I was never good at math. Like most girls, I excelled in verbal acrobatics and science, but math and history were, well, Greek to me. Not surprising, I guess, since so much of what we know of math was first contemplated, theorized, solved, and proved thousands of years ago in ancient Greece. Of course, there was Pythagoras and his theorem. And then Archimedes, who first calculated an approximation of Pi (π)–the ratio of any circle’s circumference in proportion to its diameter– around 300 BC. They were pretty smart and all, but they got one thing very wrong. Pie are NOT square. Pies are most definitely, round.
The good news is, that the Grecians also gave us Baklava, Finikia, Dolmades, Spanikopita, and so many of my favorite foods that I owe eternal homage to Zeus and the rest of the guys on Mount Olympus. Don’t even get me started on Greek beverages–the pleasure of sweet Greek wine, and the merits of authentic Ouzo. I’m speaking of real Ouzo that you can’t buy in the United States, not the licorice liqueur garbage sold here. The kind my Navy pilot friends used to smuggle out of Greece in Avon bubble bath bottles. Yes, it’s that good.
Anyway, even though they got the whole Pie Are Squared thing wrong, the Greeks have spent thousands of years nailing it on how pie is supposed to taste. Using simple, natural, locally available ingredients (honey, walnuts, fresh cheeses, etc..) they created the earliest renditions of modern favorites. Pecan pie, cheesecake, and nut tarts could all trace some of their earliest incarnations to Ancient Greece. Meat pies and other savory pies too. We’ve come a long way since then. Sometimes, we lose a lot of ground coming a long way.
I have some cookbooks from the 1920’s that were my great-great-grandmothers. I used to think that the excessively brief ingredient lists in some of them were simply a sign of the times, in her time. Vinegar Pie and Egg-less, Milk-less, Butter-less Cake must have been a culmination of Depression era thrift and war era rationing. After years of piddling and experimentation in the kitchen, I have a different theory. While I am sure both thrift and lack of staples contributed largely to the culinary landscape of Grandma Ethel’s time, hasn’t every generation faced some rough patches? War and famine. Disease and epidemics. Blights and plagues. But the basic recipes that defined a people and its culture have stood up relatively well to the test of time. Until recently.
The advent of modern technologies such as the internet and social networking, combined with the explosive Foodie culture as changed the culinary landscape forever. And there is nothing wrong with wanting a change of scenery now and then. If you want a recipe for something new, something you have never heard of, made of some weird fruit you picked up at the gourmet food market, you simply have to “Google” it. Instantly you are connected to food and beverage recipes that your grandparents would never have imagined. That’s awesome. What’s not awesome is losing your roots. Forgetting where you came from. Maybe a Passion Fruit Panna Cotta with Key Lime Tuiles served in Spun Sugar Baskets is appropriate at your sister’s art opening, or at open mic night at your poetry club gathering, but sometimes its good to get back to the basics. A recipe simply prepared with readily available ingredients, using your great-great-grandma’s recipe, and lots of love.
Thanksgiving is an ideal time to remember who you are, where your people came from, and how you got where you are today. Save the Dragon Fruit for a New Year’s Eve Soiree, and bust out some custard pie this week.
Among the many pies I will be preparing this week are Sugar Cream Pie, Buttermilk Pie, and Cottage Cheese Apple Pie. I am guessing you have never heard of at least one of them. Not because they are the latest rage to hit the Foodie airwaves, but because they are older than your great-grandma and aren’t in food “style” right now. But like your bell bottoms, everything comes back in style. Unlike your bell bottoms, it is not regrettable that these old pies are back on the radar. Try any of these, and you’ll get rave reviews despite the shocking lack of Coulee, Ganache, or a Green Tea Foam. And not one of them is square.
Sugar Cream Pie
- 1 (9-inch) pie shell, your favorite recipe
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk
- 1 1/4 cups heavy cream
- 5 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 5 tablespoons butter
- freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat oven to 325* and place rack in lowest position.
Prick the bottom of a 9″ pie crust with a fork. Bake at 325* for 5 minutes.
Mix sugar, cornstarch, and salt in saucepan. Whisk in milk and cream, a little at a time, to create a smooth mixture. Over medium-high heat, cook to boiling, stirring constantly. Continue cooking until mixture is very thick. Remove from heat and beat in vanilla and butter. Pour the custard into par-baked pie shell, and grate fresh nutmeg over the top. Bake 50 minutes or until firmly set.
Serves 6 to 8.
Also known as chess pie, buttermilk pie can be very sweet, but this recipe uses almost half the sugar that most recipes call for, and is still delightfully sweet, homey, and delicious. It looks almost exactly like the Sugar Cream Pie, except with a browner, crustier top. I am sure my Granny made lots of pies, but this is the one I remember best.
Makes 2-9″ pies
- 2-9″ unbaked pie shells, your favorite recipe
- 1 cup butter, softened
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 6 eggs
- 2 cups buttermilk, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
Preheat oven to 350*, and place rack in lowest part of the oven.
Beat butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in flour, and then eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in buttermilk, vanilla and nutmeg. Pour into pie shells, and bake for 1 hour, or until set. Cool completely before serving at room temperature.
- 1 1/2 cups apples, peeled, cored, and sliced thin
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- prepared 9″ Pastry Shell
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1 cup scalded whole milk, cooled
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup small curd cottage cheese
Preheat oven to 425*, and place rack in its lowest position.
Combine apples, sugar and spices. Pour into prepared pastry shell. Bake 15 minutes. Meanwhile add sugar and salt to eggs, combine with hot milk and cream. Add vanilla and cottage cheese. Pour over apple mixture. Decrease oven temp to 350* and bake for 40 minutes, until set and lightly browned.
With an oven always going, and the smells of baked goods wafting up the stairs, all the pesky neighbor boys are on standby for sampling. The millisecond that the smell of something baking hits the collective smell receptors of the half-dozen teenagers in my game room, great noise ensues. It sounds like a herd of water buffalo running down the stairs. But that’s okay–I always know where my boys are, and who they are with. So when I make ANYTHING, I always make two of ’em….