A nut as American as pecan pie

Photo via Wikicommons

Photo via Wikicommons

April might be National Pecan Month, but the nut is most coveted during the winter holiday season, when pecans add crunch to savory side dishes and fill pie crusts across America.

A pecan tree stands next to Mount Vernon, George Washington's home. / Photo from George Washington's Mount Vernon

A pecan tree stands next to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. / Photo from George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Pecans are a natural for Thanksgiving dinner since they are the only major tree nuts indigenous to North America. Native Americans have eaten wild pecans since the 1500s. Colonists began to cultivate pecans in the United States in 1772, when pecan trees were first planted on Long Island. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both planted pecan trees on their estates in the late 1770s. A single pecan tree still stands next to Washington’s mansion at his Mount Vernon estate.

Emily Hilliard, who blogs about pie at Nothing in the House, likes eating pecans raw, in salads, and of course, in pies.

“I love any pie with pecans: sweet potato or pumpkin with a pecan crumble, peach pecan, Derby pie, and just plain ol’ pecan,” Hilliard says.

Pecan pie is an American favorite. / Photo courtesy of National Pecan Shellers Association

Pecan pie is an American favorite. / Photo courtesy of National Pecan Shellers Association

The exact origins of pecan pie are uncertain, but it is likely a late 19th-century invention. Pecan pie is commonly made with corn syrup, but modern bakers sometimes substitute maple syrup, molasses or brown sugar. Hilliard says that brown sugar adds a much richer flavor to the pie.

The United States produces approximately 80 percent of the world’s pecans. According to a 2008 survey by the American Pie Council, pecan pie is America’s third favorite pie, after apple and pumpkin. Approximately 12 percent of Americans name the pie as their favorite.

The pecan is nationally popular, but pecan production primarily takes places in the southeastern and southwestern United States. Cities in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas host pecan festivals each year. Georgia is the largest producer of pecans in the country.

Albany, Ga.,is the site of more than 600,000 pecan trees, making it the pecan capital of the United States and the world, according to the National Pecan Shellers Association. That title is, however, hotly contested.

The city of Baconton, Ga., is one of several to call itself the pecan capital. / Photo from cityofbacontonga.com

The city of Baconton, Ga., is one of several to call itself the pecan capital. / Photo from cityofbacontonga.com

Just 20 miles south of Albany, the tiny town of Baconton, Ga., – population 915 – celebrates the nut at the annual Pecan Harvest Festival, which usually takes place the weekend before Thanksgiving. The two-day festival, which includes a parade, live music and a pecan-cracking contest, dates back to 1975. The town claims the title of pecan capital because it originated paper-shell pecans, which have an especially soft shell, making them easier to crack.
The city of San Saba, Texas, also calls itself the pecan capital of the world. Edmond E. Risien, a resident of the city during the late 1800s, produced several unusual varieties of pecans, including San Saba Improved, Texas Prolific and Western Schley. Many San Saba pecan varieties come from the same source: a 200-year-old “Mother Tree” now owned by Risien’s descendants.

Pecans are also popular in other forms. Pecan meal, for example, which is made by grinding toasted pecans to the consistency of corn meal, is a popular topping for fish and chicken. “Pecan-crusted” has become a common phrase on restaurant menus.

As the gluten-free movement surges in popularity, the nut is also finding new life as flour. Pecan flour is slightly richer and darker than other nut flours. The flour is used to make bread and other baked goods.

The quintessential American nut is a delicious addition to both sweet and savory dishes. This Thanksgiving, don’t save pecans for dessert.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Butternut Squash with Onions and Pecans

Pecans aren’t just for pie. This side dish is an excellent addition to any Thanksgiving table. This recipe is adapted from the National Pecan Shellers Association.

Ingredients

  • 6 cups butternut squash, peeled and seeded
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped, toasted
  • 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

Instructions

Dice squash into ½-inch cubes.

In a large skillet, melt butter. Add onion and sauté for about 15 minutes, or until tender. Add squash and toss to coat. Cover and cook until squash is tender, but still holds its shape (about 15 to 30 minutes, stirring frequently).

Stir in half the pecans and half the parsley. Transfer to bowl. Sprinkle with remaining pecans and parsley and serve.

Makes 1 pie

A mixture of brown sugar and butter substitutes for corn syrup in this version of pecan pie. This recipe is adapted from Nothing in the House pie blog.

Ingredients

  • Pie crust, chilled
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar, packed
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter (if using unsalted, salt to taste)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon bourbon (optional)
  • 1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) pecans, halved

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and flour until well mixed. Add the butter and place the pan over medium heat. Stirring constantly, cook until butter is melted and combined with the sugar mixture. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, vanilla and bourbon (if using) until well combined. While gently stirring, slowly pour the warm sugar mixture into the milk mixture. Whisk until all ingredients are incorporated. Pour the filling into the chilled pie crust and scatter the pecans over top.

Place the pie on the bottom shelf of the oven. Bake 40 to 50 minutes until the edges puff and the center is fairly firm, wiggling only a little when you nudge it. Filling will be browned. Let pie cool for at least 30 minutes.

Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with a scoop of bourbon whipped cream.

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One Response to A nut as American as pecan pie

  1. Profile photo of William J Taggart
    William J Taggart December 5, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

    The only indigenous tree nut? What of the Black Walnut?