I never thought to simmer down maple syrup until it turns thick, viscous, and extremely maple-y until I made Bill Yosses’s maple ice cream recipe. Yosses, the pastry chef at the White House and a good friend of mine (we wrote a cookbook together), reduces the syrup to eliminate as much of the water as possible, which gives the smoothest, silkiest textured ice cream imaginable, with an intense maple flavor. He also recommends reducing maple syrup for any recipe in which you want an extremely vibrant maple character.
After trying his amazing ice cream recipe, I began to think about what else might benefit from reduced maple syrup’s profound caramel sweetness, and came up with pecan pie recipe. The problem with most maple pecan pies is that the maple becomes shy and quiet in the company of all those assertive toasted nuts. Simmering down the syrup, I hoped, would help it hold its own. So I tried it and it worked beautifully, with the sweet maple in perfect balance with the nutty pecans. It became my go-to pecan pie technique for years.
Then one Thanksgiving, I decided to add a layer of complexity to the pecan pie by infusing whole spices into the maple syrup while it was simmering. I chose star anise because I thought the sharp, woodsy fennel flavor would add an unexpected nuance to the classic combination of maple and nuts. That’s just what happened. My pie was warm and licorice-y from the anise, toasty from the roasted pecans, and as syrupy, sugary, and toothachingly sweet as a proper pecan pie should be. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though a dollop of crème fraîche tempers the gooey filling without compromising its integrity.–Melissa Clark
LC Added Embellishments Note
What a nifty little trick–simmer maple syrup until almost tarry in color and consistency, steep it with spice, and rely on it to infuse baked goods with a ridiculously intense maple-y essence. You’ll never look at a pecan pie recipe the same way again. Although quite perfect as-is, this pie did inspire Melissa Clark to ponder a few additional tricks and techniques. Below, her optional suggestions…
Mapley Goodness If you can get Grade B maple syrup, which has a fuller, richer flavor than the usual Grade A stuff, your pie will be even more maple-y. That’s what I use.
Not Partial to Pecans? Toasted cashews would be a really nice, buttery, soft substitute for the pecans.
Sissy When It Comes to Spicy If you want to skip the star anise, go right ahead. You’ll be left with a stellar, simpler, and more traditional pie with an excellent, deep maple flavor.
Ooooh Now We’re Talking… Sometimes I like to drizzle melted extra-bitter (72 percent) chocolate all over the top of the pie. It helps cut the sweetness and adds chocolate, which never hurts anything.
Spiced Maple Pecan Pie with Star Anise
For the crust
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter chilled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 2 to 5 tablespoons ice water
Make the crust
- In a food processor, briefly pulse together the flour and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture forms lima bean–size pieces, maybe three to five 1-second pulses. Add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until the mixture is just moist enough to hold together. Form the dough into a ball, wrap with plastic, and flatten into a disc. Refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 1 week before rolling out and baking it. (You can freeze the dough for up to 4 months.)
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the piecrust to a 12-inch circle. Transfer the crust to a 9-inch pie plate. Fold over any excess dough, then crimp as decoratively as you can manage.
- Prick the crust all over with a fork. Freeze the crust for 15 minutes or refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F (204°C).
- Cover the crust with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights (you can use pennies, rice, or dried beans for this; I use pennies). Bake for 20 minutes; remove the foil and weights and bake until pale golden, about 5 minutes more. Cool on a rack until needed.
Make the pecan pie filling
- In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the maple syrup, sugar, and star anise to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the mixture is very thick, all the sugar has dissolved, and the syrup measures 1 cup, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit for 1 hour for the anise to infuse.
- While the syrup is infusing, toast the nuts. Preheat the oven to 325°F (163°C). Spread the pecans out on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven until they start to smell nutty, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- Remove the star anise from the syrup. Warm the syrup if necessary to make it pourable but not hot (you can pop it in the microwave for a few seconds if you’ve moved it to a measuring cup). In a medium bowl, whisk together the syrup mixture, eggs, melted butter, rum, and salt. Fold in the pecan halves. Place the crust on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet and then pour the filling into the crust. Bake until the pecan pie is firm to the touch but jiggles slightly when moved, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool to room temperature before serving with whipped crème fraîche.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
Melissa Clark is right. Cook this now. This pecan pie isn’t cloyingly sweet like pecan pie can be, but it’s definitely not a demure pie either. Boiled-down maple syrup, star anise (I think you could substitute a few cinnamon sticks if you’re licorice averse), and dark rum combine for a complexity that plain old corn syrup could never match. I did run into one small hiccup. The maple syrup hardened into what looked like a huge praline while I steeped the star anise. It was easy enough to reheat before whisking into the eggs.
With Thanksgiving coming up, I thought I would give this pecan-pie-with-a-twist a try. From the first simmering of the star anise in the maple syrup, I knew it would be a winner. The maple syrup and licorice flavoring were a delicious combination. My tasters felt that the filling had a more subtle, not an in-your-face sweetness, contrary to Clark’s description that it would be “toothachingly sweet.” The recipe was so easy to make. Overall, the subtle taste of the syrup and star anise with the pecans was delicious, and I would make this again.
Originally published November 19, 2011