The fourth Thursday in November comes early this year. With only three weeks to get ready for Thanksgiving, that can put a lot of pressure on those who rightly consider the holiday their biggest home cooking occasion of the year.
Let me help you take a major step in your planning by solving the question of what to serve for dessert by sharing this classic Spago version of an all-time holiday favorite: pecan pie.
Many people who have tried this version tell me it's the best pecan pie they've ever tasted. But, when you bake it and take a bite yourself, you will probably note that there's nothing too out-of-the-ordinary about it. No chocolate chunks or drizzle, no added spices, not even any of the flecks of bacon that seem to find their way into even sweet recipes these days. It's a straightforward pecan pie.
So, what makes the pie so memorable? Like any really good cooking, it is quality results from an accumulation of small details that all add up to a big, noticeable difference.
Let's start with the pie pastry. I start by making my own rather than using something store-bought. I like to use what the French call pate sucree, which translates simply as "sugar dough," a very basic pastry that takes just minutes to prepare in a food processor and bakes up especially sweet and crisp.
Then there's the filling. Instead of using vanilla extract to flavor the syrupy mixture that typically binds the pecans together, I start with a whole vanilla bean, scraping its tiny seeds into butter that I melt and brown to enhance the nutty flavor. For the same reason, I also like to add a spoonful of Frangelico, a widely available hazelnut liqueur, which also emphasizes the nuttiness. And I'm proud to say I include just about as many nuts as can fit into the pastry shell; a full pound of them -- both a base of chopped pecans and then concentric circles of pecan halves. You won't find a thin layer of nuts sitting atop a thick layer of syrup in this pecan pie!
You'll also notice that I bake the pie in a tart pan with a removable bottom, available in any well-stocked kitchen supply store or online, rather than a pie pan. That ensures that the filling has an even thickness right up to the edges, for more uniform baking.
You may be tempted to give the recipe a try now, three weeks before Thanksgiving. Go ahead! You'll probably want to make it again and again, all the way through the holiday season.
Makes one 9-inch (22.5-cm) pie, serves 8
1 pound (500 g) sugar dough (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra for coating the tart pan
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise
1 1/3 cups (335 mL) light corn syrup
2/3 cup (185 mL) packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon Frangelico or brandy
1/4 pound (125 g) chopped pecans
3/4 pound (375 g) pecan halves
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Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving
Position the rack in the center of the oven. Preheat to 375 F (190 C). Meanwhile, lightly but evenly rub the inside of a 9-inch (22.5-cm) tart pan with removable bottom with some butter, or coat with nonstick spray.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the sugar dough into a circle 11 inches (27.5-cm) in diameter. Loosely roll it up on the rolling pin, then unroll over the tart pan, pressing the dough into the pan. With the tip of a knife, carefully trim the edges. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
For the filling, put 3 tablespoons butter in a small skillet. With the back edge of a knife, carefully scrape the seeds from each vanilla bean half; add the pod halves and scrapings to the skillet. Cook over medium heat until the butter turns golden brown and smells nutty, about 5 minutes, taking care not to let the butter burn.
Scrape the melted butter into a medium mixing bowl; remove and discard the vanilla pod. Add the corn syrup, sugar, whole egg and yolks, and liqueur. Whisk until well combined. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
To assemble the pie, place the prepared shell on a baking tray. Spread the chopped pecans over the bottom. Carefully arrange the pecan halves on top, rounded sides up, in concentric circles, starting along the outer edge. Evenly ladle the filling over the nuts, to reach the top of the shell.
Place the baking tray in the oven and bake until the filling feels firm when lightly, quickly touched and the edges of the pastry are deep golden brown, 55 to 60 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool for about 20 minutes.
To unmold, use the back of a spoon or a knife to tap all around the side of the tart pan. Place the pan on top of a wide-mouthed jar or can narrower than the pan. Gently free the outer ring, letting it slip down the side of the jar. Return the pie to the rack to cool completely.
Use a sharp knife to cut into wedges. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.
Makes 1 1/2 pounds (1.5 kg)
2 1/3 cups (585 mL) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (85 mL) granulated sugar
1/2 pound (250 g) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
2 large egg yolks
1 to 2 tablespoons heavy cream
In a food processor with the stainless-steel blade, combine the flour and sugar, and pulse on and off once or twice. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles fine meal.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and 1 tablespoon of cream. Scrape into the processor bowl and process until a ball begins to form, adding additional cream as necessary to bring the dough together.
Carefully remove from the processor bowl and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or up to 24 hours. Store any unused dough wrapped airtight in the freezer, thawing overnight in the refrigerator before use(c) 2017 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.