The simple magic of pecan pie, and how a recipe stirs up memories

Anne Byrn
Between the Layers
Pecan pie/file photo

This story is courtesy of Nashville cookbook author Anne Byrn's blog, Between the Layers. More about Byrn here. Subscribe to her blog here.

Note: Story is edited for length & clarity

My brother-in-law Steve brought pecan pie to Thanksgiving one year, and just like that, my family didn’t ask me to bake pie anymore.

We just want Steve’s pie, Mom.

And so last year when the pandemic Thanksgiving list didn’t include Steve and there were only four of us, we scaled the menu back to the bare essentials — turkey, dressing, gravy and Steve’s pie.

Steve McDonough is a retired Chattanooga pharmacist who transitioned from not baking at all to baking pecan pies every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Now he's known across the country for them!

A generous soul, he bakes enough for second helpings. What’s not eaten at the holiday table goes home with people.

Now, Steve is humble and will say his pies are a cinch to crank out because the recipe is foolproof, but I can’t help wonder if it’s not the precision of the pharmacist that got the recipe where it is today. His exactitude, making sure the pecans are new crop and grown in Georgia and the halves right side up before baking because they look better that way, that the butter is salted, and the corn syrup is dark — these could be strong arguments for why his pie is extraordinary.

Steve wasn’t raised on pecan pie. He said his mother baked yellow or chocolate cakes for special occasions — with a chocolate fudge icing he and his sister adored — and his grandmother was a fruit cobbler baker, using local apples or blackberries, whatever was in season. But Steve learned to appreciate home baking and the people who took the time to do it right.

His pecan pie recipe came from his first wife Ann, and it was published in the St. Elmo Church of Christ’s 1982 cookbook.

We had some fabulous cooks at that church, and Ann’s pecan pie recipe was always popular. I don’t know where she got the recipe. It may have been one she got out of a cookbook and liked enough to claim as her own.

Ann died from cancer in 2004.

I know how comforting it is to bake recipes that belonged to someone you loved. I think about that every time I bake my mother’s Crescent Cookies and stir her chocolate toffee at Christmas.

Steve learns to bake pie

It didn’t take long for Steve to enroll in cooking classes.

Once I got past hamburger and bacon and eggs, I baked the pecan pie. I baked the first one in 2007 or 2008. It inspired me to contribute something to holiday dinners.

This is how we tasted Steve’s pie. Steve brought the pie to Thanksgiving the year he was dating my sister-in-law. He was charming in his own right, but oh my, that pie! What a conversation starter. 

Today, the two are married, and while she does most of the cooking, and loves to bake cakes, Steve still bakes his pecan pie.

Pecans are an indigenous American nut, a cousin of the hickory nut and grew wild in the South before they were successfully cultivated.

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Pecan pies were baked before corn syrup was invented, using cane syrup or sorghum if you had it, according to Jean Anderson and the late John Egerton. 

But we likely know pecan pie so well because of Karo and its marketing. Interestingly, the pie can be made with either light or dark corn syrup, but most recipes don’t tell you to use either/or and the opinions vary. 

For Steve, it's the richer taste you get from dark (blue label) Karo.

Plus the salted butter to offset the sweetness of the pie, and always good fresh pecans. Also, baking it long enough to toast the nuts and brown the crust, bringing out the flavor.

Steve’s recipe originally called for 45 minutes baking, which he says is too long and instead keeps the pie in the oven about 30 to 35 minutes, but it really depends on your oven.

This way, pecan pie isn’t just pie. It’s a tribute, a passion and a calling.

Ann McDonough's pecan pie.

Steve and Ann's pecan pie

Steve’s recipe originally called for 45 minutes baking, but he's more partial to 30 to 35 minutes. It should depend on your oven. 

Ingredients

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup Karo syrup (blue label)

1/4 cup melted butter

3 eggs, well-beaten

1 cup shelled pecans

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

9-inch unbaked pie shell

Instructions

Combine everything except beaten eggs and pecans. Add them after the syrup mixture is well combined. Mix well.

Pour everything into the shell. Moisten the edges of the crust and then cover the crust edges with foil to prevent burning. Bake at 350 degrees. Check at 30 minutes for doneness. Bake for up to 45 minutes.