VAIL, Colorado --Pecan tassies are a classic pastry. Their tender, cream-cheese crust and rich, pecan and brown sugar filling are loved by many and have, for years, been baked in kitchens throughout the United States and the United Kingdom.
The only exception? Kitchens in homes at altitudes above 8,000 feet. Where we live, the usual recipes for pecan tassies are often disastrous - the filling erupts or separates, gluing the tassie securely to the pan and frustrating the baker.
The culprit, it seems, is corn syrup, a key ingredient commonly found in recipes for tassies. Apparently, it's responsible for the boil-over that causes us so much grief. But, hallelujah. I've found a solution: This recipe features a filling made without it. The result is tasty, lush, and very close to the corn syrup version, but not quite as sweet. My testers (all adults) actually consider it an improvement.
The tassies are good at room temperature but absolutely divine when served warm. I make them ahead of time (up to two days before serving), rewarm them in the oven, and set them on the table accompanied by sweetened berries for a crowd-pleasing dessert.
Make in tartlet pans (1 1/2 inches across; 3/4 of an inch deep) or mini muffin pans of the same size
Makes 12; the recipe can be doubled
2 ounces of cream cheese (low fat or regular)
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon of granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour (dip measuring cup into the flour and level the top)
1/2 cup of pecans
1 large egg
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed, soft, dark brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon of vanilla
A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon of unsalted butter, melted
Step One: Make the crusts. Using a food processor, an electric mixer or by hand, beat (pulse) the cream cheese, unsalted butter, sugar and salt until smooth. (If using a mixer or a fork, the cream cheese and butter should be room temperature.) Add the flour and continue to mix (pulse briefly in a food processor) until the dough forms a loose ball. Shape the dough into a disc about an inch thick, wrap it in plastic or waxed paper, and refrigerate until it's firm enough to roll (about 30 minutes in my refrigerator). While the dough chills, preheat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the center position. Put a baking sheet on the rack to heat up as the oven warms. Generously grease the tartlet pans or mini-muffin cups. If you're using tartlet pans, put them on a cookie sheet or low-sided baking pan for ease in handling and transporting them.
Step Two: Roll the dough to a thickness of about an eighth of an inch (I do this between two sheets of waxed paper). Using a 2 1/2-inch round biscuit or cookie cutter, cut out 12 circles. Gather the dough scraps, re-roll and cut again if necessary. Gently fit the dough circles into the prepared tartlet pans or muffin cups, taking care not to stretch or tear them. Refrigerate the crusts while you make the filling.
Step Three: Make the filling./ Reserve 12 of the most attractive whole pecans and chop the remaining nuts into small pieces. In a bowl or two-cup measure with a spout, whisk the egg, then add the brown sugar a tablespoon at a time, whisking after each addition, until the mixture is smooth and combined. Add the vanilla, salt and melted butter and whisk until the mixture is thoroughly blended.
Step Four. Remove the pan from the refrigerator. Divide the chopped nuts evenly among the 12 tartlet pans or muffin cups. Cover the nuts with the filling, leaving at least an eighth of an inch of the crust showing. Set a whole pecan in the middle of the filling of each tassie. Place the tartlet pans or muffin pan on the heated baking sheet and bake until the filling is puffed and set and the crust is firm (start checking at about 15 minutes). Don't overbake; you want the filling soft and a little gooey. Remove the pan to a cooling rack.
Step Five. Serve the tassies warm (by far, the best) or at room temperature. To re-warm them, put them on a cookie sheet, cover them loosely with aluminum foil and place them in a 325-degree oven until they're warm to the touch (about 6-8 minutes if the tassies are at room-temperature when they enter the oven). Store them in an air-tight container in the refrigerator or at cool room temperature.
The crust recipe is a variation of one in King Arthur Flour's Baker's Companion.
The filling is a variation of one in Best-Ever Pastry Cookbook.
Vera Dawson, a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Colorado Mountain College, lives in Summit County, where she bakes almost every day. Her recipes have been tested in her home kitchen and, whenever necessary, altered until they work at our altitude. Contact her with your comments about this column and/or your baking questions at email@example.com.