What’s in a name? There are many answers to that question, but this is a food blog and today I am writing about family history… and pie. Still, it can be a very good question and, as you'll see, it does apply.
A Pie For Every Season
As I was growing up, Aunt Hen often made pies. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed. I loved to bake with her. I loved to help her roll out the dough to line a pie plate, cut strips of pastry for lattice work, or other shapes of dough for decoration. I loved to watch her perfectly flute the edge of the dough with her thumb and forefinger. I loved the way the dough smelled and the way it felt. There was magic in the dough, in the special qualities of it as an artistic medium that was so wonderfully responsive that it could delight the eye and nourish the body as well as the soul.
The outcome, however, a pretty pie filled with fruit or nuts, or almost anything that commonly filled pies and delighted the adults in my family, was not that appealing to me as a child. I was a picky eater. I did not like the foods on my dinner plate to touch and I ate them one at a time. I did not like fruit that was too sweet. I did not like the texture of nuts.
In February Aunt Hen thought of George Washington’s Birthday and made Cherry Cheese Pie. I would only eat it without the cherries. In summer she responded to the heat by making lusciously tart Lemon Meringue Pies piled high with her favorite No-Weep Meringue. I only ate bites from the lemon filling and avoided the soft, sticky sweet meringue. At Christmas she baked rich and gooey Pecan Pies. I only picked at the crust, avoiding the nuts.
Finally, in the spring, sometime around the first Saturday in May, she made a pie that sparked my interest. The recipe included chocolate, butter, brown sugar and eggs. What’s not to like about that? But then it also included walnuts, an ingredient of which I remained wary. When asked what she was making she would casually reply, “Derby Pie.”
Except For the Nuts
Aunt Hen’s Derby Pie was not the most beautiful of the pies she made. In fact it’s appearance was rather homely. The filling barely filled out the pie shell. It puffed nicely while baking but quickly sunk back down after it was taken from the oven. When cool it simply looked like a lumpy brown biscuit in a golden crust.
No, it wasn't pretty, but cut a slice on a warm May afternoon, then add a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a mound of sweet whipped cream to the top. In a moment, its unattractive appearance was forgotten as the fragrance began to remind you of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and the first bite settled on your tongue like warm cookie dough. With drips of cool cream running down the sides of the piece still left on your plate this homely pie was transformed into an inviting confection that was hard to resist.
Yes, except for the nuts, this was a pie that tempted even my young taste buds. Seeing how I felt, Aunt Hen would sometimes make a separate pie without the nuts, just for me. She would double her recipe and bake two, one with nuts and one without. When they were done she would set them on the big chest freezer on her breezeway to cool.
Oh, the folly of youth! I wish I hadn't been so much trouble, so hard to please. But, oh, how wonderful for a child to feel loved that much by a special adult in their life. When Aunt Hen altered a recipe and made it without some significant ingredient that she liked, just for me, I knew that I was special to her. That pie became a symbol of the special bond between us.
Over the years I have acquired somewhat more mature tastes. While I could take or leave the cherries on a Cherry Cheese Pie to this day, I will have to say that I have come to appreciate the nuts in Der…I mean, Brownie Pie. Although as much as the nuts and the chocolate I think I love the story and the part my aunt played in it. It is a story about a secret….
Aunt Hen was a very dear lady who lived a sober life. She stayed at home with her mother, my grandmother, until Grandma died, a few years before I was born. Only then, rather late in life by some estimations, did she marry. She had no children and, after a few years, her husband died young leaving her to live in her house alone, near her sister, and near my family, until she died at 84.
Her life was never one of gossip or mischief. She had no bad habits that I know of. She didn’t drink alcohol or coffee. She didn’t gamble or swear. She had no love affairs. She worked hard, as a waitress at various restaurants along the highway near her home. I can remember watching her tie a perfect bow in her freshly starched and ironed blue apron, then turning it around her waist to the back as she got ready to work her shift.
Later, I remember her sitting at her dining room table reading cookbooks or writing out recipes to submit to contests or magazines. If she wasn’t at the table she was most often cooking. Every weekday evening she cooked dinner for her extended family in her small kitchen. Often she made more than enough and would take a meal to a friend or a neighbor. Her passion was cooking and sharing what she cooked with others.
Aunt Hen was not a woman of secrets. If she had or knew any she kept them well. In fact the only secret I ever learned she was privy to, she never called a secret at all. What we knew we knew by observation. Whenever anyone asked her to share the recipe for what she routinely called Derby Pie, while she would be glad to write it out for them, she would never title it “Derby Pie.” Instead, taking out a card and a pen she would begin transcribing her recipe, carefully writing out …”Brownie Pie” at the top of the card. If questioned, or at our persistent urging, she might add in parenthesis (Derby Pie) but even that she was reluctant to do. She would tell us the name had been trademarked by the Kerns, a family she once worked for, and that they were known to sue those who used the title for their own pie. My aunt told us she didn’t want to be sued. We laughed.
For the Love of Pie
Funny thing is, it turns out to be true. There are claims that the recipe is indeed a secret known only by a few close family members and the one employee responsible for mixing the recipe. It is also true that, while they don’t very often, Kern's Kitchen will still take you tocourt over the name of their pie.
To me, that seems pretty silly. After all, we do all make Pecan Pie without squabbling over who the name belongs to, and the world of food is full of recipes for pies with names like Thoroughbred Pie, or Bluegrass Pie or Run for the Roses Pie, that are meant to imply an association with the Kentucky Derby and that famous pie that took its name from the famous horserace itself. Many of these pies are variations that include bourbon or pecans and many people claim to like them better than the Kern's Kitchen Derby Pie. It seems especially silly since, the recipe my aunt gave me is so simple, so easy.
When we suggested to my aunt that maybe she didn’t have the real recipe for the Kerns' special pie, that maybe her recipe was inauthentic and that’s why she wouldn’t write out the name, she became indignant. Picture Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show being questioned about her recipes. The look on Aunt Hen's face was much the same. Of course she knew, she would tell us. She had worked for the Kerns at the Melrose Inn, for many years. She was there when they began to make the pie. The only difference, she would say, between her recipe and the original, was that she used half brown and half white sugar, because she liked the taste of the brown, while the Kerns had used all white sugar. On occasion she also took the liberty to use pecans or other nuts she had on hand instead of insisting on the English Walnuts used in the original recipe.
Is this the “secret” recipe for the real pie, the one made by Kern's Kitchen? While I have never known my aunt to tell a lie, I can’t really say that I know for sure. The recipe of the official Derby Pie may well have changed over the years, may have changed before they even trademarked the name. I can say that Aunt Hen’s recipe is very close to the one published by ZZ Packer in the The New York Times several years ago. The difference is that Aunt Hen’s recipe calls for more chocolate and more nuts. The pictures I have seen of the official Derby Pie as though it has even less chocolate. Otherwise, they appear to be much the same, and it seems that my aunt had the opportunity and interest to have learned the recipe first hand.
What's In A Name?
Still, whether this is or isn’t the real “secret” recipe for that famous pie it is, without a doubt, the real recipe for Aunt Hen’s special pie, a pie I have treasured as long as I can remember. I have it documented in her own handwriting and I’m sure she would be glad to have me share it.
When I told Aunt Hen that I was getting married she began making a cookbook just for me. She bought a simple red journal with "Favorite Recipes" printed on the front and began writing my favorite recipes on the lined pages in her own neat cursive. After writing out a few choices of her own she asked what recipes I would like to have her include. I asked for this recipe. She agreed and began by writing….Brownie Pie (Der…
Well, you fill in the blank. It doesn’t really matter what it’s called. After all, what’s in a name? A warm, rich, chocolaty, "First Saturday in May" Pie by any other name would surely taste as sweet.
Aunt Hen’s Brownie Pie
1 unbaked pie shell
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup sugar, ½ white – ½ brown
1 cup nuts
1 stick butter (½ cup)
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
Melt butter until soft. Mix chocolate chips, flour and sugar. Add other ingredients. Stir until combined. Pour the mixture into an unbaked pie shell ( I tried a Bourbon Pie Crust as described below.)
Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes.
Note: This will produce a dark, chocolate colored pie throughout. To make the pie appear layered with a light crust, arrange chocolate chips over the bottom of an unbaked pie shell. Stir together remaining ingredients until combined. Pour over the chocolate chips and bake as directed above.
Add a Touch of Bourbon
This is a variation of (Nearly) Foolproof Pie Dough adapted from Cook's Illustrated, which I used for my It's All About Attitude Mushroom and Brie Quiche. After finding that replacing part of the liquid in the recipe with vodka makes a great flaky pie crust I wondered what replacing that vodka with bourbon would be like. So I tried it. It smelled a bit odd while it was baking but the crust itself retained a slight bourbon flavor that was a nice complement to the, ahem, “Brownie” Pie filling.
Bourbon Pie Dough
(enough for one single crust pie)
1¼ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch slices
¼ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1-2 tablespoons cold bourbon (I used Bulleit brand)
1-2 tablespoons cold water
Mix together flour and salt with a wire whisk. Cut in 6 tablespoons of cold butter with a pastry blender until butter pieces are the size of M&Ms. Add cold shortening pieces. Continue cutting with the pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal and the largest pieces are the size of small peas.
Mix bourbon and water. Sprinkle approximately two tablespoons over mixture and toss with fork. Press a portion of the mixture against the side of the bowl with your hand. If the dough is not holding together add more liquid, a teaspoon or two at a time, testing after each addition.
Cover dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold. Place dough on a nonstick silicone baking mat and roll out in a circle large enough to line the pie plate.
Transfer pastry circle to pie plate. Trim and form edges as desired.