Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Look! It's a pie on your head!

There's a pie on your head, literally.

It's going to be a long, cold winter. You might as well have pie.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crack Pie

Recently, a friend mentioned that she had eaten a heavenly slice of crack pie.


Crack Pie?


Creamy and silky, rich and intense, buttery and super sweet, and topped with a big dose of crack.

That would be the top of the pie that often CRACKS during baking. Or perhaps it is because this pie is as addictive as CRACK?

I've had it at the Momofuku Bakery, the same place my friend tried it. Yes, crack pie is good. Very good. And yes, crack pie is addictive.

But Crack Pie is simply a riff on that Southern classic, Chess Pie which is probably one of the most basic pies in the pie universe, and a very old recipe indeed. And like most old folkloric things, the name Chess Pie is highly debated.

According to this website, The original cook book diva and the original "Martha," Martha Washington, wife of that president dude, documented the pie in the mid-1700s in her classic cook book, Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery. Here is Martha's recipe, spelled out in all its convoluted old fashioned early American English language glory:

To make very good chee[secakes without] cheese curd
Take a quart of cream, & when it boyles take 14 eggs; If they be very yallow take out 2 or 3 of the youlks; put them into [the] cream when it boyles & keep it with continuall stirring till it be thick like curd. [Then] put into it sugar & currans, of each halfe a pound; ye currans must first be plumpt in faire water; then take a pound of butter & put into the curd a quarter of [that] butter; [then] take a quart of fine flowre, & put [the] resto of [the] butter to it in little bits, with 4 or 5 spoonsfulls of faire water, make [the] paste of it & when it is well mingled beat it on a table & soe roule it out.. Then put [the] curd into [the] paste, first putting therein 2 nutmeggs slyced, a little salt, & a little rosewater; [the] eggs must be well beaten before you put them in; & for [your] paste you may make them up into what fashion you please..

But unlike the mind teaser directions above, the Chess Pie is actually super simple to make: butter, sugar, brown sugar, eggs, a wee bit of corn meal flour, and either heavy cream, buttermilk or milk depending on the cook's signature. Some add a bit of vinegar as well. The fancy bakery in New York City that calls it CRACK PIE sometimes dusts theirs with powdered sugar, but you can do as you wish.

Some folks add vanilla to theirs, some add chocolate or fruits like pineapple or coconut. My mother makes hers with lemon, another classic Southern version. In fact, my mother's lemon chess pie is so lemony it makes my mouth pucker. I'm certain there are other variations on a theme out there though, such as coffee, liquor flavors or who knows what else. There is even a version called polka dot chess pie that contains raisins and chopped nuts.

Me? I just like plain old chess pie.

So here is a much more modern, and much easier to follow recipe for Crack (aka Chess) Pie. The two things to remember? 1. the more you mix the filling, the more of a chance the pie will crack on top. 2. Do not over bake. Just like Pecan Pie (which is really a riff on chess pie with the addition of pecans), when a knife inserted into the center just comes out clean, the pie is done baking.


1 9" unbaked pie shell
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon fine cornmeal
5 eggs
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon cider vinegar (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
1/2 cup melted butter


Combine granulated sugar, light brown sugar, and corn meal.

Beat in eggs one at a time.

Stir in whipping cream, cider vinegar, vanilla extract, and melted butter.

Pour into unbaked pie shell.

Bake on middle rack at 400 F for 10 minutes. (this helps create the CRACK)

Lower heat to 325 F and continue baking for 45 minutes more.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My Pecan Pie

I'm a southern lady at heart and by birthright. And although my family may not have been some weird religious nuts with distinctive black and white modest dress sense who crashed on Plymouth Rock back in the old fashioned days, The Castons have been rocking it here since well, since before the revolution. You know what revolution I'm talking about. That does not make me better or worse, nor any more or less American than you.

I do know one thing though: southern lady cooks are often a passionate sort and prone to pride, especially when it comes to their pies. It's a cultural thing. I'm no exception. My grandmother Keeter on my mother's side (we just called her Nana) was a terrific cook and could whip up a batch of chicken n' dumplings without messing up her new manicure while making the dough or bake a pie with her eyes closed. Ditto for my Grandmother Caston (Meemaw, that's what we called her). And my Aunt. And my Mother. And well, you name it.

And although my mother makes a mean Lemon Chess pie, a delightful Pumpkin Chiffon, and is one of the finest bakers and makers of just about any other dessert you might name, I think my pecan pie is better than hers. There, I've said it. Sorry Mom, I love you, and your pecan pie is mighty fine, but it is just too rich. I mean, I adore the fact that you don't use that nasty corn syrup crap in yours, but an all brown sugar sweetened filling is just too sweet for my taste buds. It's so sweet it hurts. And not in a good way.

So here I present my version of perfection, still based on Mom's recipe but a little bit better: Lizzy Caston's true Southern Pecan Pie.

Some factoids:
  1. Pecans are native to North America, roughly west of the Mississippi and South of the Mason Dixon
  2. Early Spanish and British explorers took the pecan from the New World back to the Old World and in places as far away as Asia in the 1600s, but pecans never really caught on outside of America.
  3. Pecan trees are a type of Hickory tree, and the wood is much valued in furniture, for flooring and in smoking meats, especially hams.
Now, onto the pie. I have been perfecting this recipe ever since I started baking at the tender age of 12. It has taken me years, and after a deviation from my Mom's recipe, and then into a bad phase of using corn syrup (gasp!), I finally found this recipe. It comes from one of my favorite food writers of all time: John Thorne. If you haven't read his books, you should. They will make you a better cook and a more informed eater. I promise. Plus, Thorne's recipes are flawless.

So what's so special about Lizzy's Damn Pecan Pie? It's honest. It's simple. It contains no foods with weird ingredients like Crisco, "Vanilla Flavoring" or HFCS. It is rich without being overwhelming or cloyingly sweet. It is velvety, and nutty and buttery and crumbly all at once. It honors Southern cooking at its core. It's damn American, that's what. Happy Thanksgiving!

The secrets? An all butter crust using the best butter your can find, high quality pecans, fresh eggs, real vanilla extract and a splash of bourbon. That would be SOUTHERN whiskey from Kentucky. Although any old dark moonshine will do. It just adds a little something extra. I think people from Louisiana might say, lagniappe. Hell yeah.

Oh, but the biggest tip? Use cane syrup in lieu of corn syrup. Yep. Cane Syrup. Made from sugar cane. It used to be a standard ingredient in the U.S., and is still easy to find in the South where it is cheap, as well as England. It gives the pie just what it needs without that nasty corn syrup film on the tongue and chemical taste. I like this brand which you can find at New Seasons in Portland or in any store that has it's own "British Foods" isle. Sure, it's expensive, but I don't care. I will not compromise on my pecan pie.

Make sure to bake gently and bake with love. Don't over bake. When a knife inserted in the center just comes out clean, you know it's done.

Miss Lizzy's Pecan Pie with Cane Syrup

makes 2, 9" pies

1 1/4 cups cane syrup such as Steen's 100% cane syrup of Lyle's syrup

1 cup light brown sugar

4 eggs

4 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 Tbs. Bourbon

2 cups coarsely broken pecan pieces

2 9" unbaked pie crusts

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Bring syrup and sugar to a boil in a medium saucepan and allow to boil for 2 or 3 minutes. Let syrup cool slightly while preparing the rest of the ingredients. Add butter to syrup and stir. Let cool until warm, but not cool. If the syrup is too warm it will cook the eggs and you don't want that because then you will have a sweetened scrambled egg pie with pecans and that is just gross. Beat eggs well, and slowly pour into lukewarm syrup, stir with a big spoon or rubber spatula to incorporate. Add vanilla, Bourbon and pecan meats.

Pour into the pie shells and bake about 45 minutes or until set. While the pie is baking I like to lick the extra filling left in the bowl. Disgusting? Naw, just delicious.

Each pie makes 16 servings.

Serve with a dollop of unsweetened or lightly sweetened whipped cream if you wish. Why unsweetned whipped cream? I don't know, it's just the way I grew up with it and the way I like it best.

Pie Problem Hotline

My fellow pie enthusiasts:

The High Holy Days of Pie are fast approaching. I know things on the pie-off blog have been a little bit dormant since the Big Day. Your dedicated Pie Commissioners take their roles seriously, but we do have day jobs. However, we are here to help guide you through this important Pie Season. Sort of like the Butterball Turkey advice line, but for pie. We are here to answer your pie related questions.

Please submit your pie questions in the comments section below, and we will respond as soon as we can.

Pie Commissioner Gretchen

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

President Elect Barack Obama Talks Pie (we knew it!)

Hat tip to Reid Beels. Thanks Reid!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Portland Pie-Off Presidential Endorsement

The Portland Pie Commission is pleased to announce the endorsement of Senator Barack Obama as president of the United States of America.

What's more American than pie? Pie is egalitarian, diverse and a dessert for the common wealth. Pie is positive, pie is meant for sharing and pie brings people together. Pie is for change.

This past summer we helped put together the first ever Portland Pie-Off. This grass roots event brought together over 149 people and 49 pies for an afternoon of goodwill, community and good eats both sweet and savory. Call it community organizing if you will, but I think we can all agree, in an era of deep commercialism and negative campaigning, the Pie-Off owes its success to certain shared ideals and values and the hard work of all who participated. Community effort made the Pie-Off a success and it is this same community that has the will to band together for positive change in our nation.

For it's these ideas and values of this community commonwealth, be it free shared pie on a summer afternoon—pie for all!—or the guarantees in the Bill of Rights that we, as Americans own together. Barack Obama is a candidate that shares in our ideals that this great nation holds the common commitment to own our problems and differences and can and should work together for collective responsibility. In a sea of phony rightist rhetoric that protects the political and monetary interests of a few, seeks to limit freedoms, and builds its platform on tyranny and hypocrisy, Obama refuses to abandon the core of American civic purpose that has made our nation a great one.

We ask you, fellow Americans and pie lovers to vote for more pie on November 4th, 2008. We ask you to vote for Barack Obama.