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Food writer Nicola Miller introduces us to the pecan tassie – a cup full of nutty flavour to enjoy during the holiday period. . . and beyond



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A tassie is a Scots variation of the word for ‘cup’ from the Old French. Hence, a pecan tassie is a small pastry-based cup packed with a nutty filling made from pecans native to North America and propagated initially by indigenous people. ‘Pecan’ derives from the French word pacane, taken from the Algonquian word for ‘nut’. It is possible that this may be the reason why some people believe the pecan tassie was ‘invented’ by French-speaking New Orleanians, although there seems to be little evidence for this.

These gorgeous two-bite morsels are a classic holiday favourite in the American South and popular at church socials, weddings and the like, providing, as Wendell Brock once said “a combination of flavours that are the greatest of autumn’s comforts – butter, pecans and brown sugar”, although they are pretty darn good at meeting my need for winter comfort too.

In his book My Mother’s Southern Kitchen, food writer James Villas includes a favourite tassie recipe from his mother, Martha, who served them at her guild meetings. I always think of the pecan as a festive nut (partly because they are not inexpensive to buy in the UK), hence my suggestion to make these tiny tarts for the festive period – especially if you have small children to hand. Their little fingers are perfect for patting out the dough. Martha Villas was constantly fiddling with the basic recipe, which calls for a crust made with cream cheese to produce a tart that combines the virtues of shortbread and pie and perfectly balances savoury (the crust has no sugar) with the sweet, nutty smokiness of its filling. “I always think I can make them taste even better,” she said. Martha does not add whisky to her filling, nor does she add crushed pecans to her base, but I do.

Pecan Tassies (53994240)
Pecan Tassies (53994240)

Like Martha, I fiddle with my recipe all the time, and its sum parts are a combination of a recipe from an old Southern Living Magazine; memories of tassies eaten in the south; pecan tarts made with Jack Black Bourbon by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, and Daniela Galarza’s (recently published) recipe on The Kitchn website. When I make these again, I will use honey rum from the Canary Islands.

Notes:

Some recipes call for deeper, narrow tassies baked in mini muffin tins, but I use the Tala Performance 12-cup shallow bun tin which gives the tassies a lovely, rounded shape. Eddingtons make a mince pie round-bottomed baking tray, which is also very good. They aren’t hard to find in traditional kitchen stores or online bakeware suppliers. You will need to make the pastry bases ahead of time because they need chilling. You can mix the pastry by hand, but you will need a processor or grinder to grind the pecans for the pastry into meal.

PECAN TASSIES

Ingredients:

For the pastry:

50g full-fat soft cheese

50g pecans

50g softened salted butter

50g plain flour

For the filling:

90g whole pecans

55g light brown soft sugar

1 egg yolk from a large egg

1½ tablespoons maple syrup

½ teaspoon bourbon whisky (Choose a rounded, mellow, honeyed variety if possible.)

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon melted salted butter

Method:

Heat oven to 180C/160C fan oven/gas mark 4. Grease your tins with butter, then dust with flour.

To make the pastry, blitz the pecans in a food processor until they turn into a fine meal, then pulse in the rest of the ingredients until the dough just comes together. Wet your hands with cold water to help prevent the dough from sticking to your hands, then roll it into twelve little balls. Keeping your fingers cool and wet, press the dough into the base and sides of the depressions in your tin. Place the tins inside your fridge and chill for at least two hours.

Heat the pecans in a heavy-based pan until they are lightly toasted. This may take only a couple of minutes, so keep an eye on them and use a spatula to keep them moving in the pan – don’t let them catch. Remove from the pan and choose 12 of the best whole pecans to top the tarts and roughly chop the rest.

Place the rest of the ingredients for the filling into a small mixing bowl, whisk well and stir in the chopped nuts.

Evenly spoon the filling between the tins (You should get 1-1 ½ teaspoons per tassie) and top each tassie with an entire pecan. Bake for 15 mins or until the crust is puffily golden and the filling is set. You will need to watch them closely. Let the tassies cool a little in the tin before you gently remove them.

If you want, brush their tops with a little more whisky. I have also been known to serve tassies with whisky butter made by creaming together 150g of icing sugar and 150g of room temperature butter. Stir in 2 tablespoons of whisky to taste, and serve. They are also delicious with ice cream, custard, or cream.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020