Pumkin Pie
Patty Boyle's Pumpkin Pie (recipe follows).

Pies with Secrets

by John Golden
photography J. Robert Photography

THE SEASON IS NOW for custard-style pies and their variations. Home bakers have segued from foraging for fillings of summer fruit and berries to the loftier versions of what used to be referred to as the pantry or cupboard pies of fall and winter. That means eggs, sugar, butter, whole milk, heavy cream or buttermilk fill buttery, feather-light pastries. Add some nuts or apples, and the wide world of pies is even more interesting.

Cupboard or pantry pies were so named because before refrigeration they were kept in pie safes—chests outfitted with punched metal or screened mesh doors tucked away in pantries, back porches or country kitchens. The high amount of sugar in the pie acted as a preservative. But for any holding period longer than a day or two, modern thinking is these pies are best kept refrigerated. Just bring the pies up to room temperature before serving.

One all-star at this time of year is pumpkin pie, a mainstay on holiday tables. It’s essentially a custard pie enriched with fresh pumpkin purée. The best variety of pumpkin to use for the purée is from the Long Pie pumpkin, readily found at farmers’ markets.
The other pies in this collection reflect my admiration for Southern bakers, whose penchant for gloriously sweet pies and feather-light pie doughs form the nexus of American regional baking at its best.


Patty Boyle’s Pumpkin Pie (shown above)

The Secret: This recipe includes a touch of molasses in the custard, which adds a rich, smoky, distinctive flavor.
The recipe was given to me by Keith Boyle of Hollis, a long-time vendor (Uncle’s Farm) at the Portland Farmers’ Market until his death last year. He got the recipe from his late mother, Patty Gilbert Boyle of Rumford, who, he boasted, was the consummate baker.

Serves 6–8

Dough for 9-inch single-crust pie, unbaked (recipe follows)
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
16 ounces fresh pumpkin purée (see recipe below) or equivalent of canned pumpkin
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons butter, melted
⅛ cup molasses (or sorghum)
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk or 6 ounces each milk and heavy cream, mixed

Preheat oven to 450°.

Roll out pastry to line a 9-inch pie dish. Chill for 30 minutes before filling.

Into a large bowl sift sugar, salt, cornstarch and spices, whisking together to mix. Add puréed pumpkin, eggs, melted butter, molasses (or sorghum) and either evaporated milk or milk-cream mixture. Stir thoroughly to blend. Pour into prepared pastry shell and bake for 15 minutes; lower heat to 350° and bake for about 50 minutes or until filling is nicely set. A thin knife or toothpick inserted in the center should come out reasonably clean.

Put on a rack to cool and serve at room temperature with a dollop of whipped cream.

Fresh Pumpkin Purée
To make fresh purée, cut a Long Pie pumpkin in half lengthwise, leaving the seeds in; put cut-side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone baking mat and bake at 375° for about 45 minutes or until the flesh is soft. Scrape away seeds and scoop flesh into a bowl. Purée with a hand mixer or immersion blender.


Chess Pie

Classic Chess Pie

How chess pie was so named is the stuff of legend. One apocryphal story goes that when a Southerner asked a diner waitress what was for dessert, the answer was “jus’ pie,” which morphed into “chess pie.” Another story attributes a slur of the Southern accent that translated “chest pie” to chess pie.

Every recipe for chess pie is a little different: some have more eggs, varying amounts of butter—sometimes creamed or melted—and plenty of sugar. Two Secrets: Use local full-fat buttermilk, the best being from Highview Farm in Harrison or Kate's real buttermilk; but the real secret ingredient is that tablespoon of cornmeal.  It adds texture to the topping and filling..  Use white cornmeal and make the effort to get stone-ground, medium-fine grind.  I get mine from a granary in North Carolina, Boonville Flour and Feed.

Serves 6–8

Dough for 9-inch single-crust pie, partially baked (recipe follows)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
⅓ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 tablespoon yellow or white cornmeal
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with a whisk until well combined. Beat in sugar, buttermilk, cornmeal, melted butter and vanilla extract, adding up to 2 teaspoons vanilla if you like a bigger taste.

Pour filling into prebaked pastry and put it on a large baking sheet. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until pie puffs up and top splits in places. It should barely wiggle when shaken gently. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving and the pie will firm up even more. To store, keep in a cool place on a back porch, covered, or in a pie chest; or cover with a loose tent of foil and refrigerate.

Apple Dapple Pie

Apple Dapple Pie

I came across this curiously named pie in a gem of a book called Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies by Mollie Cox Bryan. Starting in the 1930s, Rowe ran one of those fine country restaurants in the Shenandoah Valley where her comfort food and wonderful desserts were legendary. Today Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant and Bakery in Staunton, Virginia still goes strong with a similar menu and reputation. This recipe is adapted from the book. Apple Dapple is like a coffee cake wrapped up in a pastry case. The Secret: The special ingredient is to use heritage apples, very tart and firm.

Serves 6–8

Dough for 9-inch single-crust pie, partially baked (recipe follows)
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
¾ cup canola oil
1 tablespoon whole milk
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch freshly ground sea salt
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 medium apples (about 1½ cups), peeled, cored and diced
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans

2 tablespoons butter, melted
½ cup light or dark brown sugar, packed
⅛ cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 350°.

Prepare filling by beating eggs with a whisk and whisking in sugar until combined and creamy. Add oil, stirring to combine. Stir in milk. Add flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt and mix with a wooden spoon until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in vanilla.

Add apples and nuts to batter, mixing well. Spoon filling into partially baked pie shell; put pie on a baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean.
While the pie is baking prepare the topping by mixing all ingredients together. When you take the pie out of the oven, immediately pour or spoon the glaze evenly over the pie. Allow to rest on a rack for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream and some berries. To store, leave on the counter, covered with foil, overnight; for longer storage, refrigerate. Allow pie to come to room temperature before serving.


Flaky Pie Dough

I use a flaky pie dough for all of these pies. It’s made with a mixture of butter and freshly rendered leaf lard, which makes a particularly flaky, tender crust. Freshly rendered lard is increasingly available at farm stands and butcher shops. Portland’s Rosemont Market and The Farm Stand in South Portland regularly sell their own lard.

I offer the food processor method of preparing the dough. This is for a single-crust 9-inch pie; double the ingredients for a two-crust 9-inch pie.

Yield: 1 pie crust

4-ounce stick sweet butter, cut into cubes and well chilled
2 tablespoons freshly rendered lard, cut into small pieces and chilled
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 heaping teaspoon sugar
Pinch freshly ground sea salt
¼ cup ice water or more as needed
Flour for kneading

Put the fats in a small bowl and chill in the freezer for 5 minutes.

Put dry ingredients into the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to combine. Add butter and lard and process with 10 quick pulses until fat and flour mix forms into the size of little peas.

Gradually add water, pulsing, until dough just comes together, barely leaving the sides of the bowl. It should be moderately moist to the touch. Add more water, by droplets if necessary, to achieve a moist dough.

Dump onto a lightly floured board and knead just once and form into a ball. Flatten gently into a disk about 1-inch thick. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Roll out and fit it into a 9-inch metal pie plate and allow an overhang of an inch or slightly more. Fold in the overhanging dough, tucking it under; with thumb and forefinger crimp the edges for a decorative border.

Baking Blind
For single-crust pies it helps to partially prebake the pastry before filling, otherwise known as baking blind. Once the dough is rolled out and fitted into the pie plate, prick or dock the bottom with a fork, then allow it to rest at least 1 hour in the refrigerator. This step prevents the dough from shrinking. Use a metal pie plate rather than a glass dish because the dough tends to slip down on glass.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375°; line the pastry shell with parchment paper and fill to the top with beans or rice. Put the pie plate on a baking sheet, tucking the excess parchment under the rim to keep it from shrinking. Bake 15 minutes. This is a lightly prebaked pie shell. To bake blind completely, carefully remove paper and weights after 15 minutes and bake uncovered for about 20 minutes more, or until lightly browned.