For when you Karo too much: In honor of MLK, Jr. Day, my great-grandmother’s pecan pie recipe

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a big fan of pie, supposedly. (Who isn’t?) A few years ago, Austin, Tex. artist Luanne Stovall was baking a buttermilk one in honor of the civil-rights activist and decided to turn sharing it into a vehicle for peace and reconciliation on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Now, she calls these reinvented pie socials “Peace Through Pie,” and those who bring pies to share and engage in conflict resolution are “pie-o-neers.”

The Internets tell me that pecan was King’s favorite pie, as it is mine. Or at least it was until I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma a few years ago and freaked out about corn syrup. I pitched my bottle of Karo right into the trash, and resolved to make my traditional Thanksgiving pecan pie with honey or maple syrup or even just brown sugar.

Well, I tried all three variations, and they were all just … wrong. The consistency was grainy or powdery, and they tasted too much like whatever sweetener I was using. I missed the dark, rich caramel flavor of the pecan pie I’ve been eating all my life, that my Florida great-grandmother made.

Then someone finally clued me in that there’s a big difference between corn syrup like Karo and high-fructose corn syrup. The short version: Corn syrup, invented in 1882, is primarily glucose suspended in water. Using it in baking prevents sugar crystals from forming — as happened with my honey version. Meanwhile, high-fructose corn syrup, invented in 1957, is a much more industrial product comprising fructose and glucose in varying ratios, some of which the body may treat differently than table sugar. (This guy Brian Geiger at explains the chemistry differences in interesting detail.)

I’ve decided to allow Karo back into my cupboard, although I’m tempted to try making my own cane-sugar syrup, as this corn-syrup-fearing recipe from Apartment Therapy suggests, just to see how that tastes.

So, in the spirit of “Peace Through Pie,” I share with you my great-grandmother’s recipe, which the Southern side of my family has been eating for decades and decades.

Myrtle Kosh, my Nana, lived into her 90s. She was a sharecropper’s daughter from the Florida panhandle with a second-grade education. For years she grew a lot of her own vegetables, milked her own cow, caught and fried up catfish, and made fearsomely good biscuits and collard greens. She grew up dirt-poor and clawed her way into middle-class respectability, and she was not a fan of the civil-rights movement or affirmative action. She was cheap — as her daughter said, if she sent you to the store with $20 and there was a quarter left over, she expected it back — and not particularly cheerful, but she was always generous with her cooking.

I think the secret to this pie, which is nuttier and less cloyingly sweet than most pecan pies, is in the low-and-slow baking.

Myrtle’s Pecan Pie

1 pie crust (I use Mark Bittman’s recipe for Flaky Pie Crust; you should prebake 10-15 minutes for best results.)

3 eggs
1 c. white Karo syrup
1 cup light brown sugar
1 stick butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups pecans (1 cup chopped, 1 cup halves)
Pinch salt

Prebake pie crust 10 minutes (pricked and using pie weights or something else to preserve its shape). Turn oven to 350.

Mix eggs with sugar, Karo, and butter.

Add the 1 cup chopped pecans and the vanilla, stirring to coat well.

Pour into pie shell. Add pecan halves, pushing under mixture to coat with syrup.

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes; turn heat down to 275 and finish off for about an hour or until pie center does not quiver when gently shaken.

Cross-posted with Grist

7 Responsesto “For when you Karo too much: In honor of MLK, Jr. Day, my great-grandmother’s pecan pie recipe”

  1. Marty says:

    Good luck to you with your journey. You might want to check out Washington State University – College of Agriculture- Organic Farming Department. WSU is located in Pullman Washington on the Washington / Idaho border. Amazing rolling wheat fields and a large group in the Pullman/ Moscow communities are committed to organic farming. I wish you and your family well!

  2. meemsnyc says:

    Oooh, how I love pecan pie. I’ll have to try this recipe.

  3. Alison Godlewski says:

    Or you can try the recipe below. I made a mini-one for Thanksgiving because I didn’t think many people would go for the healthy option. Boy was I wrong! It was gone faster than any of the other pies!
    2 cups almonds (raw, if available), soaked for one hour, drained, dried
    3 dozen pitted dates, soaked for one hour, drained (save water)
    1 tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice
    1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon sea salt
    1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    2 cups raw pecans, soaked for one hour, drained, dried (or see Alison’s modification at bottom)
    Extra-virgin olive oil
    Put almonds and 10 dates in a food processor and blend until they come together into a crust-like consistency. Add a small amount of water (saved from soaking the dates) if necessary to aid in bringing almonds and dates together.
    Grease a pie plate or 9-inch square baking pan with a light coat of extra-virgin olive oil – this will help prevent the pie from sticking to the plate.
    Use a spatula or the underside of a spoon to press the almond-date crust into the bottom of the plate or pan. Be sure to spread it up the sides of the plate or pan to form a full pie crust. Put the finished crust in the freezer until you are ready to fill it.
    Combine the remaining dates, fresh lemon or lime juice, cinnamon, sea salt, and vanilla in a food processor and blend until the mixture takes on a smooth, homogenized consistency. Use a small amount of water (left over from soaking dates) if necessary.
    Spread the date filling evenly over the almond-date crust.
    Arrange raw pecans on top of date filling and press down lightly to help keep the pecans in place.
    Enjoy this raw and healthy pecan pie!
    Alison’s modification:
    Don’t soak pecans. Mix pecans with one teaspoon olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and stevia/sucanat/sweetener of choice. Roast 15 minutes at 300 degrees, checking and stirring near the end often so they don’t burn. Arrange on top of date filling and press down lightly to help keep the pecans in place.

  4. Mmmm mmm mmm….my mouth was water reading this article. That’s the same way my grandmother made her pecan pie…with Karo corn syrup. She also lived in the Florida panhandle as well.

  5. cm says:

    Try cutting the Karo with Alaga- something I discovered when label-reading and browsing the syrup aisle looking for a replacement to make my mom’s pecan pie recipe last year (this southern girl can’t have christmas without it). It’s a mix of corn and cane syrup, made in Alabama, and a little more strongly flavored than the dark Karo my mom and granny always used- my guy likes the final pie better when I use a bit of Karo and Alaga for the rest- maybe 1/3 corn, 2/3 alaga? Anyway, just a tip… and as long as it isn’t everyday fare, don’t beat yourself up over it! :-)

  6. anne says:

    we use lyle’s golden syrup.

    I grew up with a maple-sweetened pie in upstate ny, but I can understand how that regional variation might not fly for someone from the south. try the lyle’s!