Three sticky sweet ways to bake with pecans: in a roll, as a bar and as a savoury cookie

A sticky pecan roll with a sweet, crunchy caramelised bottom.
A sticky pecan roll with a sweet, crunchy caramelised bottom. NYTimes
Paint pecan rolls with an egg wash before baking.
Paint pecan rolls with an egg wash before baking. NYTimes
A rich filling of pecans, brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins is rolled in a rich yeasted dough for pecan rolls.
A rich filling of pecans, brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins is rolled in a rich yeasted dough for pecan rolls.NYTimes
This pecan shortbread is flavoured with a variety of fragrant spices for added oomph.
This pecan shortbread is flavoured with a variety of fragrant spices for added oomph. NYTimes
Add black pepper and fresh sage leaves to cookie dough for a savoury treat.
Add black pepper and fresh sage leaves to cookie dough for a savoury treat. NYTimes

NEW YORK - (NYTimes) Pecans, with their rich, buttery, sweet flavour, are considered by many to be the quintessential American nut.

They once grew wild throughout what is now the American South and Mexico. Native peoples foraged for these highly nutritious nuts, and Spanish explorers took pecans - along with other unknown New World foods like potatoes, tomatoes, corn and chilies - back to Europe for cultivation.

Today, orchards in the United States continue to produce most of the world's supply.

I have had them on the brain ever since I received a giant bag of new-crop pecans from a friend in New Mexico recently. With the holiday season (aka the baking season) nigh upon us, I began to think of what to do with them.

I don't have much of a sweet tooth, but I will happily make an exception when homemade pecan rolls or other members of the sticky bun family are in the room. And if they happen to be rolled in cinnamon sugar, so much the better.

Pecan rolls are a particularly fond childhood memory for me. Occasionally, a dozen freshly baked ones would arrive at our house, packed in a foil-lined shoe box - the gift of a doting aunt on a baking spree.

It was impossible not to eat at least two of them. I would eat them from the top down, unfurling the rolls' spiral layers and saving the sugary caramelised bottom for last.

Many years later, I found work as a professional baker, and making cinnamon rolls became a daily task. I baked dozens and dozens each day, even more on weekends, gaining proficiency, to say the least. (For quality control, I sampled one from each batch.) So playing with this pecan version was like riding a bike.

Some home bakers are fearful of yeasted doughs. Don't be. The key is to let the yeast do its work and allow the dough to rise sufficiently before popping your creations into the oven.

These pecan rolls are baked in muffin tins to help them puff proudly. Just be sure not to rush them: The longer they rise, the lighter they'll be. Bake them until the tops are nicely browned and well burnished. That is the way to ensure a golden glazed underside.

Don't we all love the classic gooey-nutty filling of a good pecan pie? For these pecan bars, I wanted a similar sensation, but with a heaping dose of spice. Cardamom, allspice, nutmeg and clove add a kind of peppery warmth to these. I also craved the earthy presence and deep dark hue that a touch of molasses can contribute.

Rather than rely on too much sugar or syrup, I folded chopped dates into the batter to increase the sticky factor. A thick layer of buttery shortbread is the base, baked in a square cake pan, with a generous layer of crisp pecans on top.

You can cut the flat pie into 3-inch bars or into bite-size pieces. The best thing about it is that you can store these bars at room temperature for days on end with no loss of quality. In fact, they seem to improve with a little age. They also freeze well.

I'll confess to a weakness for cheese puffs and other cheesy nibbles, and some kind of salty baked good is always welcome with drinks. For these savoury cookies, grated Parmesan was my choice. Chopped pecans, fresh sage and a good spoonful of coarsely ground black pepper went into the dough.

It is as easy to put together as any type of cookie dough, but not a speck of sugar goes in. The dough can be shaped into a log (keep a couple in the fridge at the ready) for slice-and-bake savoury cookies, or it may be rolled out like pie dough and cut into shapes. They'll keep a week in an airtight tin, if it's perched well out of reach; serve the cookies with cocktails or add them to a cheese board.

Surprise your friends and family with one of these pecan treats, or all three. Give them savoury pecan cookies to start, molasses-spiked pecan bars for dessert and a bag of sugar-dusted pecan rolls to take home for breakfast.


Savoury Pecan Cookies

2 cups/310 grams all-purpose flour

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp kosher salt

2 tbsps chopped fresh sage leaves

1 cup roughly chopped pecans

40g grated Parmesan (about 1 cup)

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 large eggs, beaten

Egg wash (see note)

Coarse sea salt

Method

1. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, pepper, salt, sage, pecans and Parmesan. Stir in oil and eggs and mix well. If dough seems crumbly, add a tablespoon of cold water and mix again.

2. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead dough for a minute or two, until smooth. Divide in half and roll each half into a cylinder that is 5cms in diameter. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours, or overnight.

3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. With a thin-bladed knife, slice 1/8-inch-thick rounds from each cylinder.

4. Use a spatula to transfer cookies to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Paint each cookie lightly with egg wash, if using, and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake in batches for 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool on a rack. Store in an airtight container.

Note: To make an egg wash, beat 1 whole egg with 2 tablespoons water. Leftover egg wash may be kept refrigerated for 3 days. You may use cookie cutters if you'd like. In Step 2, shape the dough into a disc before chilling. In Step 3, use a rolling pin to roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness, and cut out shapes.

Yield: About 30 cookies

Total time: 1 hour, plus chilling


Pecan-Raisin Rolls

For the dough

3/4 cup/180ml whole milk

2 tsps dry active yeast

2 tbsps sugar

1 tsp kosher salt

1 egg plus 1 egg yolk, beaten

1/2 cup/113g unsalted butter (1 stick), melted and cooled, plus butter for greasing muffin tins

2 3/4 cups/425g all-purpose flour

For the filling

2 cups/360g light brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 cup/120g chopped pecans

1 cup/150g golden raisins, soaked 30 minutes in warm water and drained

Egg wash (see note)

For the topping (optional)

1 cup/100g granulated sugar

1/2 tsp cinnamon

Method

1. Prepare the dough: Put milk in a mixing bowl and stir in yeast and sugar. Leave until mixture begins to bubble, about 10 minutes.

2. Whisk in salt, beaten egg and melted butter, then stir in flour until a rough dough forms. Knead dough until smooth, soft and satiny, about 5 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

3. Butter a standard 12-muffin tin. Punch down dough and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out to a rectangle approximately 30-by-20cms.

4. Prepare the filling: Mix together brown sugar, cinnamon, pecans and raisins. Sprinkle mixture evenly over rolled-out dough.

5. As if rolling up a carpet, roll dough tightly into a 30cms-long cylinder. Cut into 12 equal pieces, about 85g each. Set dough pieces flat side down into buttered muffin tin and paint each lightly with egg wash. (At this point, unbaked rolls may be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated overnight, to be baked the next day if you'd like.)

6. Heat oven to 176 degrees Celsius. Loosely cover muffin tin with plastic wrap and put in a warm place to rise. Let rolls rise until doubled, about 45 minutes. Paint rolls lightly with egg wash, place tin on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes, until tops of rolls are well browned. Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes.

7. Carefully invert hot muffin tin over a baking sheet. Use a fork if necessary to help remove rolls from tin. Be careful: The hot caramelised sugar on rolls will cause a bad burn if dripped on skin.

If desired, make topping by combining sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle rolls with the topping while still warm. Let rolls cool bottom side up on baking sheet.

Note: To make egg wash, beat 1 whole egg with 2 tablespoons water. Leftover egg wash may be kept refrigerated for 3 days.

Yield: 12 rolls

Total time: 2 hours, plus rising


Spiced Pecan Date Shortbread Bars

For the shortbread crust:

2 cups/310g all-purpose flour

1 cup/227g unsalted butter (2 sticks), chilled, cut in 1-inch chunks

1/2 cup/50g confectioners' sugar

1/2 tsp kosher salt

For the filling

4 tbsps/56g unsalted butter, melted

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup/60ml molasses

1/4 cup/60ml golden syrup or organic corn syrup

1/2 tsp cardamom

1/4 tsp allspice

1/4 tsp clove

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp orange zest

1 tbsp dark rum

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

113g chopped dates (about 1 cup)

227g pecan halves or pieces (about 2 cups)

Method

1. Heat oven to 176 degrees Celsius.

2. Make the shortbread crust: Pulse flour, butter, confectioners' sugar and salt in a food processor until mixture looks like wet sand. Alternatively, work the mixture with fingertips or a pastry cutter.

3. Press shortbread mixture into the bottom of a 22-by-22cms square cake pan in an even layer. Bake crust for 20 minutes, until very lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool.

4. Meanwhile, make the filling: In a medium saucepan, whisk together melted butter, eggs, molasses, golden syrup, cardamom, allspice, clove, nutmeg, salt, orange zest, rum and vanilla extract. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until mixture thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Stir in dates.

5. Pour filling over prebaked crust, then sprinkle pecans over filling. Bake for 30 minutes, or until filling is no longer jiggly and seems set.

6. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of pan to loosen cake, then invert pan over a cutting board to remove. Invert again and cool completely before cutting into bars approximately 3.5-by-7.5 cms.

Yield: 18 bars

Total time: 1 hour