Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings authored the book The Yearling in 1938, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize a year later. I know about Ms. Rawlings work, not because I read her acclaimed novel, but from a movie called Cross Creek that is based on her time spent in The Everglades working on the manuscript. I have seen this movie a dozen times, and while The Yearling never captured my interest, the writer’s cooking very much did. In several scenes Mary Steenburgen, who plays Rawlings, is either baking or serving one of her famous desserts. It was enough to catch my attention and lead me down a search for the Cross Creek Cookery book, the one Rawlings publication I do own.
The cookbook doesn’t disappoint and all of the author’s recipes, most importantly her Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie that is featured prominently in the movie, are described in detail. For many years I was convinced that Ms. Rawlings version of this classic dessert was the best I would come across and it became my bench mark recipe. Then as my palate evolved and I became more interested in natural ingredients, I started to nix corn syrup from just about anything I ate. I appreciate the purity in flavor of sugars that are less refined. In the case of pecan pie, the flavor profile ideally combines a roasted pecan taste with butterscotch, butter, vanilla and caramel notes. Maple syrup is perfectly compatible with this lineup, but it tends to be thinner in texture and makes for a difficult pie filling.
Lucky for me, my friends at America’s Test Kitchen were willing to get their hands dirty and figure out a way to make it work. The new recipe elevates this classic Southern pie into everything it was meant to be. Its barely set custard has a velvety texture, unlike the typical curdled consistency of the traditional version. The maple syrup, brown sugar and vanilla harmonize to create complex flavors of toffee that are as rich as they are deep. Toasted pecans absorb much of this and become reminiscent of sugary pralines, roasted in a delicious caramel. To enhance these flavors, I added a splash of dark rum and bittersweet chocolate to my variation which turned the entire confection into a type of sophisticated candy bar. You could only outdo yourself here by serving each wedge of tart with a cordial glass of aged Pedro Ximinez Sherry. It is sweet, sticky and full of its own butterscotch notes. If you find this pairing to be too much gilding, by all means just opt for black espresso to cut the sweetness.
*Adapted from “Old Fashioned Pecan Pie” from The Best of America’s Test Kitchen 2011
1 C maple syrup
1 C dark brown sugar
1/2 C heavy cream
1 Tbsp molasses
4 Tbsp salted butter, cut into small pieces
6 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp dark rum
1.5 C toasted pecans
1/2 C bittersweet chocolate chips
1 recipe single-crust pie dough, rolled and shaped into a 9 inch, deep tart pan
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Heat the sugar, syrup, cream and molasses in a saucepan over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes. Whisk in the butter and then gradually beat in the egg yolks anbd rum. Scatter the pecans over the unbaked pie shell and carefully pour the filling over. Gently dot the top with the chocolate. Place the pie in the oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 325. Bake until the filling is set and the center jiggles slightly, 45 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven then allow to cool at room temperature for 1 hour. Refrigerate the tart for another 3 hours to set completely before serving.