It’s the kind of question my kids will discuss, ad nauseam, at the dinner table. In a sweet book I read recently, PIE, by Sarah Weeks, everyone has a preferred pie. This old-fashioned whodunnit crossed with a small-town family comedy (think Beezus and Ramona meets Encyclopedia Brown), PIE tells the story of Alice, whose beloved baking genius Aunt Polly passes away, leaving the secret of her perfect crust a mystery.
Over the years, Aunt Polly has baked her fellow townspeople’s favorites, never charging a penny, only accepting eggs or berries in exchange. When Polly dies, the town’s economy, which depends on her pie shop to bring in tourists, is threatened — and so are a few relationships. A frantic race to discover the missing piecrust recipe ensues, complicated by the fact that Aunt Polly’s will seems to have left the recipe to her cat, Lardo.
Lardo disappears, and Alice and her friend Charlie have to track down her cat-napper, who’s after the coveted recipe. But what’s really at stake is the connections among friends and family that the pies have stood for all this time.
Each chapter opens with one of Aunt Polly’s pie recipes: apple pie, of course, but also grape, rhubarb, key lime, coconut, peanut butter raspberry cream, and others. (The book’s author actually collected these recipes from home cooks around the country.) However, not one of the pie recipes includes a formula for crust.
In other words, you’ll either have to kidnap a cat, or find your own. But don’t let that stop you.
Pie-making isn’t for everyone, in part because of the piecrust thing. Making a decent piecrust isn’t rocket science, but it does take some skill and planning. Filling a piecrust, on the other hand, takes almost zero culinary prowess, especially when it comes to berry pies and chess or custard pies. You could say it’s child’s play. And in order to have opinions about pies, kids need to eat plenty of pie.
So head to the grocery store and buy one or two or of those dandy frozen piecrusts. There’s no shame in it. Then get the kids to mix up a bowl of buttermilk filling, or toss frozen berries together with cornstarch and sugar, and bake up a pie. In a week or two, bake a different one, and decide which is your favorite.
Adapted from A Love Affair with Southern Cooking by Jean Anderson, this recipe is not identical to the buttermilk pie in PIE, which claims — somewhat dubiously — to be low-calorie. But it’s a recipe I’ve made again and again. It delivers the same tangy-mellow satisfaction as cheesecake, but without the fuss. Serve it with whatever berries are in season right now.
1½ cups sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons butter, melted
3 large eggs
1½ cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional, but lovely)
One 9-inch unbaked pie shell (aka crust)
Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325. With a hand mixer at medium speed or a wooden spoon, beat the sugar, flour, and melted butter in a small bowl till all the ingredients are blended well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice. Beat the eggs in one at a time (at low speed, if you’re using a mixer), then beat well till the mixture is light in color. Stir in buttermilk, vanilla, and nutmeg, if using.
Place the pie shell on a baking sheet (lined with tinfoil for quick cleanup if the pie drips at all). Pour filling into the shell and bake for about 1 hour 10 minutes. The pie is done when the filling is puffy and golden-brown. Poke the filling with a knife or skewer and it should come out clean. Cool at least 30 minutes before serving. The filling will collapse, but that’s okay.