"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse ..."
Let’s rephrase Clement Moore’s "A Visit from St. Nicholas" to: "... one creature was stirring, my sister Rosemary was in the kitchen making pecan pies, using Mom’s recipe," even though it doesn’t rhyme.
For some of us, Christmas is not Christmas without pecan pie.Not only is the pecan Arkansas' official state nut but it is delicious, whether eaten by the handful or in a dessert. It is also packed with nutrients. One one-ounce serving (about 20 halves) contains 196 calories, 20.4 grams total fat (1.8 saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 0 grams sodium, 2.7 grams dietary fiber and over 19 vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin E, calcium, potassium and zinc. "That’s one handful, not one can full!" one dietitian reminded.
Incidentally, there is no wrong way to say pecan. Three pronunciations are listed in the dictionary: pi-kahn, pi-kan and pee-kahn (the most popular which stresses the second syllable, according to a dialect survey).
Although not the favorite American pie (apple is) nor the most nutritious nut (almond is), the pecan has an interesting history and is a major agri-product with an annual crop of over 250 million pounds, including 2.5 million-plus in Arkansas.
The only major tree nut that grows naturally in North America, the name "pecan" is a Native American word that was used to describe "all nuts requiring a stone to crack." According to the history books, the pecan can be traced to the 16th century and was a major fall food source for many Native American tribes and was once used as currency.
By the 1700s, pecan trees were grown in the gardens of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington is said to have carried pecans in his pocket frequently.
There are more than 1,000 varieties of pecans. Many are named for Native American tribes such as Cheyenne, Mohawk, Sioux, Choctaw and Shawnee.
Astronauts took pecans to the moon on two Apollo space missions.
Because of its pure American heritage, April is recognized as National Pecan Month.
Pecans are grown throughout the southern states, both in pecan orchards or groves and as a lone tree in the home landscape. If you have a tree, you already know that as soon as the nuts hit the ground, they need to be handled before the squirrels get to them. With proper handling, pecans have a long life, especially when frozen. Both shelled and unshelled pecans can hold their freshness for up to two years in the freezer, however those stored in the shell tend to retain top quality longer.
Trees can be planted from a pecan nut, from a seedling, or from a grafted tree. A grafted tree begins slow production after 3-4 years, reaching full production around the ninth year. A tree started from a nut takes much longer to produce — up to 7 years.
Paper shell varieties are often preferred over natives because they are easier to crack and shell and because some of the natives produce smaller nuts. On the downside, pecans produce on a biennial cycle, alternating each year between low-yield and high-yield harvests.
The pecan’s naturally sweet buttery flavor adds its own uniqueness to many recipes, ranging from salads to casseroles, from toppings for entrees to desserts of all kinds, and from party mixes to appetizers and party dips.
Although there are probably thousands of pecan pie recipes — from simple to elaborate — here’s Mom’s version:
MOM’S PECAN PIE
• ¼ cup butter
• ½ cup sugar
• 2 eggs
• 1 cup Karo syrup
• 1 cup pecans
Beat butter and sugar together and add eggs, Karo and pecans. Mix well and pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.
Mom made pie crusts from scratch, but store-bought crusts work really well today.
Since it is Christmas-time, I am also sharing her Christmas fruitcake recipe, which is really an applesauce cake embellished with raisins and pecans.
MOM’S CHRISTMAS FRUITCAKE
• ½ cup shortening
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 egg
• 2 cups flour
• 1 teaspoon soda
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon cloves
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 cup applesauce
• 2/3 cup raisins, chopped
• 2/3 cup pecans
Cream shortening and sugar. Add egg. Beat well. Sift flour, soda, salt, cloves and cinnamon. Add alternately with applesauce to creamed mixture. Add raisins and pecans. Pour into 9-inch greased tube pan. Bake at 350 one hour. Let stand until cold. Remove cake from pan.
This cake is so delicious, it does not need icing.
In recapturing a memory moment earlier this week, Rosemary decided to make this cake, replacing raisins with cranberries. Just as good.
As an apology to Moore for butchering the first lines of his poem and as a holiday wish from fellow Master Gardener/photographer Pat Robbins and yours truly, here are the final two
lines in tact: "But I heard him exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight, 'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!'"
Next week, the topic will be: A gardener’s addiction quiz.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to GardeningForTheRecord@gmail.com.