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updated: 11/15/2011 9:15 AM

A pecan pie without corn syrup? Oh, my!

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  • Would you believe this pecan pie doesn't have corn syrup in it?

      Would you believe this pecan pie doesn't have corn syrup in it?
    PAUL MICHNA | Staff Photographer


Pies rule the dessert table for Thanksgiving and on this traditional American holiday our tastes fall into three distinct flavor themes; fruity apple, spicy pumpkin and the ultimate sweet dessert … the pecan pie.

I'm an apple pie gal, but my husband counts himself among the pecan pie devotees. To him, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without this sweet and nutty pie on the dessert menu. So you can imagine my husband's panic when I mentioned tinkering with the family pecan pie recipe.

Classic pecan pie would have never blipped on my recipe makeover radar if it wasn't for the current debate regarding possible health concerns from eating food produced with HFCS. All agree on this fact: high fructose corn syrup remains a less expensive alternative to sugar and is widely used in commercial food preparation.

Let me point out that those same health concerns do not apply to straight-up corn syrup (a process changes corn syrup into HFCS making it more sweet), but just the same it got me thinking ... what would pecan pie taste like without light corn syrup?

In addition to providing ultra sweetness, corn syrup smooths the crystal edges of light brown and white sugars in the classic recipe. I quickly realized removing corn syrup from the equation meant more than a simple makeover.

What ingredient could successfully step in for corn syrup in a pecan pie? While honey and pure maple syrup bring a thick flowing sweetness to the recipe, both ingredients boast distinctive flavors and for the amount needed, would cause sticker shock at the cash register. Pecans already carry a pricey tag to this holiday dessert.

After much research on the topic I baked several trial pies using various combinations of light and dark sugars, splashes of maple syrups, molasses and, surprisingly, water. None of these versions passed muster with the husband. Clearly the secret to success lies in creating a pecan pie with a clean sugar taste and smooth texture.

During this testing I began to appreciate the allure of pecan pie with its mild and easy-to-eat nuts gently tossed in a sweet caramel filling. The finished pie resembles a sugar custard, neatly balanced against the savory pecans and buttery crust. That's when I hit upon the solution: brown sugar.

Sideling any liquid sweetener, I turned to light brown sugar to deliver a sweet punch and a subtle caramel background. A small amount of white sugar and a splash of vanilla extract gently boost the clean sweetness for the filling.

To mimic corn syrup's thick texture I beat the eggs and sugars together, then slowly added melted unsalted butter to the mixture. This created a thick batter-style filling unlike the classic corn syrup version. On a whim, I boosted the salt to teaspoon.

This pie baked into great classic pecan flavor; however the texture felt too loose in our mouths. It needed a thickener, but all-purpose flour would cloud the filling. Instead, I stirred 2 teaspoons cornstarch, a clear thickener, into the sugars before adding the eggs and melted butter.

To my surprise, I found a little wiggle room to infuse an interesting flavor into the recipe without setting off the impostor alarms. A splash of brandy (or bourbon if you like) adds savory notes without stealing the spotlight.

Finally, I hit upon success with the family pecan pie critic. This pecan pie recipe preserves holiday traditions and gives bakers a choice of ingredients. Enjoy!

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