IDEA ALLEY: The deep history of Possum Pie, a classic Arkansas dessert and tasty concoction

(Illustration by Kelly Brant)
(Illustration by Kelly Brant)

Recipes that appear in Idea Alley have not been tested by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

In my story about Arkansas desserts that ran Feb. 2, I mentioned, but did not include a recipe for Arkansas' (perhaps) most (in)famous dessert: Possum Pie, aka Next Best Thing to Robert Redford, Four-Layer Delight and Five-Layer Delight.

I should have known better as several readers have reached out to ask for a recipe.

The dessert typically features a nut-crumb crust, a cream cheese layer, a chocolate layer, a vanilla layer and whipped cream or Cool Whip layer. It can be made in a baking dish or a pie plate.

The reason I didn't include a recipe is because when I searched "possum pie" in the historic newspaper archives for information regarding the origin and name, more than half of the results had nothing to do with dessert. Instead I found racial slurs, ads for minstrel shows and other hateful, hurtful relics of Arkansas' past.

A dessert with the name Possum Pie got its first mention in a 1983 restaurant review in the Arkansas Gazette. The same year, the Arkansas Democrat published a recipe from Fred's Fish House in Cord (Independence County) called Fred's Five-Layer Delight and featuring a coconut layer rather than a chocolate layer. But it was the late 2000s the first time a Food section published a recipe for the dessert using the name Possum Pie.

The combination of nut-crumb crust, cream cheese, pudding and whipped topping made its newspaper debut in the June 6, 1974, Democrat in a story about the Arkansas Dairy Recipe Contest. The contest was open to students enrolled in fourth-12th grade at any Arkansas school.

Cindy Watson's Four Layer Delight

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup pecans, chopped, divided use
  • 8 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 (3-ounce) package instant chocolate pudding mix
  • 1 ¾ cups milk

First layer: Mix flour and ½ cup chopped nuts. Add melted butter and mix well. Spread in a 9-inch square pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Cool completely.

Whip whipping cream, adding sugar while whipping, and refrigerate.

Second layer: Soften cream cheese, blend in confectioners' sugar and half of the chilled whipped cream. Spread over baked and cooled crust.

Third layer: Blend instant chocolate pudding mix with milk. Pour over second layer.

Fourth layer: Top with remainder of whipped cream and sprinkle with remaining ½ cup nuts. Chill. Cut into squares to serve.

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By the early 1980s, similar recipes, but with vanilla pudding added, start appearing in Arkansas newspapers.

The Next Best Thing to Robert Redford, the name my grandmother used for this dessert, made its Arkansas debut in the Democrat in 1982, by way of food editors from the Indianapolis Star and the Los Angeles Times.

The Next Best Thing to Robert Redford

  • 1 cup flour
  • ½ cup butter or margarine, softened
  • 1 cup finely chopped pecans
  • 1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 (9-ounce) carton frozen nondairy whipped topping, thawed
  • 1 (6 ¾-ounce) package instant vanilla pudding mix
  • 1 (6 ¾-ounce) package instant chocolate pudding mix
  • 3 cups cold milk
  • Grated chocolate candy bar, optional

Prepare bottom crust by mixing together flour, butter and pecans until crumblike.

Press mixture into greased 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly golden. Cool.

Beat cream cheese with sugar until smooth. Fold in half of the whipped topping. Spread mixture over cooled crust. Combine vanilla and chocolate pudding mixes. Beat in milk until smooth and thickened. Spread over cream cheese layer. Spread remaining whipped topping cover top. Sprinkle with grated chocolate bar if desired. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Makes 16 servings.

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And just three years later in the Gazette, Harriet Aldridge writes about this recipe from Liza Ashley, cook at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion from the 1950s until late 1990.

It is nearly identical to the Robert Redford version, except it gives the option of layering the chocolate and vanilla puddings separately, which is more in line with what we know as Possum Pie.

Pudding Cake Dessert

  • ½ cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 large container Cool Whip, thawed, divided use
  • 1 (4 ½-ounce) package instant chocolate pudding mix
  • 1 (3 ¾-ounce) package instant French vanilla pudding mix
  • 2 cups cold milk
  • Grated chocolate, optional

Combine butter, flour and pecans. Press into 13-by-9-by-2-inch pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Cool.

Blend cream cheese, confectioners' sugar and 1 cup Cool Whip. Spread over cooled crust.

Blend instant puddings with milk until thick. (Puddings can be mixed and spread together or separately.) Spread over cream cheese filling. Top with remaining Cool Whip. Grate chocolate over top if desired. Chill well.

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