Deb Perelman’s 5 “Rather Bossy” Rules for Making an Excellent Pecan Pie

When I ask Deb Perelman about the cookbooks that have inspired her as she set out to write her second cookbook, Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites, she sighs. “Once I start looking through my favorite books, it’s physically painful to not cancel my day and just cook.” Many people might think that’s all Perelman does—leisurely flip though her favorite books, cook all day long—but these days, it’s unlikely that she has the time for that. 

In classic Smitten Kitchen style, the recipes in Smitten Kitchen Every Day are for the kinds of dishes you make once and then suddenly find yourself making again and again. Many of these new recipes are inspired by New York, from the winter slaw with farro inspired by Via Carota in the West Village to Siberian pelmeni from Brighton Beach to the ubiquitous street cart-style chicken and rice, a familiar standby that Perelman somehow manages to improve upon.

But many of these new recipes are also uniquely Perelman’s; they’re born from what happens to a classic dish when she gives it a completely new flavor profile, or starts from a recipe she made and liked but tweaked based on a technique she likes more. There’s also her attempt at recreating a nostalgic memory for a grown-up palate. And all of them are good.

We asked Deb Perelman five questions about her book Smitten Kitchen Every Day, her favorite recipes, and the inspiration behind all these new dishes.

Edible Manhattan: What’s one recipe in the book you think is emblematic of the concept behind Smitten Kitchen Every Day?
Deb Perelman: The kale Caesar salad is a little boring and maybe not the best example, but we make it the most often at home—it’s a house staple. It’s the salad that made my kids like salad. It’s a little fussy: there’s the crumbs, there’s the dressing, the lettuce. But I always just make more of all those things than I need, so when I want to make the salad, all I need to do is go to the store and get kale. In the book I added an egg. At home, I’ll add an egg if it’s my dinner, but mostly we eat it as a side. I had friends over last Friday and I made a triple batch and by the end of the night it was gone. Plus, the dressing is good on everything: I’ve put it on roasted broccoli, carrots—it’s a real workhorse.

EM: What was the first recipe you knew you wanted to include in this book?
DP: The rye English muffins. I wanted English muffins with the flavor of rye, which I really love. But there are so many recipes I knew I wanted in this book: I knew wanted the leek, feta, and greens spiral pie (I love making them and I love eating them) and the artichoke and parmesan galette in there. Sheet pan halloumi roast with eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes was high on the list, because it’s so delicious and I’m always trying to figure out how to make more things with halloumi. The spring fried barley with a sesame sizzled egg was a holdover from my last book that I’ve been thinking about since then. A lot of these recipes have been gnawing at me for a while.

EM: Which recipe was the hardest to get right?
DP: I struggled a lot with the sour cream coffee cake—I made it 17 times—because I knew exactly what I wanted it to be. I had gotten the crumbs right, I had the cake right, but I really wanted it to be an upside-down cake. But I kept finding that it would flatten out. So I tried hard-baking the crumbs, and I tried this and I tried that. All versions were good—there is no bad crumb cake—but I was having structural problems. I finally realized that the cake that inspired this crumb cake (from a bakery where I worked when I was in high school) was probably a good but not amazing cake; I wasn’t going to get it exactly the way I remembered it because the first one probably wasn’t that great, and so I had to just make a decision. I brought two versions uptown to my editor and I said, “Pick one,” and they actually picked the one I liked better. I know that when people make this recipe they’ll be thinking, “What is Deb having me do, this doesn’t make any sense!”—but it does!

EM: What books did you turn to for inspiration in writing this book?
DP: Honestly, I had to stay away from other books while I was writing this, especially if they felt too close to what I was working on. I love cookbooks but it can be deadly for me to open Jerusalem and see a sweet potato tart that looks like the leafy one I want to do. I can get too distracted, or decide a recipe has already been done and then think maybe I shouldn’t make it. But who cares, that’s not what its about. I do Google recipes (and I use Google Books) because I don’t want to think I invented something and then realize it already exists. So if I know where a recipe came from I can mention it or say why my version different, why I’m not making it the way everyone knows it to be.

EM: What’s one cookbook you couldn’t live without?
DP: I couldn’t live without 100 cookbooks. There’s no single book that I could say, “This has changed my life in the way that no other has”—I have at least 12 of those. I have shelves and shelves of books that I really like. But I guess I’d say that if you averaged Barefoot Contessa Parties! with all the books from Moro with Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Suppers, if you mashed those together that could be an answer. I like this one thing from this book and this other thing from another book—my cooking is like that, too: it’s this by way of this by way of this.


Chocolate Pecan Slab Pie

Considering how annoyed I get about fairly inconsequential stuff, such as decorative paper straws (mmm, wet paper fibers), single giant ice cubes in cocktails (that thwack you in the face when you take a sip), or a single granule of playground sandbox matter in my bed (always the bed; always the bed!), I am sure someone finds it illogical that I find it difficult to get worked up about the evils of corn syrup. My gut feeling is that it shows up mostly in things that nobody is eating for underlying health benefits, and that we all understand we’re only supposed to enjoy in moderation (candies, caramels, etc.); shouldn’t that be enough?

What does bother me about it, however, is that it’s just plain bland—it tastes like sweet nothingness, and though I can shrug this off in small quantities, in larger amounts it’s a real bummer. With this in my mind, I went from assuming that everyone who wanted to make pecan pie already had a go-to recipe for it, to creating my own, with as much nuanced, deeply toasted, luxurious flavor as I could pack in there. But first I have five rather bossy rules for making an excellent pecan pie:

  1. Toast your nuts! You must, you must. Untoasted pecans taste sweet but faintly waxy.   Toasted pecans taste like toffeed pecan pie before they even hit the caramel. Just do it.
  2. Dark-brown sugar trumps light-brown: more molasses, more flavor. By the same logic, both maple syrup and golden syrup taste better to me in pecan pie than corn syrup. The latter, a lightly cooked cane sugar syrup from the U.K. that is basically their maple syrup (i.e., beloved on pancakes), does contain a bit more sodium than corn syrup, however, so hold the salt back slightly if you’re using it. (I learned this the hard way.) I have also used honey in the past, but prefer using it for only half the volume of liquid sweetener here; otherwise, I find its flavor takes over.
  3. A tiny bit of cider vinegar (trust me) really helps balance out the aching sweetness of a gooey caramel pie.
  4. Good pecan pie causes a commotion, so you’re going to want to make a lot. Go slab or go home (and have to make more).
  5. Finally, if you want to gild the lily (of course you do), add some chocolate.

Makes 12 to 18 servings

3 ¾ cups (490 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for your work surface
1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
1 ½ tablespoons (20 grams) granulated sugar
1 ½ cups (12 ounces or 340 grams) unsalted butter, very cold
¾ cup (175 ml) very cold water

3 ¾ cups (330 grams) pecan halves
8 ounces (225 grams) bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped, or about 1 ¼ cups chocolate chips
½ cup (120 ml) heavy cream
10 tablespoons (145 grams) unsalted butter
1 2/3 cups (215 grams) packed dark-brown sugar
1 cup (235 ml) maple syrup or golden syrup (see headnote)
¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 ½ teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon (15 ml) vanilla extract
1 ½ tablespoons (25 ml) bourbon (optional)
5 large eggs

To finish
1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon (5 ml) water

To make the pie dough by hand, with my one-bowl method
In the bottom of a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, and sugar. Work the butter into the flour with your fingertips or a pastry blender until the mixture resembles a coarse meal and the largest bits of butter are the size of tiny peas. (Some people like to do this by freezing the stick of butter and coarsely grating it into the flour, but I haven’t found the results as flaky.)

With a food processor
In the work bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, salt, and sugar. Add the butter, and pulse the machine until the mixture resembles a coarse meal and the largest bits of butter are the size of tiny peas. Turn the mixture out into a mixing bowl.

Both methods
Add the cold water, and stir with a spoon or flexible silicone spatula until large clumps form. Use your hands to knead the dough together a few times right in the bottom of the bowl. Divide the dough and wrap each half in a sheet of plastic wrap or waxed paper, and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or up to 72 hours, or you can quick-firm this in the freezer for 15 minutes. If you plan to keep it longer than 3 days, it will have the best flavor if you freeze it until needed.

Prepare the filling
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the bottom of a 10-by-15-by-1-inch baking sheet or jelly-roll pan with parchment paper.

Spread the pecans on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring once or twice so that they toast evenly. Set aside until needed. If you like smaller bits, you can chop some or all of the nuts to your desired size.

Melt the chocolate chunks with the heavy cream, and stir until smooth. Spread over the bottom of the frozen crust. Freeze the crust again until the chocolate is solid, about another 10 minutes.

Assemble the pie
On a lightly floured surface, roll one of your dough halves (the larger one, if you have two different sizes) into an 18-by-13-inch rectangle. This can be kind of a pain, because it is so large. Do your best to work quickly, keeping the dough as cold as possible and using enough flour so it doesn’t stick to the counter. Transfer the dough to your prepared baking sheet, and gently drape some of the overhang in, so that the dough fills out the inner edges and corners. Some pastry will still hang over the sides of the pan; trim this to 1/2 inch. Freeze the piecrust in the pan until it is solid.

In a large saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, maple or golden syrup, and salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring regularly. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the pecans, cider vinegar, vanilla, and bourbon (if using). Pour into a bowl (so that it cools faster), and set the mixture aside to cool a little, 5 to 10 minutes. Then whisk in one egg at a time until combined. Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell.

Roll the second of your dough halves (the smaller one, if they were different sizes) into a 16-by-11-inch rectangle.

You can drape it over in one piece (cutting slits to vent the top), or cut it into wide strips to form a lattice; pinch or crimp the upper and lower crusts together, and fold the bottom crust’s overhang, if you wish, over the top crust to seal it. (The lattice is always a bit of a mess, but no matter how much you hodgepodge it, people will freak out when they see it.) Lightly beat the egg with water, and brush this over the top crust and edges.

Bake the pie
Bake at 350 degrees until the crust is golden and the filling is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack until just warm to the touch, about another 30 minutes, before cutting into squares.

Excerpted from Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites. Copyright © 2017 by Deb Perelman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.

This story was originally published in 2018.

Sarah Whitman-Salkin

Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor and writer and the founder of the online bookshop Classics Cookbooks.