Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Caramelized pecan tart

Pecan.  The way I see it, there are three ways to say this word, and at least one of them is wrong. I say this being a self-proclaimed authority as I'm from Mitchell County, GA, one of the top pecan-producing counties in the entire country. And when the old-timers down there say PEE-KANS, then by God, that's how you say it.  You can say pi-KAHN ("pin" not "pie") if you'd like. Just please don't say PEE-KAHN.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. And if you really like pecans, check out this link to my uncle and cousin's farm. (No disclosures to report.)

From Drop Box

This is a recipe in two parts. One for the crust, and the other for the filling.
I've wrestled with the pastry dough recipe for a few months, and I think I've finally found something that works for me. This is fun recipe because it strings a bunch of techniques together all into one, and I think it helps you become a better cook for other stuff. Here are the rules:

  1. Pie dough should be made with low-gluten flour or else it will be tough and shrink (it shrinks?). Low-gluten flour includes White Lily, Swansdown, and King Arthur cake flour. In general, the further north the flour comes from, the higher the gluten, having something to do with the grain variety and cold weather.
  2. There's a tradeoff between ease of use (Crisco or shortening) and flavor (butter). Butter gets too soft at room temperature or more precisely kitchen temperature, and if it forms a dough paste instead of staying flaky, the game's over.
  3. Acids and sugar make for softer dough because of their interaction with gluten.
  4. Add flavorings to your dough depending on what you're making (eg. cinnamon, nutmeg, grated parmesan, etc.).  Use the microplane grater.
  5. Sugar will set harder the higher the finishing temperature.

Tart-dough (pate sucre) for 10-inch tart pan

300gm low gluten flour
200gm butter (or 50/50 Crisco and butter)
1 tsp of salt
1/4 cup of sugar

Pulse this in the food processor until it looks like oatmeal or at worst coarse, wet sand. You can do this in a large bowl with the pastry blender, but it takes longer, and if it's not going well, you may have to take a break and stick in the freezer. Main thing is not letting the butter melt and form a paste.  Since it's winter time, do it outside.

Add ice water a couple of tbsp at a time until the dough is wet enough to come together. This DOES NOT necessarily mean to pulse it until it forms a ball. Once you can get it together, wrap in plastic wrap, and stick it in the fridge for about 30 minutes. Normally that would be while you're working on your filling, but not this one. After the 30 minutes, take it out of the fridge, and roll to about 1cm or 1/4 inch or so. Blind bake it at around 400F in your tart shell until just brown, don't forget to put parchment paper or foil down with pie weights (pinto beans that you can reuse).


1 1/4 cup of light brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1/2 - 1 cup of water (optional)

Put all of this in at smallest a 2.5 quart saucepan, preferably 3 qt, and heat it until it turns amber and starts to foam a little bit, about 10 minutes.

1 cup heavy cream
1-2 tsp of curry powder (trust me)

You'll need a candy thermometer to do this, or some experience making candy. Add your final ingredients, and bring to high heat. If you have a lot of water in there, it may take longer to get to your target heat.

Here's where you can diverge a little. If you have a candy thermometer, you want the mixture to get to 240F and immediately take off heat. If you don't have a thermometer, you can set up a cup of ice water and intermittently slide a few drops of your candy into the water. It sets immediately, and that's going to be the final consistency. You want caramel (soft ball stage), probably not as chewy as tootsie rolls. Remember, the higher the heat, the harder the candy. Of course you can try this way (from Ian Kelly's biography of Antonin Careme, Cooking for Kings)

  • Freezing his hand first in iced water, Antonin then plunged it straight into the boiling sugar, and back into the cold. A kitchen-boy gasped - Carême's patissier trick never failed to impress. He repeated the process, then took a knife, dipped it into the top of the sugar-lava and then into the cup of water. He brought it straight out, cracking the crystalline sugar clean from the knife and announced in his thick Parisian accent, 'Cassa.' The sugar was cracked and ready to spin. Antonin stood back from the stove with the first spouted pan. He held the base mould at his waist and raised the pan to head height and started to pour. The thread of sugar fell towards the mould, like a perfect skein of hot wax, and Antonin laced it round in one continuous movement.

When you get the consistency you want, act quickly. Pour the caramel into your tart shell, drop some pecan halves in there (about 1/2-3/4 pound). My picture shows a full pound, which is too much.  You can put the pie back into the oven at high temperature for a couple of minutes. What this will do is harden the top of your candy and the exposed pecans. Don't leave it for more than 5 minutes or so. The caramel will continue to cook making it too chewy.

Final notes

  • The curry powder isn't necessary but it adds a nice sharp tang to it, just don't add too much.
  • The salt is in it because most everything needs a little salt to add accent to flavor.  According to Thomas Keller, the only seasoning agents are salt and acid.  Pepper is a flavored spice.
  • You can add water to the caramel mixture as you start to use the "wet method."  This may make it take a little longer to get to your target temperature, but sometimes that extra time is nice.
  • The higher the butter percentage of your pastry dough, the colder it needs to stay.  Shortening is easy to use because it's solid at room or kitchen temperature.  Butter starts to melt at 75 or so.  An average kitchen with an oven on is hotter than that.
  • Blind baking is a useful technique because fillings may frequently finish at a different time than the crust.  Most recipes you can cook filling and crust separately, and put them together at the end.
  • If you don't have brown sugar, you can make caramel with regular granular sugar.  I've made it this way and I used molassess instead of honey.  It's a slightly different flavor profile, but still comes out great.  Brown sugar makes it darker (obviously), but the addition of molasses, corn syrup, or honey adds a non-sucrose sugar to the mixture that helps prevent crystallization.

1 comment:

MAB said...

I'm happy you discussed this pronunciation. I have ALWAYS said PEE-KAN. I had a coworker from Long Island, NY that met me in Montgomery, AL a few years ago for work. One of our contacts, a native Alabaman, told my NY coworker "it's PEE-KAHN, not PEE-KAN." I completely disagreed with the guy, and figured it must be an Alabama thing.