That’s a very interesting question. I’ve received several opinions on the subject from readers since I posted my intention to make pecan pie, oh, way back in 2014. I confess I’m sympathetic to the no-syrup school, if only because the idea of a syrup-less pecan pie emits a strong odor of authenticity. I mean, people were making pecan pies before the invention of corn syrup, right?
Actually not really. It’s true that pecan pies were eaten in American prior to the heyday of corn syrup, mostly in and around Texas. However these recipes were qualitatively different than later, more popular pecan pies in that they were sweet egg-and-milk custards with pecans stirred in, usually topped with meringue. The first published recipe for such a pie appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1886.
These pies remained something of a regional specialty until the The Corn Products Refining Company of New York and Chicago, makers of Karo syrup, began publishing a recipe for pecan pie on the sides of its bottles. This new pie, supposedly invented by the wife of a Karo salesman, was similar to the Texas pecan pie in that it was still a custard, just one made with Karo corn syrup instead of milk. That of course made the pie sweeter than the Texas version, about on par with other syrup-based pies and tarts like molasses (shoofly) pie, sorghum pie and British treacle tart. It goes without saying that the added sweetness made a meringue topping more or less superfluous.
It goes without saying that new sweetened and simplified pecan pie took off in a very serious way, quickly becoming a national favorite to the point that it now ranks as the 6th most popular pie in America.
So it seems to me that if we’re talking classic pecan pie we really are talking about a syrup-based pie of some sort. There are of course several types of syrup to choose from. Some readers mentioned pies based on maple syrup, others molasses or Lyle’s Golden Syrup. My problem with these syrups as a base for pecan pie is that they’re all a lot sweeter than Karo syrup. Standard corn syrup, as you may recall, is only about 85% as sweet as table sugar.
So having reflected on the issue I have to say I’m going with a Karo syrup-based pecan pie. Not because I necessarily think it’s superior to all other options, but because it’s the classic and I generally gravitate toward classic preparations. If you don’t like my decision I hope you’ll at least agree my logic is sound…(ish).