A secret ingredient and a generous chunk of cream cheese boost Claiborne’s pecan pie right over the top!

As the old saying goes, “All good things are worth waiting for.” One of those good things was created in my kitchen last week — a pie with a vodka-spiked pastry shell, filled to the brim with Craig Claiborne’s Pecan Pie Filling over a layer of sweetened cream cheese. Yes, definitely worth the wait. A two-year wait, to be exact.

A couple of years ago the San Jose Mercury News published a Thanksgiving Primer that included a recipe for Foolproof Pie Dough. Not only did the pie dough include butter and shortening, the liquid in the dough included more than just ice cold water. Vodka was in the list of ingredients. I was skeptical, yet intrigued enough by the unusual recipe to print it out and tuck it into a file for another day.

Apparently, the staff at Cook’s Illustrated determined this boozy pie dough to be the best after making 148 crusts in the experimentation process. J. Kenji Alt, who was on staff at Cook’s Illustrated at the time and a developer of the foolproof pie dough with the secret ingredient, is quoted in the Mercury News: “Vodka is essential to the texture of the crust and imparts no flavor—do not substitute. This dough will be moister and more supple than most standard pie doughs and will require more flour to roll out.” (These days you’ll find J. Kenji Lopez-Alt experimenting with food and sharing his results and recommendations in The Food Lab column over at Serious Eats.)

I prepared the foolproof pie dough, complete with a generous dose of vodka. The recipe made enough dough for two crusts. I used the first disk of chilled pastry to form the shell that became a bowl for Craig Claiborne’s Pecan Pie Filling. The pastry was soft and easy to roll. No cracks around the edges. The dough draped nicely into the pie plate with no tearing. I found that I used a little bit more flour on my work surface than I would use for other pastry dough I’ve made. I recommend mixing the crust a day before you need to make your pie. The nice long chill -time makes it much less sticky and easier to roll out.

The baked crust had not even a slight whisper of alcohol. The alcohol evaporates during baking, leaving just the right amount of moisture behind.  Christopher Kimball, publisher of Cook’s Illustrated and host of the PBS show America’s Test Kitchen, explains the science behind the whole alcohol-in-the-pie-dough thing at the NPR website. This tender, flaky crust is the only one I’ll make from now on whenever I make a pie. It took me two years to finally try the recipe, but the result was so worth the wait.

And, Craig Claiborne’s Pecan Pie Filling is the only one I’ll ever use when I make pecan pie. It is amazing. In my column this week, I explain how I received a copy of Claiborne’s recipe, complete with his signature, a couple of years ago — around the same time I discovered the Foolproof Pie Dough. I kept both recipes together in a plastic sleeve, tucked into the file box on top of my desk. My plan was to save the spirited pastry for Claiborne’s filling. It turns out, the combination is a match made in heaven. Seriously.

That’s not the end of the story, though. I still had a disk of foolproof pie dough in my refrigerator. I made another batch of Craig Claiborne’s Pie Filling. This time, I spread the unbaked pie shell with a layer of sweetened cream cheese before pouring in the pecan filling.

As the pie baked, the layer of cream cheese rose to the top, pushing the pecan pieces up with it. And, just beneath the cream cheese was a thick layer of ooey, gooey, creamy, dreamy almost-caramel against a flaky, melt-in-the-mouth crust. The pie tasted a little sweeter than the one I’d made without the cream cheese. But, totally over-the-top decadent.

Yes, another good thing worth waiting for.

(just a note: I baked my pie around 1:00 Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t cool enough to slice by the time darkness fell over my house. So, a photo will be coming sometime today. But, it can definitely be eaten in the dark :)

(Another note on 11/14/10: Picture posted. And, just to let you know, Cream Cheese Pecan Pie a la Claiborne is quite delicious first thing in the morning with a cup of French Press coffee. I’m licking my sticky fingers and smacking my lips!)

Fresh pecans -- an important ingredient in any pecan pie

Cream Cheese Pecan Pie a la Claiborne

  • 1 (10-inch) unbaked pie shell

Cream cheese layer:

  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

With electric hand mixer, beat cream cheese, sugar, egg, salt and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Spread mixture over bottom of unbaked pie shell. Put in refrigerator while making pecan filling.

Craig Claiborne’s Pecan Pie Filling:

(a recipe Craig Claiborne demonstrated in a cooking program he did in Connecticut in 1960. In a very round-about way, the recipe, complete with his signature,  wound up in my hands.)

  • 1¼ cups dark corn syrup
  • 1 cup firmly packed dark or light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup (one half stick) butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 1½ cups coarsely chopped or broken pecan meats
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Combine corn syrup and brown sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, add the butter and stir until it melts.

Put the eggs in a mixing bowl and beat. Pour in the syrup mixture, stirring. Add the chopped pecan meats and vanilla extract. Stir to blend well.

Place pie plate with the pastry shell and cream cheese layer on a silicone baking mat-lined baking sheet or a foil-lined baking sheet. Pour pecan filling over the cream cheese layer.

Carefully slide the pan into the 350-degree preheated oven. Bake the pie for 60 minutes or until the filling is set. It will be soft and jiggly, a little bit like jello and will set as it cools. Cool pie on a wire rack.

Yield: 12 servings.

Tip from the cook

For several years before I moved away from Fargo, I was a member of Soroptimist International of Fargo, a worldwide organization of business and professional women dedicated to make a difference in the lives of women and girls. One of the major fundraisers of the Fargo group is their annual pecan sale. One-pound bags of fresh pecans from the Whaley Pecan Company in Troy, Alabama will get you so spoiled, you won’t be able to use any other pecans — for baking or for snacking. The Fargo Soroptimists have just started selling the 2010 batch of fresh pecans. I buy a case each year. It’s just enough to get me through the year until the next pecan sale. If you’re interested in purchasing some of the Soroptimist pecans, send me an email request (food@forumcomm.com) and I can give you the contact information.

17 thoughts on “A secret ingredient and a generous chunk of cream cheese boost Claiborne’s pecan pie right over the top!

  1. Sounds wonderful Sue. I’ll put the recipes on my Thanksgiving menu! I wish I had a piece for breakfast this morning.

  2. Pingback: Cream Cheese Pecan Pie and Recipe Roundup | The Heavy Table - Minneapolis-St. Paul and Upper Midwest Food Magazine and Blog

  3. Please send another ream of paper for the printer.
    This sounds so good. I’ve never been able to make a good pie crust, so I’m eager to try this recipe. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll still have the leftover vodka!

  4. I would love the recipe for the pie crust that has the vodka in it. I have a recipe that has butter and shortening in it How much vodka do you use to substtue the water? Thanks so much Shirley I love your recipes.

    • Shirley, just click on the words: Foolproof Pie Dough that are highlighted in the story. One click will take you right to the vodka-spiked pastry recipe. I’m so glad to hear you are enjoying the recipes on my blog.

        • Yippee! Great news, Michelle. I’ll have to look back at my apple pie recipes. Right now I’m up to my ears in Christmas baking and having so much fun. Hope you are enjoying some time in the kitchen, too, as you prepare for Christmas.

    • Debby, typically, light and dark corn syrups function the same way in recipes, but dark corn syrup offers much more flavor with greater depth. If you can, use dark corn syrup in this pecan pie. You’ll be glad you did. Enjoy!

  5. I have used both light and dark syrup in my Pecan pies and cannot tell the difference!
    Am I doing something wrong? :-(

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