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Oh my, let’s celebrate pieOriginally Published February 21, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 20, 2013 at 10:15 a.m.
February, a month that is shortchanged anyway, is chock full of reasons to remember some of America’s favorite things: presidents, black history, groundhogs and hearts — both the love and physical variety — and pie, not to be confused with pi, which is recognized in March by math geeks worldwide on 3.14, of course. Great American Pie Month is just one more excuse to gather around for a celebration in the abbreviated winter weeks.
Pie, more specifically, American pie (not the one in the memorable melody by Don McLean or the string of teen-themed movies) is making a comeback, along with all other comfort foods. When times are tough and the state of the economy pinches everyone’s pennies, Americans hunker down in their homes and return to the simpler pleasures, such as pie.
The tender, flaky pastry made with flour, salt, fat, a little water and an oh-so-light touch started out not as a delicacy, but a necessity. Early settlers, travelers and workers needed a portable, stable source of food that could withstand the rugged adventures associated with settling America. Early on, the crust of the “pye,” as it was referred to before crossing the Big Pond with the Pilgrims, was a tough, durable vessel that often served as the cooking pot for meats and vegetables, then was discarded. The first pies in the New World were based on ingredients readily available: berries and nuts, sweetened with honey because sugar was a precious commodity and in short supply.
Savory pies, with or without meat but usually vegetables and gravy, were the first version of a Hot Pocket, and with no reliable refrigeration or preservation at the time, were perfect for tucking into saddle bags or wagon trains.
Quintessential American pies can be easily tracked through the regions of the country by their unique ingredients. Mississippi Mud Pie, a Delta dream of chocolate and ice cream piled in a flaky shell, is so named because the fudgy base layer resembles the bottom of that similarly named big muddy river. The well-known saying “As American as apple pie” refers to the abundance of the fruit in the Northeast. When fresh apples were no longer available, the pie could be made successfully with dried or preserved fruit. Sweet potato pie, a Southern concoction, was said to evolve from the nourishing yams brought from Africa to feed slaves journeying on cargo ships to the New World.
Don’t forget that the Italians make a strong case that the pizza is a pie, but that discussion is for another time. National Pizza with Everything Day is on the menu in November.
MISSISSIPPI MUD PIE
1 9-inch pie crust, store-bought or homemade
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
4 tablespoons good-quality cocoa
1/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, well-beaten
1 teaspoon good-quality vanilla extract
3 cups vanilla, coffee or mocha ice cream, slightly softened (any flavor of your choice, really)
Chocolate shavings, candy bits or 1/4 cup fudge sauce, for topping
According to recipe or package directions, parbake crust until lightly golden and set. Remove crust to cool on a wire rack.
In a medium bowl, stir together butter, sugar and cocoa until well combined. Add flour, eggs and vanilla; mix until smooth. Pour mixture into prepared crust, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes until custard is cooked and set.
Remove pie from oven, and cool completely on a wire rack. Gently mound ice cream over cooled custard. Freeze until ice cream sets. Top with chocolate shavings or candy bits, or drizzle with fudge sauce before serving.
ALL AMERICAN APPLE PIE
Courtesy of the National Pie Council
2 9-inch pie crusts, homemade or store-bought (Crisco brand preferred)
6 medium Granny Smith apples
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
According to recipe or package directions, prepare bottom crust in pie plate. Trim even with pie plate. Do not bake.
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Peel, core and slice apples. Toss with sugar, flour and cinnamon. Pour into unbaked pie crust; dot with butter. Cover with top crust, seal edges, and flute with fork or pinched fingers. Brush with egg white. Cut slits for steam to escape.
Combine cinnamon and sugar; sprinkle over crust. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until pie is golden brown and apples are tender.
SOUTHERN SWEET POTATO PIE
Adapted from Paula Deen
3 egg whites
1 9-inch pie crust, unbaked
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (1-2 tablespoons bourbon)
1/2 stick butter, melted
1 1/4 cups sugar (divided use)
2 cups peeled, cooked sweet potatoes (canned can be substituted)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Using a stand or hand mixer, combine the potatoes, 1 cup of sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, salt and spices. Mix thoroughly. Mix in milk. Pour the filling into the pie crust and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Place the pie on a rack, and cool to room temperature before covering with meringue.
For the meringue, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Beat in the remaining sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is glossy and stiff, but not dry. Carefully spoon the meringue onto the pie, forming peaks, making sure the meringue touches the crust all around to seal in filling. Sprinkle with a pinch of granulated sugar. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until just browned. Cool and serve.