This is a story with a happy ending involving my delight upon discovering buttermilk pie. I never would have believed it, myself, but I swear it’s true. Please… pull up a chair.
A handful of years ago, my wife, Lady Suppertime, and I one day happened upon a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that proclaimed itself more specifically to be a roadside café. Given that it sat on the side of a road, albeit an old downtown street, who was I to argue?
Inside, we then had one of the best and most memorable meals we’ve had in our travels. A kitchen no doubt filled with loving ninja grandmothers wielding legendary cooking chops. (In my head there could be no other explanation for it.)
Would we like some dessert? Perhaps, a slice of buttermilk pie?
I sat there looking (proverbially) dazed and confused. So I’m told.
My wife did order herself a slice.
She spoke of many, many years since she’d tasted good buttermilk pie. And to me, the odds of that seemed naturally quite high. This German-Irish Midwestern kid had never heard of such a thing. I had a great-uncle who used to drink a glass of buttermilk every morning and we kids thought it just as gross as could be. The thought of a pie… no words hanging out around buttermilk like peach or strawberry or what have you. Just buttermilk.
Would I like to taste a bite?
A Modest Backstory
To make this pie, I set upon my normal research routines with gusto and combed through my many books of culinary and food history. I surfaced empty-handed. (Yes, I own many of these treasured volumes but discussing them usually ensures I’m not invited to events where people gather together, so we’ll leave it be.)
Next, I turned to the internet’s know-it-all, Wikipedia.org, and found a meager though probably sufficient one paragraph, 114 word entry. Being short enough to still be within the fair use statutes, I believe, I will quote you the entire entry here.
Buttermilk pie is a custard-like pie. Originally from the United Kingdom, it is now a traditional pie of the southern United States. It is similar to, and sometimes confused with, chess pie but it does not include cornmeal. The basic filling consists of a mixture of sugar, butter, eggs, buttermilk and wheat flour. Variations on the recipe may include flavorings such as vanilla, lemon zest and nutmeg. Buttermilk pies are made with a pie crust. The filling is poured into the crust and baked until the mixture sets. The pie is best eaten at room temperature after being allowed to cool, but may be eaten either warm from the oven or after being chilled.
I must say, the picture of the pie that accompanies this entry, or more accurately I suppose a piece of said pie, included pecan brittle, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, chocolate chips, and mint leaves! Could this pie, any pie for that matter, actually be so desperately in need of flavor as to require such spectacular adornment with other flavors? Please don’t misunderstand me, it is a beautiful picture. Especially given such a humble write-up. I was hoping it was artistic expression and not a culinary necessity.
Its reference to chess pie led me to an entry more than twice as long. This, however, cited James Beard’s American Cookery, 1972, which I happened to have on my bookshelf (thank you friends of the public library book sale). To its credit, this book is still in print today. And in his book, he shares his recipe for a Buttermilk Raisin Pie.
(Side note: if you’ve been with me for a while, you know that cooked raisins in our house are shorthand for no one will want this except me. I don’t understand it, but it is what it is and it comes in handy on occasion. Don’t tell anyone.)
Beard’s recipe is almost identical to every other recipe I’ve unearthed with the exceptions of the raisins, of course, and a cinnamon nutmeg meringue topping. Not even with a big gift certificate at the pluck store would I ever question Mr. Beard. But I imagine you’d get a lot of this might be the strangest lemon meringue pie I’ve ever had reactions. I returned it to the bookshelf for a different day’s adventure.
That nagging sense of doubt still hovered over me.
Into the Kitchen
The recipes I was able to track down, including even the meager listing in the Wikipedia entry, were staggeringly alike. The standard deviations from the median were ever so slight. Maybe nutmeg, maybe not. Maybe lemon, maybe not. The raisins and meringue were outliers.
Sugar, a little flour, a few eggs, buttermilk (of course), usually vanilla, and lemon zest and/or juice.
In a pie crust. I’m quick to make my own pie crust but I’d picked up a set of organic frozen crusts new to my organic grocery down the street and figured now was as good a time as any to give them a whirl.
I docked the pie crust with a fork.
I was worried such a liquid filling would turn the crust soggy, even though no one seemed to echo that, so I blind baked it first.
Those are dry white beans in the picture. They’ve seen many a pie in their day. Someday, I might splurge on proper pie weights, but so far, so good for less than a dollar.
Into the oven it went for the next 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, I creamed the butter and sugar together. More like well-mixed.
Everyone seems to favor a hand mixer so feel free to use one if you’d like. (This model’s my favorite.) But, since it’s somewhat of an old-fashioned recipe, I thought I would do this with merely a fork and a spatula. Brave the wilds and all. Cook like our ancestors. (Which is a lot of hoopla to say I didn’t feel like cleaning the mixer that day.)
Mixed in everything else best I could. The lemon zest made it look a bit grainy in the bowl, but I looked the other way. You might do the same.
Into the pie shell — which I’d removed the weights from and let cool for a few minutes already.
Pie in the oven (on a baking sheet to catch any over-drips) for 45 minutes or until the top starts to look brown and crisp, kind of like a creme brulee pie. (Great, my to-do list just grew by one.)
Let it cool and set.
I will tell you, it’s great warm, room temp, or chilled. Doesn’t matter in the least.
Just like the picture from earlier, I wanted to serve it today with fruit and I had some fresh raspberries.
So, take a bite and close your eyes.
For me, it’s like a lemon sugar cookie custard pie with a crisp sugar top.
How great is that?
Buttermilk Pie is a hidden gem of the pantry simple kitchen. Simple to make, lemon sugar cookie custard pie that's also inexpensive. How great is that?
- pie crust, homemade or organic frozen
- 1 + 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup butter one stick
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 lemon, zest and juice
Dock the pie crust with a fork.
Blind bake the pie crust for 15 minutes in a 350°F oven. Use foil or parchment paper and weights of some sort. I use dried beans.
Meanwhile, combine the butter and sugar until well-mixed in a large bowl.
Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until smooth.
Pour into the pie crust (once it has cooled a bit) stopping half-an-inch from the top to allow some expansion.
Set the pie on a baking sheet to catch any dripping if needed.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the top has lightly browned and the pie filling is pudding-like when you gently jiggle it.
Let cool. Serve warm, room temp, or chilled.