We may never agree on how to properly pronounce p-e-c-a-n. but 90% of us agree it doesn’t matter what you call it, we love the pie! The other 10% are on a perpetual diet and won’t eat anything that has over two calories in it.
My family probably falls into the puh-con category, but we still had some pretty good pe-can/ pe-con/ puh-con pie bakers. Whatever it was called, we always went back for seconds.
Actually, a pecan pie is a pretty simple thing to make. You beat up some eggs, stir in sugar, melted butter, syrup, and vanilla, pour it into a pie crust, top with lots of pecan halves, bake it until the filling is firm, let it cool and serve.
That’s your basic pecan pie recipe and, although everyone seems to have their own version, none of them requires a degree from a culinary school to make.
Despite the simplicity, pecan pie is the one you’re most likely to mess up. Even experienced cooks will sometimes forget an ingredient, add too much or too little, or overbake or underbake it. It’s one of those recipes that is so simple and made so often, that mistakes easily occur through distraction or over-familiarity.
I definitely am not an excellent or even a reliable average cook. Sometimes things turn out to be really good and other times the same dish might be a disaster. My cousin Gloria always liked to watch me cook. She said the preparation of each meal was an adventure when I was the one wielding the pots and pans.
Unfortunately, she was more often right than not as I was (and still am) a rather slap-dash cook. If I don’t have an ingredient, I’ll come up with a more or less acceptable substitute; or I’ll simply decide that one uncalled-for ingredient or another that I find on my spice shelf might add an extra bit of flavor and add it to the mix. I’m also not one for always using precise measurements usually going with the ‘close enough’ formula of a pinch of this or a small (or large) handful of something, depending on how well I like it.
I’m also big on using leftovers and mixing odds and ends from former meals together. I’m sure the French have a fancy name for it, but I just call it COTRS ‘Cleaning Out The Refrigerator Special.’ Sometimes it works and sometimes I simply give it to the dog or toss the entire mess down the garbage disposal.
I believe, though it has not been validated by scientific research, that the average American garbage disposal is fed better than 60% of the rest of the world.
I also confess to sometimes misreading a recipe or simply overlooking a required ingredient. Such was the case one day when I decided a pecan pie (puhcon pie) would make a nice dessert to finish off a meal with a rather mundane main dish.
When Gloria heard my plan, she immediately came into the kitchen to watch, as there was nothing near as entertaining on TV at that time.
I got out my recipe, gathered the ingredients and necessary utensils and set to work with Gloria watching carefully. I preheated the oven, beat the eggs, added the simple ingredients for the filling and poured it into a (store-bought) prepared pie shell, ignoring the horrified sounds of my Auntie’s ghost.
Auntie (Gloria’s mother) had been the family’s most revered cook, an excellent pie crust maker during her life time and her lemon meringue pies were of Academy Award (or Julia Child’s Culinary Award) quality. Even the thought of a store-bought pie crust in her kitchen would scandalize her.
Once, a misguided health-conscious sister-in-law asked her to substitute artificial sweetener for the required sugar in a pie and Auntie looked at her as though she’d been asked to use kerosene instead of freshly squeezed lemon juice for the filling. Needless to say, the sister-in-law was banished from the kitchen and real cane sugar was used as always.
Anyway, I poured my filling into the pie shell, put it in the oven and set the timer. Gloria, in the meantime, had been reading over the recipe, looked up and said, “Did you add the vanilla?”
Vanilla? Well, of course, I had added vanilla!
Then I saw the unopened bottle of vanilla with the measuring teaspoon lying pristinely beside it. I had not added vanilla. I quickly opened the oven door, pulled out the pie, stirred in one teaspoon of vanilla, returned the pie to the oven, shut the door, and said to Gloria, “We don’t talk about this at dinner tonight, okay?”
My vanilla oversight faded into nothing though when compared with the later disaster that occurred when my Aunt Moe was asked to make one of her famous pecan pies while we were visiting Uncle Oren and Aunt May in Shawnee, Kansas.
Aunt Moe agreed to make the pie and asked where the various ingredients were kept. Aunt May, who was known to be a rather scattered homemaker, opened a cabinet revealing several large, glass jars holding various dry baking ingredients. Aunt Moe selected the white sugar along with the bottles of syrup and vanilla, prepared her filling, poured it into the crust and baked it.
That evening everyone was seated around the dinner table and the pie was proudly produced. A large, inviting slice was placed before each eager diner. The looks of anticipation were quickly met with screwed-up faces and napkins hurriedly grabbed to receive the bites of inedible pie.
Investigation showed that Aunt Moe had unknowingly grabbed a jar of salt rather than sugar, as neither was labeled. The pie was thrown away, Aunt May apologized profusely to Aunt Moe who, well-known also for her red-headed Irish temper, fortunately, saw the humor in the situation and dissolved into laughter.
We all finished our meal with bread and homemade strawberry jam for dessert and a story that quickly become part of our family lore.
Janet Douglas is the former managing editor of The Farmington Press and has served as the newspaper’s “”Around Town”” columnist for many years.