I’ve Been Making These “Mini Pecan Pie” Cookies Since I Was 12 Years Old

updated Jun 28, 2021
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Maple Pecan Tassies
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Credit: Angela Chung

One of my mother’s favorite memories, she likes to say at dinner parties, is when she came home from work one night to find 12-year-old me making cookies while my 6-year-old brother, Josh, stood on a kitchen chair in front of the sink, washing dishes. “I said, ‘What is going on here?’” my mom recounts, laughing. 

“He was begging for mini pecan pies,” I replied, according to my mom. “I told him I would only make them if he did the dishes,” I said, explaining how I coerced my brother into cleaning so I could do what I loved most: baking. 

Josh couldn’t be bought for just any dessert, though. The only reliable bribe was a batch of pecan tassies, which were called “mini pecan pies” in our house. I can’t remember exactly where I stumbled upon the recipe, but the original is long lost; I’ve made this tart-cookie hybrid so many times that I’ve memorized the recipe. 

Pecan tassies start with a soft cream cheese dough, which is pressed into the bottom and up the sides of the cups of a mini muffin pan. The uncooked pastry cups are then filled with a buttery, brown sugar-y, pecan-laden goop. The crust browns in the oven as the filling puffs and sets. The result is a delightful two-bite confection, more elegant, I always thought — and easier and more casual to build — than a pie. 

Plus, I’ve always felt that pecan pie can be cloyingly sweet, because the crust-to-filling ratio is off. Not only does the pecan tassie solve the ratio problem, but the cream cheese in the crust also adds a subtle tartness that complements the molasses flavor in the filling, and levels out the sweetness throughout.

Credit: Angela Chung

Tracing the Murky History of the Pecan Tassie

Like many cookies, documentation on the origin of the pecan tassie is thin. It’s clearly a little sister to pecan pie, which is itself a cousin of Southern chess pie, British treacle tarts, French butter tarts, and their ilk. The word “tassie” predates pecan pie and probably comes from the Scottish tassie, for little cup or glass, according to Merriam-Webster, which is derived from the French la tasse. Miniature muffin tins are also called tassie pans. Although tassies can be filled with any kind of buttery, sugary mixture, and although their crust can be made with or without cream cheese, it’s likely that the present-day pecan tassie originated in the mid-1900s in the American south.

In Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, food historian Michael Krondl writes that “Pecan pie originates with British ‘transparent pudding,’ a custard made with sugar, melted butter, and eggs and baked in a crust. In the United States this was renamed chess pie by the 1860s. Then someone had the brilliant idea to add pecans, probably only in the late 1880s.” Pecans are native to the Southern U.S. (and Mexico), and have been used in butter and sugar pies since at least the 1700s, according to The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut, by James McWilliams. But it wasn’t until the advent of Karo syrup that “pecan pie was elevated from a regional to a national dish” in the 1940s, McWilliams writes. This is where the history and ingredients of pecan pie and pecan tassies diverge. Pecan tassie filling never contains corn syrup, and pecan pie is not baked in a cream cheese-enriched crust. 

If Karo syrup was responsible for the widespread popularity of pecan pie, Philadelphia brand cream cheese may have been at least partially responsible for the spread of the pecan tassie in America. The French, Scots, and English had been making cream cheese since at least the 1700s (here’s a recipe in the 1780 edition of The Farmers’ Wife), and home recipes were widely printed in periodicals and books through the 1800s (here’s one in an American agricultural journal dated 1844). But cream cheese wasn’t mass produced or widely available in the U.S. until the end of the 19th century.

By the 1950s, recipes for cookie dough made with cream cheese were appearing in Philadelphia-brand recipe pamphlets. One from the 1950s features a recipe for apricot turnovers based on a cream cheese dough. By the 1980s, Kraft was publishing dozens of recipe booklets starring Philadelphia cream cheese, available in checkout aisles. Pecan tassies, more or less as we know them today, first started appearing in these pamphlets in the 1980s. 

Good Housekeeping and Better Homes & Gardens magazines also published half a dozen recipes for pecan tassies in the 1980s and 1990s, always calling for cream cheese in the dough if not calling for Philly by name. Holiday issues produced riffs on the classic formula, like cranberry-pecan tassies, or chocolate-bourbon tassies. But few bakeries seemed to sell them, solidifying their status as a homemade treat.

The Pecan Tassie Recipe You Ned to Try This Year

Recently, when I asked a group of pastry chefs, bakers, and dessert-lovers if they’d heard of my brother’s favorite cookies, none of them had. That’s why I was surprised and excited to find pecan tassies featured in Joanne Chang’s new cookbook, Pastry Love: A Baker’s Journal of Favorite Recipes. Chang, who grew up in Houston, Texas, says she didn’t get a taste of the crispy, buttery cookie until one of her cooks made them for a special event. “They’re so easy to love,” says Chang. “The perfect two-bite treat, not overly sweet. My favorite part is the cream cheese dough, which is so forgiving.” 

Most pastry dough hates being handled; bakers are taught to keep pastry very cold, to mix and roll it gently, and to let it rest. But the addition of cream cheese in this dough gives it a lot of flexibility. Once I made pecan tassies in the middle of a humid Chicago summer when the AC had gone out, and the fridge was on the fritz. The dough stuck to my fingers as I impatiently pressed it into place, and the butter seemed to ooze out of it. Full of doubt, I filled them and stuck them in the oven — as my brother did the dishes, of course. When they emerged, the tassies were as flaky and crisp as could be, smelling of browned butter and caramelized sugar and toasty nuts. As they bake they always make the kitchen smell like the inside of a holiday bakeshop. But to me, they’ll always smell like home.

Maple Pecan Tassies

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 24 minutes to 28 minutes

Makes 24 tassies

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the dough:

  • 1/2 cup

    (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 6 tablespoons

    cream cheese (3 ounces), at warm room temperature

  • 1 cup

    plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 1/8 teaspoon

    kosher salt

For the tassies:

  • 1 cup

    pecan halves

  • 2/3 cup

    firmly packed light brown sugar

  • 1/4 cup

    maple syrup

  • 3

    large eggs, at room temperature

  • 3 tablespoons

    unsalted butter, melted and cooled

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    kosher salt

Instructions

Make the dough:

  1. In a small bowl with a wooden spoon, or in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and cream cheese together until smooth. Gradually add the flour and salt and mix until well combined. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm enough to handle, at least 1 hour.

For the tassies:

  1. Shape the dough into 24 (1-inch in diameter) balls and press them evenly onto the bottoms and up the sides of the 24 cups of a mini muffin tin. Set aside.

  2. Preheat the oven to 350°F and place a rack in the center of the oven. Toast the pecans on a baking sheet for 6 to 8 minutes, until they are lightly toasted inside; break a few open to check. Let cool, then roughly chop into small pieces. Set aside.

  3. In a medium bowl, stir together the brown sugar, maple syrup, eggs, butter, vanilla, and salt. Add about half the chopped pecans and mix until well combined. Spoon the mixture evenly into the prepared shells (2 to 3 teaspoons per cup), filling them all the way. Sprinkle them generously and evenly with the remaining nuts.

  4. Bake until they are puffed and brown, rotating the muffin tin midway through the baking time, 24 to 28 minutes total.

  5. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes in the tin on a wire rack. Pop them out of the pans and continue cooling on the wire rack.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The dough can be stored, well wrapped, in the fridge for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month. Let thaw overnight in the fridge before using.

Storage: Pecan tassies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Maple Pecan Tassies is excerpted from Pastry Love: A Baker’s Journal of Favorite Recipes © 2019 by Joanne Chang. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.