pink peony

pink peony
old-fashioned peony

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Humble desserts

Another winter storm, another morning in the kitchen – at least, that’s what it means for me. In fact, it’s been a recurring theme this winter. Cold, inclement weather just seems to inspire me to cook, bake, read recipes, cook some more and eat. And there is ample evidence to prove it – and that’s all I’m gonna say about that!
Church services were cancelled this morning (a good thing, since the ground and the roads are covered in sleet) so off to the kitchen I sailed. Hmmm, what to make? A cake? Cookies? I opened the refrigerator for inspiration and this is what I took out:

Beautiful, fresh eggs from a friend’s flock! Thank you, Michelle Pointer, for being so generous with your cackleberries. There’s just something about a full tray of fresh eggs that makes one feel as if anything can be endured.
And with just a little fixing up, not only can one endure, one can be transported to the very heights of culinary delight, at least to my way of thinking.

I’m talking about pie, of course … my favorite, custard pie.
I seem to lean toward humble desserts (an earlier post raved about the delights of bread pudding.) And what pie is more humble than old-fashioned custard? Eggs, milk, a bit of sugar, a sprinkle of nutmeg, a pinch of salt, a generous dose of vanilla and you have the makings for the quickest, easiest (an electric mixer is not even needed), healthiest (my personal rating) pie on the planet. Most any old time these items can be found in my cupboard and fridge, so it is my go-to pie.

But the best thing going for custard pie is that it is positively delicious!
I’ve been in love with Dear Custard for the longest time. I remember my great-granny making it with her own fresh eggs and milk when I was a very little girl, sometimes in a pie shell and sometimes bare naked in custard cups, baked in the oven of her wood-fired cookstove.

Granny’s farm was smack-dab in the middle of our little town, but that didn’t stop her from having 300 hens, from which she sold eggs to the local grocery stores, and a milk cow which lived in her barn on the south side of the highway, the busiest east-west thoroughfare in southern Missouri. Granny, in her old-lady way, would trot across the highway morning and evening to milk her Jersey cow, getting the richest, sweetest milk in the world. When it became obvious that Granny was a threat to traffic (or vice versa -- her trot had slowed considerably) my dad had to sell the cow and Granny was forced to resort to grocery-store milk. She wasn’t a happy granny, and she held on to her precious hens as long as she lived in her big, old farmhouse-in-town.

Back to custard: I think I had to cultivate a taste for custard pie. As a little-bitty girl, I wasn’t fond of the texture. But magically, my palate matured, and by the time I was old enough to understand about quality food I realized this was near to perfect. A flaky crust, a tender, slightly-sweet filling giving off the delicate aroma of vanilla and nutmeg, best served when still slightly warm – all the makings of divine delight.

It took me 35 years to learn how to make my favorite pie. If Granny gets the credit for inspiring my affection for custard, Barbara Pettit deserves kudos for indirectly teaching me how to make a good pie pastry. She was the home economics teacher to both my daughters, and they learned from her and came home and taught me how to make a simple yet successful pie crust.

I still have a little piece of paper taped inside my cupboard door with Ms. Pettit’s recipe, written in Susannah’s high-school handwriting: “2 ½ cups all-purp flour, ½ tsp salt, 1 cup shortening, 8-9 tablespoons ice water, 425.” After all these years and after trying a dozen other pastry recipes, some with butter, some with vinegar, or egg or etc., this is the one I go back to for ensured success. Thank you, Barbara Pettit, for teaching my girls and allowing them to teach me.


I roll my pastry onto an old-fashioned tea towel (not terry but smoothly woven) which I’ve covered with flour. This method works well because the pastry won’t stick to it AND because you can lift it with the towel to drape over your hand to transfer it to the pie plate.

Ms. Pettit’s recipe makes two generous crusts, one of which I freeze (Hooray! Next time I need dessert in a hurry, I’m halfway home!) and one of which I immediately fill with custard. Here’s how I make the custard:

4 fresh, large eggs

2/3 cup sugar

2 2/3 cups milk (whole, or if you have skim, use 2/3 cup cream and 2 cups milk)

¼ teaspoon (or a little more) ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla (and spilling a little extra into the mix doesn’t hurt one bit)

Mix all with a whisk, carefully pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake for 15 minutes at 425, then another 25-30 minutes at 350 to come out just right. Check for doneness by inserting the tip of a sharp knife into the filling near the center – it should come out clean.


Since I’m crediting inspiring women, I should give Betty the credit for the custard recipe. Ms. Crocker has taught me a lot through the years. I’m dreading the day when her tome comes completely apart. My good friend, Sue Ann Luna Jones, gave Betty to me when I got married. Sue Ann claims she has never read Betty, but I don’t believe her. We’ve always liked the same books.

So, I just made a pot of coffee (Southern Pecan, from Ozark Mtn. Coffee Co. in Ozark, Mo.,) and have cut my favorite farmhand a piece. We’re ready to sit back and watch the sleet pile up and contemplate the blessings of our simple life, over our simple dessert, on this simple Sunday.

Honestly, I feel pretty rich!

And that’s my sermon for today …