Can you feel it? The world is starting to open up again, people are gathering in small groups, restaurants are filling up to capacity, parks are teeming with families playing and little league practices... dare I say we are getting back to normal? The pandemic year of 2020 was a time of creativity and production for the Pie Baker Lady, while quarantined at home. During this time, I especially focused on test-baking a variety of creamy, dreamy pies to be included in my next cookbook, Pie as Art, Volume 2.
A focus for my next cookbook is simple recipes that are accessible for all levels of pie bakers. Custard and cream pies fit that description very well. Most have only a handful of ingredients, they are single crust pies, and some even have a press-in graham cracker crust (for those with a fear of making a basic pie crust). Honestly, the most difficult thing about baking this type of pie is managing your time. Cream pies need time to set up before slicing, whether that be by sitting in a fridge overnight or resting on a counter until reaching room temperature.
My most recent test-bake was a simple, Custard Pie. To my surprise, whenever I ask people to name off their favorite pie, Custard is always a popular choice. I had never actually tasted custard pie before I test baked an old recipe shared by a friend. Although, I am very familiar with the Custard Pie, because they sold plenty of it at my pie cutting job at Tippins. I did not ever try it because I always favored the fruit and nut pies.
The pie filling is mainly milk, sugar, and egg with a sprinkle of nutmeg on top, baked into a basic pie crust. Some sage advice... when pre-baking the pie crust, do not poke crust all over with holes, use pie weights or beans instead to keep the crust in the pan laying flat, or the milk will just seep through. Guess how I discovered this little nugget? I actually had to make my pre-baked crust twice, because the custard mixture soaked right through the pre-baked crust on the first try! Ugh! Live and learn...
This is a pie that wants to be served chilled and to get a nice slice that holds together like the piece above, you will need to refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Overnight is preferred.
A close cousin to the custard pie is Coconut Custard Pie. This recipe made it into the first cookbook. Here is the excerpt from the Pie as Art, Volume 1 recipe...
"A delicious recipe passed down from a Sunday school teacher at First Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC, to my friend Lynn Duke Urda. She recalls trying a slice of Travis Stewart's coconut custard pie at a church potluck while pregnant with her first child, Adrienne. Lynn said that pie was about the best thing she had ever tasted! Thankfully, Mrs. Stewart was happy to share her recipe with Lynn, who passed it on to me. As you see in the illustration, you can dress up this pie with strawberries when serving"
I had an especially fun time illustrating this acrylic painting! Since the antique plate was decorated with a strawberry & strawberry flower pattern, I decided to run with that theme and add a pretty sliced strawberry to the top of the piece before taking the photo that I would illustrate from.
This version of custard pie has a great chewy texture, almost like eating a coconut macaroon cookie inside a pie crust. And you do not have to worry about pre-baking the crust. The recipe calls for you to pour the filling directly into an unbaked pie crust.
Another great version of custard pie is called Buttermilk Pie. It is a old-fashioned pie that has its roots in southern baking and is simply smooth and delicious! We love the taste of buttermilk at our house in everything from biscuits to pancakes to Buttermilk Sheet Cake. With 2 adult children in the house and 1 teenage boy, we go through lots of 2% milk. But we always have a half gallon of buttermilk in the fridge for Mom's baking projects!
Here is the excerpt from Pie as Art, Volume 1 recipe for Buttermilk Pie...
"The illustration for buttermilk pie has a soft spot for me, illustrated at my artist-in-residence stay at the Red Barn Studios in Lindsborg, Kansas. I painted this piece outdoors on an easel by myself on a beautiful cool, sunny morning with only the sounds of birds singing to keep me company. It was a heavenly day! I felt especially inspired by the dramatic lighting and arrangement of brightly colored raspberries and blueberries on the bright yellow slice of silky pie captured in my photograph."
See photo below that shows my easel (see photo of test baked slice taped to the top) and the finished painting that was used in the cookbook. The picture is taken inside the Red Barn Studio that is provided for artists awarded an Artist in Residency. After doing the test bake for this pie, I had some berries to decorate with... took a handful and tossed them on top. Fresh fruit has always been an inspirational subject for me. I was very pleased how the raspberries and blueberries turned out in this acrylic painting... juicy and mouthwatering on that dreamy, yellow Buttermilk Pie!
Next, I embarked on another beloved pie from the South called Chess Pie. It is a super, simple pie that has an unusual name with a variety of origins. It also has simple ingredients that you can find in your kitchen/larder.
Supposedly, the high sugar content in this particular pie recipe will keep for a couple days at room temperature without spoiling. Now, I am not so sure that I believe in that theory especially since I serve my pies to so many guests. I do not want to make anyone sick, so I keep my chess pie refrigerated. If you have heard of a pie chest, this was a piece of furniture kept near or in the kitchen that had several upper shelves that were used to store pies. Most have cabinet doors with a metal inlay that has a decorative pattern made of holes circulating air, but keeping the pies safe from bugs. So, one of the theories of the name origin is that Chest Pie was shortened to Chess Pie.
Another theory explains that by adding chestnut flour or finely ground chestnuts to the pie, is why it is referred to as Chess Pie, shortened from Chestnut Pie. But, my favorite theory of all is the one where someone asks, 'What kind of pie is that?" and the baker answers in a southern accent, "It's jes' pie" which morphed into Chess Pie.
The versions that I test baked for Pie as Art, Volume 2 have flavor added to make them a little more interesting that 'just pie'. See below for my versions of Chocolate Chess pie and Lemon Chess Pie. I used a similar pie crust pattern with each. The chocolate version tastes like a rich brownie inside a crispy pie crust. The lemon version tastes more like a rich lemon bar inside a crispy crust. Both are delicious.
The last creamy, dreamy pie that I would like to add to this essay is the ever popular, Key Lime Pie. Through my pie journey, I learned that the key lime originates in Malaysia! I have always associated key limes with Florida. Of course Floridians have made the simple pie famous and you can find a pretty consistently good slice at almost every restaurant in the state! As you can see below, you cannot get a simpler recipe for constructing a pie. This particular recipe is from my friend, Merle Larsen, who I met during one of my artist residencies at the Red Barn Studio in Lindsborg, KS. At the time he was the president of the Raymer Society board of trustees... and a more renaissance man you will not find.
The world lost Merle to a short illness with Covid-19 this past year. If you are the praying sort, please lift up his family as they grieve their loss and have his funeral service tomorrow. All of us that knew him are still reeling at the news of his death.
I gave tribute to him in my first Volume of Pie as Art, naming the recipe after him. He had no hesitation as I asked for him to share his best of show recipe for Key Lime Pie that won the whole pie contest! I caught him in line at a local coffee shop and he rattled it off to me as I wrote it down with a sharpie on a scrap of paper. I've still hung on to the recipe, thinking fondly of Merle every time I see it.
Remember to live life to the fullest and don't pass up that second piece of pie... life is too short. And, please have fun baking some creamy, dreamy pies this summer. I know that I will!
Pie love you,