Introduction: Maple Pecan (Approximately) Pie
I really enjoy pecan pie, but a lot of the corn syrup-based pies can be a little too sweet. Being from New England, I also really enjoy maple syrup, and maple and pecan pair really well together, so I baked up this little number as one of the six pies I made for Pi Day this year. All of my pies for Pi Day had a representation of π on them, but this one was only an approximation (hard to fit all of an irrational number on a pie with finite dimensions!)
Total time to make this pie is about 6 1/2 hours, but that includes a lot of waiting. There's only about 30 minutes of active preparation.
Step 1: Gather Your Ingredients and Gear
Note: We'll be making the crust from scratch. Since I was baking up a lot of pies, I was working in double-crust batches when taking the photos here, so stick with the measurements in the text, not what you might see in the photos.
Gather up the following ingredients:
For the Crust
6 oz. all-purpose flour (I do almost all of my baking by weight, but if you don't have a scale, this is about 1 1/3 US cups), plus additional flour for dusting
4 oz. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 oz. cold water
1 1/2 oz. vodka
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon table salt
For the Filling
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
3 large eggs
1 cup maple syrup
2 cups pecans, roughly chopped
Be sure to use real maple syrup for this pie, and not "maple-flavored syrup" or "pancake syrup". If you can find the darker "Grade B" maple syrup, it has a much more pronounced maple flavor, so use it! It seems to be a little easier to find in supermarkets these days (usually in the natural foods section), but I'm close enough to the maple-producing regions of New England that I may just be lucky.
Your pecans should be relatively fresh, too, since the oils in the nut go rancid over time. Storing unused nuts in the freezer helps prevent this.
Along with measuring cups and spoons, these instructions call for:
* a food processor fitted with a metal blade
* a mixing bowl
* a wooden spoon
* a medium saucepan
* a heatproof bowl that fits inside the saucepan (to make a double-boiler)
* a whisk
* a 9" pie plate
* a paring knife or kitchen shears
* plastic wrap
* a rolling pin
* a sheet of parchment paper, about 12"x12"
* pie weights or a 1 lb. bag of small, dried beans
A kitchen scale and instant-read thermometer are nice to have, but you can live without them.
If you want to decorate the pie with the first few digits of π as I've done here (and why wouldn't you?), a set of small number-shape cookie cutters is very helpful. The set I have is sold for cutting fondant cake frosting, but works just fine with pie crust.
Step 2: Make the Dough for Your Pie Crust
When making your pie crust, the most important thing is to keep your ingredients well-chilled. You don't want the butter to melt on you, or you'll end up with a tough, greasy crust instead of a nice, flaky one. Making pie crust from scratch scares a lot of people, but it really isn't that hard to do, especially with a food processor. This recipe also takes out a little insurance, by using a little extra liquid in the form of vodka. The alcohol in the vodka helps to limit the formation of gluten proteins in the dough, which will help you get a dough that can be rolled without breaking up too much and without also making the dough tough.
The recipe for pie crust just happens to be something you can think of like a ratio (just like π!) The basic ratio is 1 part liquid : 2 parts fat : 3 parts flour, by weight, although we're upping the liquid amount here just a bit as mentioned above.
So, take a deep breath, and start by taking your butter out of the refrigerator and cutting it into fairly large pieces (between 10 and 14 pieces from a single stick of butter is about right.) Add the flour, sugar, and salt to the work bowl of your food processor, and add half of the chunks of butter, tossing them in the flour to coat them a little, as shown in the third picture. Pulse the food processor in one-second pulses, about 10-12 times, until the butter is cut into very small pieces in the flour and the mix looks like coarse sand (fourth photo). Add the remaining chunks of butter, and give another 4 or 5 one-second pulses. This will leave some large chunks of butter, about the size of a pea or small bean, which will get smeared out when you roll the dough later and make things flaky (fifth photo). Dump the flour and butter mix into a mixing bowl.
Combine the cold water and vodka. Sprinkle a few tablespoons over the flour mixture, stir it in gently with the wooden spoon, and repeat the sprinkle-stir cycle until all the liquid is added and the dough holds its shape when you squeeze a bit of it in your hand.
Form the dough loosely into a disc, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap (I usually do two separate layers--you can see from the lead photo on this step that you may not get the disc firmly enough together with just one layer), and put it in the refrigerator for about an hour, to let the flour absorb all of the water.
Step 3: Roll Out the Crust
After the hour is up, retrieve your disc of dough from the refrigerator and unwrap it. It should hold together on its own and look fairly consistent, as in the second photo for this step.
Sprinkle your work surface and coat your rolling pin well with extra flour. Unwrap the dough, place it on the floured work surface, and sprinkle still more flour on top of it. Use the rolling pin to roll the dough out to a large circle, about 12" in diameter (use your pie plate as a guide to check that you've rolled it out enough). I tend to roll it out a little bit, give the dough a quarter turn, roll it out a bit more, and so on. This way, if I notice anything starting to stick, I can loosen it up a bit with my bench scraper or a butter knife, and toss down a little more flour before it gets really stuck.
If you should get tears in the crust as you work, don't panic. Just apply a little cold water on one side of the tear, pull the other side of the tear to overlap, sprinkle on some flour, and roll to seal.
When you're done, you should see some of the butter, smeared out into big flakes, inside the dough.
Step 4: Transfer the Crust to the Pie Plate
Gently roll the crust onto your rolling pin, move the pie plate into position, then carefully roll the crust back off the pin and into the pie plate.
Use your fingers to gently press the crust down into the corners of the pan. Once again, if the crust should tear, just use a little water as glue to press the tear back together again.
Using a paring knife or kitchen shears, trim the edges of the crust, leaving the crust about 1/2" larger than the pie plate. Save the trimmings for your number cutouts if you plan to decorate the cake (re-wrap them in the plastic wrap and return them to the refrigerator while you work).
Step 5: Form and Dock the Crust
Fold the extra, overhanging crust under, to double-up the edge sitting on the lip of the pie plate, and press to shape it into a ridge along that lip, as shown in the first photo.
To seal the crust, you can either press gently with the tines of a fork all the way around the ridge. For a more decorative scalloped edge, pinch a piece of the ridge with your thumb and index finger on your left hand, pinch the ridge right next to your left hand with the thumb and index finger on the right hand, and pull out a little with the left hand while pushing in with the right to form a bend in the ridge. Repeat this all the way around the pie.
Finally, you'll want to "dock" the crust to help steam get out while it bakes and to prevent bubbles from forming between the crust and the plate. Use a fork to poke the bottom and sides of the crust a few dozen times. Put the pie plate with the formed, docked crust back into the fridge to firm up a bit while you preheat your oven to 400°F, with racks on the lower middle and upper positions.
Step 6: Prebaking
After your oven has come up to 400°F, remove the pie plate with the chilled crust from the refrigerator. Line it with the parchment paper, and fill the parchment with pie weights or dried beans (I have some dried beans I've been using for several years; they're cheaper than pie weights, are easy to find, and can be saved and reused nearly as well. Just don't try to cook and eat them after using them as baking weights!)
Bake the crust on the lower-middle rack for 15 minutes. This will only partially bake the crust, but that's all we're going for here. It will finish baking after we add the filling.
During the last 5 minutes of the crust par-baking, spread the chopped pecans out on a cookie sheet or a piece of aluminum foil and let them toast on the top rack. You can remove both the pecans and the crust at the same time. The pecans should be fragrant, and the crust should not look completely dry and should have only the slightest browning on the crimped edge.
Lift out the parchment paper and pie weights as soon as you remove the crust from the oven, and dump the toasted pecan pieces into the crust. Turn the oven down to 275°F.
Step 7: Make the Filling
Time to make the filling.
Set a saucepan with an inch or so of water in the bottom over low heat, and bring it up to a simmer, then lower the heat just enough to stop the simmer. Put your heatproof mixing bowl on top of the saucepan, and add the butter. Let the butter melt completely, then stir in the sugar and salt.
Remove the bowl from the heat, and whisk in the eggs. Once the eggs are combined, whisk in the syrup, and return the bowl to the saucepan of hot water. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is hot and glossy. It should register 135°F to 140°F if you're using a thermometer. Remove the filling from the heat.
Step 8: Assemble and Bake
Pour the syrup mixture over the pecans in the pie crust, and place into your now-275°F oven on the middle lower rack. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the middle is set, but still feels like gelatin if gently pressed.
If you want to decorate with the first few digits of π as I've done, roll out your dough scraps after putting the pie in the oven and cut out your numbers. After the pie has been in the oven for about half the cooking time, pull it out, arrange your numbers on the surface (which should be set enough). Gently brushing on some beaten egg will help them get enough color and help adhere them, but isn't strictly necessary. Return the pie to the oven for the remaining cook time.
When you remove the pie from the oven, place it on cooling rack. Now comes the hardest part: waiting the 3-4 hours it will take for your pie to cool completely to room temperature before digging in.
Step 9: Serving Suggestions
That's it: you should have a nice, tasty, sweet-but-not-too-sweet maple pecan pie. I like this served at room temperature or warmed slightly, with whipped cream. A scoop of good ice cream would also work nicely, and a little drizzle of chocolate sauce wouldn't be entirely out of place, either.