Every Thanksgiving, my husband and I throw a potluck celebration with friends, and since I’m a pastry chef, I’m always the designated baker. Though we make a different menu every year, certain elements of the meal always remain the same, and this means that there’s a pecan pie—or some other dessert that includes toasty, buttery pecans—on the menu. To me, it makes sense to serve pecans at Thanksgiving because they’re native to North America, and I naturally equate them with the harvest season. But I definitely wouldn’t limit my use of pecans to autumn; their distinctly sweet flavor and soft, meaty texture make them a great ingredient in many desserts, no matter what time of year.
Pecan savvy: what to look for
In the fall, I occasionally see in-shell pecans in stores, but it’s pretty time-consuming (and messy) to hand-shell them. So I prefer shelled pecans, which are usually vacuum-packed in cans, jars, or cellophane bags to protect against humidity and oxidation. You might also find pecans sold in bulk, but make sure they’re fresh, since they can become rancid if they’ve been sitting around in storage for too long. Taste one—if it’s rancid, the nut will have an unpleasant, bitter flavor. A fresh pecan, on the other hand, will be faintly sweet and buttery. Look for plump ones that are uniform in color and size.
Keeping pecans fresh
Once you’ve bought pecans, date them (or any stored nut) so that they’re used in a timely fashion. In-shell pecans can be stored in a cool, dry place for 6 to 12 months. An open package of shelled nuts should be resealed or transferred to an airtight container. They will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator or up to one year in the freezer. While this preserves freshness, refrigerated or frozen nuts can turn flabby in texture. That’s why I often lightly toast them (even if a recipe doesn’t call for toasting), which brings back their crunch, accentuates their flavor, and tempers their astringency. Toast pecans in the oven at 350°F for 5 to 8 minutes. (Set a timer—the nuts can burn easily.)
Pecans marry well with a wide range of ingredients. In the upside-down cake, pecans act as an earthy foil to the bright, sunny pineapple. Since apple season and the pecan harvest coincide, I combine the two ingredients in a cinnamon-accented crisp. The traditional southern combo of bourbon, brown sugar, and buttermilk comes together in a nut-studded poundcake. And finally, I love pecan pie, but I often find it too cloying. In my version, chocolate and espresso moderate the pie’s sugary nature. When I make this pie at Thanksgiving, it’s always the first dessert to disappear.