Recipes and Memories~

A Southern Classic ~ Pecan Pie

Yesterday I had a whim to make a pecan pie, but not just any pecan pie. I wanted to make my late mother-in-law’s pecan pie.

Now is her pie better than your pie or the next-door neighbor’s? Maybe … maybe not. But what I do know is that she took great pride in baking it for me, because I bragged on her pecan pie to everyone. And the memory of her pride in making that pie for me—well, it makes each bite just a little better than the one before.

For me, that is “food.” Food is the joy of being with the person who made it, the appreciation that someone took the time and energy to cook something, the circumstance and situation of eating that food and the inevitable memory of all those things. I think that is why my trip to Italy to live with the Stefanis means so much to me. It is why the experience of cooking with Nonna in her kitchen, and absorbing her family’s traditions in the process, “pushed” me into writing my book about that experience.

Have you experienced an emotional connection to food?

Maybe your father made pancakes every Saturday morning when you were a child. Mmmm, how wonderful they tasted then and how much more incredible they taste in your memory now. Were they the best pancakes ever? I can hear the answer, “YES!” Why such an emphatic response? Because your father made them for you. That is food at its best.

“But WAIT, Mark, maybe his pancakes were disastrous?!” I hear you say, too.

I still bet that his attempt to cook for you, regardless of the outcome, would provide you with great memories. Even failed food can be “food” at its best.

So as I dug through old recipes from friends and family in the hunt for the pecan pie recipe, I discovered my great-grandmother’s recipe for pie crust. That was it. There was no way I could use a store-bought crust. I had to put the two together—“Big Gram’s Crust” and “Pat’s Pecan Pie.”

My great-grandmother was born prior to 1900 in Ohio to immigrant parents from Germany. My childhood memory of her cooking in her kitchen is the reason I love to cook for people now. Up by 6:00 a.m. and already starting the evening’s dinner, she lived in the kitchen. Everything she served was homemade. She is the reason I go on and on about “bring your family to the table and change a life, one meal at a time.”

Honestly, I get rather nostalgic about food in the fall. I think it has to do with the weather. The South can be rather oppressive in the summer—stagnant heat and humidity for months on end. Often, cooking is the last thing on my mind. And then, one day, it breaks and the leaves turn colors, football starts, out come pumpkins and Halloween decorations, which all lead up to Thanksgiving—a day of family, memories and thankfulness. Yesterday, I was feeling all caught up in that, here in my Alabama kitchen.

So, why the urge to make a pie of all things? Maybe it was a practice run at Thanksgiving. But truly, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate and honor two people that I loved than to make their food and eat it. Here you go ~ a very special pecan pie recipe from me to you. “Buon Appetito!” as Nonna would say.

Pat’s Pecan Pie

1 9-inch pie shell frozen, or refrigerator-case or freshly made crust placed in a 9-inch pie pan (see “Big Gram’s” pie crust recipe below).

3 large eggs, slightly beaten

1 cup dark corn syrup

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (1 tablespoon bourbon may be substituted)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups whole pecan halves, reserving 8 pecan halves for decoration

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine and stir together eggs, corn syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla, salt. Gently stir in the pecans. Pour into the pie shell (some of the pecans may float, which is fine). Take the 8 reserved pecan halves and arrange in a daisy pattern on the center of the pie.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes until the filling has set, taking care that the pecans are a dark brown, but not burnt. During the baking process, if the crust edge starts to over-brown, cover the edge of the pie crust with tented aluminum foil or a pie crust protector to prevent it from burning.

Remove from oven and let cool completely before cutting and serving.

“Big Gram’s” Pie Crust recipe:

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup lard, cold (shortening or butter-flavored shortening may be substituted)

3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

In a medium bowl, shift together the flour, and salt. Using a pastry blender, or two knives, cut the lard into the flour mixture until pieces are the size of small peas. Add 1 tablespoon of water over part of the mixture and, using a fork, gently toss. Push the moistened mixture to the side of the bowl and repeat until the entire mixture is moistened. Being careful not to overwork, form the moistened dough into a ball.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface (making sure the rolling pin is lightly floured, too), from the center to the edge, into a 12-inch circle. Roll the dough onto the pin and place onto a 9-inch pie pan. Gently press the dough into the pan and trim the edge to a ½-inch beyond the edge of the pan. To finish, use the ½-inch overage to tuck under, flute, or scallop the edge. Fill with filling and proceed as directed above. (This recipe makes one bottom crust. For a bottom and top crust, double the recipe.)

*Keeping in the fall and family spirit, here is the link to Nonna’s “Pumpkin and Ricotta Torta” recipe. Even though she is in Italy, Nonna can still contribute to your Thanksgiving feast!

Enjoy~ Mark