Wednesday, April 12, 2017

All Hail Texas Pecans! (and a recipe)

In Texas, pecans are a Big Deal. The trees are native to the state, and according the archaeological record, they’ve been here since long before humans arrived. When people did arrive, they glommed onto the nuts right away as an excellent source of essential vitamins (nineteen of them, in fact), fats, and proteins. Comanches and other American Indians considered the nuts a dietary staple, combining pecans with fruits and other nuts to make a sort of “trail mix.” They also used pecan milk to make an energy drink and thickened stews and soups with the ground meat. Most Indians carried stores of the nuts with them when they traveled long distances, because pecans would sustain them when no other food sources were available.

Texas pecans. Ain't they cute?
An individual Texas pecan tree may live for more than 1,000 years. Some grow to more than 100 feet tall.

Pecans have been an important agricultural product in Texas since the mid-1800s. In 1850, 1,525 bushels left the Port of Galveston; just four years later, the number of bushels exceeded 13,000. In 1866, the ports at Galveston, Indianola, and Port Lavaca combined shipped more than 20,000 barrels of pecans.

Nevertheless, as the state’s population exploded, pecan groves dwindled. Trees were cut to clear fields for cotton. Pecan wood was used to make wagon parts and farm implements. One of Texas’s great natural resources was depleted so quickly that in 1904, the legislature considered passing laws to prevent the complete disappearance of the pecan.

Left alone to regenerate for a couple of decades, Texas pecan groves came back bigger than ever. Until 1945, Texas trees produced more 30 percent of the U.S. pecan crop. In 1910, pecan production in the state reached nearly six million pounds, and the trees grew in all but eight counties. During the 1920s, Texas exported 500 railcar loads per year, and that was only 75 percent of the state’s crop. The average annual production between 1936 and 1946 was just shy of 27 million pounds; in 1948, a banner year for pecan production, the crop zoomed to 43 million pounds produced by 3,212,633 trees. In 1972, the harvest reached a whopping 75 million pounds.

Texas pecan orchard. Pecans make great climbing trees.
During the Great Depression, the pecan industry provided jobs for many Texans. The nuts had to be harvested and shelled. Shelling employed 12,000 to 15,000 people in San Antonio alone.

The Texas legislature designated the pecan the official state tree in 1919. Between then and now, pecan nuts became Texas’s official state health food (Texas has an official health food?), and pecan pie became the state’s official pie (and my official favorite pie). Pecan wood is used to make baseball bats, hammer handles, furniture, wall paneling, flooring, carvings, and firewood.

Yep. Pecans have always been, and continue to be, a Big Deal in Texas—especially during the holidays. I’d be surprised if any native Texans don’t bake at least one pecan pie for either Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner or both. Then there are folks like me who bake them year-round, just because they’re delicious.

Texas pecan pie. See how dark and luscious that is?
Milk-custard, my hind leg.
The first known appearance of a pecan pie recipe in print can be found on page 95 in the February 6, 1886, issue of Harper’s Bazaar. I’ll bet Texans were baking the pies long before that, though—and I’ll bet even back then Texas pecan pies weren’t the wimpy little milk-custard-based, meringue-covered things Harper’s recommended. In Texas, we make our pecan pies with brown sugar, molasses or corn syrup, butter, eggs, a whole mess of pecans, and sometimes bourbon.

Another thing Texans have been making with pecans for a long, long time is cinnamon-pecan cake. My family doesn’t put bourbon in this dessert. Instead, we pour a delicious whiskey sauce over each slice. (It occurs to me that for a passel of Baptists, my family sure cooks with a lot of liquor. See the old family recipe for muscadine wine here.)

On to the cake recipe!

Cinnamon Pecan Cake

1 cup butter, softened
2 ½ cups sugar
5 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup milk
1 cup chopped pecans
Additional chopped pecans or pecan halves for topping, if desired

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and lightly flour two 9x5x3-inch loaf pans.

In large bowl, combine flour, cinnamon, baking powder, and salt.

In another large bowl, beat butter and sugar at medium speed 3 to 4 minutes or until light and fluffy. Beating at low speed, add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

At low speed, alternately add milk and flour mixture into sugar mixture, beating just until blended. Fold in pecans. Spread in pans. Sprinkle chopped pecans or arrange pecan halves on top, if desired.

Bake 1 hour or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans 10 minutes; remove to wire rack and cool completely.

Whiskey Sauce

1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
½ Tbsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. water
3 Tbsp. sugar
¼ cup bourbon

In small saucepan over medium heat, bring cream to a boil.

Whisk cornstarch and water together and add to cream while whisking constantly.

Bring to a boil, whisk and simmer until thickened (taking care not to scorch the mixture on the bottom). Remove from heat.

Stir in sugar and bourbon. Taste. Add sugar and whiskey to adjust sweetness and flavor, if desired.

A Texan to the bone, Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperadoes. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen’s stories, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.

Visit her hideout on the web at


  1. Here in Virginia, I have a love-hate relationship with a pecan tree. The thing looms over 100 tall. If it breaks, it will fall on my house even though it's in a neighbors yard! A branch about 1/2 up the tree came down 15 years ago and landed on my carriage house. The very leafy tips of that branch skimmed my house. The base of that branch was bigger than the circle a man can make with his arms. So I fear every bad storm. But I love the pecans. One year, I must of picked up over a gallon of pecans that had blown into my backyard. My neighbor got more in his yard. Oh yummy! But that beautiful tree, and it is beautiful, is the main food source for a half dozen squirrels. And what do they do? They bury the nuts so they can eat them later. I've actually stood by my back door and watched them bury dozens of nuts in my yard on a matter of minutes. Do you know how difficult it is to pull one those little trees out of the ground? I'm constantly fighting with pecan trees in my flower beds.

    I must try that Cinnamon Pecan Cake! I can tell by the ingredients that it will be delicious. Pecans are one of my favorite nuts. (Nuts are so good for us!) It is nice to have a free source of pecans. Seems I manage to pick up a few each fall on my way to the car. I've learned to stomp on them enough to crack that hard shell so I can eat them on my way.

  2. Keep an eye on that tree! My parents had one fall on their house during a hurricane, and that a mess. Right afterward, they had all the trees close enough to fall on the house cut down: pines, pecans, oaks... The good thing about that was they had a lot of firewood. ;-)

    I hate pulling up tree seedlings, too. Sadly, we don't have pecans here, but palm and oak seedlings sprout from my trees, and the neighbor's chinaberry tree believes in sharing. Birds love palm fruit, which ferments on the ground. Ever had a bunch of drunken birds in your yard? It's not pretty.

    Do try the cake! It's delicious.

    Thanks for stopping by! :-)

    1. LOL The birds eat last season's holy berries in the spring and get drunk. It's so funny!

      I can't afford to remove my neighbor's tree. I just watch it during storms. We moved a car from the driveway during one hurricane because of the pecan tree only to have another tree fall on that car! :-(

  3. Kathleen, pecan pie is a favorite at our house, too. Daughter Bea brings one for Thanksgiving and Christmas and for my husband's birthday. Supposedly, the largest and oldest Texas pecan is on the Finch property in Parker County.

  4. Pecans have been part of my life since I was a child. At my grandmother's house.. close to Turkey family would drag an old quilt or tarp...something..and spread it under a pecan tree. Then Daddy would work his magic and make those pecans shower down. Mother and us girls eagerly grabbed them up and dumped them into a tow sack.
    Daddy spent his winters cracking pecans for Mother. Since he couldn't read very well, he liked having something to do. He constructed a pecan cracker that worked as well as any bought in a store. We have that out in the shop as a keepsake...I think.
    Mother made a pecan cake each Christmas that none of us girls could duplicate. We can list the ingredients, but somehow it doesn't come out right. (same with pie crusts, sad to say.)
    Our golf course in San Marcos has many pecan trees, and in the fall, you'll see people out there picking up pecans.
    However..the Native Pecan is small and hard and time-consuming to crack and "pick."
    Each October, the Bluebonnet Lions Club--the women's group--in San Marcos sell shelled pecans as a fund raiser. These come from commercial companies in East Texas, a great place to grow pecan trees.
    I order 8 one pound bags each year.(I fear running out of good pecans)--One bag is $9. I hoard these to last a year..but I do give one to our daughter each Christmas. She's the baker in the family...not me.
    I make a pecan pie called Hattie's Pecan Pie. It calls for white Karo Syrup instead of dark. I like the white much better. I have also used this basic recipe to create my own, I call "Rum Raisin Pecan Pie." I began making it for a fundraiser where our church serves lunch at a small historic cottage. Well, after the first year, when I brought my offering of two of these pies, the volunteer workers got paper plates and snatched pieces to "save", so that guests had only half a pie left. And yes, it is good.
    Thanks. I enjoyed this and made me look at my stash to see how many bags I have left. They must last until October.
    I will not buy pecans in a store.

  5. Well golly, Kathleen, so good to read this post from one of my fav Texan Compadres. My sister's ranch in Colorado County was originally settled by a family of Germans back in the day and the first thing they did was plant 77 pecan trees. It's an awesome old orchard. Over the last 40 years our family have harvested and delighted in the pecan crop and shared with anyone-everyone. I bake dozens of pies during the holidays and - OH! you should taste my pralines! The recipe brought across the Sabine River when my mother's parents "immigrated" from Louisiana during the oil boom days.
    Great post! Thanks a bunch.

  6. I am so happy to see your post, Kathleen, for so many reasons.
    Now I'm just going to admit right here and now that I know absolutely nothing about pecan trees and what the statistics are here in North Carolina. I DO know that I don't have any here on my property, but I can buy them at the Fresh Market from local farmers and in the grocery stores when I need a pecan fix.
    I am loving pecan pies and roasted pecans. I never heard of a custard pecan pie. Seems like there oughta be a law against that. I saw your pecan cake and I have to admit, I've never had one of those, but now that you've posted the recipe, I am definitely going to give that a try. I saw Celia had a rum raisin pecan pie she makes. Sounds mighty interesting.
    This was a delightful post, Kathleen.

  7. I truly love recipes including Pecans and I am going to try that cake too! Pecans are the most favorite of nuts for me. I always incorporate them in my baking no matter what nut the recipe calls for, I use pecans... well except in a peanut butter cookie calling for peanuts!

  8. Love Texas pecans, especially the paper shell. Next to lemon meringue, pecan is my favorite and please don't ruin it by putting chocolate in it.

  9. Just a question. Do you slice the cake and serve it with the sauce? It doesn't say in the recipe.. just want to make sure I do it right!

  10. I made persimmon pecan bread for Christmas. It lasted about five minutes--guess I'll have to make it again. Pecan pie? Manna from heaven, especially when you make it in the pecan crust. Yummy. Which is why I rarely make it. LOL.


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