My maternal grandfather had a culinary knack. He spent World War II as a cook in Europe, and on returning from the War, owned his own restaurant, worked the galley on tug boats that plied the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, and just generally made life tasty for his family.
When I married the Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal Fellow, my wedding present from my grandfather was a blackberry pie: his own pastry crust (made with pure lard and incredibly perfect), the filling made from blackberries he picked from his own secret blackberry patch somewhere on his mountain. My gift did not include the pie plate, or the recipes. Just the pie.
Having a Scottish Hermit Pie Genius for a grandfather can be interesting.
I don’t know that Grandpa kept his recipes private out of a desire to retain their uniqueness for his own acclaim, or if he just figured they were nothing too special, and anyone half-clever and willing to play about a bit would figure out their own versions. Whatever his motivation, he didn’t share a lot of recipes during his lifetime. When he died, my mother and Aunties made copies of his recipe cards (written in implacably clear penmanship) so everyone could have every recipe, complete with the smudges, fingerprints, and smears of a lifetime of use.
My favorite recipe of his, growing up, was Cream Pie. The nifty thing about his cream pie recipe was the flexibility: it could be done in plain vanilla, or banana, or coconut, or chocolate, or just about any other flavor we liked. It worked equally well with pre-baked pastry crusts, or graham cracker crusts, or gingersnap crust, or walnut shortbread crust. It was easy to vary the sweetness, easy to adapt the final thickness. The ingredients are simple, with no added colors, preservatives, or xantham gums.
Having made these pies for my own family, I’m torn: should I adopt a Scottish Hermit Pie Genius attitude, and keep them to myself? Or should I share these simple, tasty recipes as much as I can, so others can enjoy them? I lean toward the latter, as I’m not big on “secret” recipes. Besides, if a person is clever, they’d figure things out on their own anyhow, eventually.
Bill Stewart’s Basic Cream Pie
Filling for one pie; if you want to make multiples with similar bases (such as a banana cream and a coconut cream), double the batch; if you want to do one chocolate and one vanilla, however, make separate batches.
As with most recipes developed in the mid-20th century, the original instructions call for doing all this over a double boiler or bain marie. I prefer to take a Slacker Scottish Hermit Pie Genius tack, and the results are lovely, so that’s what I’m sharing. Due to modern pasteurization, you do not need to scald the milk before making the pie filling; if you are using raw milk, do bring the milk to 185* to halt the raw milk enzymes that would otherwise prevent it from thickening the filling.
In a medium saucepot, whisk together:
- 1/2 cup sugar (or a bit less if you prefer)
- 1/3 cup flour
- 1/8 tsp salt
Add and whisk in:
- 2 cups milk (or, 1 cup evaporated milk plus 1 cup water)
- 3 egg yolks, beaten
A few notes on using egg yolks: after you have separated the whites from the yolk, carefully pinch through the yolk membrane, and let the yolk run out, discarding the membrane and chalazae (the white cordy bits). Using only the yolks, without the membranes, gives you a much smoother finish, and you won’t run into any cooked white chunky things. It’s worth the small bit of mess and effort.
Also, if you know you want a more custardy finish for a cleaner slice, use 4 egg yolks.You can also use duck egg yolks in this pie; you want about 1/3 cup yolks for each 2 cups milk.
Whisk everything smooth, and bring it to a gentle boil, whisking frequently, over medium heat. Stirring regularly and evenly improves the texture of the filling. It will begin to thicken as it simmers; keep stirring, scraping the bottom neatly, until the mixture is quite thick, and looks like a hot mineral mud pool, blooping away in a tidy manner. The filling should coat a spoon well, and hold a bit of a soft, mounded, ripply blop when dropped back into the pot. It will thicken further on chilling.
To finish, add and whisk smooth:
- 1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoons good butter (do not substitute margarine or other spreads. Chemicals kill. If you don’t want to add butter, just skip this part.)
Pour the filling into a pre-baked pie crust of your choice, and chill thoroughly before serving. You may choose to spread or decoratively pipe real stiff-whipped cream (very lightly sweetened, no additional vanilla) on top of the cream filling.
You can rapidly cool the filling on its own by dipping the saucepot half-way into a bowl of ice and water, and stirring the filling around, scraping the sides and bottom well as you fold the mixture over onto itself.
That’s the base. Now, some tasty variations!
Dairy Addict Variation: Whip 1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream with 1-2 tablespoons of confectioner’s or powdered sugar, until quite stiff. Fold well into the cooled filling, then spoon into the pie crust. This makes for a less-sweet, but very delicate and creamy, version of the filling, and can be combined with any other variation.
Coconut Cream Variation: Toast 1/2 cup flaked coconut; fold this into cooled pie filling, reserving a tablespoon or so to garnish the top.
Banana Cream Variation:Thinly slice and arrange one banana over the bottom and sides of the pie crust; spoon in and smooth 1/3 of the filling, then add another banana, sliced and arranged. Top with the remaining filling and smooth it, then add a bit of whipped cream spread over the top, or piped in a decorative pattern.
Chocolate Cream Variation: Add either two 1-oz squares of unsweetened baking chocolate, grated or chopped fine, to the dry ingredients; or add 1/4 cup dutch process cocoa powder to the dry ingredients (a bit more if you prefer dark chocolate).
Chocolate Mint Cream Variation: Use a chocolate cookie crust, and the chocolate cream pie variation. Add peppermint extract to taste, decreasing the vanilla extract slightly
Grasshopper Cream Pie Variation: Make the plain base recipe, adding a dab of green food coloring paste with the peppermint extract. Top with a few reserved chocolate crumbs, or drizzle with hot fudge topping.
Peppermint Pig Cream Pie Variation: Tint the basic cream pie with deep pink food coloring paste, and add peppermint extract. Use a graham or chocolate cookie crust. Sprinkle crushed peppermint candies on top.
Chocolate-Peanut Butter Cream Pie Variation: My lovely sister created this one. Once the dry ingredients and milk/eggs are blended, but before heating, she halves one basic recipe, adding 1 oz unsweetened chocolate plus 1/2 a regular sized commercial chocolate bar (grated) to one half, and peanut butter (to taste) to the other half, then layers chocolate, peanut butter, and chocolate in the crust. A finish of whipped cream, and the other half of the chocolate bar, shaved on top, makes for a fairly sinister pie. Sinister pie is a good thing.
So yes, it’s a fairly versatile base… my mother has even adapted it to use agave nectar rather than sugar, and makes a flourless nut crust, to accommodate her and Dad’s medical needs!
I’m sorry, I have no picture to share. I baked the most recent iterations late at night, and didn’t get photos before my scavenging heathen minions ate pie for breakfast. Sure, they had approval from the night before, but I had hoped they’d wait until the light got rosy, at least… I am an eternal optimist.