Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pie and More Pie

Mother-in-law was in the kitchen right up until her knee replacement surgery, and pies plural were some of the results of her efforts--Transparent Tarts and Cushaw Pie. For those living somewhere other than Northern Kentucky, both are regional favorites not well known outside this area. In fact, I hadn't heard of Transparent Pie until I moved to the neighboring county, or of Cushaw Pie until I married into this family. They both deserve some attention for their simplicity and authenticity, being examples of true country baking. They use simple ingredients and formulas and could be done many ways, but I want to share with you the way they're done here, by one family's farm wife. It's where I start, being new to both, until I see where I take them in my turn.

Transparent Pie (or Tarts if baked in individual pie shells as my mother-in-law did) is usually a simple concoction of butter, sugar, and eggs plus a touch of vinegar and vanilla, with many versions adding cream.
After making the pie crust (You do make your own, don't you?), you really can't get much easier than Transparent Pie. It's a stir and bake dessert that yields way more in richness than you gave in effort. If the description sounds a lot like Chess Pie, it's very close, except that Chess Pie contains a little cornmeal. I think they're sisters separated at birth.

From all the possible incarnations of Transparent Pie, I'm happy to start with Aunt Geneva's because you can't get more homey than recipes passed through family. I also think it's a good introduction because it's so utterly simple--the most basic version I found, using pantry staples only and no more work than melting butter and stirring. Aunt Geneva's version didn't even call for cream, which would seem to me to detract from the whole transparent idea anyway, although it does sound tasty. I'll try a cream version later, if only to see if that's the kind made by Magee's Bakery in Maysville, which is famous around here for their Transparent Pies. (George Clooney from nearby Augusta is rumored to be a fan, in case celebrity connection sways you.) For now, here's Aunt Geneva's Transparent Pie or Tarts.

Transparent Pie

Makes 1 9-inch pie or 12 individual pies

1/2 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Stir all ingredients together in a medium bowl until well blended.
Pour into a 9-inch unbaked pie shell.
Bake at 300 degrees until starting to set.
Raise temperature to 350 degrees and bake until brown on top.
**I have no idea if the two-step baking is necessary. We did
nothing like it at the bakery where I used to work. That's
just how Aunt Geneva did it. And that's what I'm interested in

Don't let the short ingredient list and plain appearance fool you. This farm's Transparent Pie is simple yes, but very rich. It has heft from the butter and singing sweetness from the sugar and an almost-gelatinous feel from the eggs' partnership with the other two. With this deceptively simple dessert, more richness is really not necessary, but when we ordered Transparent Pie at Caproni's restaurant in Maysville, they brought vanilla ice cream with it. The two together were a bit much, although a little lightly sweetened whipped cream might by workable. Alternatively, My Beloved and I immediately imagined it served with an acidic fruit sauce like raspberry (me) or strawberry (him). One website went so far as to declare that the only official accompaniment to Transparent Pie was black coffee. Were I a coffee drinker, I would probably agree.

Before I expound on the subject of our other pie, I 'll identify the cushaw itself, since I had never heard of it before meeting this family. There may be a cushaw-loving underground for all I know, but before my internet search (about two minutes ago), the only other reference I had seen to cushaw was in Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, (She's a Kentucky native born of farming folk much like my in-laws). For the record, the cushaw is a large, long-necked winter squash with a hard, green-striped shell that father-in-law grows every year in the garden. If stored in a cool place like the unheated garage (here) or the basement stairs (Kingsolver's family home), it will last through the winter. A hunk is sliced off as needed and the cut top covered with foil. Here's our cushaw.
What's left of him is about the size of a small basketball, and probably half of his length has been removed already. As I said, they're big.

As for the pie itself, when I asked my mother-in-law where she kept the recipe, she just pointed to her temple. That's right, it's only in her head. There is no measuring to speak of and no exact cooking time, so until I can make one along with her and get a recipe down, I can only tell you the story of the pie--approximately--the way food instruction was probably handed down centuries ago when cooking was a basic skill you learned from your people, not an optional art or a nutritional science. Do something a hundred times, and you can get away with this method, which goes something like this:

Mother-in-law removes the peel from a piece of cushaw and cuts it into chunks. The quantity is enough to fill the pot she always uses to the level that she knows is enough for a 9-inch pie. The squash gets boiled til tender, drained, and mashed. She then adds to it 4 tablespoons of butter, one cup of sugar, a little salt, a generous sprinkle of cinnamon (she thinks this might be about a teaspoon), and one egg. After mixing everything together well, she pours it into an unbaked pie shell and bakes it at 300 degrees til it starts to set. She then increases the temperature to 350 degrees and bakes the pie until the filling is completely set. Baking takes almost an hour she says.

The finished pie has a slightly fibrous texture, not nearly as smooth as pumpkin pie, but pleasantly so. The flavor profile is very simple, with a balance between squashiness and a gentle influence of cinnamon, not an out-in-front spice announcement. Like all squashy pie, it practically writes you a note requesting whipped cream. I tried to eat it plain but couldn't do it, even though all we had on hand was Cool Whip, to which I am philosophically opposed. Maybe as I make Cushaw pie my own, I'll try it with fresh ginger or a praline topping. I get to decide.One of the food truths I've learned since being in culinary school is that once some basic techniques are learned there are a hundred different ways to do anything--pancakes, pie, you name it. For someone who struggles to be free of crippling Platonic ideals, this is a liberating revelation. If there is no one ideal, then the job of a foodie is to start somewhere that calls you, find your own ideal, and do it well, whether that's foie gras-heavy gourmet or ace diner chow. In my limbo between lives, I'm beginning my real and personal food journey right here where I find myself, with family recipes, random inspirations, and the hope that someday I'll have my own repertoire to hand down. And I get to make it myself.

1 comment:

Kentucky Farm Girl said...

I was introduced to cushaw pie by my MIL some 20 years ago. It is a delicacy she saves for the holidays. One Thanksgiving we were a bit surprised to discover that she had forgotten the sugar in her cushaw pies. It was a disappointment in which I didn't share. I prefer pumpkin.