I grew up learning how to cook from my mom, who shared her passionate love for entertainment cooking and entertaining cookbooks. There was never a shortage of new recipes, but I knew there were two mainstays for a holiday season party that should be ever present: ham and biscuits, and pecan tassies. These titans of Southern hospitality offer the salty and sweet interpretations of what would be staple local ingredients for the southern winter. Pork slaughter and ham production in the Northern hemisphere traditionally occupies the late autumn and early winter months as this is an outdoor activity and the season provides weather cool enough to chill the meat, but not so cold as to confine butchers indoors. Similarly, pecans are harvested as they ripen from September through November. Pecan tassies are sweet little miniature tarts that make a great highlight for seasonal ingredients during the holidays.
Often considered a cookie, despite clearly being a tiny tart or pie, pecan tassies blend Scottish dialect with a product traditionally cultivated by Native Americans and, apocryphally, New Orleans culinary tradition. “Tassie” is a Scottish word that can refer to a small wine goblet, a trophy, or the tiny pies discussed here, where a small pastry shell “cups” a filling. Tassie itself derives from the French tasse (“cup,” familiar to espresso fans from demitasse cups), likely linguistic drift resulting from the Auld Alliance which united France and Scotland against English invasions from 1294 until the Union of Crowns in 1603 when James VI of Scotland assumed the thrones of England and Ireland. French influence also is suggested in the pecan tassie’s culinary origins. Pecan tassies are downsized pecan pies and pecan pie is credited as being a French adaptation of Medieval European treacle tarts to incorporate North American ingredients during the colonization of Louisiana. Pecans were a traditional food for many Native American tribes including the Quinipissa and Tangipahoa of present-day Louisiana (sometimes credited with “introducing colonists to the pecan,” though more than a dozen different tribes once lived along the pecan-rich Mississippi river and the oldest record of cultivation comes from Texas). The word pecan is derived from the Algonquin pakani or pacane, which may refer to “any nut requiring a stone to crack,” including walnuts, hickory nuts, and pecans.
While archaeological evidence suggests pecans were harvested by Native Americans for more than 8,000 years, there’s no definitive record of a published pecan pie recipe from the colonial period. The earliest published pecan pie recipe is from an 1886 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The corn syrup-heavy pecan pie most people are familiar with today is the result of a 1930s marketing campaign by Karo syrup pushing the recipe as a “new discovery.” Similar commercial pressures saw the southern cash crop increasingly regarded as a specialty of the American South, though pecans grow from Mexico to Illinois and Iowa and Mexico produces a similar volume (the US and Mexico together account for some 93 percent of global pecan production).
Pecan pie haters who aren’t simply allergic to or disdainful of nuts tend to focus on the toothache-inducing sweetness, a vestige of the Karo syrup domination of the 1930s. My version omits corn syrup completely, using less than a cup of brown sugar for sweetness and employing cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper to provide more flavor and cut through the sugar. I amplified the Southern charm by incorporating two more traditional ingredients: salty, smoky bacon and bourbon whiskey, which adds sharpness, nuance and contributes to gooey centers beneath a crisp candy crust. The incredibly rich, buttery cream cheese crust is in perfect proportion to the filling and slips out of the pan with no need of grease or cupcake liners. Despite the heavy ingredients, these make for infinitely edible finger food, so you may want to plan to bake extra.
Spicy bourbon bacon pecan tassies
Adapted from the Virginia Hospitality Cookbook
This is a very conservatively spiced recipe, with more of a hint of heat than any kick. Pepperheads may want to double, triple, or even quadruple the cayenne. Makes 24 tassies.
For the crust:
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, finely ground
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the filling:
6 slices of crispy bacon, crumbled
1 cup pecans, roughly chopped
For the syrup:
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons bourbon
Blend the crust ingredients in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a large bowl using a pastry cutter. Chill for one hour.
Scoop up 2 dozen tablespoons of dough, roll into balls and press into cups of a mini tart pan or mini muffin tin, leaving an open depression.
Preheat an oven to 325 F and whisk together all the syrup ingredients in a large bowl.
Sprinkle half the pecans and bacon into the prepared pastry cups, then divide the syrup among all cups. Top with the remaining pecans and bacon bits.
Bake about 25 minutes or until the filling has set and cool completely on a wire rack before removing from the pan.
Since meeting in 2005, Pereira and Aaron Peterson have enjoyed cooking, entertaining and sharing recipes together.
Inspired and edified by family history, cookbook collections and their travels (and the meals they’ve eaten on them), their blog, GourmetGents, launched in October 2011 as an extension of their love for all things epicurean.
They feature family recipes, unfamiliar ingredients, baking experiments, cooking tips and lots of food photography, all with the occasional snarky aside.
For more recipes, visit gourmetgents.blog spot.com.
GourmetGents is published on the fourth/last Sunday of the month in the Lifestyle section.
They can be reached at the Lifetsyle Department email, life@sunga zette.com.