Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Ask Jan: Buttermilk Pie

January 25th, 2009 · No Comments

From Matt S., visiting a diner in Tennessee or Kentucky, he’s not sure where he is:

Hey Ms. Norris!

Have you ever heard of Buttermilk pie? I understand it’s similar to Chess pie. It’s AWESOME! I like it because the edges taste like the top of that – what’s it called – creme brulee!

Jan answers:

Oh, Mattster, what you do to me. . .

Of course, I’ve heard of Buttermilk pie. I’m a Southerner first and foremost, don’t you know?  If it’s got buttermilk in it, I’ve heard about it and likely made it.

Buttermilk pie is indeed a cousin to Chess pie — one of my dad’s favorites – and to another version, Vinegar pie.

These pies all were probably devised as a substitute for lemons when the cook couldn’t afford or find lemons — citrus outside of Florida or California was an exotic treat, way back when. (Your grandmother in Cape Girardeau, Mo., probably remembers getting an orange in her stocking at Christmastime – and thinking she was one lucky girl!)

The pie features an egg-sugar mixture, similar to a custard, but it bakes up not as a cream, but a sugary, somewhat tart filling that will carmelize like creme brulee on top and around the edges.

To get you a recipe (Southern bakers like me just throw the eggs and sugar and a little flour together, and season it, bake it, and it works — like making biscuits and cornbread, you just do it without thinking) I went to a book that is one of the references I use for Southern cooking, A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections.

Here’s where you got me in trouble: I was with nose in the book for over an hour, reading all the stories, sidebars and notes — some of which were contributed by other Southern authors and friends of mine, notably, Debbie Moose, whose blog I recommend. It’s one terrific readable book, and is filled with recipes I have earmarked. That it’s only two years old says something about how often I’ve used it. Considering the hundreds of cookbooks I have, a large group of which are Southern, this says a lot.

Anderson’s a terrific award-winning food author — and knowlegable about all types of cooking. You may recognize her name from Gourmet, Bon Appetit or Food & Wine magazines — she’s a prolific and respected food writer. She was born in Raleigh, N.C., to Yankee parents, she says, but came to love and appreciate Southern food – like all good converts to the South.

Here’s her recipe for Buttermilk pie, with her notes intact:

Buttermilk Pie

“Like Vinegar Pie, Buttermilk Pie was often baked in lieu of lemon chess pie because in the butter-churning days of old, there was always plenty of buttermilk on hand. To this day, Buttermilk Pie is beloved throughout the South.”

Jean’s tip: To catch any boilovers, it’s a good idea to set the pie on a baking sheet before you slide it into the oven. Jan adds: Cover the baking sheet with foil to prevent the messy, baked-on sugar problem.

  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, melted
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
  • One 9-inch unbaked pie shell

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Beat the sugar, flour and melted butterr in a small electric mixer bowl for 1 minute, begining at low speed, then raising to moderate so that all ingredients are well blended. Scrape the bowl well at half-time.

Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in the eggs one by one; continue beating for 30 seconds until light. With the mixer still at low speed, add the buttermilk, vanilla, and nutmeg, if using. When thoroughly combined, pour the filling into the pie shell.

Slide the pie onto a baking sheet and bake on the middle oven shelf for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until puffed, nicely bowned and a cake tester inserted halfway between the edge and center of the pie comes out clean. (See Jan’s note following recipe.)

If you want to serve the pie warm, cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Or, if you prefer, cool the pie to room temperature before serving.

Note: The filling will fall but this is as it should be. Cut the pieces small – this pie is rich.

(From A Love Affair With Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections, by Jean Anderson, William-Morrow, 2007.)

Jan’s Tools and Techniques note

About Cake Testers: Throughout the history of baking, bakers needed a way to figure out if the center of their baked goods were cooked throughout — thus, the cake tester. Bakers typically used whatever was on hand — usually, a broomstraw — poking the cake or pie in the center down to the bottom of the cake, pulling it out and looking at it. If batter clung to this straw, it wasn’t done yet. More time was needed – depending on how thick or far along the straw the batter appeared.

Today’s cooks use toothpicks or skewers (I use a bamboo skewer) or a storebought Cake Tester to test their cakes and pies. A thin knife will work if you’re making  a cake that will be iced, and the hole left by the knife won’t show. A knife will leave a large void in a pie, however – use a wire tester or skewer instead.

To use one, pull the oven rack gently out of the oven so you can insert the cake tester straight up and down, and pull it out the same way. Put it in the cake or pie near the center, or in the case of a pie, halfway between the center and rim of the pie. Pull it straight up and out.

To “read” it, for cake layers, if batter appears, they will need several more minutes. If no batter appears but crumbs cling to the tester, run the tester between your thumb and forefinger as though to clean it. Tap your fingers together. If they are sticky, the cake’s not done and needs only a few minutes. If they don’t stick at all, the cake is done. Bring the cake out, cool 1 minute in the pan and then turn out onto a cooling rack.

Remember that foods continue to cook after you remove them from the oven, so err on the side of underbaking, rather than risk drying out a cake. Using a tester will help.

Tags: Ask Jan · Recipes: What's Cooking! · Southern Roots Run Deep

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