Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Oma's Pecan Tarts

Pecans are a Southern treat; pop-up stores and mall shopping carts are peddling them all over my hometown during the holidays, and my family is known to ship candied, chocolate-covered, chocolate-and-toffee-covered, and butter-roasted gift sets of them to each other for Christmas, birthdays, and other occasions (a gift card just doesn't remind one of home in quite the same way!).

Every year my grandmother (who we have always lovingly called "Oma") collects and shells her own pecans in the late summer and freezes them for the winter months, so that we can always have her special pecan tarts for the holidays. Tiny pecan pies, they're little bites of a Southern classic (though you may decide you'd like two bites, or four...). Oma makes plates of these to exchange with her friends but keeps plenty around for us to have all we can eat, too. This year she let my sister Olivia and I help her make them. She also gave me her recipe so that I can continue the tradition by making my own, and I am happy to share it in this post, for anyone else who might like to try a taste of my family's holiday treats.

These tarts have a simple cream cheese-based crust and a sugary chopped pecan filling, and they are baked in miniature muffin pans. To shape the dough to the muffin cups, we used a Pampered Chef mini-tart shaper that my mom came across a handful of years ago, but you can also use your hands to do it, as my grandmother did for years before this nifty little gadget happened onto the scene.

Because we usually give these as gifts, Oma's recipe makes a large batch, but it can be easily halved.

Olivia with the tart crusts

Shaping the tart crusts

Filling the tarts

Oma's Pecan Tarts
Makes between 4 and 5 dozen

For the crust:
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling:
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups chopped pecans (this is an approximate measurement, you may want to keep an additional cup handy)

Prepare the dough for the crust in advance. Cream together the cream cheese and butter, then add the flour and beat until combined. You can turn the dough out and wrap it in plastic to form a ball, or just cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a separate bowl, prepare the filling by combining the eggs, brown sugar, butter and vanilla. Stir in pecans. The syrup should coat the pecans well, but the filling should not be soupy. If it is, add more pecans.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Using your hands, roll the dough into balls a little smaller than 1 inch in diameter (you might have to experiment to get the right amount of dough for your size muffin pan cups). Place one ball of dough per muffin cup. Mold each ball of dough to its cup. If you are using a tart-shaper, keep a small bowl of flour nearby to coat it before pressing each cup so that it doesn't stick to the dough. If you are using your hands, use a little flour to keep the dough from sticking to your fingers. Make sure there are no holes in the shells, because the sticky filling will cause the tart to stick to the pan.

Fill each tart shell almost to its brim with pecan filling (do not overfill) and bake for 25-30 minutes. After baking, turn the tarts out onto paper towels, or a drying rack if you have one. If any of the tarts stick, use a knife to gently loosen them.

The pecans, for me, make these mini-pies nostalgic, but I'm sure you could substitute any other pie filling, too. I'm thinking I'd like to make these on my own with apple pie filling, pumpkin pie filling, or something savory like spinach.

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