Pecan Pie

 

Homemade Pecan Pie on the left, Marie Callender's frozen Southern Pecan Pie on the right

Homemade Pecan Pie on the left, Marie Callender’s frozen Southern Pecan Pie on the right

Pecan Pie is one dish that I look forward to eating all year long and, despite trying many versions of this Autumn classic, the traditional, basic Pecan Pie is still the best. The combination of syrupy, caramely custard and crunchy toasted pecans is unbeatable and surprisingly easy to make from scratch. But even the most undemanding of culinary tasks can be a burden on a holiday like Thanksgiving that is centered on one large, elaborate meal. So it is possible to cut corners by buying a frozen pie and still satisfy all the pie-lovers at your Thanksgiving table? We did a taste-test to find out. I decided to only compare homemade pie to a frozen, reheated version because I’ve already tried pecan pies from grocery store bakeries and knew that they grossed me out. The filling in grocery store bakery pecan pies is always too thick and gooey and the crust crumbly and bland. But I have actually used Marie Callender’s frozen pie crusts in the past and found them pleasingly flaky and buttery so I wondered if their frozen pies would also measure up favorably. My recipe for homemade Traditional Pecan Pie is adapted from the recipe found on the side of jars of Karo dark corn syrup. I followed that recipe faithfully for many years but I’ve made some tweaks here and there that I think give the pie a richer flavor. Here’s my favorite Thanksgiving pie recipe, followed by the results of our pie comparison:

 

Ingredients for Pecan Pie filling

Traditional Pecan Pie

Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: About 8 servings

Traditional Pecan Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dark corn syrup
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon maple flavoring
  • 8 ounces pecan halves
  • 1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust (recipe follows)
  • Freshly whipped cream for serving
  1. Preheat oven to 350º. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the corn syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla and maple flavoring until well combined. Add the pecan halves and stir with a wooden spoon just until they are coated with some of the corn syrup mixture.
  2. Pour the pecan mixture into the unbaked pie shell and bake in the preheated oven until pecan filling is set and crust is well-browned, about 1 hour. After pie has cooked for 30 minutes, check frequently to make sure the crust is not getting too brown. If the crust seems to be browning too quickly, cover it with a pie crust shield or tin foil to prevent burning.
  3. Once filling seems set and does not jiggle when shaken, remove the pie to a cooling rack and allow to cool 1 hour before serving. If not serving immediately, store the pie in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Cover with foil and reheat in a 350º oven for 15 minutes before serving.
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Shortening Pie Crust (for a single crust pie)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for flouring the counter and rolling pin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/3 cup shortening
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons ice water
  1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour and salt. Cut in the shortening using a pastry cutter or two forks, until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the ice water, 2 Tablespoons at a time, and mix lightly with a wooden spoon, just until the dough begins to come together. Too much water will make the crust tough, too little water will make it crumbly.
  2. Dump the crust dough out onto a lightly floured surface (preferably a wooden board, I find pie crust sticks less to a wooden surface). Form the dough together into a ball with your hands. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the crust out into a 12-inch round circle. You may need to lift the dough up carefully periodically and lightly flour under it, if it seems to be starting to stick to the board.
  3. Once the dough is formed into a 12-inch wide circle, carefully fold it in half and transfer the crust to a 9-inch pie plate. Unfold the crust so that it covers the pie plate and gently press it into down to line the pie plate completely. Using your fingers, crimp the edge of the dough, trimming the excess dough off with a sharp knife as you go. Bake as directed in the recipe you are using.
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Marie Callender's frozen Southern Pecan Pie

For the pie taste test, I served the homemade pie still a bit warm and warmed up the frozen pie for 15 minutes in the oven, as directed on the box. We first did a blind taste test of the two pie fillings, without any of the crust because the obviously machine-crimped edge of the frozen pie crust was a huge giveaway, and I wanted to get everyone’s unbiased opinion about the filling. All the testers unanimously and immediately preferred the homemade pie filling. The frozen pie filling was referred to as “gloppy” and “too thick” while the pecans were chewy and had no flavor. The homemade filling, in contrast, was buttery and rich with crunchy pecans. The homemade crust was noticeably more tender and flaky than the frozen, but the real difference that people commented on were in the quality of the pie filling.

The two pies were surprisingly close in price. When made with a homemade crust, the homemade pie came out a little cheaper at about $8.65 while the frozen Marie Callender’s pie cost $8.99. Also, the homemade pie was a little deeper and larger than the frozen pie and would probably serve about 2 more people, so it comes out ahead in price. Of course, there is no beating a frozen pie for convenience. Just pop it in the oven for a few minutes and you’ve got a piping hot dessert with little work. In this case though, the extra work of making a pie from scratch is really worth the effort. As I’ve said before, making pie crust from scratch is probably one of the hardest tasks that a home cook faces and it takes years of practice to get it just right. So, if you’re not a pie crust expert, making the pecan pie filling from scratch and baking it in a pre-made crust is still infinitely preferable to the frozen version.

Bottom Line:  Making a Pecan Pie from scratch requires some extra time and effort on a day that is already crowded with cooking tasks. However, it is worth every minute of your time as the results are spectacular. A frozen pecan pie is no substitute for the real thing.