Maida Heatter's pie is one to remember

Date Pecan Pie
Date Pecan Pie (Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post; Styled by Lisa Cherkasky; Tableware from Crate and Barrel)
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By Leigh Lambert
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Thanksgiving feast is complete without something sweet to finish it off. Maida Heatter, with more than 10 cookbooks to her credit, is truly an icon of American baking. So it was a no-brainer for me to consult her "Book of Great American Desserts" (Knopf, 1985) and find the treasure of Date Pecan Pie.

The addition of soft, chewy dates lends an earthiness to standard pecan pie filling. A thin slice of the pie goes a long way (especially on the heels of turkey and all the trimmings).

After making the pie and encountering a problem or two, I called Heatter, who is 95 and lives in Miami. She remembered the recipe, even though it is one she wrote almost 25 years ago. She said it was inspired by the fresh dates she once tasted when she visited Indio, Calif.

Of course, most of us won't be able to get dates from such a source, but she recommended "buying the softest ones you can find. If they are dry and hard when you begin, they will stay that way." They should be moist and whole (pitted), she said. I found nice, plump dates in the bulk-food aisle at Whole Foods Market. I also tried the recipe using a package of the pressed baking dates -- almost a puree -- found in Middle Eastern markets.

My main question for Heatter was this: In the original recipe, the directions called for stirring the dates into the egg mixture and then using a slotted spoon to transfer them to the bottom of a pre-baked pie crust. The filling is poured over them. I could not figure out the purpose of that step.

The response from my baking heroine was refreshingly human. "Well, that sounds silly. I don't know why you would do that," she said. So that step has been eliminated from the accompanying recipe.

In addition, she endorsed my suggestion to use the filling for individual 3 1/2 -inch pies. The smaller size is good to include on a holiday dessert buffet. The filling can go right into prefab graham cracker crust tartlet shells. The little pies have a chewier, more solid center and do not require chilling (which, in the original recipe, makes the nine-inch pie easier to cut).

For me, food has always been about sharing and remembering. Thanks to Heatter's generosity and no matter what size I make it, this is a pie I will serve to friends and relatives, smiling as I recall the conversation.


Date Pecan Pie

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