What’s in a name? There are so 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, my aunt made many pies. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed. I loved to bake with her. I loved to help her roll out pie dough, cut strips of pastry for lattice work, or other shapes of dough for dumplings or cookies. I loved to watch her perfectly flute the edges of a pie shell. 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 and could be formed with hands and tools into beautiful shapes that delighted the eye and nourished the body as well as the soul.
The outcome, however, a pie filled with fruit or nuts, or almost anything that commonly fills pies, was not that appealing to me. 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 my aunt thought of George Washington’s Birthday and made Cherry Cheese Pie, but I would only eat it without the cherries. In summer she responded to the heat by making lusciously tart Lemon Meringue Pies, but I only ate bites from the lemon filling and avoided the soft, sticky sweet meringue. At Christmas she baked rich and gooey-sweet Pecan Pies but I only picked at the crust. I wouldn't eat the nuts.
Then in the spring, sometime around the first Saturday in May, she made a pie that I had mixed feelings about. The recipe included chocolate, butter, brown sugar and eggs, and what’s not to like about that? But then it also included walnuts, a food about which I remained wary. She called it Derby Pie when spoken aloud but when she had reason to write it down she mindfully wrote it out with a different name.
Except For the Nuts
My aunt's Derby Pie was not the most beautiful pie in the world. In fact it’s appearance was rather homely. The filling barely filled the pie crust. It puffed nicely while baking but quickly sunk back down after being taken from the oven. When cool it was simply a slightly lumpy brown pie.
No, it wasn't pretty, but cut a slice and warm it slightly, then add a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a mound of whipped cream to the top. Suddenly, its unattractive appearance was forgotten as it was transformed into a fragrant sweet chocolate slice that smelled much like a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie and had the consistency of warm cookie dough. With a touch of cool cream running down the sides of its soft form it was suddenly a treat that was hard to resist. It had been transformed into a piece of pie that looked and smelled homey and inviting.
Yes, except for the nuts, this was a pie that tempted my taste buds. Knowing how I felt, my aunt would sometimes make this pie without the nuts, just for me. She would bake two, one with nuts and one without, and set them on her big chest freezer on the 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 be loved that much by one special adult in their life. When my aunt altered a recipe and made it without some main ingredient that adults like, 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 even today, 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. It is a story about a secret….
My aunt was a very dear lady who lived a sober life. She stayed at home with her mother, my grandmother, until Grandma died, and then, rather late in life by some estimations, she married. She had no children and 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. I can also remember her sitting at her dining room table reading cookbooks or writing out recipes to submit to contests or magazines. And, every weekday evening she cooked dinner for her extended family in her small kitchen. Her passion was cooking and sharing what she cooked with others.
My aunt was not a woman of secrets and if she had or knew any she kept them well. In fact the only secret I remember her speaking of, she never called a secret at all. We only knew because whenever anyone asked her for the recipe for Derby Pie, while she was glad to write it out for them, she would never title it “Derby Pie.” Though that was clearly the recipe she had been asked to share, when she took a card and carefully began writing the recipe in her best handwriting, she would always begin by writing Brownie Pie. Asked why that was, and 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 was trademarked by the Kerns, a family she once worked for, and that they were known to sue those who used the title for their pie. My aunt told us she didn’t want to be sued. We laughed.
What's In A Name?
Funny thing is, it turns out to be true. There are claims that the recipe is indeed a secret and that, while they don’t very often, Kern's Kitchen will take you to court over the name of their pie. And it all seems so 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 is named after it. 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. Of course she knew, she would tell us. Picture Aunt Bee from the Andy Griffith Show being questioned about her recipes. The look on my aunt’s face was much the same. 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. And who am I to disagree? She worked for the Kerns at the Melrose Inn, for many years. She had every reason to know. Besides, I never knew my aunt to tell a lie about anything.
So, is this the recipe for the real pie, the one made by Kern's Kitchen? 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 it. I can say that my aunt’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 my aunt’s recipe calls for more chocolate and more nuts. The pictures I have seen of the official Derby Pie look like they have even less chocolate, but otherwise they seem much the same, and it seems that my Aunt had the opportunity and interest to have learned the recipe first hand. But whether this is or isn’t the “real” recipe for a famous pie it is certainly my aunt’s real recipe for a pie I have treasured as long as I can remember, and I’m sure she would be glad to have me share it.
When I got married I asked my aunt to put the recipe for this pie in a little cookbook she was making for me. 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 (1/2 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.
Bourbon Pie Crust
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.
(enough for one single crust pie)
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 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.