Even after many years, I still miss my grandma. I am as old now as she was when I was a little girl living in her house. That is just so hard for me to fathom. My grandma left this world on June 10, 1993, the year of a great flood where I live. Several similar floods have followed, some of my own lonely tears. Yet, every day, to greater or lesser degrees, she enters my thoughts, becomes so real sometimes I am sure I feel her hand on my shoulder. Making food that she made, food that I remember growing up in her kitchen is important to me—makes me feel close, allows me to talk about her, to laugh, and also to cry just a little bit. It’s all good in the end.
Her chocolate custard pie was one of my favorite desserts. Her pie tasted old fashioned, not too sweet, with big chocolate flavor and a traditional flaky crust—none of the graham cracker nonsense. The pie was baked, so not a cream or chiffon pie—rich custard that couldn’t have come from a box, if you know what I mean.
Of course, to truly duplicate her pie is impossible because Grandma never wrote anything down—some smudged notes maybe, tucked in corners of drawers, but no complete recipes. Further, I keep remembering ingredients that seem to have been part of this dish—like evaporated milk. I was pretty taken with Elsie the Borden Cow who smiled from the middle of a daisy on the can—but I can’t be sure. Elsie actually appears on Sweetened Condensed Milk, which is something else entirely. Carnation, I’m sure, was the evaporated milk. Mystery still lingers.
And I KNOW that my grandma’s pie crust was at least partially made with lard and later with Crisco. Oh my. While I can see (and have used) lard, Crisco is not part of my kitchen inventory–ever. Earth Balance Original Coconut Spread, which wasn’t even around when I was a kid, is my answer to the lard/Crisco dilemma. And I LOVE it—for pie crusts, scones, cookies, anytime all-butter richness is not exactly what you want. Strongly recommend it!
All said and done, I think any pie I make now is part Grandma and part me, which, when you think about it, is exactly how I remember things in her kitchen—she made it my place as much as hers, even though I contributed very little.
The Search for Grandma’s Pie…begins with friendship
I was determined to bake Grandma’s pie, but I needed help—someone with experience who could sift through ingredient possibilities and offer guidance. There was only one person to ask: I invited Jane Davidson Zappia of Pop’s Pies to weigh in on what I was remembering. She and I began texting, phone chatting and emailing for a couple weeks, debating ingredients, experimenting with cooking temps and times—just like America’s Test Kitchen! So this pie is mainly Jane’s pie—the pie professional here! But it is also most certainly Grandma’s. She must have heard us chattering away, smelled our experiments and sent us her love to carry us through.
You’ll note that the final pie in the recipe is topped with Jane’s beautiful meringue, which I’m sure is exactly how Grandma topped her chocolate pies. But the meringue can be a bit intimidating, if you are new to pastry techniques. So I have another option for you: I have made a much simpler whipped cream topping, although still from scratch so don’t even THINK about reaching for that dastardly plastic tub. You’ll find the whipped cream possibility at the end of the post. Grandma always made her own whipped cream, and so do I and so should everyone!
But before we all begin cracking those eggs, I think reviewing “Mise en Place,” is a good idea. This French term means “ready in place,” a way to set up your kitchen so that recipes such as this pie that require some precise timing from one step to another go smoothly. My grandma seemed to sail through her recipes without any concerns—the comfort that comes from years of experience—to which Jane can relate. But if this pie is new to you or something you don’t make often (I certainly don’t.), the timing of the process to get it mixed, assembled and baked, while holding temperature correctly can seem daunting. The key is Mise en Place–having everything ready and in place for each step in your recipe. So let me, Jane and Grandma lead you through…. We start by being brave….
- One prepared nine-inch pie crust, your own favorite or the one Jane and I agreed on below:
- Two and a half cups all-purpose flour (My favorite is King Arthur Organic.)
- One teaspoon fine salt
- One to two teaspoons fine sugar
- Four tablespoons well-chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- Four tablespoons of another fat (Jane is a fan of lard, like Grandma, and I prefer well-chilled Earth Balance Original Coconut Spread, chopped into tiny pieces)
- One cup of ice water mixed with one tablespoon apple cider vinegar (Jane and I both depend on Bragg always. And note, you will not use all the water; it’s the ratio you are after here.)
- Have handy, parchment paper and pie weights, beans, or my favorite two cups sugar (any kind) to use as a weight for your blind bake step.
- Four room-temperature whole large eggs
- One-quarter cup cocoa (I suggest Penzeys High Fat cocoa for super rich flavor.)
- One-half cup sugar
- One teaspoon vanilla
- One cup whole milk, room temperature
- One cup heavy cream, room temperature
- Four to five egg whites, room temperature
- One-quarter teaspoon cream of tarter
- One-eighth cup room-temperature water
- One tablespoon cornstarch
- One-third cup sugar
- Note that you can make your pie dough several days in advance and keep it refrigerated in plastic wrap until ready to use. This is a convenient option that puts you well on your way to “mise en place”. At the very least, you want to have your pie dough already made, chilled and ready to roll out to go in the oven before you begin assembling your filling ingredients.
- So to begin your crust, sift your flour, salt and sugar into a medium mixing bowl. Stir well with a large whisk or your pastry blender to evenly distribute all the ingredients. If the kitchen is warm, consider placing the cubed butter and lard (or coconut spread) in the freezer while you combine the dry ingredients. Also have your ice water at the ready. I like to measure out one-third cup of this water to begin with, but this is my comfort zone; add your water as you are comfortable when the time comes.
- Using a pastry blender, cut the fat (the very cold cubes of butter, lard or coconut spread) into the dry flour mixture. For flaky crust it is essential not to overwork the flour. Leave a considerable amount of the fat in larger pieces, about the size of nickels or dimes. A finer texture with uniform fat cells produces great shortbread but not pie crust.
- Make a well in the center of the flour and add about one-third cup of the ice water/vinegar mixture all at once. Working from the outside in, toss the flour into the water, using “lifting” strokes with a fork until you have incorporated all the flour and you can make the dough hold together by squeezing it in your hand. If it is too dry, it will not roll out well and will crumble. So if you think the dough is too dry, add a teaspoon of ice water at a time until it holds together when squeezed. However, this does not mean the dough should hold together on its own; if that’s the case, the dough is too wet and will yield tough crust. So, patience until you get what you want.
- Once the dough will hold together when squeezed, turn it out on a lightly floured board and using your floured hands form it into a solid round disk. Divide this disk in half using the edge of your bench scraper or a butter knife and reshape. The dough must now rest so that some of the gluten you disturbed goes back to sleep. Wrap each disk tightly in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for up to three days, but a least a half-hour or so. If you are making only one pie, place the extra dough disk (double wrapped) in the freezer—already ahead for the next pie!
- Before you begin the whole process of filling and baking, set out all the eggs and separate the eggs for the meringue so that they are not super cold as you start the recipe—room temperature usually takes a couple hours at least.
- A little while later, take the well-chilled pie dough out of the refrigerator and allow it to warm a bit so you can roll it out. While the pie dough calms down, you can make the first part of the filling. In a small mixing bowl, blend one of the four whole eggs with the sugar, cocoa, vanilla, and salt to create a smooth thick batter—nearly like a brownie batter; set aside. If this initial mixture is thicker than a batter consistency, add a bit of your room-temperature milk--say an eighth of a cup--to get it where you want it.
- Next, return to the pie dough. When you are sure it is soft enough to roll without crumbling at the edges, roll out the softened dough into a 10 to 12-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. Rolling in one direction from the center and then turning the dough slightly and continuing to roll at an angle in the other direction tends to work best. Place the rolled crust carefully into a nine-inch glass pie plate and trim the sides, crimping into a nice pattern at the edges, if you like. Place the crust in the pie dish in your freezer for at least 15 minutes to get it solid and less likely to cook and brown too quickly. Note that you could leave the crust in the freezer longer, if you want to return to your pie later in the day or even later the next day.
- Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. This pie requires a blind-baked crust that should be warm when you add the room-temperature filling. Sort of tricky here, but necessary to ensure a crisp crust with a creamy filling.
- While the oven comes to temperature, scrape the "brownie batter" part of your filling into the rest of the eggs in a large bowl of a stand mixer, balloon whisk attachment in place. Note that if your milk and cream still feel on the chilly side, warming them together slightly in a saucepan is recommended. You don’t want the dairy hot, just warm to the touch.
- Your oven should be at 425 degrees now. Remove the pie shell from the freezer, line it with parchment paper and fill with your preferred weight--Jane uses dry beans and I use sugar (about two cups of which ever you prefer). Blind-bake the frozen crust at 425° for 15 minutes.
- Maintaining the oven temperature, remove the crust from the oven and take away the weights and parchment. Gently poke the crust with a fork to prevent bubbles pockets from forming. Put it back in the oven and bake an additional five minutes.
- During that last five minutes of the blind bake, gently whip the filling in the stand mixer to create a completely smooth batter. Then, with the mixer still on, gradually add the milk/cream mixture in a steady thin stream until it is all incorporated. Turn off the mixer.
- Remove the crust from the oven and carefully add your filling while the crust is hot. Note that placing the pie dish on a flat baking sheet before you fill it makes taking the pie in and out of the oven much easier once you have a custard-filled crust.
- Once the pie is in the oven, bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes; then, reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake another 30 minutes. You are looking for the filling to slightly jiggle in the center when tapped. The sides should be set, but the center should still be soft; it will continue to cook and thicken as the pie cools. Sort of like a cheesecake.
- That said, if you decide to top with Jane’s meringue, it is a bit more of a guessing game. My grandma’s pie always had meringue because she loved it but also because she never let a good egg white go to waste. So...if you dare....
- Once the pie is in the oven to bake, put all the room-temperature egg whites in a large clean glass bowl. Combine the sugar and cornstarch; set aside. Whisk the water and cream of tartar into the eggs and beat until you reach soft peaks that fold over; then, gradually add the sugar/cornstarch mixture, beating until stiff peaks form, peaks that stand straight up.
- During the last 10 minutes of the baking time, take the pie from the oven and carefully dollop the meringue on the top of the custard. Here’s an idea: pretty dollops around the edge of the pie look decorative and allow you to keep an eye on that center. But feel free to get fancy like Jane, piping on huge swirls. Return to the oven and continue baking for the remaining 10 minutes. Your meringue should develop tawny tips and edges as it browns.
- When your timer goes off, allow the pie to stay in the oven with the door slightly ajar for about 15 minutes—again, like a cheesecake. The pie will cool down slowly and thicken without forming a skim on top or cracks. Finish cooling the pie completely on a cooling rack. Once completely cooled, it’s ready to eat! Refrigerate any leftovers.
The prep time above includes making, chilling and freezing the pie dough, as well as setting out the eggs for room temperature and combining all the filling ingredients. The cook time is the total time to blind bake, which is 20 minutes, and bake the entire pie, which is 45 minutes.
What If Meringue Is Just Too Overwhelming??
Okay, meringue is what my grandma would do and what Jane executes beautifully, but I get it…barely time to bake this pie and then you need to get out clean mixers and a clean bowl at the end of the whole process only to pull that hot pie in and out of the oven, quickly top the pie and watch like a hawk for over-browning or browning too little? Not happening for you? I have a three-word answer: Homemade Whipped Cream. Ahhhh….much less work, totally elegant and sure to garner just as many compliments. Perhaps try this….
- Two cups heavy cream
- One tablespoon fine sugar
- One tablespoon Amaretto (or two)
- Chocolate shavings
- Toasted Hazelnuts, roughly chopped
Using a deep glass bowl and a balloon whisk (or hand-held electric mixer), beat the cream until it is thick and patterns appear as you beat. Add the sugar and amaretto and continue beating until the whipped creams is where you want it, sturdy enough to pile on the pie.
Once the pie has completely cooled, top cut slices with the whipped cream and sprinkle with chocolate shavings and chopped nuts.
This is all wonderful, but….you just want the pie without the work!
Still can’t swing this pie, but really want a slice RIGHT NOW? Two words: Pop’s Pies. Yep. If you are really into pie but not into baking, Jane can do it all for you. Ordering is easy and delivery within the Edwardsville-Glen Carbon area is an option. Jane offers high-quality, wholesome, sweet and savory pies, and enjoys the journey of imagination that goes into every design she creates. You can view her pie gallery and order pies by visiting popspiesjz.net.