Pecan tarts are essentially a traditional southern American invention – they were supposed to have brought over by French settlers in the Louisiana region who adapted sugar pies with locally available ingredients like pecans. Most pecan pie recipes incorporate Karo corn syrup (purportedly developed by a wife of a Karo Corn Syrup salesman) which contributes to its gooey, sugary texture.
According to Eater, traditional southern pecan tarts (and pies) did not gain widespread popularity until the mid-1900s when the makers of Karo Syrup started posting the recipe on the backside of their product cans. Pecans are usually harvested in the autumn (September – November) which coincides with the holiday period in the United States. It’s probably obvious why they are a staple during Thanksgiving meals at many southern families.
FUN FACT: Theorists might argue that Pecan pies as such are the ‘anti pie. Pies or tarts are usually supposed to be an item of frugality. However, pecans by themselves are not exactly economical (usually running at around $3-$5 per pound).
Making Pecan Tarts
The best things about these pecan tarts is that they are a LOT less sugary than a pecan pie. Pecan pies can be cloyingly sweet because the crust to filling ratio is just (in my opinion) wonky! Pecan tarts also pack in a lot of flavor compared to pies where the filling takes more priority.
- Mixing Bowls – If there ever was a fire in my house, my Pyrex mixing bowl set is probably one of the things I’ll grab first. These bowls have been with me for almost 10 years now and are still going strong.
- Tart Pans – I used these nonstick 4-inch tart pans for my dish. They have a removable base which is great for removing the baked tarts without damaging the crust. You can use a traditional shallow pie dish but what’s the fun in that? Aren’t these small tarts so darn adorable?
Key Ingredients and Substitutions
- Pecans – There are close to a thousand different varieties of pecans across the world. In the US, pecans are popular from the Texas region because of their inherent rich and buttery taste. Your grocery store pecans may be sourced from a variety of other regions like Georgia, Alabama or even California. There might be slight variations in the taste of a small pecan nut vs a large nut. However, it has little to none effect on the overall recipe.
- Cream Cheese – The dough for these tarts is actually made with cream cheese. This dough is made from scratch before being pressed into shape in the tart pans. The best part about it is that it doesn’t crumble easily like most other doughs – the cream cheese gives it flexibility while you mold it. It also gives the tart a soft flaky texture but also complements the sugary filling very well.
If you don’t have cream cheese, you can use mascarpone in 1:1 substitution or a 50/50 blend of ricotta cheese and heavy cream. Mascarpone can be slightly richer and denser than cream cheese.
- Butter – I can not stress enough how important it is to bake with butter at room temperature. I talk about it at length in my dutch apple cake recipe post. Essentially, using room temperature butter has a direct impact on the doughiness of your crust.
- Brown Sugar – Another big element of this Traditional Southern Pecan Tarts recipe (apart from the cream cheese dough) is from the brown sugar. It gives you the same gooey filling texture without having to use corn syrup.
To make a healthier version of the tart, you can use a sugar free alternative to brown sugar like Swerve’s brown sweetener. If your local store doesn’t stock Swerve brown sweetener, then you can make it by adding 1/2 Tbsp molasses to 1/2 cup granular sweetener of your choice.
Start with making the tart dough because it needs to be chilled for at least an hour. This is a perfect thing to make in advance if you’re hosting a large party.
- Cream the butter: To make the dough, first cream the butter and cream cheese together. Remember, they have to both be at room temperature. Use a hand mixer to cream the mixture but if you don’t have one, you can use a whisk or a wooden spoon. Your butter is creamed when it becomes light yellow in color and almost doubles in size.
- Work the dough: Add the flour to the sugar and cream cheese mixture. Now work the mixture into a dough using your fingers. The dough is actually not sticky and rolls very easily.
- Roll and Chill: Roll the dough into a ball, wrap with wax paper and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour. You can actually make this the previous day and it will taste just fine.
- Mold into Tart Pan: Take out the chilled dough and cut into equal parts. Place the cream cheese dough into tart pan mold and press evenly to form a well distributed mold.
The filling is actually quite easy to make. It’s just a lot of mixing which can be done using a fork or a whisk.
- Mix the wet ingredients: Add sugar, vanilla, egg and salt to a mixing bowl and gently mix it together. Do not try to go overboard with the mixing though. Just do it till the egg is well dissolved and appears slightly beaten.
- Add crumbled pecans: Loosely crumble pecans with your hand and add to the wet mixture. Mix it together.
- Spoon into tart pans: Transfer to the tart pans one spoon at a time. Make sure you just fill it to a tad below the brim because the dough will bake and rise a little at the bottom. Layer pecan halves in your desired pattern over the filling.
- Bake and Cool: Bake for about 20 minutes and let it cool before serving.
These traditional southern pecan tarts are usually meant to be eaten by themselves. If you want an accompanying beverage, you can serve it with a dark and stormy cocktail.
You can add bourbon, chocolate, maple or cinnamon to the recipe to give it a unique twist.
These traditional southern pecan tarts can be stored outside for several days in an airtight container or frozen for up to a month. However, they will need to thawed in the fridge overnight before consuming.
Other Pecan Recipes
Frequently Asked Questions
Pee-kahn, pick-ahn or pic-kahn. There are numerous alternatives but if you want to stick to the true southern etymology, the best way to pronounce it is pic-kahn.
Apart from size differences, tarts usually have a slimmer filling with an open top. Pies in general are baked with a filling and a crust and served in the pie pan. Tarts are supposed to be held on their own.
Pecans are very low in carbs and have monosaturated fats which is great for someone on a low carb-high fat diet. However, they can pack in a lot of calories which makes it necessary that one limit their daily intake to 10-15 nuts.
Yes, of course.
Yes, you can use mascarpone or a blend of ricotta cheese and heavy cream.
Traditional Southern Pecan Tarts
- Mixing Bowls
- Tart Pans
- Hand Mixer (optional)
- 3 oz Cream Cheese, Softened
- ⅓ cup Unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup All Purpose Flour
- 1 Egg
- ¾ cup Light Brown Sugar
- 1 tsp Vanilla Extract
- ⅛ tsp salt
- 1 cup crumbled pecans
- 1 cup Pecan Halves
For Tart Crust
- Blend the cream cheese and butter together using a hand mixer or wooden spoon.
- Add 1 cup flour to the cheese and butter mixture and work into a dough using your hands.
- Roll the dough into a ball, wrap with wax paper and chill for at least 1 hour.
- Cut the chilled dough into equal parts. Place in tart pan and press evenly on the sides and bottom to form a well distributed mold.
- Preheat oven to 325°F. Add sugar, egg, vanilla and salt to a mixing bowl and beat lightly using a fork or wooden spoon.
- Add the crumbled pecans to the wet mixture and mix till well blended.
- Add a spoonful at a time to the tart pans until the filling rises to just below the top of the pan.
- Top with pecan halves in your desired pattern.
- Bake for 20 minutes and let cool on a rack before serving.
- Make sure cream cheese and butter are at room temperature before creaming together
- You can substitute light brown sugar with a dark brown sugar.
- These pie tarts can be stored for several days outside in an airtight container.
- You can make 24 mini tarts using two 12 count muffin tins (instead of tart pans) with the same recipe.