The Pie

When I first started cooking desserts, like just about everyone in the fifties I began with the classic Icebox Lemon Meringue Pie made with sweetened condensed milk, which we called “Eagle Brand,” just as the best brand of chili was “Wolf Brand.” There was no more need to add “sweetened condensed milk” or “chili” than there was to say “blue denim trousers” to clarify what you meant by “Levis.” But I digress.

After Allen joined me in San Francisco in 1978, we started giving dinner parties. By then, I had enough confidence to try making Mother’s chocolate-pecan pie. It was an instant success (well, after I made it successfully) so much so that when I issued dinner invitations, guests began to inquire, with varying delicacy, whether “The Pie,” as it came to be known, would be the dessert. I never refused, and in time there was cruel speculation that it was the only dessert I knew how to make.

Photo by Al, pie by Matte, plate by Pyrex

Photo by Al, pie by Matte, plate by Pyrex

But enough, here’s The Pie. We’re going to make two of these since it’s no more trouble and finding a home for the second is so easy.

THE CRUST

Ingredients:

1 ½c. (360 ml.) chopped pecans. Walnuts are just fine as a substitute, but the classic version of this pie calls for pecans. I have used almonds, which I like very much, but I do not recommend them in this dessert. If you can’t get good walnuts or pecans, don’t make the pie.

My father grew the best pecans I ever ate in our back yard in Odessa, Texas in the fifties and sixties. In the fall of ’55, he ordered a John Garner variety pecan tree through a mail-order nursery. I was greatly disappointed to see that the supposed pecan tree was actually just a stick, but he planted it anyhow, and much to my surprise, leaves appeared on this stick in the spring. It grew enthusiastically and by the next fall resembled a small tree, on which were a few pecans, but something was wrong and they didn’t develop properly. Even so, the tree grew vigorously and by the following fall it was covered with pecans, but again the outer hull failed to open on schedule, so the pecans rotted inside the closed hulls. So Daddy did a little research and learned that pecan trees need a lot of zinc, an element in which he also learned the west Texas soil is markedly deficient.

So he found a water-soluble zinc compound and periodically broadcast it out to the drip line during the next year. That fall, it rained pecans. And oh, were they delicious…so fat they’d make your fingers greasy if you squeezed them. But nothing is free, so to compensate, they had a shell on them that was near bulletproof. Really, really hard to pick out, but hey, for that kind of flavor, they were worth the effort. Interestingly enough, by the early seventies, pecans were being grown commercially in west Texas. A little zinc and lot of water was all it took.

Here’s a photo of that tree as it looked in 2005, when i was in the area and swung by the house:  ohn Garner variety pecan tree
6 egg whites.

Fresher ones work better, and you need every advantage you can get with the crust. This is not the time to use eggs that have been sitting forlornly in the refrigerator for weeks. Boil them or something.

The original recipe called for four egg whites, but after making this pie for thirty years, i finally realized that it’s better with a thicker crust. The yolks you reserve to make mayonnaise with while the crust is cooking. Over twenty years or so, the money you save by never buying mayonnaise will fund your next food processor. This is assuming you still eat mayonnaise.

3 vigorous shakes of cream of tartar.

This presumes that yours is in one of those little metal cans with that clever plastic top that allows you to open the big side to insert a measuring spoon or open the little side and shake a moderate amount out of the exposed holes. Otherwise, use a scant ¼ t. (1 ml.)

1  ½c. (360 ml.) ultra fine sugar, perhaps a bit less the first time you make this pie.

This stuff has gone by various names over the years. Folks used to call it “berry sugar.” C&H used to market it as “superfine” granulated cane sugar in one pound boxes, but most grocery stores didn’t carry it. When at last I found it after an extensive search decades ago, I bought an armful of boxes that lasted for years. Later, C&H started calling it “baker’s sugar” and, in smaller print, “ultra fine granulated” and marketing it in five pound bags. More recently, I’ve found it at the Market Street Safeway in containers that look like half-gallon milk cartons. In any case, this is not the common white granulated sugar that Americans are familiar with, which is called either “fine” or “extra fine”. Nor is it powdered sugar, also called “confectioners sugar,” sometimes with a mysterious “10x” added. The Brits call it caster sugar. (I had not realized that the taxonomy of sugars approached the complexity of that of the Mesembryanthemaceae.) Whatever it’s called and however it’s packaged, it is really just smaller granules than usual. The smaller granules make getting four or five egg whites to carry so much sugar and pecans less difficult. I recommend that you postpone using “regular” sugar until after you’ve made this crust successfully a few times and are feeling overconfident.

2 t. (10 ml.) vanilla extract.

Technique:

Take the eggs out of the refrigerator to let them come to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 300º F. (150 C.)

Lightly butter a couple of 8″ or 9″ (20 or 23 cm.) glass pie plates. Alternatively, you can spray them with one of the many brands of that stuff called “no-stick cooking spray” and touted as being totally free of calories and cholesterol. However, what all brands grudgingly admit, at least until these shackles are removed from the ankles of Free Enterprise, is that they all contain a substance called “propellant.” Well, propellant used to be one of my favorite foods, and I was just devastated the day I noticed that they had taken the polyethylene glycol out of Dr Pepper. And of course at this point in my life, I can eat all the propellant I want; but still, somehow I wonder whether folks who think they might want to have children someday should be eating/breathing lots of propellant. Especially since the chemical name of the stuff is apparently so horrific that the manufacturers deem it better to use “propellant” as a euphemism…and can somehow get away with this.

Beat the egg whites with a pinch of cream of tartar until they are stiff but not totally dry. Continue beating as you gradually pour in the sugar. If you add the sugar too soon, the egg whites will relax into a runny mess as you add the sugar, and you will not be able to make the meringue stiff no matter how long you beat it. Of course, if you wait until the meringue is all dried out, some of the sugar can remain in crystalline form, which is also undesirable. This is why you use berry sugar: it dissolves easier, so you have a larger window. It’s best to err.

Carefully fold in the vanilla and the pecans and immediately dump half of the mixture into each pie plate. Working rapidly, form the mixture into a shell. If you have not got the meringue stiff enough, the rim will fall back down as fast as you can mound it up, but in any case, pop them into the oven as soon as possible, since even a stiff meringue will sag from the weight of all the sugar and pecans. In the worst case, you will end up with disks rather than shells, and disks taste just as good even though they won’t be properly crunchy.

Note: Dammit all. If you want to see what that disk looks like, take another look at the above picture of The Pie. The crust is supposed to be sticking up an inch above the rim. I was using that wonderful Droste 72% Extra puur chocolate, which is not very sweet, for the filling. So to compensate, I added just a tiny bit more sugar to the meringue, really, just another tablespoon or so, and suddenly, the meringue collapsed. I added the nuts and cooked it anyhow. And no, it’s not really just appearance, as the collapsed meringue is not as lightly, crisply crunchy against the velvety smooth filling. Sigh.

Bake 55 minutes, turn the oven off, open the door partway, and let the pies cool at least until you can handle the plates with your bare hands before you remove them. If you snatch them out immediately, large crevasses are guaranteed. There are almost always smaller cracks. Since the shells need to be cooled to room temperature before you add the filling, you really do have time to make a batch of mayonnaise with the reserved yolks while the crust is cooking. And yes, five yolks makes a lot of mayonnaise, but the dinner guests would love to take some home, and there are always the neighbors who bring you those batches of cookies. Try making some mayonnaise using the vinegar from a jar of capers instead of the lemon juice, and then chop in a couple of tablespoons of capers at the end.

THE FILLING

8 oz. (280 gr.) excellent bittersweet chocolate. Mother used German’s, but that was all that was available in Texas in the fifties. Sure are some fine ones available now, like those astonishing El Rey varietals or from local boutique chocolate folks like Dandelion.

6 T. (90 ml.) black coffee.

2 c. heavy cream. If you can get it, use the real stuff rather than that ultra-pasteurized swill that doesn’t whip up as well. Also, do not be tricked into buying cream labeled merely “whipping cream” instead of “heavy cream” or “heavy whipping cream.” This lighter stuff doesn’t whip up as solid as the heavier products. (In the Netherlands, cream is sold in 250 ml. containers, which are a bit larger than a cup, so you can either pour that extra bit into a cup of luxurious coffee or you can use a bit more chocolate.)

Technique:

Melt the chocolate with the coffee in a double boiler, stirring the solid chocolate around so that as it melts it is gradually incorporated into the coffee. Dumping the coffee into the melted chocolate can cause the chocolate mixture to set like concrete. It is almost guaranteed to solidify if you add liquids like Amaretto. Try to avoid getting the mixture too hot, or you’ll be waiting impatiently for it to cool enough that it will not devastate the whipped cream in the next step.

Chill the bowl and beaters in the refrigerator, stick the cream in the freezer for a few minutes beforehand. A wire whisk is better than an electric mixer if you’re young enough because you want maximum volume here. A compromise is to start with an electric mixer and then finish it off with a whisk. Nowadays, I do it all with the mixer.

Using a whisk, gently, gently fold in the cooled chocolate mixture and then divide the filling evenly between the two shells.

Decorate the top. Perfect pecan halves attractively arranged works well, as do the initials of a loved one formed of chopped pecans.

Refrigerate immediately, and don’t take it out until you’re ready to serve it. Far and beyond the best instrument for serving it is a very sharp knife with a very narrow blade so that you can cut through the nuts in the meringue without tearing it up. A boning knife is ideal, and for best results, you’d rinse the chocolate cream off the knife between cuts.  When you’ve made the cuts, use a narrow metal spatula to remove the pieces of pie.  It’s better to plate this in the kitchen, as sometimes the crust sticks or breaks and it’s necessary to perform some cosmetic surgery to make the servings presentable.  The first piece always gets mangled, so that’s for the cook.

Late note: In May of 2007 I field tested The Pie in Rina’s kitchen in Amsterdam. This was the first time I’d dared to take it intercontinental, and I feared that subtle differences in ingredients, kitchen tools, or even location might conspire to make the recipe fail. I mean, stuff like using a round aluminum tart pan rather than the classic American glass pie plate, and using pecans I bought in the Kinker Markt since I forgot the spectacular ones from Rattlesnake Ranch in my freezer in San Francisco. And other factors like the sugar crystals not being the same size, (the extra fijn in Amsterdam appearing to be about halfway in between the extra fine and ultra fine in San Francisco). Also there was no indication as to the butterfat content on the container of the Amsterdam equivalent of SF heavy whipping cream. On the other hand, regarding chicken eggs, except for questions of freshness, an egg is an egg is an egg, and in Amsterdam, I used two extra-large ones to make one pie crust.

The pies turned out just fine. My only complaint was that both times the crust was so light and crunchy that it broke apart badly when I was trying to plate it, but I suspect that this was caused by my holding back on the sugar out of fear of a collapse or, more likely, cooking it at too high a temperature owing to having miscalculated the conversion from fahrenheit to celsius. OK, many people have called me a cook. A precious few have even called me a good cook. But nobody, I promise you, has ever called me a mathematician.

Final note: Mother always made this pie the night before, so that what i always did. If nothing else, it gave me more time the day of the dinner to get compulsive about other things. And then, in the spring of 2013, i was tired the night before and decided to make the pie first thing the morning of the dinner. Don’t. The filling needs 20 hours to set properly.

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