All Hail Texas Pecans! (and a recipe)

Kathleen Rice Adams headerIn 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 (19 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

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 6 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
Texas pecan orchard

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.

Texas pecan pie. Do you see how dark and luscious that is? Milk-custard, my hind leg.
Texas pecan pie. Do you 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 bunch of pecans, and sometimes bourbon.

Another thing Texans have been making with pecans for a long, long time is cinnamon-pecan cake—another treat lots of folks enjoy around the holidays. 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!


PecanCakeCinnamon 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.


VanillaWhiskeySauceWhiskey 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.


Folks in Fort Worth in the 1880s would’ve eaten this cake—or something very similar—during the holidays. That’s exactly when and where “A Long Way from St. Louis,” my contribution to Prairie Rose Publications’s Christmas anthology A Mail-Order Christmas Bride, takes place. The book—with stories by fellow fillies Cheryl Pierson and Tanya Hanson—bows November 27, but it’s available for pre-order now at Amazon.

PRPA MAIL ORDER CHRISTMAS BRIDE WEB.JPG FINALHere’s a little about “A Long Way from St. Louis”:

Cast out by St. Louis society when her husband leaves her for another, Elizabeth Adair goes west to marry a wealthy Texas rancher. Burning with anger over the deceit of a groom who is neither wealthy nor Texan, she refuses to wed and ends up on the backstreets of Fort Worth.

Ten years after Elizabeth’s father ran him out of St. Louis, Brendan Sheppard’s memory still sizzles with the rich man’s contempt. Riffraff. Alley trash. Son of an Irish drunkard. Yet, desire for a beautiful, unattainable girl continues to blaze in his heart.

When the debutante and the ne’er-do-well collide a long way from St. Louis, they’ll either douse an old flame…or forge a new love.


So, readers… What dish—dessert, main course, side, or appetizer—absolutely must be part of your holidays? I’ll give an ebook version of A Mail-Order Christmas Bride to one of today’s commenters who answers that question. (All Petticoats and Pistols sweepstakes rules apply to this giveaway.)


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42 thoughts on “All Hail Texas Pecans! (and a recipe)”

    • I have to make one of those for next week! And a pecan pie, and stuffing, and bread, and bread pudding. And I’m making the small part of the meal! 😀

      Hope you and yours have a great Thanksgiving, Alisa! 🙂

  1. I had not realized pecans were such an important part of Texas history and life. We did note the importance of them on the LBJ Ranch National Park several years ago when we visited. I would love to have a few trees on our property. A woman who lives not far from us was complaining to her mail carrier about the mess this tree was making in her yard. It dropped nuts all over and she had to rack them up and get rid of them. He looked at them and informed her it was a pecan tree and she was throwing out pecans. She had no idea. Too many people know what food looks like in a store but have no idea where it comes from.
    For me dressing/stuffing is a must have for the holidays. We add a lot to it and I can make a meal from just it. To stuffing crumbs we add celery and onions, sage sausage, dried craisins, diced chestnuts, and sometimes diced apricots.
    I will be trying your pecan cake recipe. We, too, tend to add spirits to our cooking. I add brandy to the mincemeat pies every year. I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    • I had to laugh about your neighbor, Patricia. People who haven’t been in Texas long can’t believe inside the thick, ugly, green husks are delicious pecans. The husks do make a mess.

      Your stuffing sounds delicious! I could make a meal of that, too. If I had to name just one favorite holiday food, it would be stuffing. I make mine with oysters and lots of onions and celery.

      You and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving, too! Remember: Calories don’t count on Thanksgiving Day. 😉

  2. My must have dessert is my mom’s apple pie. Nothing fancy, but I do like a crumb crust vs. a traditional pastry crust.

    Coincidentally, I am making a pecan pie for my mom this Thanksgiving. It’s her favorite and I don’t ever remember her making them herself. It will be my first time making one, so I am praying for success. I might make a pre-Thanksgiving pie for practice. Personally, I am not a pecan pie fan, but the cinnamon pecan cake looks amazing. I might have to make one of those, as well.

    • Anything your own mother makes is delicious…or else. 😉

      You’ll do fine with the pecan pie, Terrill. They’re really easy to make. Just be careful not to overfill the pie shell. The filling puffs up when it cooks, and then settles back down as it cools. I’ve got a great recipe, if you’d like to try it. I’ll be happy to email it to you. 🙂

      The cinnamon-pecan cake is scrumptious — especially with the whiskey sauce.

      Have a great Thanksgiving!

      • If you have time and see this, I would love your recipe. It’s nice to know that you’ve had success with it. Thanks for the helpful hints, as well. To be honest, I am more worried about the crust. I haven’t ever made a home-made crust (appalling, I know) but I want the pie to be from scratch 100%. 🙂 My email is: tlhcoupon(at)Hotmail(dot)com

      • I do have time, and I did see this. I’ll send the recipe in just a bit. 🙂

        Pies are the hardest part of making ANY pie from scratch. I bake a lot of pies, and I’ve finally thrown in the crust towel and cheat. If you go that direction, I recommend using one of the crusts rolled up in a box that you have to put in the pie plate yourself. In my experience, the frozen ones already in a pie plate are icky — tasteless and with the consistency of cardboard.

        One of the secrets to making sure the crust on a custard pie stays flaky is to brush the entire surface with a thin layer of egg white before filling. It really works!

        Let me round up the pecan pie recipe, and I’ll send it right along. Let me know how it turns out for you!

  3. I love the history on the Pecan. I love pecans and wish they weren’t so expensive. A must-have dessert is Pumpkin pie. Although, we often substitute squash or sweet potatoes for the pumpkin. It depends on what we have in the freezer.

    • You’re adaptable, Faith! You’d have made a great pioneer. 🙂

      I actually prefer sweet potato pie to pumpkin pie. Call me weird. Never had squash pie, but I’ll bet it would be good, too.

      All nuts have gotten expensive these days. That’s just distressing. 🙁

      Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  4. Wow, neat history regarding the pecan. I have always loved pecan pie. For the holidays I like pies, but not always pumpkin. Thanks for sharing the recipes!

  5. I love turkey with homemade dumplings but I guess the dessert is pecan pie. I still use my mother recipe for this and they are very good.

    • There’s just something about our mothers’ recipes, isn’t there? I’ll never be as good a cook as my mom, even though I use her recipes. She added extra love, or something. 🙂

      Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Quilt Lady!

  6. Kathleen, I can personally relate to pecan trees. I have one in my backyard that has to be 50 or 60 years old and it’s at least 100 ft. tall. Everyone who comes to visit remarks that it’s the tallest tree they ever saw. Who know how many families of squirrels live in it. Due to the rain this year, I have a bumper crop and beg everyone I know to come and pick some up. These are the good kind. Not that there is a bad pecan. I love them all. But mine are the soft shell and you can crack them without having to get out a hammer and chisel.

    Pecan pie is my favorite but I use pecans in everything from salads and cornbread dressing to pies, cakes and cookies. Often I put them in my morning oatmeal.

    To answer your question…my must-have Thanksgiving dish is the cornbread dressing.

    Hugs, my friend!

    • I’ll come get some of your pecans! 😀

      The papershell pecans are the best. I remember my mother being terribly frustrated one year because we were living in some Yankee state and she couldn’t get papershell pecans. Every family member on both sides who lived in Texas sent us whatever they could spare, but that was an off-year for the pecan trees. Poor Momma. Actually, poor Daddy. He’s the one who got to crack the hard pecans! 😀

      I’m with you on the cornbread stuffing! With giblet gravy on top.

      You and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving, my friend. Big hugs back atcha!

  7. My grandson wants pumpkin pie. My daughter wants ambrosia, made with pineapple, mandarin oranges, coconut and mini marshmallows. My sons want ham and deviled eggs. My Mexican hubby has gotten pretty good at making bread dressing. We had turkey enchiladas one year for thanksgiving one year. Turkey and ham are the stars on our table every year but the sides change with our evolving tastes.
    Love the pecan history! We have a 50 year old pecan tree in our front yard.

    • Michelle, you are so lucky to have that tree! I miss pecan trees. They don’t grow on Galveston. 🙁

      I had completely forgotten about ambrosia until you mentioned it. Love that salad! Do you put nuts in yours? (We, of course, put pecans in ours. 😀 )

      I love the international flavor you add to your Thanksgiving dinners. What fun that must be! I hope you have a wonderful one this year. 🙂

  8. Hi Kathleen, wow, I can’t wait to try these recipes. Whiskey sauce? Hubba. I love the history of these yummy nuts…makes me sad when trees are cut down for any reason. As for my personal preferences, it’s always pumpkin pie. But some of the fam prefer apple pie so we usually have both.One year I made a pie with apples and cranberries, and it turned out great. Happy Thanksgiving to you, my friend, and thanks for the shout-out about our anthology. I had such fun writing the story!

    • Ooh! Tanya, send me your recipe for that apple-cranberry pie, please? It sounds delicious. I’m going to maintain that because cranberries are so good for us, anything with cranberries in it is a justifiable diet sin. 😉

      Big happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, my friend! I loved “Her Holiday Husband”…but then, I love all of your stories. I can haz the rancher formerly known as Black Ankles, please? 😉


    • That’s the most important part of the holidays, isn’t it — family and memories.

      I hope you and yours make lovely new memories this Thanksgiving, Colleen. They can keep the others company. 🙂

  9. My family always loved pecans, and we were from Illinois. In our defense, Mom was born in Kentucky. Thanks for the history lesson (GRIN) and some great recipes. Now to make it gluten free. Doris

    • Doris, I’m no expert on gluten-free, but I imagine this cake would work with gluten-free flour. It’s a dense cake — a lot like the texture of quick bread — so maybe gluten-free flour would work. Does cornstarch have gluten in it? If you make the cake, you’ve got to have the whiskey sauce. You have my permission to add extra whiskey — I do! 😉

      HUGS, dear lady! Hope your Thanksgiving is as delightful as you are. 🙂

  10. Of course, my favorite pie of all time is pecan.
    But, I also like barbecued pecans. I don’t have a real recipe, but it has Wostershire (oh-that Lea and Perrins stuff-no matter who spells it 😉 ) Sauce, some garlic, salt, chili powder and a little hot sauce (optional) and some baking. I am sure there are more things that go in it, but just this will work. Maybe I should add some of that bourbon. Great as a replacement for that stuff made with cereal. LOL

    • Of course your favorite pie is pecan, KB! What else would it be? You’re a Texan, after all. 😀

      Your barbecued pecans sound delicious! Do you just toss in as much of each ingredient as you want? I’ve got to try those. They sound like they’d be perfect as an appetizer — and much less filling than the candied ones I usually make.

      Bourbon is good in anything. 😀

      Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, dear friend. HUGS!!!!

  11. Always my mother’s recipe for stuffing. My husband always votes for more and more pumpkin pie, but I think this year we may go for the pecan cake. Sounds yummy.

    • Go for the cake, Sally! You won’t be sorry. Make extra whiskey sauce, if your hubby needs convincing. 😉

      There seem to be a lot of us who love stuffing! Never a bad choice, IMO.

      Y’all have a great Thanksgiving!

  12. Pecans were always a BIG DEAL in our family, too, Kathleen. My dad would get a big huge bag of them cracked and then we’d sit out in the den and shell them while we watched tv. One Christmas my sister got him one of those nutcrackers that you pulled the half of it back, and let it go–it was powered with a thick rubber band. He used it some when she was there, but I noticed later he went back to his old way of cracking them with the hand-held squeeze nut cracker he’d been so used to. I love pecans and so does my husband, but neither of my kids like them!

    I think the main thing I can’t do without on Thanksgiving are the yeast rolls. No I don’t make them from scratch–I cheat and buy the frozen kind that have to rise, but they are so good you can’t tell the difference.

    Great post today, and I love that recipe you posted.

    • Even YOU could make that cake, Ms. I Don’t Bake. It’s easy! Just watch the whiskey sauce. It’ll put a grown man under the table. 😀

      My dad had one of those nutcrackers, too. I think he used it for about three pecans and then exactly what your dad did.

      I can’t believe your kids don’t like pecans! Oh, wait — yes I can. The whole lot of y’all are Okies. **ducking**

      Hope y’all have a wonderful Thanksgiving up yonder!

    • LOL! Goldie, you are a good sister-in-law. Somehow, I got roped into making a dozen pecan pies one year. Some friends brought me an ENORMOUS sack of shelled pecans, but there was a catch: I had to use half of them to make pecan pies for their Thanksgiving dinner, and their entirely family from four states would be there! No pressure. 😀

      I hope you and your family have a great Thanksgiving! Make your brother-in-law do something nice for you since you’re making him a whole pecan pie of his own. 🙂

  13. Thanks for the recipe, Kathleen! We HAVE to have both pecan and pumpkin pie. One of the less traditional dishes that help make any holiday meal for my now almost grown kids is Yorkshire pudding with tons of gravy. My mother in law skipped the ‘Yorkies’ last year and the kids were traumatized. 😉

  14. My aunt and uncle when they were alive would send a box of pecans every christmas they own a few trees, mind you i am allergic to nuts so could not enjoy them. Made my mother made but as a child i really didn’t mind.

  15. Pecan pie, my first mother-in-law’s recipe. For a few years I bought pecan pies from my friend who makes excellent pie, but my children revolted. They insist on the family recipe.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

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