Sure, we had pecans back when I was living in Ohio. Except we we called them “peh-kahns.” Here in the South, pecan trees are common. Only we pronounce it “pea-cans” and those nuts are serious business. Especially when cooked up in something sticky like a luscious pecan pie.
The pecan tree is the only commercially commonplace tree nut indigenous to North America. Its name comes from an Algonquin Native American word referring to any nut that requires a stone to crack. They grow abundantly in the Midwest as well as the South, but are usually associated with Southern culture. This most certainly has less to do with its cultivation than its use in culinary pursuits.
This time of year, with the harvest in full swing and the holidays fast approaching, pecans are found at every turn. Toasted, salted, spiced or candied. Found in brittle, topping sticky buns or in New Orleans pralines, we do love our pecans however you want to use them. But perhaps best of all is that glorious Southern staple, pecan pie.
So ingrained in the culture is this gooey sugar and nut delight, one might presume it dates back to the early colonials. The colonists were certainly familiar with the pecan, having been introduced to it by the Native Americans, who were the first to cultivate it as a valued food source. Yet while it is possible, if not likely, that colonists used pecans in the occasional sorghum or sugar pie, the now traditional pecan pie is generally considered a 20th century creation.
It is likely we have the good people at the Corn Products Refining Company of New York and Chicago to thank for that. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, their signature product might. In 1902, Karo Syrup was introduced to the market.
Nearly all recipes for pecan pie call for this sticky liquid sweetener, derived from processing fresh corn. Until it was packaged and sold to the American public, sweetening syrups were stocked by grocers in large barrels, from which consumers would fill a jug or other container brought from home to be replenished.
A few recipes for pecan pie appeared in those early years, but when the wife of a Karo sales executive presented a recipe to the company, the blend of brown sugar, eggs, pecans and Karo syrup hit the big time. A modern classic was born.
Southern culture has never been sweeter.
9” pie shell
6 tablespoons butter
1 cup brown sugar
¾ cup Karo syrup
½ teaspoon salt
Zest of 1 orange
2 cups toasted pecans, chopped
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Bake the empty pie shell at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake 15 minutes more. Remove from oven and set aside.
Bring butter, brown sugar, Karo syrup and salt to full boil in a heavy saucepan, then remove from heat.
Stir in pecans, zest and vanilla extract and let rest 5 minutes.
Beat eggs lightly, then stir into pecan filling.
Pour filling into pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until center is firm.
Cool before serving.