Growing up as a preacher’s kid in the South had distinct disadvantages. We lived in borrowed houses that sometimes seemed to have been made entirely of plate glass, since everything we said and did was subject to the scrutiny of the whole community. There were advantages too. One of the best was that all of those borrowed houses had at least one enormous pecan tree in the backyard which provided a perfect shady playground in summer and each Fall bore a bumper crop of nuts just in time for the holidays. Every year my mother gave a big reception for the church after the Christmas Cantata. We lived on a tight budget, but Mama could pinch a penny until Lincoln hollered. The food was always plentiful and elegant, partly because she took full advantage of that bounty from the backyard.
All through the Fall, the whole family was put to work gathering, cracking, shelling, and picking endless bushels of pecans. And for days before the big event, our kitchen was fragrant with pecans roasting in butter for salting and piling into footed silver dishes, or toasting plain for pairing with coconut in a rich cookie filling, for folding into fruitcake cookies, and as the crowning glory for Mama’s cheese wafers. To this day that smell practically defines Christmas. I just can’t imagine the holidays without having a tin of pecans or cheese wafers ready for company or for a fortifying nibble to get me through the busiest time of year. It’s hard to fathom that the bounty has not always been around.
While pecans are a species of hickory tree native to the South, they’ve only been cultivated commercially for about a century. Wild pecans have been used by Southern cooks for centuries, but recipes calling for this nut by name didn’t begin to appear in regional cookbooks until the end of the nineteenth century, and were not commonplace until after commercial pecan farming took off in the 1930s. Most of the earliest recipes were for baked goods and candy, but over the years, they’ve gradually found their way into all kinds of dishes, from a rich dressing for turkey and game birds, to creamy buttered pecan ice cream. One of my favorites is the luxurious lemon-scented brown butter included here, because it’s simple, easy, and turns the plainest dish into the star of any party.
Mama’s Pecan-Cheese Wafers
Yield: About 12 dozen
These savory cookies were one of the highlights of that reception table. Crisp puffed rice cereal gives them a more delicate, airy crunch than the usual cheese straws and wafers. The toasted pecans on top give them just the right contrast and substance.
10 ounces (1¼ cups or 2½ sticks) butter, softened
2½ pounds very sharp cheddar, grated
5 cups all purpose flour
2½ teaspoons salt
1¼ teaspoons cayenne pepper
5 cups puffed rice cereal (such as Rice Crispies)
About 3 cups whole pecan halves
Cream the butter until fluffy and then add the cheddar and cream until light. Whisk or sift together the flour, salt, and cayenne. Work the flour into the butter and cheese and then work in the crisped cereal. Cover and refrigerate about 20 minutes.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease your hands and take up small lumps of the dough and roll them into a ball a little less than an inch in diameter. Lay them on an ungreased cookie sheet and lightly flatten with the back of your hand. Press a pecan into each wafer.
Bake in the center of the oven until lightly colored, about 18 to 20 minutes. Cool on the cookie sheet and store in airtight tins.
Lemon-Pecan Brown Butter
This sumptuous and easy brown butter sauce turns ordinary steamed or blanched vegetables, broiled fish fillets, and sautéed chicken or turkey cutlets into an elegant party centerpiece. Though it will go with almost any green vegetable, I like to pair it with halved and steamed Brussels sprouts and baked sweet potatoes. It’s also lovely with broiled flounder, snapper, or sea bass, and sautéed turkey cutlets.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup pecans
1 lemon, zest removed and cut into fine julienne, then halved
Put the butter in a sauté pan that will hold the pecans in one layer and turn on the heat to medium high. When it is melted and beginning to bubble, add the pecans and sauté, tossing frequently, until the butter and pecans are a uniform golden-brown.
Add the lemon zest and the juice from half the lemon. Cook for half a minute longer and remove the pan from the heat. Refresh with another squeeze of lemon juice, taste and season with salt, then swirl and taste one last time. Pour the sauce directly over the food and serve immediately.