Badass Pecan Pie

The pecan pie is reposing near my beautiful fall apron. I know my crust looks a little wonky, but I happen to be quite terrible with pie crusts. It's an affliction that is poorly understood.

The pecan pie is reposing near my beautiful fall apron. I know my crust looks a little wonky, but I happen to be quite terrible with pie crusts. It’s an affliction that is poorly understood.

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 filling is as smooth as caramel and twice as thick!

The filling is as smooth as caramel and twice as thick!

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.

This slice of pecan pie is giving me a pointed look.

This slice of pecan pie is giving me a pointed look.

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.

What is your quest?

What is your quest?

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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Pecan Pie

Yield: One deep-dish 9″ pie OR two standard-depth 9″ pies

Ingredients:

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

Method:

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

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Pumpkin Cheesecake with Brown Sugar & Bourbon Whipped Cream

Pumpkin cheesecake with a slice of itself.

Pumpkin cheesecake with a slice of itself.

Thanksgiving is a mere 8 days away, and I’ve been trying out recipes to decide what will grace our table this year. I am, naturally, talking about dessert recipes; Hubbles has the main course covered, so I’m letting him work his magic in peace. Flipping through my copy of Cook’s Illustrated holiday baking magazine (which I saw in line at the grocery store and, of course, had to snatch up – hurray for marketing; it works!), I saw a recipe for pumpkin cheesecake. I’ve been wanting to make a pumpkin cheesecake ever since I saw Gordon Ramsay’s recipe for it in his book, Gordon Ramsay’s Just Desserts, but Hubs has an irrational hatred for pumpkin (yes, honey, it is irrational), and to be fair, pumpkin has never been my favourite. Plus Gordon, while producing reliable recipes, nevertheless has a way of making even the most basic dish seem finicky and esoteric. (Though his banana ice cream is to die for. Fear not, as I will be posting about this when the weather warms up a bit! I have at last blogged about that banana wonder!) So the pumpkin cheesecake kept getting put on the back burner, in a manner of speaking.

Pumpkin cheesecake sliced.

Pumpkin cheesecake, probably wondering where that slice of itself has gotten off to.

Still, I would periodically long for the chance to make a pumpkin cheesecake, as I’d never worked with pumpkin in the kitchen before and it seemed very interesting! Pumpkins are such adorable things before they’re sliced and diced, you see. I’m nothing if not a sucker for things that are adorable. Anyway, after carving pumpkins this year, and then reading the description by Cook’s Illustrated of the luscious texture and balanced taste of its pumpkin cheesecake, which seemed more balanced and approachable than Gordon Ramsay’s, I decided it was high time to go ahead and make a pumpkin cheesecake, and –

Swoon.

A slice of pumpkin cheesecake, showcasing its silky texture.

A slice of pumpkin cheesecake, showcasing its silky texture.

As pumpkin flesh is quite fibrous and tough, I was very much taken aback by the cheesecake’s silky texture. It was every bit as creamy and soft as this New York style cheesecake (also by Cook’s Illustrated, funnily enough). The spices – a blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice – really are perfectly balanced, and do not overwhelm the pumpkin flavour. The notes of mild, earthy pumpkin and tangy cream cheese are also in perfect symmetry; and these three elements – spices, pumpkin, and cream cheese – are in beautiful harmony. (It’s worth noting that Gordon Ramsay’s pumpkin cheesecake doesn’t call for any spices, period, and is probably quite bland. Still, I’ll give it a whirl at some point, just to compare the two recipes.) I’d thought that Dawn Yanagihara, the Cook’s Illustrated author who wrote that her pumpkin cheesecake would “strike a harmoniously spicy chord” and have a “velvety-smooth texture,” was employing a bit of grandiloquence, but she nailed it with this cheesecake. I’ve always been lukewarm about pumpkin, as I mentioned above, but this cheesecake has won me over to the Pumpkin Side.

There’s yet much, much more to this cheesecake! The crust is made of graham crackers and spiced with ginger, cinnamon, and cloves, and tastes more like ginger snaps than graham crackers. It’s a lovely accompaniment to the pumpkin cheesecake, adding a bit of crunch and ginger snappishness to the cheesecake that is unexpectedly complex and rich. The brown sugar and bourbon whipped cream is a dreamy addition to the cheesecake, adding a tangy sweetness to the pumpkin flavour. Tasted on its own, I found the whipped cream to be overly strong and kind of sour due to the bourbon, so much so that I nearly threw it out! Thank heavens I didn’t, because when consumed with the cheesecake, it becomes the gastronomical equivalent of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I’m serious. I was blown away by how well the whipped cream and the cheesecake go together. The whipped cream recipe yields nearly 2 cups of whipped cream goodness, which is quite a bit, so I recommend either cutting the recipe in half or simply passing a bowl of the whipped cream around with the cheesecake, in case some diners prefer lots of whipped cream with their cheesecake.

This is one helluva pumpkin dessert, man. I made it expecting to like it okay, but I fell deeply, deeply in love with it. This is so much better than your garden variety pumpkin pie that it’s not even funny. You just look soberly at the pumpkin pie and lower your eyes… because there’s a new kid in town.

Pumpkin cheesecake unsliced.

Pumpkin cheesecake topped with swirls of gorgeous brown sugar and bourbon whipped cream. That’s kind of a mouthful of a name for whipped cream. Pun Power!

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Pumpkin Cheesecake with Brown Sugar & Bourbon Whipped Cream

Ingredients:

For the crust:
9 whole graham crackers (I used Honey Maid brand)
3 TBS sugar
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
8 TBS unsalted butter, melted and divided (1 TBS will be used for brushing sides of springform pan)

For the cheesecake:
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 (15 oz.) can unsweetened pumpkin puree
3 pkgs. (8 oz. each) cream cheese, at room temperature, cut into 1″ chunks
1 TBS vanilla extract
1 TBS lemon juice
5 large eggs, at room temperature (I place eggs in a bowl of hot water for 10 minutes to get them to room temperature)
1 cup heavy whipping cream

For the whipped cream:
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tsp bourbon
pinch of salt (optional)
1 cup heavy whipping cream, very cold

Method:

For the crust:

Preheat oven to 325˚F. Spray the bottom of a 9″ springform pan with nonstick cooking spray, line bottom with parchment paper round, and spray the round. Try to avoid spraying the sides, as you’ll be brushing these with melted butter. It’s okay if a little spray gets on the sides of the pan.

Process graham crackers, sugar, and spices in a food processor until finely ground. (You can use a potato masher to crush the graham crackers in a large bowl. Once crushed as finely as possible, mix in sugar & spices with a fork.) Transfer crumb mixture to medium bowl and mix in 7 TBS melted butter with a fork, reserving the remaining TBS for brushing the sides of the springform pan.

Graham cracker crust, spiced to imitate ginger snaps, about to be pressed into the springform pan.

Graham cracker crust, spiced to imitate ginger snaps, about to be pressed into the springform pan.

Evenly press mixture onto the bottom of the prepared springform pan, using a glass measuring cup or similar to ensure evenness. Try to keep the sides of the pan as clean as possible. Bake crust until fragrant and lightly browned around edges, about 15 minutes. Allow crust to cool completely on wire rack. Do not turn off oven.

Once crust is cool, wrap two 18″x18″ sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil around the outside of the springform pan in preparation for a water bath. Ensure that the aluminum foil is wrapped such that no water will seep into the crust while the cheesecake is baking. Place foil-wrapped springform pan into a large roasting pan (I used a 12″ round cake pan) and set a kettle of water on to boil (this will be the hot water you pour into the roasting pan).

For the cheesecake:
Whisk sugar, spices, and salt together in a small bowl and set aside. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a triple layer of paper towels and evenly spread the pumpkin puree across the paper towels. Press another triple layer of paper towels onto the pumpkin and press gently with your hands to encourage the pumpkin to release its liquid. Set aside.

The pumpkin is lurking there beneath the paper towels!

The pumpkin is lurking there beneath the paper towels!

In a mixer bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the softened cream cheese on low speed for one minute; scrape sides of bowl. Add half the sugar and spice mixture; beat on low speed for one minute and scrape sides of bowl. Add remaining sugar and spice mixture and beat on low speed for one minute; scrape sides of bowl.

Returning to the pumpkin, peel back the top layer of paper towels and discard. Using the bottom layer of paper towels, fold the pumpkin in half, then into quarters.

Lifting the paper towels to reveal the pumpkin.

Lifting the paper towels to reveal the pumpkin.

The pumpkin hath been folded in half.

The pumpkin hath been folded in half.

The pumpkin hath been folded into... quarters!

The pumpkin hath been folded into… quarters!

Transfer pumpkin to mixer bowl, along with the vanilla and lemon juice. Beat for one minute on low speed, then scrape sides of bowl.

When the pumpkin was added, it turned the batter a very pretty buttery orange colour.

When the pumpkin was added, it turned the batter a very pretty buttery orange colour.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating on low for one minute after each addition and scraping sides of mixer bowl after each addition.

Eggs in a bowl of hot water.

To get eggs to room temperature quickly, I place them in a bowl of hot water for 10 minutes, rotating their positions every couple of minutes if they don’t quite fit in the bowl, as is the case here.

Add heavy cream and beat on low speed for 45 seconds.

Adding heavy cream to the cheesecake batter.

By the time the heavy cream is added, very little mixing is needed to completely incorporate the cream.

Use a spatula to finish stirring the cream into the batter, if necessary. Tap mixer bowl on the table or counter a few times to encourage air bubbles to rise and pop.

Pour batter into prepared springform pan. Carefully fill the roasting pan halfway with water that is just shy of boiling; take care not to burn yourself. The water should come halfway up the sides of the cheesecake. Be sure when decanting the water that you do not splash any into the cheesecake batter or inside any folds of aluminum foil.

The cheesecake in its water bath, awaiting transport to the oven.

The cheesecake in its water bath, awaiting transport to the oven.

Bake at 325˚F for 90 minutes, or until the center two inches of the cheesecake still wobble slightly when the pan is gently shaken. The edges of the cheesecake should look set but not browned. Set roasting pan onto wire rack and immediately run a paring knife around the sides of the cheesecake to prevent its sticking to the pan. Allow cheesecake to cool in its water bath for 45 minutes to an hour; the water inside the roasting pan should be lukewarm or cool. Carefully remove cheesecake from roasting pan and discard aluminum foil. Place springform pan back onto wire rack, this time with neither roasting pan nor aluminum foil, and allow cheesecake to cool completely, about 3 hours. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 6 hours; overnight is best.

To unmould cheesecake:
Take plastic wrap from top of cheesecake and set aside upside-down, so that the side that was touching the cheesecake is facing up. Release pan sides. Run bottom of cheesecake, still on springform bottom, over hot stovetop for 10 – 15 seconds. Lay the plastic wrap back onto the top of the cheesecake, and place a large, flat plate over the top of the cheesecake. Carefully flip cheesecake upside down so that the top of the cheesecake is against the plate. Using an extremely sharp knife, loosen cheesecake from springform bottom. (You may have to reheat the bottom of the pan if it is being stubborn.) This is where lining the springform pan with parchment paper pays off – the crust should easily release from the springform pan bottom. Flip cheesecake onto serving platter. Remove plastic wrap from top of cheesecake.

To slice cheesecake cleanly, use a sharp knife dipped into very hot water and wiped dry. Between each slice, wipe knife clean, re-dip into hot water, and wipe dry. This sounds like a lot of work for slicing a cheesecake, but you’ll be rewarded with clean, sharp edges on each slice.

For the whipping cream:
In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients with a whisk until incorporated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours and up to one day, stirring once or twice to help brown sugar dissolve completely. When ready to serve, whip mixture until soft peaks form. Serve immediately.

Source: Barely adapted from Cook’s Illustrated All-time Best Holiday Baking, 2013