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Friday, October 22, 2010

Tonight's menu : pie

I am not a violent person.

But there is one particular situation that arises, year after year, that briefly pits father against son in my parents' home - a simple matter of greed. Ironically, this happens every year at Thanksgiving. Unironically, it involves my mother's pecan pie.

There are certain things, good things, great things, for which it is difficult to be strictly thankful.  This pie is one of them. Instead of the humility of simple gratitude, this pie provokes a closer emotion to arrogance. It is not accepted as it should be, democratically alongside the peas and pearl onions, cornbread dressing and green bean casserole in the culinary realm of God's blessings.  Those are comfort foods, of which this pie is not - it is just too good to be comforting.  It is to be seized, then lorded over the hapless opponent, another mere serf to the pie, yes, but the serf who loses.  I have nearly been stabbed over this pie as my father and I - the love of her life, the firstborn child - lay claim not to a slice, not to a half, but to the entire pie.  Nay, to all such pies, that have been and that will be - to the very principle of my mother's pecan pie.  This is a prize from which there can be no retreat, and from which only her mildly shocked cajoling can drive us.  I'm serious : nearly stabbed.

What can be done, when a pie is as good as drugs?  When it only arrives once or twice a year, already at bay as your dad has a head start and you must drive four hours to contest the affront of his claiming it?

First of all, never assume that your mother's pecan pie will deign to set plate in your own kitchen, coax it though you may with attempts at replication.  Such is error. Your custard is nowhere near as good as hers. Your nuts will be too many or too few, and never as sweet. Give up on that perfect crust that stands firm and flaky under its doughty weight of perfect filling.  Your kitchen is a grubby realm of commonplace and thoroughly average gooey nut pies, not the temple this dessert deserves.

Do as I have done and strike out on some new limb of the pie family tree : make a pecan pie, douse it with gran marnier as it emerges from the oven and set it on fire with a blowtorch (true story, and delicious.) Make a pie with walnuts, with dark brown sugar, or with rum.  And return to your mother's table in November, with necessary ardor and willingness to do violence.

It's in this vein that I discovered on my yearly sojourn the Kentucky Derby pie, close cousin and lush country relative to mother's platonically-ideal confections. Like the noble pecan pie, it is at heart a crust filled with custard over which lays a chewy layer of pecans. But its custard is thick with chocolate, and like anything associated with Kentucky (and the Derby,) struck through with a shot of bourbon.

My first attempt at the pie met with alloyed success. The execution was flawed : the chocolate chips I used didn't melt through the custard, and each bite might contain a burst of Kentucky Derby chocolate or typical gooey pecan filling. But despite this error, it was devoured in short order. My second attempt - tonight, that is - satisfied all expectations. A thick chocolate custard, blanketed by and impregnated with chunks of pecan. A buttery shortbread crust. A warm, pudding-like interior.  And it is delicious.

I find the more I cook that the best single representation of my flavor palette is Coca-Cola : dark citrus, dark sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, nuts, and spice.  So take note that both my pies were made not with bourbon, but with its slightly spicier cousin, rye, and the second got a couple dashes of bitters for good measure.  Thus, it's no longer a Kentucky Derby pie per se, and must be rechristened.  I'm struggling.  The name that came to me first was Talladega Pie, given that Talladega is sort of a Kentucky Derby for Alabama, from which my family hails.  But the wife was having none of that.  "I don't want those people to get the credit!" she protested.  In my head, I tell myself she's confused Talladega with Tuscaloosa.  In any case, the pie remains unnamed.  Buy you a Coke if you think of a good one.

I have a feeling that this pie will suffice until, come Thanksgiving, I square off over the sideboard for another slice of the pie that is better than drugs.  What's that?  You want another shot of an oozingly delicious pie?  You got it, partner :

Too bad you can't be here to eat it and by too bad, I mean, too bad for you.  Not for me.  What has two thumbs and is going to eat the slice of pie that would have been yours?

...old habits die hard.  I swear I wouldn't stab you over this pie.  Honest.

Here's how this unnamed and completely delicious pie is made:

Purchase or make two 6-oz shortbread pie crusts, and toast them in a 350 degree oven until they have a nice aroma.  (So much of baking seems to come down to smell.)  I bought Keebler crusts and that's cheating and I don't care, because I have an awesome pie.

Mix all the following together, probably in this order, to form the batter:
1 cup light (as in, not dark but also not "lite") corn syrup, heated for a 1:30 in the microwave
6 ounces good eatin' chocolate (60% cacao or more) mixed into the hot corn syrup so it melts evenly
1/2 cup unsalted butter, browned.  This step is essential.
1 cup demerara (or similarly full-flavored) sugar
A good shot of rye whiskey.  You could probably use any dark liquor.  You could also, probably, leave it out.  But are you making a Kentucky Derby pie, or what?
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
A dash or two of bitters

Whisk four whole eggs (about a cup's worth) the mix them into the batter.  Just make sure nothing's hot enough to scramble your eggs (though if it is, you've got one hell of a microwave.)

Pour pecan pieces into each crust, and make it more than enough for the top layer of a regular pecan pie - you want to end up with a layer of nuts on top and some more nuts buried on the pie.

Then, divide the batter between the crusts, covering the nuts.

Bake at 350 for about forty minutes.  The pies will puff up a little and have a decent set when they are done.  Eat warm, or eat cool, with whipped cream.

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