The Cook in Me: Don't Get Tart with Me! Alma's Miniature Pecan Pies©
For some reason I associate Pecans with the holidays. I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps because Santa always left whole nuts (Hazelnuts, Walnuts, Brazil Nuts, Almonds, and Pecans) in our Stockings when I was a little girl, and Pecans were my favorite. Maybe it is because when I held those Pecans I liked feeling the smooth texture of their shells. Or it could be that as I grew older and Thanksgiving time drew near, I anticipated the Pecan Pie more than the Pumpkin Pie. And once I started doing my own holiday baking, I found that I preferred the flavor of Pecans in my recipes over any other nut. Granted, some recipes just don't taste right without Walnuts or Hazelnuts; and I love eating Walnuts, Almonds, and Cashews, especially whole. But for baking, Pecans win the prize. And since I do more baking during the month of December than any other month of the year, I purchase more Pecans at that time.
The first year I was married, I was introduced to an entirely new world of what I classify simply as "Christmas Cookies." I was familiar with the cookies my Mother and Grandmothers made as they rarely varied their selections from year to year. Once in a while my Mother tried a new recipe that she saw in a magazine or was given by a friend. But there was no guarantee that we'd see it again the next year. So when I was invited to do Christmas Cookie baking with my Mother-in-Law (Alma) and her mother (Annie), I jumped at the chance to learn some new recipes. In my opinion, baking Christmas Cookies is one of those comforting activities that really help get you in the Christmas spirit. I always have the Christmas Tree and decorations up by then so before I get started I make sure the tree is lit and the Christmas Carols are playing. If I have a fireplace, I start a fire, then turn on the oven, pull out the butter, sugar, flour, eggs and pecans and open my recipe file to begin. Both Alma and Annie were of pure German descent, so I assumed that the cookies we were going to make were from German recipes. But that was not so. I found that some were English, some American, and there was even one that I recently learned was a popular Danish Christmas Cut-out Cookie. And many of them called for Pecans!
Each type of cookie has its own flavor and attributes, so I can't really say that I have a favorite. I make the ones that my family expects to see from year to year and always throw in a few new ones for variety. If my family really likes the new ones, I'll add them to the list for the following year. I make cookies that have been in my family for generations, and I add the ones that I made with Alma and Annie that first Christmas. So that we have a larger selection, I tend to make the ones that are not as labor intensive and yield a good number of cookies rather than the more time-consuming varieties. I don't make nearly as many cookies as my Mother made when I was growing up. My family is not as large, and storage is a problem. My Mother did not work outside our home until I was in college, so she had more time to devote to her holiday baking than I do. My Mother also had 8 willing little hands to help her (probably more than she really wanted at times), whereas once my two boys reached a certain age, they had no interest in Christmas Cookie baking. They did, however, like the fact that during December there was almost always something baking when they arrived home from school, and after I started working, while they were doing their homework at the kitchen table in the evening. When I took a few days' vacation time right before Christmas to finish all the baking, our kitchen looked like a bakery and smelled heavenly. Today both my sons enjoy baking Christmas Cookies, and I have passed my Mother's, Alma's and Annie's recipes on to them. I know that whether I'm making a recipe that was my Mother's, Alma's or Annie's, I am drawn back to my childhood and young adult years and the times we shared when we gathered together for baking days. I remember my boys in their playpens watching the baking activity in wide-eyed amazement as we produced batch after batch of the delicious treats. And I long to return to the years when they stood on stools helping me make and decorate their favorite cut-out varieties. Those are an integral part of my Christmas memories and I treasure them.
Today I'm sharing Alma's recipe for Miniature Pecan Pies. I've seen them called Pecan Tarts and Pecan Tassies, but regardless of the name I think they are all pretty much the same. The first time I had one of these flaky crusted sweet treats I remember thinking that it was wonderful that the essence of Pecan Pie was captured in a two-bite treat. It was also wonderful that they had fewer calories and were not as sweet as an entire piece of Pecan Pie. When we baked these for the first time in 1972 and for many years thereafter, I never saw anything like them in bakeries, stores or specialty food shops. I didn't even know anyone who had a similar recipe. Then in the 1980s they began springing up everywhere. I don't know if those other recipes are similar, because I've never really checked. This recipe has a cream cheese crust which I like because I believe it is flakier than a regular pie crust and easier to handle in small pieces. I have always used Alma's recipe. In fact, I have used it so much that the ink has faded on the index card where I wrote the recipe forty years ago this year. And the words have smeared from butter and filling smudges. But It doesn't really matter since I long ago memorized all the ingredients. Just in case, I recorded it on my computer so that my Grandchildren will have it even when my memory starts diminishing more than it has already.
I have a few suggestions for you about your technique for this recipe. First, don't make the crust or shell too thick. You should have no trouble achieving the indicated yield if you stick to a crust that isn't too thick. When the crust is too thick, the bottoms will not bake thoroughly in the stated baking time and the bottom crust will be pasty and slimy. If you extend the baking time, the tops will become too brown or will burn.
Second, there is now a kitchen tool available for forming the crust in the miniature muffin tins, whereas for many years I formed them by hand. I purchased my miniature-tart shaper from The Pampered Chef® (www.pamperedchef.com), although I am sure you can find them in other stores that carry baking and pastry utensils. (See Fig. 2) It is an invaluable tool. You can still make them by hand, but you will achieve a more uniform end product and save yourself unnecessary grief, time and elbow grease by using a tool like this.
My third suggestion is critical for achieving a beautiful little pastry and a perfect tasting miniature pie. Do NOT mix the filling with a mixer. When you use a mixer (stand, hand or egg-beater) the filling forms tiny air bubbles. Then, when the filling is poured into the crust, although it may look like it is full, in reality it is mostly air, not filling. It's sort of the "soda pop in a Styrofoam cup effect." There are lots of bubbles at the top of the cup, but not much soda below. The same principle applies here; when you fill the crust up with the filling, most of it is only air bubbles. Then when you bite into the pastry, there will be a "sinkhole" between the crusty looking top and the actual filling. All those air bubbles pop during the baking process, and the filling shrinks, leaving the crusted foam on the top. It does not give you the desired result of scrumptious little pecan pies but rather leaves the filling with a gritty taste. You can see from Fig. 3 above how the top is foamy looking and the filling has shrunk.
Fourth, there is an art to putting the right amount of filling into each crust. (See Fig. 2) When the little pies are finished baking, you should be able to easily remove each little pie from the tin. If you overfill the crust, the filling will run over and cause the little pie to stick to the tin; it may even burn. You will end up digging its crumbling goodness out of the tin with a knife. Fill the crust to a point just below the rolled top of the crust. Each pastry should then easily release easily from its cup. I have never used non-stick cooking spray in the tins, and if the crusts are filled properly you shouldn't have to either.
Finally, if you seem to be running out of filling before you have filled all the crusts, simply add a little more melted butter, vanilla and dark corn syrup to the remaining filling mixture.You will not be able to tell the difference in the finished miniature pies.
These really are a breeze to make if you follow through with my suggestions. And don't think they are reserved just for holiday treats. I make them all year round. They travel well to picnics, potlucks and just about anywhere. I can guarantee they will be a hit where ever you serve them. I hope you will give them a try if you've never before made them. I think you'll be glad you did.
©2012, 2013 The Cook in Me: Don't Get Tart with Me! by Kathy Striggow
This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author.
Alma's Miniature Pecan Pies
- 8 ounces Cream Cheese, softened
- 1 cup Butter, at room temperature
- 2-1/4 cups All-Purpose Flour
- 3 cups Light Brown Sugar, firmly packed
- 4 Large Eggs (make sure they are at least LARGE, as many eggs today are labeled large but in actuality are medium)
- 2 Tbsps. Unsalted Butter, melted
- 1 tsp. Vanilla Extract
- 1 Tbsp. Flour
- 2 cups Pecans, halved or chopped into course pieces (your preference)
- Confectioners' Sugar, for dusting
- Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, or an electric hand mixer, cream together the butter and cream cheese.
- Add the flour and mix on low until all the flour is incorporated.
- Cover and refrigerate for about an hour or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Roll the dough into large walnut-sized balls.
- Place the balls into miniature muffin tins and working one at a time, press the ball down in the center with a mini-tart shaper. Or, if you don't have one, flatten the ball in the palm of your hand until it is large enough to fit in a muffin cup.
- Gently press the dough into the muffin cup and either roll the top edge or pinch the top to create a fluted edge.
- Repeat with the remaining balls.
- Blend together the brown sugar, eggs, melted butter, vanilla, flour and pecans. Pour evenly into the crusts.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the tops are set.
- Cool for a few minutes in the muffin tins and then remove to a cooling rack to cool completely.
- Dust with confectioners' sugar before serving.
- Store the miniature pies in an airtight container.
©2012 The Cook in Me: Don't Get Tart with Me! Alma's Miniature Pecan Pies by Kathy Striggow