Butterscotch Pecan Pie

For some reason, my family doesn't like it when I cook our big holiday meals for them. I've decided that I must have made a huge mess in the past, or made something they didn't like, or had some kind of freak out. I love the mess and the fun of complicated holiday recipes, the flour everywhere and hunting around town for the right ingredients. But, if there's anything my family doesn't love, it's going through a ton of trouble. They like simplicity.

To convince them that home-cooked doesn't have to mean complicated, I always feel that I need to make whatever I contribute to the meal look as effortless as possible. Look, I whipped this homemade pie up with no trouble whatsoever! Wouldn't it be nice if we always had homemade pie? IT'S NO TROUBLE, REALLY!

This year, I was assigned the desserts, and I was determined to up the wow factor. I wanted to pull dessert out of a hat, and make it look like, well, a piece of cake. And I had an idea, this Butterscotch Pecan Pie. 

Lifechanging. That's what they called it. Unlike a normal pecan pie, in which you mix corn syrup, eggs, and other stuff with the pecans and then bake the whole mixture, this recipe requires no final baking. You pre-bake the pie shell, and allow it to cool (which can be done the day before, mind you.) Then, you prepare the butterscotch, a magical process in which egg yolks, sugar, and browned butter magically transform into a thick butterscotch custard. (This, too, can be done the day before.) Then, you fold in chopped toasted pecans. (Don't do this the day before, they get soggy!) And spread the filling into the pie shell. It's a totally different, more flavorful, lighter take on pecan pie. 

If you want your dessert to be the hit of the party, make this pie. Also, be sure to use a candy thermometer while you cook the butterscotch. It can be a little tricky to know when it's done the first time you make it. 

Butterscotch Pecan Pie

Adapted from Lidnsey Shere in Chez Panisse Desserts

Ingredients:

  • One 9" pie shell, bought or homemade, fully baked
  • 1 cup milk
  • 5 tbsp unslated butter
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 3/4 tsp vanilla extract (or Scotch, that's what I used)
  • 3 oz (3/4 cup) pecans
  • 1 cup whipping cream (or more, if desired)
  • Powdered sugar to taste (usually 1-2 tbsp)

Instructions:

  1. Warm the milk just until it begins to steam, about 130 F. Be careful: if it gets too hot it will curdle in the sugar mixture. (The first time I made this, I used a candy thermometer just to be safe.)
  2. Brown the butter in a heavy-bottomed non-corroding saucepan, stirring constantly, until it is a very light, golden brown. Remove from the heat and continue stirring as long as it darkens from the heat of the pan. Strain through a fine strainer to remove any brown pieces in the butter. 
  3. Return the butter to the pan and add the sugar, flour, and salt. Heat briefly to warm the mixture again, then whisk in the warmed milk. Whisky the egg yolks lightly and stir in a little of the sugar mixture. Return to the pan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the  mixture is thick enough the hold a shape. The temperature will be about 180F. The mixture will look very lumpy as it begins to thicken but will smooth out when it is finished. Remove from the heat, add the vanilla (or Scotch), and whisk 10-15 times to smooth out the mixture. Do not overbeat or the pie filling will be too thin. Chill, covered tightly. 
  4. Toast the pecans in a preheated 350F oven for about 5 minutes, or until you begin to smell the nuts. Cool them completely. 
  5. When you are ready to assemble the pie, whisk the cooled filling slightly to smooth it out. Chop the pecans and stir them in. (If you'd like, reserve a few chopped or whole pecans for garnishing the top.) Spread the filling into the cooled pie shell. Whip the cream until it just holds a firm shape but is not grainy, and flavor it to taste with sugar and vanilla. Spread it over the filling however you'd like, or pipe it, and garnish with the remaining nuts. 
  6. Chill the pie if you are not serving it immediately, but serve it soon or the crust can get soggy. It's best to assemble it within a few hours of serving it.