To my mind, the nonpareil recipe for pecan pie is the one that Bernard Clayton Jr. gives in his “The Complete Book of Pastry, Sweet and Savory,” published in 1981 and now out of print. (Clayton gives credit to Rolf Herion, then of the Inn at Colonial Williamsburg.) The filling is eggy and soft, the proportion of nuts to filling perfect, and the nuts themselves are toasty and lightly slicked with the filling mixture.
Having touted the perfection of the recipe, I’ll now say that I sometimes alter it to fit not Clayton’s 8- or 9-inch pie plate but a French-style tart pan with a removable bottom.You get a thinner pie — let’s go ahead and call it a tart — with a higher nut-to-filling ratio. Even though the original ratio is ideal, sometimes you just want something a little nuttier, a bit less sweet and all-around crisper.
Despite my occasional manipulations, I use Clayton’s filling proportions as the basis for a dessert that Jackie and I get a yen for around this time of year — a maple-walnut tart. This is a nice flavor shift, and a regional shift that pleases us, too. We can use northeastern products (or at least products that could be northeastern; our last batch of walnuts actually came from California, and chances are yours did too). On occasion, I’ve done this with New York State black walnuts, but when they come to our farmers markets, they come in their seemingly bomb-proof shells. Shelling them is just such a nuisance.
For an 8 1/2-inch fluted tart pan (a scant 1-inch deep), I make pastry using 6 ounces flour, 4 ounces chilled unsalted butter (1 stick, cut into pieces) and a good pinch of salt, bound together with chilled simple syrup instead of plain ice water. I try to leave the pastry in the fridge to come together for an hour or two before using, which is to say, I usually forget to make it the night before. When the pan is lined with the rolled-out pastry, I line it, in turn, with a piece of aluminum foil and put it in the freezer for a few minutes at least, while the oven heats up to 425 degrees.
Meanwhile, I make the filling: Melt a scant 3 ounces unsalted butter and add 2/3 cup flavorful maple syrup. Whisk together 2 eggs, a scant 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, a scant 1/2 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons flour, and then add the butter-syrup mixture to this. Taste for salt.
Put the the tart shell on a sheet pan and bake it blind (weighted atop the aluminum foil with beans or pie weights to keep it from ballooning up) for six or seven minutes, then remove the foil and weights and bake until just starting to brown, perhaps another four or five minutes. Fill the shell with walnut meats in a single layer — you’ll need about 1 1/2 cups — and pour the filling mixture over, not quite to the top of the shell, as it will expand as it bakes. As Clayton observes, you don’t need to arrange the nuts neatly; they’ll float on the filling mixture and arrange themselves. (There’ll be a little mixture leftover; you could roll together the pastry trimmings and make an extra 3-inch tartlet.)
Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 and bake for another 20 or 25 minutes until the tart is brown and the top looks like it will be crunchy. It should be a little underdone at the core, because the eggs will continue to cook as the tart cools. Unmold immediately and serve at room temperature with whipped cream.
It sounds paradoxical, but sometimes tinkering with an already perfect recipe can be a delicious thing to do.