will absorb water.) Having said that, it’s certainly worth a try even if a food processor doesn’t enter the picture. I bowed to the Cook’s Illustrated recommendation and used a food processor. It really works wonders.
Over the years, I’ve wrestled with making a good pecan pie. I could never achieve the right balance of flavours, and the texture was always a bit lumpy, which served as an addendum to the mediocrity of my pecan pies. And I never bothered making my own crust, because I figured its flavour and texture would disappear into the overly sweet filling. I used store-bought frozen crusts, which are very thin, and tasteless, and so I created my very own little self-fulfilling prophecy. Yay!
As you know, I’ve been trying out recipes for the upcoming Feast of St. Bird, and I was mighty pleased with how the pumpkin cheesecake from Cook’s Illustrated holiday baking magazine turned out. Leafing through the magazine – I still haven’t read all the recipes in it yet! – I encountered a recipe for Classic Pecan Pie. I made a few changes, and wound up creating an amalgamation of the Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie recipe and the pecan pie recipe I’ve been using and tweaking for years (from an old recipe card of my mom’s – unfortunately, I don’t have a more specific source than that). I downplayed the molasses flavour of the magazine’s recipe, slightly increased the amount of corn syrup, and scaled back the butter by 1/3. The full TBS of vanilla extract seemed spot on to me, however, and I happily tipped in a full measure of vanilla. So that’s why I could never seem to get a bold vanilla flavour out of my old pecan pie recipe – I was only using 1 tsp of vanilla! When comparing the two recipes side-by-side, I saw a note I’d written to myself on the old recipe card: “Try 1 full TBS vanilla?” So that made me feel a bit better about my thought processes regarding pecan pie.
Two things about the Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie recipe bothered me, and bother me still. The first is that the filling recipe yields enough for two standard-depth 9″ pies (or 1 deep dish 9″ pie), yet the recipe calls for the use of only one standard-depth 9″ pie dish. You will have enough filling for either two standard-depth 9″ pies, or one deep-dish 9″ pie. Trust me on this. I know of what I speak. The second issue is that the crust recipe for this particular pie would yield a fairly thick crust for a standard-depth 9″ pie dish, but a very, very thin crust for either two standard-depth 9″ pie dishes or one deep-dish 9″ pie dish. I doubled the crust recipe, as I have a deep pie dish, and I am so, so happy I did this. The crust was not overly thick, nor was it overly thin: it was just right. ‘Tis something to consider when choosing to make either two standard-depth 9″ pies or one deep-dish 9″ pie. The crust recipe below is the doubled version; simply cut the amount of each ingredient neatly in half to halve recipe.
*An all-purpose exclamation used by Pictsies.
**A deeply insulting word – also used by Pictsies – for a useless git.
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Yield: One deep-dish 9″ pie OR two standard-depth 9″ pies
For the crust:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus flour (up to 1/4 cup – yes, the dough is wet!) for dusting the rolling surface
2 TBS sugar
1 tsp salt
12 TBS unsalted butter, cut into 1/4″ pieces and chilled
8 TBS vegetable shortening (such as Crisco), cut into 4 pieces and chilled
1/4 cup vodka, chilled
1/4 cup ice water
For the filling:
4 TBS unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
3 TBS light brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1 cup light corn syrup
1 TBS vanilla extract
2 cups toasted pecans, chopped fine
For the crust:
In a food processor, process 1 1/2 cups of the flour, 2 TBS sugar, and 1 tsp salt until combined, about 5 – 10 seconds. Scatter butter and shortening atop flour mixture and process until mixture begins to form uneven clumps with no floury bits left, about 15 – 20 seconds. Scrape sides and blade of food processor; re-position mixture evenly around the bottom and blade of the food processor. Cover mixture with remaining 1 cup flour and pulse until mixture is broken into pieces, about 6 – 8 pulses.
Transfer mixture to large bowl and add vodka and water. Using a heavy, stiff spatula, press and turn the dough to incorporate the liquids.
If making one deep-dish 9″ pie, wrap dough as it is in plastic wrap; if making two standard-depth 9″ pies, divide dough in half before wrapping each half in plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough for at least one hour and up to two days. Dough can be frozen for 1 month; when ready to roll, allow dough to thaw completely at room temperature before rolling.
Note: Do not bake crust until ready to make the pie filling, as the heat of the crust and that of the pie filling (which is cooked to 130˚F before being baked) are necessary to achieve the smooth texture of the baked filling. When ready to make the pie filling, preheat oven to 425˚F. On a heavily floured surface, and with a heavily floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a 12″ round (or two 12″ rounds, if making two standard-depth 9″ pies) and place in pie dish(-es). Fold and tuck the overhanging dough underneath itself; patch any holes using some of the overhang, if necessary. With your fingers, crimp edges of dough. (Here’s hoping you’ll have more luck than I did. I’m terrible with managing pie crusts.) Loosely wrap dough and pie dish(-es) in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes.
Line surface of chilled dough with double layer of aluminum foil, making sure to cover the edges of the crust. Fill with pie weights and bake for 15 minutes. Remove pie weights and aluminum foil and bake an additional 4 – 7 minutes, or until crust(s) is (are) golden brown. Immediately after removing browned crust(s) from oven, reduce oven temperature to 275˚F. Fill hot crust(s) with pecan filling and bake (further instructions below).
For the filling:
While crust(s) is (are) baking, melt butter in 3 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium-low heat. Off the heat, whisk in the sugar, brown sugar, and salt until the butter has been absorbed. Whisk in the eggs, corn syrup, and vanilla until completely incorporated and smooth.
Return mixture to the stove on medium-low heat and cook, whisking occasionally (at some point during this stage, the crust[s] will come out of the oven – you want the crust to still be hot when you pour the filling into it. Place baked crust[s] on rimmed baking sheet[s]* and set aside), until the mixture is hot to the touch and registers 130˚F on an instant-read thermometer.
Immediately remove mixture from heat; stir in pecans and pour mixture into hot crust (if making two pies, divide filling evenly between crusts). Bake at 275˚F for 50 – 65 minutes, rotating the pie(s) halfway through baking. The filling should look set and crispy on top. If you shake the pie gently from side to side, the pecans should not move about in the filling; they should form a united, stiff mass of browned pecans. The filling should “[yield] like gelatin when gently pressed with back of spoon,” to quote Cook’s Illustrated (p. 72 – 73). I didn’t find the gelatin qualifier to be of much help, as the top of a baked pecan pie is kind of hard due to the pecans rising to the top, but perhaps you will find this information helpful.
Let pie cool on wire rack, about two hours. This will help the filling set even further, as the pie will still cook a little after it’s removed from the oven. Wrapped in plastic wrap, the cooled pie can be stored at room temperature for 2 – 3 days. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm, with whipped cream if desired. This whipped cream would make a smashing accompaniment to this pie.
*Here is where the wisdom of placing the baked and empty crust on a rimmed baking sheet becomes apparent: If the pie is sitting on a rimmed baking sheet, it will be much easier to get into and out of the oven without destroying the edges of the crust, as the filling for this pie is very heavy. Using a rimmed baking sheet for this purpose also makes it easier to move the pie around in general.
Source: Crust from, and filling heavily adapted from, Cook’s Illustrated All-time Best Holiday Baking, 2013