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Lev’s aunt lived in nearby Rockport, and whenever she came to see us, she brought two pecan pies and an old-fashioned date cake. Her pie recipe is the best I’ve ever had, rich and custardy, with more butter and eggs than most. It calls for a full cup of butter, four times the typical recipe. Oddly, my daughter-in-law makes a better pie than I. When I try to add an extra stick of butter, excess butter floats to the top and congeals. What you see below is the modified recipe that I baked this week. While many use chopped pecans, I think pecan halves make a prettier pie. I also incorporated two of my mother’s tricks. Most recipes call for sprinkling pecans on top the custard. By putting them in the bottom and letting them float to the top, they are glazed and less likely to burn. Mama also taught me to use either white Karo/brown sugar or vice versa. In shopping last week, all the white Karo said things like “light” and “vanilla added,” changes that I thought might affect flavor; so I opted for dark Karo. My pies are as delicious as usual. I don’t like pecan pie after it has been refrigerated. I think the crust survives freezing better.

Big Sister’s Pecan Pie

1 unbaked pie crust
1 cup+ pecans
½ cup butter, melted
1 cup each light brown sugar and white Karo
1 cup each granulated sugar and dark Karo
3 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch pie pan with pie crust. Spread pecans to cover the bottom of the pan. Cream butter and sugar together in your mixer. Add Karo, eggs and vanilla. Beat until smooth at medium speed. Pour the mixture into the pie pan. Lightly rap the bottom of the pie pan against the kitchen counter to level the filling.

pecan pie with foilAfter 50 minutes, check to see if pie is done. If knife inserted in center does not come out clean, cover the edge of the crust with foil and continue to bake another 10–15 minutes. Allow to cool; then serve at room temperature. This pie freezes beautifully; so I generally double the recipe.

Mincemeat Pie

I am one of the few people I know who loves mincemeat pie—just once a year, at Christmas; but it is my favorite Christmas taste and scent. And I still like to make it with the old Borden’s Nonesuch dry mincemeat, which I doctor, rather than Nonesuch in a jar. In my young, Julia Child-wannabe days, I made mincemeat from scratch twice—once the real thing with suet from the butcher, once with hard cooking pears picked at the family ranch in the Hill Country. Both were good but not worth the trouble. I settled on the following version 30 years ago.

2 unbaked pie crusts
1 box dry Borden’s Nonesuch mincemeat
1½ cups water
1 tart red apple, chopped
½ cup chopped pecans
1 tablespoon brandy or dark rum (optional)

Place rack on the lowest level of your oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Line a 9-inch pie pan with a pie crust. I usually roll out the second crust and use a small star cookie cutter to cut two or three stars in the crust. Then I place the star cutouts on top the crust, using a little milk as the glue to hold the two layers of pastry together.

mincemeatFollow directions on the Nonesuch box, crumbling the mincemeat in a 3-quart saucepan and adding 1½ cups water. Add chopped apples and pecans and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir frequently until apples cook down and the mixture appears thick and well blended, the apples dark and well cooked. Add a tablespoon of rum or brandy. Pour the mincemeat into the pie shell; then top with the second crust. Slit the crust if you didn’t do cutouts. Brush the crust with milk and sprinkle with sugar if desired. Bake on bottom rack of oven for 25–30 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Serve warm with hard sauce or whipped cream, preferably flavored with the same brandy or rum used in the mincemeat. Vanilla ice cream on hot pie would also be good.

To make ahead, prepare mincemeat as described and refrigerate until time to pour into pie shell and bake. Nothing smells better than a mincemeat pie baking in the oven while you’re eating dinner.

Notes: While I don’t like frozen pie crusts, I think Pillsbury refrigerated crusts—two to a box and you roll them out into the pie pan—are as good as anything I can make. Pies are quick and simple to make; pie crust is not.

A few years ago, I discovered Calvados, the very elegant French apple brandy with a fruity flavor. Since I am not a brandy lover, I now use Calvados in virtually every recipe that specifies liquor or liqueur. A lesson I learned from Julia Child: Don’t buy cheap brandy and liqueurs. The alcohol evaporates in cooking, so all that is left is the fruit. Quality matters. I never buy cheap U.S. copies sold in pint bottles.

For years I have ordered all my pecans from Priester’s, in Alabama—3-pound bags of giant halves, pieces and salted. They keep well in the freezer and generally last for two Christmases with no deterioration of flavor. 

My favorite Christmas pie plates—I have five—are by Emile Henry, a little larger and deeper than a standard 9-inch pie pan, usually requiring slight adjustments of filling and cooking time.