The way some people love antique furniture, I love antique pie recipes. Vintage American cookbooks are full of with mysterious, alluring recipes that hardly anyone bakes anymore — Marlborough pie, Osgood pie, syrup pie, brown-sugar pie, boiled cider pie — and they fascinate me. What does a Kentucky transparent pie taste like? Is it actually transparent? Why did people stop making Tyler pies? Are we missing out on something? Or do recipes go extinct for a reason?
About fifteen years ago I baked a chess pie, a vintage dessert still popular in the South, and I have baked one for Thanksgiving ever since. It is my favorite pie in the world, filled with a blond, jelly-like custard. What other lovely vintage pies would I discover if I started searching? This year, I decided to try to find a great old American pie to resurrect for the Thanksgiving table. I mined my old cookbooks for intriguing recipes, ruling out any that sounded remotely familiar. No chocolate pies, no lemon pies, no apple pies. As I told my daughter Isabel, “The pies have to be antique.”
She said, “You mean weird.”
Maybe I did. I set aside a Sunday to bake seven vintage pie recipes, and then invited my extended family over for a tasting.
Some of the pies were, in fact, slightly weird, like the sour cream raisin pie from Marjorie Mosser’s 1939 Good Maine Food, which emerged from the oven sunken, dark, and forbidding. Cooled and sliced, it was simultaneously tart and cloying with an off-putting, clotted texture. It was a good lesson in the dangers of romanticizing the past. If you lived on farm in Maine during the Depression with a cow and a box of raisins, this is the kind of pie you might invent and, lacking options, actually eat. We had options.
Among those options: a traditional Thanksgiving dessert from Massachusetts, the pretty, yellow Marlborough pie. This pie, which dates back to the 19th century, is filled with a lemony applesauce custard. What an interesting idea, I thought when I read the recipe. What a mistake, I thought when I tasted the pie, which was tart and spicy, with a slightly grainy texture. As my sister put it, “This isn’t awful, but it’s not a flavor I want to pursue.”
Nor did anyone want to pursue the flavor of the schnitz pie, a Pennsylvania Dutch behemoth stuffed with a mountain of dried apples. “I don’t know why you’d bother to make a pie like this,” said my husband. In fact, I think schnitz pie has the potential to be delicious, but this recipe, from Clementine Paddleford’s Great American Cookbook, was more like a wholesome farm breakfast dish.
Is it a coincidence that the pies suddenly got tastier when we crossed the Mason-Dixon line? The late Edna Lewis was raised in a rural Virginia community founded by freed slaves and The Taste of Country Cooking celebrates the creamed peas, wild blackberry jelly, and wonderful pies of her childhood. Among the pies is a recipe for Tyler pie, which is filled with a delicate, pale custard. (Named for president John Tyler, it was reportedly served frequently at the White House in the early 1840s.) The Tyler pie was lovely but too similar to my beloved chess pie to put on the Thanksgiving table.
Lewis’s caramel pie, though, was a contender. It was swarthy and super-sweet, like the best pecan pie you’ve ever had, but without pecans. Writes Lewis: “This is a very haunting dessert, so rich and sweet one could easily overindulge.”
But however much we liked the caramel pie, there were two pies we liked better. One was the Jefferson Davis pie, named for the confederate president and baked from a recipe in the 1946 Joy of Cooking. Culinary historians believe that a Missouri slave named Mary Ann invented this pie during the Civil War, when she worked as a cook for a confederate merchant. If this story is true, the name of the pie is truly unfortunate. It is Mary Ann’s name that should be attached to this brilliant pie, an opulent confection of raisins, dates, and pecans held together by a spicy custard and topped with meringue. If you can imagine a Christmas pudding crossed with a pecan pie, you will have an idea of this intense, complex dessert, which, like cognac or espresso, is something you savor in small portions. My sister took a bite and said, “This is it!” I took one bite and said “This is it!”
Then I tasted the butterscotch meringue pie I’d made from a recipe in Nancie McDermott’s Southern Pies. I had baked this only to please Isabel, because butterscotch meringue pie didn’t sound old enough to suit me. (In fact it dates back to 1915.) The pie pleased Isabel. It also pleased everyone else who tasted it and we demolished that butterscotch meringue pie. As McDermott writes, “Its handsome color, silky texture, and plush flavor make me afraid to be alone in a room with it, for fear I would eat the whole thing by myself.”
I share her concern. If the sign of a fabulous dessert is that you can’t stop eating it, this was the pie I was looking for. But if the sign of a fabulous dessert is that you can’t stop thinking about it, the Jefferson Davis pie, spicy and complex, carries the day. I can’t decide which it is. I’m calling it a draw.
You can find McDermott’s recipe for butterscotch meringue pie here.
Jefferson Davis Pie
Adapted from the 1946 Joy of Cooking
- A baked 9-inch pie shell
- 1/2 cup softened butter
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup chopped dates
- 1/2 cup dark raisins
- 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans
- 4 egg whites
- 1/2 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the egg yolks, then add the flour and spices and mix until combined.
Add the remaining ingredients, mix well, and pour the filling into the pie shell.
Bake until set, but still slightly jiggly in the middle, about 40 minutes. It will firm up when it cools.
While the pie is baking, beat the egg whites until foamy. Gradually add the sugar, and beat until it forms firm peaks.
Pull the pie out of the oven and turn the heat up to 350 degrees F.
Spread the meringue over the pie filling, mounding it up in the middle Try to make it pretty and tall.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until golden brown. Cool to room temperature before serving.