THANKSGIVING MUST-HAVE: NEW-CROP PECANS
The pecans above may look small and pale, almost drab. But I’d give anything if I could offer you some to taste. A plump, deeply grooved variety called Elliott, they are rich and buttery. Sweet. They have finesse. Most importantly, they are new-crop pecans—that is, just harvested—and their fresh, pure flavor is a world apart from that of most supermarket or big-box store pecans, which may well be last year’s crop released from cold storage*.
Unless you are from the Pecan Belt, which cuts a mighty swath from Georgia to Texas and New Mexico, it may not have occurred to you that pecans even have a season. Well, they do, and it’s now. The trees are alternate-bearing, meaning they bear a heavy crop load every other year. This is an “on” year, and, in Georgia, the top pecan-producing state in the country, up to 100 million pounds will be harvested this season, a very good yield.
What’s remarkable is that 2011 is projected to deliver the most valuable pecan crop ever for the state, with the nuts bringing $3 or more per pound for growers, a historic high. Aside from the record drought that’s significantly reduced the yield in states like Texas**, what’s pushing the price increase is demand from abroad, led by (oh, who do you think?) China. In that country, pecans, which contain more antioxidants than any other nut, are cannily marketed as a “long life” nut. Filling the vacuum left by a widespread walnut shortage, they’ve become a popular snack, and in the past five years, consumption has more than doubled.
When I was young, pecans were a popular snack in our household, too, although my parents wouldn’t have given two hoots about antioxidants. To them, pecans were the reason for an early-November weekend drive down a rural highway, looking for a familiar roadside stand. It backed up against a venerable family pecan grove, and the tall, centuries-old trees cast slatted shadows on the crushed-shell parking lot.
My father would ease the car to a stop and I would jump out, confident that we would be remembered from years past. Naturally, we were. After a hug hello, I would be directed to the bins of different cultivars. I was allowed to crack open and sample each, in order to help my mother choose. She invariably selected Elliott, my favorite variety to this day. My father would gallantly perform the heavy lifting, filling the trunk of the car with burlap sacks of unshelled nuts.
These days, I’m happy to get my pecans already shelled. I just received my supply of Elliotts from Ellis Bros. Pecans, a family farm (since 1944) in Vienna, Georgia, that also grows the larger, meatier Desirable and Stuart cultivars. I know I could have ordered online, but I picked up the phone instead, just to hear a familiar accent and have a neighborly conversation about pies and cornbread dressing. Naturally, I was remembered from last year.
Now, my mother made loads of pecan pies, but she was never a big fan. “They’re too sweet,” she would complain. They sure were: Her recipe, like that of every one of her friends, contained dark Karo syrup, and just typing those three little words makes my teeth ache.
I never met a pecan pie I truly loved until I encountered that made by Sharon Logan, of Salem, Virginia. Throughout much of my life, she has been in my corner and in moments of crisis, my first thought is usually, “What would Sharon do?” She is also a wonderful cook, who, for years, put satisfying meals on the table every day for a family of six (and sometimes more). Sharon got this recipe from her great friend Page Chapman, and you will discover it is simple and delicious. Made with light Karo syrup, it is sweet but not too sweet. It will never fail you.
Thanksgiving Day Pecan Pie
Adapted from Sharon Logan and Page Chapman
For this pie, I use a favorite pastry dough recipe from my Gourmet days; it is quick and easy. In the below photo, the measurements at the left are calculations for a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate, if that’s what you have; many people like the taller, richer pie that results. I prefer using a 9-inch regular pie plate or tart pan because I think the shallower proportion of custard to pecans is just right, especially when you bump up the pecans to an even cup.
1 recipe homemade pastry dough (for a 9-inch pie or tart)
½ cup confectioners sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup light Karo syrup
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup roughly chopped pecans
whipped cream spiked with a little bourbon or rum (if desired), for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Roll out the pastry dough into a 13-inch round on a lightly floured work surface. Fit it into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim the edge, leaving a ½-inch overhang, and crimp the edge; refrigerate.
2. Stir the confectioners sugar and the cornstarch together in a small bowl. In a large bowl, stir together the Karo syrup, eggs, vanilla, butter, and pecans. A wooden spoon is the best tool for the job.
3. Gradually stir the sugar mixture into the pecan mixture, taking care to mash any little clumps against the side of the bowl. Stir thoroughly to combine, then pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake 35 minutes or a bit longer, depending on your oven and your pie plate (Sharon and I both use Pyrex). When done, the crust should be golden and the filling, slightly wobbly in the center. Cool the pie on a wire rack and serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream. If you are very lucky, there will be pie left over. It is especially delicious chilled, right out of the fridge.
*Unfortunately, there’s no telling how those have been handled: Because pecans have a fat content of more than 70 percent, they turn rancid quickly if left unrefrigerated (or languishing in the sun on a loading dock) for any length of time.
**Show those Texas growers some love and buy their pecans here.