Green Valley, Arizona is home to the largest pecan grove in the United States. It's also home to one of my dad's closest friends and golfing buddies, so when visiting for a recent guys golf weekend, my dad picked up a couple of pounds of Arizona pecans to bring home to Seattle.
But they weren't just a gift; he had a plan in mind. With Mother's Day just a couple weeks ahead, he wanted to make his mom her favorite pecan pie, and one of her "specialties." She's always loved pecan pie and it was one of the recipes she knew by heart and would make several times a year. She can't see any more so cooking and baking are too hard, and my dad thought it would be fun to make her a pie.
Since my dad is not a baker, when he got home from Arizona, he gave me a call and asked, "Can we bake pies together?" I wasn't really sure if he really meant "together" or if he actually meant "will you bake pies for me." He insisted that he wanted us to do it together, which I thought was even sweeter than all the brown sugar in our pie, but I had no idea how to accomodate such a request because I'm not good at sharing and my "helping" someone tends to mean "bossing around." Nevertheless, we set a date for the Saturday morning before Mother's Day and he arrived at my house with 2 pounds of pecans.
The pecans had a pie recipe printed on the bag, and he thought it would be clever to do a "taste-test" by making a side-by-side comparison of his mom's classic recipe with another version. But after comparing the ingredients line-by-line, and cross-referencing against The Joy of Cooking and Nick Malgieri's How to Bake, the discrepencies came down to using white sugar + dark corn syrup or brown sugar + light corn syrup, and how many eggs (I saw 2, 3, and 4.) I don't keep dark corn syrup on hand, so that was part of a deciding factor (I think the ratios are pretty equivalent anyway, maybe add a bit of molasses for some of the light corn syrup to get an earthier taste). And 4 eggs seemed like way too many to get a rich, gooey filling that we typically associate with pecan pie. So we went with grandma's standard of 3 eggs, light corn syrup, and white sugar.
After Dad read through the entire recipe, we got started on the crust. For this part, I was able to have him measure and assemble the ingredients in the food processor, demonstrating how to scoop flour, and reminding him that the butter wrapper conveniently measures in tablespoons. Watching over his shoulder, I helped him determine the right amount of pulsing to mix the dough, then since we were making two pies, I wrapped half the pastry in plastic and he wrapped the other.
The crust is really the hardest part of most pies, and while grandmother long ago converted to Pillsbury crust, dad followed my recommendation to go with a home-made 50% butter/50% shortening unsweetened dough. It was the perfect consistency, really easy to roll and shape, held it's form delightfully, and tasted both buttery and flakey and crispy.
My pecan pie bars which I have perfected over many years are actually my preference over pecan pie... I like the chopped, toasted pecans better than the whole raw pecans as a ratio to the filling, and the bars have a thinner layer on the crust which is less custardy and more caramelly due to the addition of cream. One pie recipe we saw called for evaporated milk, and while we decided against that route, I did take one cue from my bars recipe to use bourbon as a flavoring.
So, Dad mixed up a batch of filling following his mom's recipe. (He told her he was borrowing a recipe, but that which one was a surprise. She thought he was coping down the recipe for "veal birds!" I'm glad he asked me to help him make pie...) When it went into the oven, I copied the same recipe but exchanged 1 teaspoon of vanilla for 2 tablespoons of bourbon.
Both pies took almost an hour to bake, and I tented with foil after 45 minutes so the nuts wouldn't burn. The bourbon flavoring is my preference, but 2 tablespoons was probably too much, as the filling was definitely softer (more liquidy) than the other version. His mom was so proud that Dad had baked for her, and it was a delicious ending to Mother's Day.
Basic Pie or Pastry Dough
from The Joy of Cooking
makes 2 crusts
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup chilled shortening
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
about 6 tablespoons ice water
Blend flour and salt. Add to food processor and pulse with small cubes of butter and shortening (or use pastry blender) until pea-sized lumps form. Sprinkle with 4 tablespoons water, and pulse. Add up to 3 tablespoons more water, 1/2-1 tablespoon at a time, depending on humidity, until consitency is just holding together. Pat into round and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refridgerate at least 1 hour, or up to a week (or freeze).
Roll out dough and pat into 9-inch pan, crimping edge decoratively. Freeze at least 15 minutes before filling and baking.
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups whole (raw) pecans
Preheat oven to 350.
Mix together flour, sugar, and salt. Blend with corn syrup, then blend in eggs and vanilla until combined. Stir in pecans and pour into one 9-inch unbaked, chilled pie shell. Bake 45-55 minutes, until crust is golden, and center is set but still jiggly (like jello). Cool on rack and serve at room temperature with whipped cream.