- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I was talking to my brother John about our family reunion this summer, and I can’t remember whether I volunteered or was cornered into baking the buttermilk pies. Anyway, the menu is just about set, and I’m realizing that I actually relish the idea of pulling those old Southern treasures out of the oven.

Cooking with buttermilk reigned in my family’s kitchen in southern Alabama. Buttermilk made corn bread, biscuits and pancakes tender and light. Chicken for frying was often tenderized with a buttermilk marinade. And my sister Helen’s fabulous chocolate cake was always stirred with buttermilk, both the batter and the tangy chocolate icing.

In my opinion, the delectable buttermilk pies took the cake. And nothing could be simpler: Buttermilk, eggs, sugar and spices are whisked together, poured into a golden pie crust and baked. Real easy.

There are many variations. For a chiffonlike custard, the eggs are separated and the whites are lightly whipped and folded into the batter. That pie surprisingly separates into a custard on the bottom with a lacy layer on top. When the eggs are left whole, the custard is generally quite firm.

The baking time can vary, too. Some cooks bake the pies until the tops turn brown and crusty, while others remove the pies when the custard is set and the tops have only a pale golden cast. This is my favorite way. My thinking is that the longer you bake the pie, the greater the chances of the custard curdling.

There are many variations on this old classic — and each is better than the other. A good squeeze of lemon juice and a generous sprinkling of shredded coconut give the pie a Caribbean flavor. The late Velma Mosley of Tyler, Texas, flooded me with recipes for my dessert cookbook “Brown Sugar: Soul Food Desserts From Family and Friends” (Morrow Cookbooks). She sent me a recipe for buttermilk pie made with grated orange rind, orange juice and cinnamon; another delectable winner.

So is a lemon buttermilk pie made with lemon juice, a sprinkling of nutmeg, and served with a fresh berry sauce. Raspberries and blueberries are especially good with the lemon buttermilk pie, and you can gild the lily and pass along lightly sweetened whipped cream.

There’s more. Often I add a couple of tablespoons of liqueur or dark rum to the basic custard, or, for a fancy touch, top off the pie with a sprinkling of crystallized sugar, such as Sugar in the Raw turbinado sugar, before placing it in the oven. Pecan halves arranged on the bottom of the crust before the custard filling is poured rise to the top during baking and impart a nice flavor. For an ethereal variation, consider a topping of caramel threads, which add a crunchy burnished tone to the buttermilk pie.

“If you think about it,” I remember Velma Mosley saying, “a buttermilk pie is simply a variation of the chess pie, that classic Southern custard pie that came out of the plantation kitchens.

Buttermilk pies run long and deep in our community.” They are delightfully improvisational. Here are a few of my favorites.

Coconut buttermilk pie

This recipe was sent to me by Sarah Irby, who moved to New York City in 1943 from Fredericksburg, Va., where her family ran a small restaurant.

Baked single pie crust (recipe follows)

1 cup sugar, or to taste

2 large eggs, at room temperature

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Pinch of salt

1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

½ cup grated or shredded coconut

Prepare pie crust (below) and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine sugar to taste, eggs, butter and flour, and whisk or beat until well-blended. Add vanilla, lemon juice and salt, and mix to combine.

Stir in buttermilk, whisking until well-blended. Pour filling into pre-baked and cooled pie shell. Sprinkle top with coconut.

Set pan in preheated 425-degree oven on middle shelf. Bake for 10 minutes and then reduce heat to 350 degrees. Bake 30 to 35 minutes longer, or until pie is lightly browned and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

If edge of pastry browns too quickly, cover with strips of foil. Cool pie on a wire rack. Then chill, if desired, but allow to warm up a few minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.

BAKED SINGLE PIE CRUST

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled

11/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough

Pinch of salt

4 to 6 tablespoons ice water

½ teaspoon cider vinegar

1 egg white, lightly beaten

Cut butter into ½-inch pieces and place in a large, shallow mixing bowl. Sift 11/4 cups flour and salt into bowl containing butter and mix well. Using a pastry cutter, two knives or your fingers, cut or crumble butter into flour until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

Combine 6 tablespoons ice water and vinegar. Sprinkle water over dough 1 tablespoon at a time, lifting with a fork to dampen all over.

After adding 4 tablespoons water, squeeze a little of the dampened dough with your fingertips. If it doesn’t hold together, add more water a tablespoon at a time, until dough just clings together but is not mushy and wet.

With a fork, quickly stir together dampened dough and gather into a disk or ball, dusting lightly with flour if it sticks.

Wrap dough in plastic wrap or waxed paper and chill for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Roll dough on a lightly floured surface into about a 12-inch circle, as thin as possible (about 1/8-inch thick). Carefully place dough in a 9-inch pie pan.

Using kitchen scissors, trim dough ½- to 3/4-inch over edge of pie pan.

For a pretty border design, roll up dough on the rim of pie pan and pinch all around with fingers, making a flute design. Prick bottom and sides of pie crust with a fork so that dough can expand as it bakes.

Cover crust with a sheet of heavy-duty foil or parchment paper and fill pan with about 3 cups of dried beans, peas, rice or macaroni to keep bubbles in crust from forming. Set pie crust on lower shelf of preheated 400-degree oven and bake 15 to 16 minutes, or until set and dry.

Carefully remove weights, including foil or paper. (If any air bubbles have formed, gently prick with a fork to deflate.) Bake crust about 3 minutes longer, or until just lightly browned. Remove crust from oven, cool on a wire rack for a few minutes and brush with beaten egg white. Makes 1 crust.

Orange buttermilk pie

A sprinkling of cinnamon or candied orange peel also makes a nice topping for this pie.

Baked single pie crust (recipe above)

3 large eggs, separated

1 to 11/4 cups sugar, or to taste

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon grated orange peel

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ cup orange juice

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cider vinegar or cream of tartar

Prepare pie crust and set aside.

Carefully separate eggs, making sure that yolks don’t touch whites, and place (separated) in two very clean bowls. Allow whites to come to room temperature.

Beat yolks briskly for a few seconds with a whisk. Add sugar to taste, flour, orange peel, vanilla, cinnamon to taste and salt, and whisk again. Whisk in orange juice and butter and beat until blended. Stir in buttermilk and mix well. Set aside.

Sprinkle vinegar or cream of tartar over egg whites. Using a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or a hand-held electric mixer, beat whites at medium-high speed just until they hold slight peaks.

Stir a large spoonful of egg white into pie filling and mix well. Fold in remaining egg white and mix gently but thoroughly until blended. Pour filling into prebaked and cooled pie shell.

Place pie on lower shelf of preheated 350-degree oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until puffed and light brown and a knife comes out almost clean when inserted into center.

If edge of pastry browns too quickly, cover with strips of foil. Remove pie from oven. Place on a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Chill if not serving immediately and let warm up a few moments before serving. Makes 6 servings.

Lemon buttermilk pie

Baked single pie crust (recipe above)

11/3 cups sugar, or to taste

3 large eggs, at room temperature

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 to ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

4 tablespoons lemon juice

Pinch of salt

1½ cups buttermilk, at room temperature

Fresh berry sauce or caramel threads, optional (recipes follow)

Prepare pie crust and set aside.

In a large bowl combine sugar to taste, eggs, butter, flour and nutmeg to taste, and whisk or beat until well-blended. Add lemon juice and salt and mix again. Then stir in buttermilk, whisking until well-blended. Pour filling into prebaked and cooled pie shell.

Set pan on lower shelf of preheated 350-degree oven.

Bake pie 40 to 50 minutes or until puffy with a pale golden top and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Don’t overbake pie or it will curdle.

If edge of pastry browns too quickly, cover with strips of foil. Cool pie on a wire rack. Then chill, if desired, but allow it to warm up a few minutes before serving.

Serve pie with fresh berry sauce or caramel threads (recipes follow), if desired. Makes 6 servings.

FRESH BERRY SAUCE

3 cups fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries or strawberries or mixture

2 tablespoons lemon juice

½ cup sugar or 1/3 cup honey

Water

2 tablespoons liqueur, such as B&B or Benedictine

Rinse berries and remove and discard stems. If using strawberries, cut into quarters. Combine lemon juice, sugar or honey and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook over medium-high heat until mixture thickens slightly, stirring briskly, about 5 minutes.

Add berries, reduce heat to low and cook, uncovered, 4 or 5 minutes, stirring a couple times. Stir in liqueur, remove pan from heat and cool sauce completely before serving over pie. Makes about 3 cups.

CARAMEL THREADS

Have available a small pastry brush and a cup of water to use to dissolve the sugar crystals while cooking the caramel syrup.

Butter, for pan

½ cup granulated sugar

Water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Lightly butter a jellyroll pan and set aside.

In small, heavy saucepan or skillet, combine sugar with 2 tablespoons water, lemon juice and corn syrup. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cover pan and cook 3 minutes. Remove lid.

Wash down side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Cook syrup, swirling the pan, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until syrup is the color of deeply brewed tea. Don’t allow syrup to burn. Immediately remove pan from heat.

Pour caramel into buttered jellyroll pan and spread evenly with a spoon into a thin layer, rotating the pan. Let caramel set until cooled and hardened, then break into small pieces with a mallet or hammer. Use as a topping for buttermilk pie.

Makes about 1 cup.

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