Mini Pecan Pies and the Search for the Perfect Crust

First off, April Fool’s. I’ll get that out of the way and then leave the jokes to the jokesters, because there is serious business at hand here: miniature pecan pies with experimental crusts.

I’d been wanting to make a pecan pie for some time, ever since my office got a jar of mixed nuts and I was reminded how delicious pecans are. I’d also been curious if lard makes as good a pie crust as I’d heard, given that I had purchased a bit too much for my carnitas and it was taking up room in the fridge. As I embarked on this project, though, I realized that the group I was making the pie for included one vegetarian. At first, this seemed like a setback, but it was actually a major opportunity for lard crust vs. butter crust: the showdown.

Research

I’ve made many a pie crust in my day, and never with anything but butter, or once Crisco, so this project called for research. I discovered early on that lard vs. butter is not an either/or proposition. Many recipes use both. Here are a few that I found, with their lard:butter ratio. (If you’re going to try one, all noted that you should not use the weird, foil wrapped, shelf-stable lard you can get at the grocery store. What would be a good use for that stuff?)

Ratios and Planning

Planning

My plan was to do all butter, all lard, and a 50-50. Perhaps someday, I can do something as involved as the amazing survey of pie crust fats in this fun article, but I had to start with the basics.

Since I was only making enough crust for one pie, I had to do some ratio figuring. I looked up, for the umpteenth time, how many tablespoons are in a cup (still 16!), saw that most recipes used about 2 1/2 cups flour for about a cup of fat, and took it from there. This could be a much longer post if it covered variables to the perfect pie crust other than fat, so I kept things basic. For each of my crusts, I used 3/4 cup of flour and 4 tablespoons of fat.

Action!

I put the fat in the freezer for a while, then chopped it up and blitzed it in the food processor with the flour. Then I put it on a piece of parchment paper, added a little ice water to get it to form a ball, and put it back on the freezer for a while.

While the doughs were re-chilling, I made the pie filling. That was a whole different round of research, but I settled on pretty much this recipe with some variations. I toasted the pecans on the stovetop, and instead of the corn syrup, I used maple syrup, and instead of the sugar, I used apple sauce. I didn’t want it to be too runny, though, so I wanted to quickly reduce the applesauce. I tried straining, which was not very effective, but microwaving worked pretty well — I just nuked it for a few minutes, stopping now and again to skim off the liquid that rose to the top. It got fairly but not very thick — perhaps next year I should make some unseasoned apple butter for use in baking? That would have been perfect.

I rolled out the doughs between pieces of parchment paper (which I’d never done before, but it was easy to clean up, and very convenient for these mini-crusts) and put them in a foil-lined muffin pan, which is sort of a cross between a mini-tart pan and a muffin pan. Then I put in some chopped toasted pecans in each one and covered with the delicious vanilla-maple-applesauce pie filling and a whole pecan for garnish. Baked at 350 until they were set. (20 minutes? I should really get a kitchen timer.) At the same time, I put a little square of each kind of extra crust in the oven, so I could see the results apart from the pies.

Results

The doughs were very different to work with and produced very different results. Here’s a summary of each.

All Butter: This was the crumbliest to work with, and produced a crunchy, crispy crust that seemed almost cracker-like on its own, especially compared to the other two. It held up well in the pies, even hot out of the oven, and had a pleasant flavor.

All Lard: This was the moistest and most pliable dough, and produced a melt-in-your-mouth crust with a somewhat meaty flavor. I tried to be consistent with my ratios across the doughs, but I ended up adding a few extra tablespoons of flour to this one and barely any water, just so it would act like pie crust dough. The melt-in-your-mouth, airy texture was pleasant on its own, but in the pies it provided no textural contrast to the filling. And the flavor was a little weird.

Half n’ Half: This was my favorite. It had the crunchiness of the butter crust, the airiness of the lard crust, and a barely detectable meatiness when eaten alone that was completely masked by the pecan filling when eaten as part of a pie. Right out of the oven, this crust didn’t provide a lot of textural contrast to the filling, but I found that improved somewhat when cooled.

From Left to Right -- lard, 50-50, and butter

Notes for Next Time

The butter-lard mix is definintely the way to go. My pie crust experimentation hero, author of that New York Times article I mentioned earlier, said she found a butter:lard ratio of 3:7 to be optimal. I will probably try that next time.

I’d also be interested to try other optimizing variations. For instance, I feel like pre-baking the lard crust and mixed crust could have improved their crispiness, but in this experiment, that would have meant over-baking the butter crust since I was doing them all at once.

I’m also curious about whether these fats require slightly different flour:fat ratios. At a glance, there don’t seem to be major variations in the recipes I looked at, but it did seem like the crusts with lard in them could have used more flour. Would that have made them crispier?

Also, my thickened applesauce worked great as a sugar substitute — the filling wasn’t too runny at all. It wasn’t syrupy, like some pecan pie fillings I’ve had, but I think I attribute that to the butter and eggs more than anything. That would have to be another experiment!

I had a very good time with this experiment, so I look forward to more. This may be just what I need to finally purchase Harold McGee’s Science and Lore of Food and Cooking to help me further refine my experimental processes and understand my results in the future.

Special Note: Happy Birthday, Mom!

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