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A classic pie theme and its variations

Pecan pie Pecan pie at Sweet Sue's Bakery & Cafe in Arlington. (Dominic Chavez / Globe staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Lisė Stern
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2007

For my adult life, our Thanksgiving pie - pecan - has been made by my Aunt Raya. It turns out that she is not the source of our tradition, however. My mother is responsible for it.

"Actually," she told me recently, "I started that tradition during the Johnson administration." (I grew up in Washington, D.C., where people chronicle time by presidents.) My mother elaborated, "The Washington Post had an interview with Lady Bird Johnson, and she gave her recipe for pecan pie." My mother had grown up in upstate New York, far from the pecan groves of the South, and had never heard of the concoction. She was intrigued and tried the recipe. And so, I learned, our family adopted Lady Bird's ritual dessert.

This time of year, most bakeries are turning out pecan pies because everyone seems to love the toasty nuts in a caramel-y sweetness. Pecan pie consists of five basic ingredients besides the crust: pecans, corn syrup, sugar, eggs, and butter or margarine. (Karo corn syrup is credited with creating the first pecan pie, in the 1930s.) But then the debate ensues: Light or dark corn syrup? White or brown sugar? Pecan halves or chopped nuts?

Judy Rosenberg, owner of Rosie's Bakery, has been making the pie for years. "I had a friend in Cambridge who loved pecan pie, so we used to make pecan pie together in my pre-bakery days," she says.

She favors dark corn syrup, as does Brad Brown of Blue Frog Bakery. "I think it makes it a little less sweet," says Brown. But Sue Watts of Sweet Sue's and Judy Fersh of Concord Teacakes disagree. Both prefer light corn syrup for the same reason. "It doesn't seem as sweet as dark," says Fersh. "It makes a lighter pie, not as caramelized," says Watts, "I think you taste the pecans and not all that sugar."

The four bakers also vary on their choice of sugar. They all agree that you have to be generous with the pecans. As Fersh says, what makes a great pecan pie is "lots and lots of pecans." Fersh prefers chopped pecans. "We used to use whole pecans, but it made such a mess when you cut it," she says.

Watts of Sweet Sue's says, "I like a big nutty taste." So she uses pecan halves.

Rosenberg advises that a long cooking time brings out the flavor of the nuts. "I think it's very important that the pie is cooked long enough that pecans be crunchy," she says. "They need to be crunchy, you should not bite into pecan pie and have pecans be soft. They need that caramelized texture."

The quality of the pecans matters. For all her pecan pie-making life, my aunt has used pecan halves from Sunnyland Farms in Georgia, which she says are larger and fresher tasting.

My aunt's recipe started with considerable research, but then necessity became the mother of invention. "I looked through all my cookbooks," she says, "And then I looked in my cupboards. I didn't have all the ingredients that the recipes suggested, so I kind of made it up with what I had." Her pie calls for both light and dark corn syrup and white and brown sugar, and she flavors it with rum. She says, "It was, I thought, better than any of the ones I had before. The amazing thing is that I wrote it down."

Her recipe makes two pies. She says that's enough to serve "16 polite people, and 12 people who really love pecan pie."

Blue Frog Bakery 3 Green St., Jamaica Plain, 617-983-3765; blue frogbakery.com (a 9-inch pecan pie is $18; an 8-inch pecan tart is $14).

Concord Teacakes 59 Commonwealth Ave., Concord, 978-369-7644; concordteacakes.com (an 8-inch pecan pie is $12.95).

Rosie's Bakery Locations in Boston, Cambridge, Newton, and Wellesley; rosiesbakery.com (a 6-inch pecan pie $12.95; a 9-inch pecan pie $19.95).

Sweet Sue's Bakery & Cafe 795 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 781-646-1118; sweetsuesbakery .com (a 10-inch pecan pie is $18).

RECIPE

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