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December–Ma Rainey’s Black-Bottom Pie

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Ma Rainey’s Black-Bottom Pie

Ma Rainey’s Black-Bottom Pie

The rock and roll of the 1950’s wasn’t the first example of African-American music and dance influencing mainstream culture. When young people scandalized their parents by dancing the Charleston and the Black Bottom in the 1920’s, they were borrowing both the moves and the music from Black people. The Black Bottom eventually became even more popular than the Charleston. It inspired Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp” and Ma Rainey’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which in turn inspired August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

 

Ma Rainey, whose given name was Gertrude, lived from 1886 to 1939. She was one of the first professional blues singers and one of the first to record her work.

Black-Bottom Pie, probably named after the dance, is a two-layer pie, three if you count the whipped cream. It dates from an era before ice-cream was as cheap and readily available as it is now. People had to satisfy their cravings for cold, sweet, creamy things by eating puddings and custards. Essentially this is a custard pie, with chocolate added to half the custard to form the “black bottom.”

Crust:

This pie has a crumb crust, analogous to the graham-cracker crust we used for the Mississippi Banana Cream Pie. But instead of graham crackers, it uses what the old-fashioned recipes call “chocolate wafers.” I made a diligent search for chocolate wafers, but they seem to have been crowded off modern supermarket shelves by much more elaborate and caloric cookies.

A moist chocolate cookie won’t work for this recipe, as I discovered by trying to substitute Chocolate Chocolate Chip cookies for chocolate wafers. The cookie has to be as dry as a graham cracker, but chocolate. When I discovered that Oreo makes a ready-made chocolate-crumb crust that sits right next to the ready-made graham-cracker crusts in the cake-mix aisle, I realized that if I was determined to make a chocolate-crumb crust from scratch, I should just start with Oreos. So that’s what I did. But even so, it’s very hard to produce a crust that holds up well when the pie is sliced, so unless you are a determined purist, I recommend the ready-made crust.

If you want to make your own . . .

30 whole Oreos, opened up and with the frosting removed.

6 tablespoons butter, melted

1/4 cup sugar

Use your food processor to reduce the Oreo halves, of which you will have 60, to fine crumbs. Mix the crumbs, butter, and sugar in a small bowl. Turn the result out into a pie pan and use a spoon to press it firmly to the bottom and sides, holding your thumb along the top to create a nice edge as you work on the sides. It’s important to press down very firmly with the spoon if you want your pie to cut into tidy slices.

Bake the crust at 350 degrees for 10 minutes and let it cool while you prepare the filling.

Filling:

1 1/2 cups milk

1 envelope gelatin

1/2 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 egg yolks

3 egg whites

2 oz. unsweetened chocolate (generally comes in 1/2 oz. pieces)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon rum

1/2 cup whipping cream

Put the milk in a saucepan, add the gelatin, and let it sit for a few minutes. Add the sugar, salt, and yolks and blend thoroughly. I used a wire whisk. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring with a spoon, until it gets thick (about like a thick cream soup), but don’t let it boil. It is now custard.

Divide the custard between two bowls, one large enough to later accommodate three beaten egg whites too. Melt 1 1/2 oz. of the chocolate and add it to the custard in the smaller bowl, along with the vanilla. Mix well. Add the rum to the custard in the larger bowl. Mix well. Chill both bowls 45 minutes to an hour. The custard should now form a small mound if you scoop up a spoonful and deposit it back in the bowl it came from.

Beat the egg whites until they are stiff and fold them into the custard in the larger bowl. Note that these egg whites will be essentially raw in your finished pie. This is an old-fashioned recipe and back then people worried less about raw egg whites than they do now.

Turn the chocolate custard into the pie pan containing the crumb crust and smooth it out nicely. Add the custard-egg white mixture and smooth it over the chocolate layer.

Whip the cream and smooth it over the top of the whole thing. Chop or grate the remaining 1/2 oz. of chocolate and sprinkle it attractively on top of your pie.

Refrigerate the pie until you are ready to eat it, at least an hour, and be sure to store the leftovers in the refrigerator.

Next month: Sweet Potato Pie

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November–Freedom Pecan-Chocolate Chip Pie

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The cloth is an Indian patchwork made from worn-out saris.

The cloth is an Indian patchwork made from worn-out saris.

This pie was inspired by a delicious dessert my husband and I ate on a trip to Waterville, Maine. For the last several hours of the journey, we drove through a nor’easter—I didn’t know nor’easters occurred in the summer, but they do. By the time we reached our hotel, it was after nine o’clock and we were cold, tired, and starving. When we asked about local restaurants, a woman at the desk referred us to the Freedom Café.

We showed up so late that the only people in the place were the owner and the staff, chatting as they tidied up from that evening’s meal. But the owner, a beautiful African-American woman, greeted us warmly. In fact the whole place was warm, decorated in bright and rich colors that made us forget how chilly we were. “I don’t know if there’s much left,” she said, “but I can try to make up plates for you.” Indeed she did—we had barbecued ribs, bowls of gumbo, rice, macaroni and cheese, vegetables, and salad. When it came time for dessert, we were so stuffed we at first turned down her offer of pie. “Oh, but it’s part of the dinner,” she said.

“Well, in that case, we’ll share a piece,” we said. So out came a divine pecan pie with chocolate as the secret ingredient.

I’ve tried to recreate it here.

Crust:

Freedom Pecan-Chocolate Chip Pie is a one-crust pie just like last month’s Big Mama Thornton Apple Pie, so I’m recycling the instructions for the crust—including advice about grocery-store crusts if you don’t want to make your own.

1 cup sifted flour

1/3 cup shortening

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/6 cup cold water

OR

1-1/4 cup sifted flour

1/3 + 1 heaping tablespoon shortening

1/2 teaspoon + 1 pinch salt

1/6 cup cold water + extra

I’ve discovered that increasing the ingredients slightly makes it easier to roll out a nice piece of dough that fits the pan with no thin spots around the edges.

Sift the dry ingredients together, then cut the shortening in using two knives scissors style. The shortening shouldn’t be completely blended or the crust will be tough. You want bits of shortening, no larger than lentils, to remain because they melt as the crust bakes and make the crust flaky.

Next, sprinkle the water over the flour, salt, shortening mixture and use a fork to toss and blend. Use more water if necessary, but only a little bit at a time. The dough should be moist enough to adhere together in a ball, but not sticky. Form the dough into a flat patty, using plenty of flour on your hands, then roll it out. Use plenty of flour on your rolling surface and rolling pin too. Turn the dough frequently as you roll it out, and sprinkle it with more flour, so it doesn’t stick to the rolling surface.

When you’ve shaped it roughly into a circle large enough for your pie pan, fold it into quarters and gently transfer it to the pan, unfolding it and smoothing it to fit. Trim the edges, if necessary, so you have only an extra half inch all around. Now tuck the overhanging crust under.

I made a different fancy edge for this pie. To make one like it, take a fork with long thin tines and work your way around the edge of the pie, pressing the tines into the dough.

If you want to speed things up, you can use a prepared crust. I’ve discovered that the frozen crusts that come in their own little aluminum pie pans work very well. They are surprisingly flaky, and the only giveaway that they are not home-made is that the decorative edge is a bit too regular. I’ve also tried the prepared crusts that are sold in the refrigerator case, already shaped to go into your own pie pan and then curled up into long rolls that you unroll. Those are not so good. I made an earlier version of this pie with one and the crust was very tough, not flaky at all.

Filling:

1 ¼ cups dark corn syrup

1 cup sugar

4 eggs

4 tablespoons melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons dark rum—I’ve made pecan pies with Jack Daniel’s and that works fine too

1 ½ cups chopped pecans

1 cup chocolate chips

1 cup whipping cream

For the chocolate chips, I used Ghirardelli bittersweet chips: 60% cacao, according to the package. They worked really well.

Bring corn syrup and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan and cook, stirring, just until the sugar dissolves. You will know when this has happened because the mixture will become clear.

In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs. Add the syrup mixture slowly, still beating. Add the butter, vanilla, and rum, and beat a few more seconds. Now mix in the pecans and chocolate chips using a big spoon.
Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes. The crust around the edge should look done but not too brown.

Serve it with unsweetened whipped cream.

My husband and I had our first slices while the pie was still warm and the chocolate chips were melted. It was delicious that way, but when the pie is cool it’s good too—almost better, because the chocolate chips congeal again, and encountering them is like coming upon bits of candy in the softer texture of the corn syrup-based filling.
Next month: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Pie

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October–Big Mama Thornton Apple Pie

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Big Mama Thornton Apple Pie with Streusel Topping.

Big Mama Thornton Apple Pie with Streusel Topping.

Fall is the time for apples, whether you buy them at a farm stand or at the supermarket. This pie was inspired by a Big Mama Thornton song, “Swing It on Home”. It’s the theme song of the band in Sweet Man Is Gone, and the opening verse goes like this:

I wish I was an apple
Hangin’ from a tree
Have all the sweet little men
Reachin’ after me.
What woman wouldn’t like that?

The special twist this time is that instead of a top crust the pie has a brown-sugar cinnamon streusel topping. The sweetness and almost crunchy texture of the topping contrasts wonderfully with the tartness and smoothness of the baked apple slices.

The pie pan is an old-fashioned tin one I found in an antique store in Maine. You can’t see it in the photo, but the bottom is embossed with these words:

NEW ENGLAND
FLAKY CRUST PIE
10¢ dep.
TABLE TALK

I found a similar one at a garage sale in New Jersey, where I live, except it was a CALIFORNIA PIE and the deposit was only 5¢. It seems that in the past pies came in returnable pie pans, something like the way milk was delivered in returnable glass bottles when I was a child. I don’t know how the CALIFORNIA PIE pan made it all the way to New Jersey, but in the interests of repatriating it, I gave it to my sister, who lives in West Hollywood.

On to the pie. . .

Crust:

1 cup sifted flour

1/3 cup shortening

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/6 cup cold water

OR

1-1/4 cup sifted flour

1/3 + 1 heaping tablespoon shortening

1/2 teaspoon + 1 pinch salt

1/6 cup cold water + extra

I’ve discovered that increasing the ingredients slightly makes it easier to roll out a nice piece of dough that fits the pan with no thin spots around the edges.

Sift the dry ingredients together, then cut the shortening in using two knives scissors style. The shortening shouldn’t be completely blended or the crust will be tough. You want bits of shortening, no larger than lentils, to remain because they melt as the crust bakes and make the crust flaky.

Next, sprinkle the water over the flour, salt, shortening mixture and use a fork to toss and blend. Use more water if necessary, but only a little bit at a time. The dough should be moist enough to adhere together in a ball, but not sticky. Form the dough into a flat patty, using plenty of flour on your hands, then roll it out. Use plenty of flour on your rolling surface and rolling pin too. Turn the dough frequently as you roll it out, and sprinkle with more flour, so it doesn’t stick to the rolling surface.

When you’ve shaped it roughly into a circle large enough for your pie pan, fold it into quarters and gently transfer it to the pan, unfolding it and smoothing it to fit. Trim the edges, if necessary, so you have only an extra half inch all around. Now tuck the overhanging crust under. To make a fancy edge like in the picture, place the index and middle finger of one hand on the edge pointing out and with half an inch between them. Use the thumb of the other hand to push a little ridge into the dough, working your way all around the edge of the pie doing the same thing.

Here’s another method for blending the dry ingredients with the shortening, suggested to me by Theresa de Valence after she read my recipe for Eat-a-Peach Pie (August): the blending can be done in a food processor using the normal blade. Theresa uses this method when she makes a pie crust with butter instead of shortening, as I did with the peach pie. I tried the method with regular shortening, taking the precaution of chilling the shortening first, and it worked fine. It speeds the process up a bit.

If you really want to speed things up, you can use a prepared crust. I’ve done a little experimenting and discovered that the frozen crusts that come in their own little aluminum pie pans work very well. They are surprisingly flaky, and the only giveaway that they are not home made is that the decorative edge is a bit too regular, unlike the effect made by real fingers. I’ve also tried the prepared crusts that are sold in the refrigerator case, already shaped to go into your own pie pan and then curled up into long rolls that you unroll. Those are not so good. I made an earlier version of this pie with one and the crust was very tough, not flaky at all.

Filling:

Be sure to use firm, tart apples, the tarter the better. Granny Smiths work fine. I used Macouns for the first version, with the ready-made crust. They are billed as “pie apples,” but the Granny Smiths I used the second time contrasted better with the streusel topping.

5 cups sliced apples = 6 to 7 apples

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons flour

4 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix all ingredients, adding lemon juice first, and pile in the prepared pie crust, smoothing out so the top is level.

Streusel Topping:

1/2 cup flour

6 tablespoons brown sugar

4 tablespoons chilled butter

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Blend all ingredients well. If you used the food processor for the crust, you can use it for the topping as well. Otherwise, use two knives scissors fashion. The butter should be very well blended so that the mixture resembles coarse sand.

Spoon the topping over the apple filling, smoothing it out into an even layer.

Bake the pie at 425 degrees for ten minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for 35 to 40 minutes more, or until the crust is evenly browned.

I served it with heavy cream, not whipped, but several of my guests opted to have it plain and said it tasted very good.

Next month: A pecan-chocolate pie inspired by a wonderful dessert my husband and I ate at a soul-food restaurant in Maine.

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September–Mississippi Banana Cream Pie

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The Mississippi River runs right through blues territory. It was the artery that carried the cotton crop from the Mississippi Delta to market in Memphis, and it was the means by which exotic crops like bananas made their way from tropical regions into the heartland of the USA.

My brown-speckled pie pan from the Sixth Avenue Flea Market is the same color as the crust.

My brown-speckled pie pan from the Sixth Avenue Flea Market is the same color as the crust.

Bananas weren’t the only crop to make that journey. My father grew up the river town of Quincy, Illinois. His family was in the wholesale grocery business, and their signature product was coffee that they ground themselves, but the beans came up the Mississippi River. The Kohl Grocery building that I remember visiting as a child was a multi-story red brick structure near the docks. It was fondly referred to as “the bean mill” and the whole place smelled of fresh-ground coffee.

 

But to get back to the bananas. Mississippi Banana Cream Pie is an old-fashioned icebox pie, a hot-weather recipe. September can still be hot enough for a recipe like this to appeal, and it can be made with no baking at all if you use a ready-made graham-cracker crust from the grocery store. At my ShopRite, these are found in the same aisle with boxed cake mixes. When I made the pie recently, though, I made my own crust.

Crust:

1 2/3 cups graham-cracker crumbs = 11 1/2 whole graham crackers (rectangles)

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted

Stir ingredients together and transfer to pie pan. Use your fingers to press the crumbs over the bottom and up the sides of the pie pan and to shape a nice edge. Bake the crust for 8 minutes at 350 degrees. Let it cool before you add the filling.

Filling:

8 oz. cream cheese, allowed to soften

14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

1 1/2 cups whipping cream

1 3-1/8 oz. package vanilla instant pudding mix

1/4 cup powdered sugar—this results in a very sweet filling. You can mix the first four ingredients and taste the result, then add less sugar to taste if you wish.

3 bananas

Beat the cheese and milk together until they are creamy, add 1/2 cup whipping cream and the pudding mix and beat until everything is blended and smooth. Add all or part of the powdered sugar to reach the sweetness you like.

Spoon half the mixture into the cooled crust and smooth it out. Cut all three bananas in half and peel 5 of the halves—save the last one unpeeled till you are ready to use it for the decoration. Slice each banana half into four slices lengthwise. Lay the banana slices on top of the pudding mixture radiating out from the center like spokes, except they will overlap. Spoon the rest of the pudding mixture on top of the bananas and smooth it out. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for two hours or more.

Beat the remaining cup of whipping cream. Use it just as it is, without sugar. The pie is sweet enough. Spoon it around the edge of the pie, making a nice border two or three inches wide. Peel the remaining banana half and cut it into decorative shapes for the center of the pie. Mine ended up looking like something you’d find on the beach at low tide, but you can do anything that strikes your fancy.

Cover and refrigerate the leftovers if there are any. The pie will keep for a few days and the banana taste spreads through the pudding and becomes even more delicious and intense.

Next month: Big Mama Thornton Apple Pie

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August–Eat-a-Peach Pie

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This pie is named in honor of Eat a Peach, the legendary 1972 album of the Georgia-based Allman Brothers. Purists might argue that their music isn’t blues, but they introduced legions of white people to such classics as “Statesboro Blues,” and to me their version will always be the one I think of when I think of certain blues tunes.

Eat-a-Peach Pie. The cloth is from Ghana and the design is giant hands.

Eat-a-Peach Pie. The cloth is from Ghana and the design is giant hands.

What could be more Southern than peaches, that quintessential Georgia crop, even immortalized on the back of the Georgia quarter?

 

Peaches are seldom ripe when you buy them at the market, but they ripen on their own once you get them home. When I plan to make this pie, I buy the peaches a week in advance and put them in a bowl on my kitchen counter. As the week goes on, they become riper and riper till the whole kitchen smells like peaches and I can hardly wait to get started on my pie.

Crust:

I discovered that using a bit more than the usual two cups of flour and correspondingly more of the shortening and water results in a much happier dough-rolling experience. You don’t have to worry about making a perfect circle or rolling the dough too thin in your quest to make it large enough to stretch over your pan. You will have a bit left over this way, but you can bake the scraps for 15 minutes or so and give them to people who are hanging around the kitchen dying to eat your pie.

This crust uses butter instead of vegetable shortening. You can taste the butter in it, and the buttery taste really complements the peaches.

2 1/4 cups of flour

1 teaspoon of salt

16 tablespoons cold butter=2 quarters

Ice water

Sift the dry ingredients into a medium-sized bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture using two knives in scissor fashion, or your fingers. The butter shouldn’t vanish entirely, because bits of butter melting as the crust bakes accounts for the flakiness. But any visible butter bits shouldn’t be larger than lentils, and most should be smaller. Sprinkle the ice water over the flour-butter moisture, starting with 1/3 of a cup. Toss the mixture with a fork while you sprinkle. The point is to get the flour to adhere in a ball but not be sticky. Use more ice water if necessary till you’re able to form the dough into two flat rounds like giant hamburger patties. Wrap each in plastic wrap and store in the freezer while you make the filling.

Filling:

4 cups of sliced peaches=4 large peaches

4 tablespoons of flour

1/2 cup of sugar

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/2 teaspoon of powdered ginger

1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg

1/4 cup Jack Daniel’s or other whiskey (the secret ingredient)

The peaches are easier to peel if you quarter them first. If you don’t keep whiskey around, you can buy a mini-bottle like on airplanes at most liquor stores. It’s just enough.

Put the sliced peaches in a medium-sized bowl and sprinkle the other dry ingredients over them, then mix lightly. Sprinkling the dry ingredients evenly makes it easier to mix them in without crushing the peaches. Sprinkle the whiskey over the peaches and mix that in too.

Roll out the larger piece of dough, turning it frequently and using plenty of flour so it doesn’t stick to your rolling surface. Fold it in quarters and gently set it in the pie pan, then unfold it and pat it so it fits down into the pie pan nicely. Trim the edges so they extend about half an inch beyond the edges of the pie pan.

Pile the filling into the pie shell.

Roll out the other piece of dough in more or less of a circle. Cut it into strips about an inch wide. You’ll have a little waste at the edges, but generally you want the strips to be graduated sizes. To make the lattice, which looks amazingly pretty but is not all that hard, do this: Lay five of the strips across the top of the filling at inch-wide intervals all going the same direction. Now fold strips number 2 and 4 almost all the way back and lay a strip across 1, 3, and 5 going the other direction. Pie crust is sturdier than you think and stands up quite well to being folded and unfolded, so don’t worry. Put strips 2 and 4 back in place, fold back 1, 3, and 5, and lay a strip that crosses 2 and 4. Then put 1, 3, and 5 back in place and fold back 2 and 4. Proceed like this till you’ve covered the whole top. I ended up with five strips in one direction and four in the other, but you can put five both ways if you can fit them in. Either way, it looks fine.

Now tuck the overhanging crust under all the way around and pat and smooth the lattice ends till they’re merged with the bottom crust. To make a fancy edge like in the picture, place the index and middle finger of your right hand on the edge pointing out and with half an inch between them. Use the thumb of your left hand to push a little ridge into the dough, working your way all around the edge of the pie doing the same thing.

Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees then lower the heat to 350 and bake 30 to 40 minutes longer. Take the pie out when the top is brown.

You can serve it with vanilla ice cream or just the way it is.

Next month: A special banana cream pie with a secret ingredient. What do bananas have to do with blues? You’ll see.

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July–Blues Berry Pie

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The pie after my husband and I each had a slice. The pie pan is a piece of yellow-ware I've had for years

The pie after my husband and I each had a slice. The pie pan is a piece of yellow-ware I've had for years

July is the perfect month to make this pie because blueberries are in season and they’re cheap and easy to find. It’s easy and delicious–the crust is a special kind that you don’t need to roll out, and it’s great with the blueberries. Serve the pie with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. And let me know how you like it. 

 

Here’s what you’ll need for the filling:

2 pints of blueberries, washed

1 cup of sugar

3 tablespoons of flour

1 tablespoon of apple cider or white vinegar (the secret ingredient)

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg

a pinch of salt

And for the crust:

1 1/2 cups of flour

1 teaspoon of sugar

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/2 cup of vegetable oil

3 tablespoons of milk

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine all the filling ingredients in a bowl and set aside while you make the crust. Put all the crust ingredients in your pie pan and mix them around with a fork till they’re blended. Then use the fork and your fingers to flatten and shape the mixture over the bottom of the pie pan and up the sides. You won’t get as pretty an edge as you get with a rolled crust but this crust almost tastes better.

Now bake the unfilled crust for 5 minutes. Take it out of the oven, turn the oven up to 450, and carefully pile the filling into the crust. Smooth it out so it looks nice. Bake the pie at 450 for about 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 350 and bake about half an hour more.

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