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by Amy Tornquist ’88
When I was little, my mother and I drove from Durham to Williamston every two weeks to see my grandmother. On those trips, my mother would teach me about all the things we were seeing — the differences between peanuts and soybeans, about winter wheat and cotton and how to recognize a pecan tree. You could tell where large, old houses used to be by the lines of giant pecan trees along the side of the road.
My cousin Tom had two pecan trees in his backyard. For many years, he would send up baggies of pecans with me to Durham. The flavor was perfect — fresh, nutty and bright. You can really only tell the difference between an old pecan and a truly fresh pecan after you have had one once. After that, you will always know a pecan that has been stored for months.
As a lifelong Southerner, I never even think about the fact that pecans aren’t like almonds or walnuts and grown all over. My daughter and I made a pecan pie for a soccer coach of hers. He had no clue what the nut was. Having been raised in Leicester, England, he had just never laid eyes on one before. When he asked my daughter whether the nut in our pie was a walnut, we were nonplussed. How can someone be alive on Earth and not know the wonderful pecan?
In Williamston, when you have pecan trees, you can take the nuts to be shelled when the shelling machines come to town, and you can sell the nuts for a pretty penny. They get more expensive every year. When my grandmother had very special parties, she would bake pecans in the oven to toast them with butter, then cover them in salt. So delicious and decadent. And a sign of a truly special event at our house.
I am a real fan of pecan pie. But I do often find it a little sweet. So we took a traditional recipe and began adding several ounces of bittersweet chocolate. Along with bourbon or dark rum, the chocolate brings out the nuttiness of the pie while still allowing the rich sweetness to come through without being overpowering.
Amy Tornquist ’88, with more than 20 years of culinary experience, owns Watts Grocery and Sage & Swift Gourmet Catering and previously was with the Nasher Museum Cafe, all in Durham. She trained with the late Bill Neal of Crook’s Corner and at the La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. She is past president of the board of SEEDS, a nonprofit supporting sustainable gardening, and is on the Farm to Fork Committee, sponsoring the Farm to Fork Picnic each June to support the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and Breeze Farm. For more, go to www.wattsgrocery.com and www.sageandswift.com.
Makes one 9-inch pie
⅓ cup unsalted butter
1⅓ cups brown sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 teaspoon salt
6 ounces melted semisweet chocolate
Toasted pecans to fill the bottom of a 9-inch pie shell