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Food for Thought: Baking the 'impossible' pie

OK, I could have taken more trouble crimping the crust.
The L&T Cheryl DeGroot
OK, I could have taken more trouble crimping the crust.


This story originally aired Dec. 11, 2019.  

When someone asks me "Do you like a challenge, Dick?" I start looking around for the exits. So what was I thinking when I tried to make Stella Parks' "Impossible" pecan pie pie – a baking project even its creator warns against attempting. The recipe was originally in the draft for her BraveTart pastry cookbook, but the editors thought it too difficult for inclusion.

Parks famously refuses to publish the recipe. She doesn't want to deal with the desperate questions and moans of anguish from those who foolishly try it. If you want her Impossible Pecan Pie recipe, you have to ask her for it and she'll send it but you're on your your own. 

I did, she did, and I was.  

Pecan pie is usually a pretty simple project. You can find a perfectly good recipe on the back of the Karo syrup bottle. They'll even sell you a kit. Stella's method uses no Karo, requires a digital clip-on candy thermometer and close attention to a very narrow range of temperatures. I wasn't careful enough the first time and scorched the caramel, wasting almost $13 worth of whole pecans.

But I got back on the pecan horse and gave it another shot last weekend. Success! It was the Platonic Ideal of pecan pies, with a bit of chew to the filling and just a whiff of the bourbon I flavored it with.  

The filling goes in a pre-baked shell. Stella's recipe for Old Fashioned All-Butter Flaky Pie Crust is the one to go with. One elegant tip she offers is to line the unbaked shell with aluminum foil and fill it to the brim with sugar. Works way better than pie weights or beans. And after an hour in the oven the sugar will have toasted slightly, giving it more depth of flavor, making it the perfect choice for the caramel the filling is based on.

Credit Stein / KNKX

I called Nancy Leson to brag and she demanded a slice. She was in Tacoma that day and I met her in the parking lot. "It was like a drug deal," she said.

Great as the pie is, it's pretty rich stuff so DeGroot and I saved about a third of it and I brought the rest in to share with the pie-hounds here at the Tacoma studios.

Credit Stein / KNKX
After an hour in the KNKX lunch room.

You can watch an entertaining video of Serious Eats culinary director Daniel Gritzer attempting to tame the Dark Lord of Pecans, with commentary by Stella.  It won't include the recipe, but you can watch the process.

So how hard was it, really?  Kind of hard but not impossible after all. And for me, well worth the effort. I'm definitely going to make this pie again. 

But not for a while.

"Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass