The first Christmas my late husband James and I spent together as a married couple was somewhat bittersweet for me in some ways. Having lost both of my parents just a few years before I met James, I still mourned their loss and felt it very deeply during the holiday season. yet I was there, about to embark on a new adventure in life, ready to make memories with my new love.
I had grown up an only child, but during the holidays my home in the coal region was filled with relatives and friends joining in the festivities, surrounding tables tucked away in every nook and cranny. James had siblings, and sometimes cousins, who lived with his family, so he too was used to large holiday gatherings. We found ourselves creating a new core of two and we were determined to celebrate the holidays with the traditions we had grown up with, even though we no longer had our families to share them with.
One day, as James and I recalled our memories, it became clear that his family and mine enjoyed many of the same dishes on the holiday table. Although he does not know the classics of the Coasl region like Pennsylvania Dutch Potato Topping, and Cope’s corn, he tasted the traditional turkey or baked ham, a stuffing embellished with Bit’s seasoning (a very New England thing), butternut squash replacing the familiar glazed sweet potatoes that I knew so well, and instead of pumpkin pie my mom made every year, james loved pecan pie. In an effort to mix up our family traditions and start new ones, I decided to forgo pumpkin pie that year because pumpkin was not one of James’ favorite foods.
Shortly before James moved to our house in the coal area permanently, I had gone with him on a trip to Massachusetts to help him pack some of his things. Before heading back to Pennsylvania, I did some shopping for local New England items, one of which included pure local maple syrup.
As I walked the alleys of the local Agway, James offered me some advice on maple syrup. He said cooks preferred what was called B grade back then. It was dark, deep, and delicious and really had a strong maple flavor. He told me that his mother never used anything else, whether it was for cooking, or for eating pancakes. I picked up a jug and brought it back to Pennsylvania. James was right; the taste was exceptional.
While used to pumpkin pie, I enjoyed a piece of pecan pie if it wasn’t too sweet or from the frozen section of the supermarket. I decided that doing mine was the best way to go and would be a fitting tribute to the traditions of James and his family that year. When I found this Maple Bourbon Pecan Pie recipe, I knew it was the perfect dish to use the delicious New England dark maple syrup that we treasure hidden for special occasions in the pantry.
I had been a fan of pies for a long time, much preferring them to a traditional thick pie. The pie was a hit with James, and I’ve made it several times since.
James loved this pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but a sweet whipped cream is a perfect addition, too. I recommend not skipping the step of toasting the nuts before use, as it really brings out a rich nutty flavor. I don’t completely put a layer of pecans on top of the pie, preferring to have chopped walnuts throughout the filling. I place a few whole walnuts on the top edges and a few in the center.
When making this pie, be sure to use pure maple syrup and not the “pancake syrup” you find on the grocery store shelves. And please don’t use maple extract or flavoring! Use the darkest maple syrup you can get. “Grade B” the best choice for providing the richest and deepest flavor for home cooking and baking has been re-labeled. The USDA has revised its standards to match a new grading system implemented by the state of Vermont. The previous grades B and C (C was not commercially sold but used by food makers and candy makers) are now replaced with four grade A levels. I have included a primer on the syrup d maple here to help you with your shopping. I recommend using the current Grade A Dark Rugged.
Visit A charcoal breaker in the kitchen for the recipe and instructions!