Pecan Pie. Corn Starch Or Not?
November 24, 2011 1:04 AM   Subscribe

PECAN PIE! I'm thinking of substituting palm sugar (which has a vanilla flavor built in) for syrup. And I have other issues. Cornstarch or not? I'm adapting different techniques and I've never done this before - HELP!

Here is my deal. This is my first Pecan Pie. I personally like pies that have a lighter custard. I understand custard.

To bump up the flavor, my plan is to use dissolved palm sugar to improve flavor. My palm sugar is hard when cold, liquid when hot. Instead of vanilla extract, I'm using a very expensive but over-dried vanilla bean soaked in cognac.

With my current plan, I'm pretty sure I'll overdo the vanilla. I can pull back on the vanilla bean. I can taste before baking.

I like a lighter filling, and I'm curious to know if the lighter filling I adore does or does not include cornstarch. I've been tasting pies all over town. Do the lighter versions have cornstarch in the custard? Is that the main difference?

Yeah. I know I'm going way way outside the box. I'm looking for the best texture considering the fact that I refuse to use corn syrup.

What custard ingredients make the lightest pecan pie filling?
posted by jbenben to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
By lighter, do you mean a less gloppy texture? A more delicate taste? A lighter color? Fewer calories?
posted by parrot_person at 1:20 AM on November 24, 2011

Most pecan pies are dense. Once in a while you sample one that is still packed with flavor, but is texturally lighter.

I've also noticed some classic recipes feature corn starch and some do not.

I'm wondering if the cornstarch in the custard is the difference or not.
posted by jbenben at 1:43 AM on November 24, 2011


I am at a loss...maybe this is a regional thing, but I always thought 'classic' pecan pie was sweetened (and sort of 'filled') with Karo Syrup, since the 'classic' pecan pie was invented as a way to use that sweetener.
posted by Wylla at 2:09 AM on November 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, really, cornstarch is just an "economical" substitute for more egg yolk. Forgive me if I'm teaching my grandmother to suck eggs here, but for a softer custard you would use one egg plus one extra yolk per one cup milk, and then put in additional egg yolk the richer you wanted to make it. Or, substitute cornstarch.

If your choices are: custard made with more egg yolk versus custard made with more cornstarch, then it stands to reason that the cornstarch custard would be less rich, but also lighter.

I have, so far, only ever encountered pecan pies that were baked on a base of glurge. If you can make a pecan pie out of delicious custard, I assume you will write up the results for the International Journal of Pie, as it will be a significant advance to the state of the art and will inform my ongoing pie investigations.
posted by tel3path at 2:41 AM on November 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I might be off base, but if by custard you mean the gel usually below the nuts, then I think you can add a substitute thickener and sweetener. With the eggs, I can see why it might be considered a custard. In the older editions of The Joy of Cooking, there's a variation on pecan pie called Transparent Pie, I assume for its jelly like consistency. If you're looking for something that's more like an opaque traditional custard, ignore the following.

I love the palm sugar idea, btw. I really like the flavor palm sugar adds to things. But rather than cornstarch I might try tapioca starch. I also don't think you want to substitute it for the syrup. I'd use a clear syrup and consider substituting the sugar or brown sugar for the palm sugar. And if you want a lighter gel, substitute one of the egg yolks for 1 teaspoon of tapioca starch. I think that might create the consistency you're looking for.

So in this Karo Recipe, here's how I'd adapt it:

1 cup Karo Light Corn Syrup
1 cup palm sugar
3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon tapioca starch
2 eggs, and one egg white

I'd slowly warm the butter, sugar, and syrup, then separately I'd beat the eggs and starch together. I think the heat might help with dissolving the palm sugar, but you don't want to cook the eggs with that mixture, you want it to cook in the oven after the pecans have floated to the top After letting the butter and sugar cool off a little, I'd add the egg mixture, and nuts and then pour that into the pie shell. But that's just me.

Anyway, hope that helps.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:13 AM on November 24, 2011

I think you might be venturing a little far off the reservation for your first pecan pie.

Cornstarch is just a thickener; its presence isn't going to lighten anything.

I've never worked with palm sugar. What do you intend to dissolve it in? The fact that it's solid at room temperature would worry me - you might end up with pecan candy.

Your cognac / vanilla mixture may be less potent than anticipated, unless you soaked the bean in a very small amount of cognac. Vanilla extract is made with several beans per cup.

Like Tel3path, I've never seen a custard-based pecan pie (custard being a mixture of eggs, which pecan pies do typically contain, and milk or cream, which they do not), which casts into doubt whether I really know what you're going for here.
posted by jon1270 at 4:14 AM on November 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Egg whites can give a lighter texture.
posted by h00py at 4:34 AM on November 24, 2011

After having been whipped into a frenzy, of course.
posted by h00py at 4:35 AM on November 24, 2011

Avoid cornstarch altogether; it's usually the culprit for people who hate pecan pies (unless they simply dislike nuts, but that's nothing you can help). I have avoided it for years due to my dismay over the filling - what is it, exactly?

I personally love this spiced maple pie with star anise, and just made it last night. You can ditch the star anise if you are super-sensitive to its flavor, but it's not overtly licorice in its flavoring. It also calls for maple syrup instead of corn starch, which gives the pie more depth and renders it less cloying. The addition of rum is also great, though again, you can ditch it if it's not your bag.

I think an even lighter sweetener such as agave would also be fine, but remember that even toasted nuts are slightly bitter, so don't be afraid of the sweet filler to balance it out!
posted by zoomorphic at 4:58 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't use any cornstarch in pecan pie. Substituted slightly more than half the corn syrup with maple syrup and I cut back the amount of granulated sugar slightly - 3/4 cup instead of a cup both for consistency (maple syrup is runnier than corn syrup) and to make a less sweet pie. I also up the amount of nuts because I want a less gloopy pie. You could make a simple syrup with your palm syrup - add water and boil down to a thick consistency and substitute that for corn syrup. You do need to have correct amounts of liquid and solid or the pie won't set. You can also add more egg to help it set. As others have said, I'd probably stay closer to the recipe you're working with for your first time.

And zoomorphic that spiced maple pie sounds amazing - going to have to try it!
posted by leslies at 5:05 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Like other Southerners in the place, I can't really grok the idea of a fluffy pecan pie. In my experience, this is a gloppy syrupy pie with pecans on top. So no to cornstarch. Palm sugar doesn't really sound that bad, though. I can't really advise on light custard, since it really doesn't sound right. What can I say? I suppose that egg whites would lighten the 'custard,' but that's not really the point.
posted by Gilbert at 6:34 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cornstarch in pecan pie? No, no, no, a thousand times no. It's what's in those cheap, awful grocery store pecan pies.

If you don't want to use corn syrup, Lyle's Golden Syrup can be used. Palm sugar sounds interesting but like toekneesan suggested, I think I'd substitute it for the sugar not the syrup.
posted by shoesietart at 6:44 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Gilbert. Pecan pie is supposed to be heavy. Why don't you just make your regular custard pie and add toasted or caramelized pecans on top?
posted by runningwithscissors at 6:46 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kentucky Pecan Pie


1 cup honey
3 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans
1 pinch ground nutmeg
1 recipe pastry for a 9 inch single crust


In a saucepan bring the honey to a boil. Quickly beat the eggs into the honey. Add butter, vanilla, nuts, and nutmeg. Pour into the pie shell. Bake at 325 degrees F (165 degrees C) for 25 minutes or until set.

Serves 8.

I've used this recipe with phyllo sheets instead of pie crust, and used a mini-muffin pan to make mini pecan tartlets (also added a little ground clove). I've also substituted walnuts. Occasionally people comment that they think the honey overpowers the flavor of the pecans, but most folks love it.
posted by magstheaxe at 7:59 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

probably too late, but the John Thorne recipe that is out there subs Golden Syrup and Brown Sugar for the Karo and is delicious. I thought about subbing some jaggery or palm sugar as well. I didn't because its our only dessert this year I think.

As for the lightness of the custard - more eggs - or as someone suggested up thread seperate the eggs and beat the whites before incorporating them. Not sure corn starch would make it lighter.
posted by JPD at 8:26 AM on November 24, 2011

If you've never made a pecan pie and you don't consider yourself a pretty good baker, then this will end in disaster.

No corn starch. Just, no. You'll end up with pecan gravy.

Palm sugar and syrup can't be subbed for each other, but palm sugar can be used in place of cane sugar.

I think what you want to do isn't a pecan pie. What you want is a chess pie, the progenitor pie of pecan, vinegar, and shoofly pies, that's more custardy and less runny. You could then adapt a it back into a pecan pie by (duh) adding pecans (though be careful about time and temp on baking because pecans will burn before the pie does).
posted by dw at 8:56 AM on November 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

Here's a great recipe--

I use palm sugar all the time, but I much prefer the evaporated kind you buy in a bag rather than the kind that comes in cakes or a jar.

If you don't want to use corn syrup, corn starch is just fine. Thickening the syrup with perhaps 1/3 sorghum syrup is also an option, but it has an overwhelming ultra-molasses flavor not everyone likes, so taste it first if you go that route.

Additional option: instead of the cornstarch in the recipe, use arrowroot powder.
posted by devymetal at 10:15 AM on November 24, 2011

I'm confused by the custard reference too because for us Pecan Pie is really a Butter Tart (the filling is basically brown sugar, corn syrup and butter) with added nuts. Custard makes me think of eggs, milk and vanilla.

The presence of corn syrup is used to prevent the other sugar from crystallizing. If you want to swap out corn syrup for something else that'll behave the same way then you can use "golden syrup" which is made from cane sugar. The other thing you'll have to watch out for is the palm sugar, which doesn't have as much moisture in it, which may effect the final texture of the pie.
posted by squeak at 2:58 PM on November 24, 2011

FYI: the "goop" of pecan pie is the Karo syrup and sugar separated from the pecans. Before baking it's all mixed together, but the pecans rise out of the liquid and rest on the top while it's baking.

I've also had a "lighter" pecan pie, but have no idea what made it so.
posted by deborah at 5:58 PM on November 24, 2011


In my mind, eggs tempered with hot liquid IS custard. Even Hollandaise. I guess traditional Alfredo would fall just outside that definition for me, but the technique is commiserate. Eh.

Palm sugar and a bit of agave -- TURNED OUT PERFECT.

My deal all along was that I dislike hyper sweet pecan pie, and the palm sugar really added what I wanted without taking away from the texture.

I had no idea there was evaporated palm sugar available, so I'll try that next time.

Thanks everyone for playing! Worked out great!
posted by jbenben at 12:56 AM on November 25, 2011

And tel3path really nailed it as far as adding that extra egg yolk because the palm sugar seemed to like it.

I was really looking for a lighter, more pleasing texture without that cloying sweet almost gritty thing most recipes feature.

Cheers again!
posted by jbenben at 1:04 AM on November 26, 2011

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