The upside of the Derby party I attended on Saturday was a chance meeting with a master of Southern food and baking. She was of course a small, bespectacled and dignified woman in her 80’s, the mother of a fellow I’ve gotten to know this past year. Her tiny bent frame belied an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from soap making to Coca-cola pie to the proper way to prepare and eat country ham. She was the daughter of a country doctor, or so I gathered. Her father’s customers, she said, regularly payed him in whole slaughtered hogs, pies, and whiskey. She’d lived, cooked and eaten in Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky. A heck of a good woman to know!
Of course she told me everything I ever needed to know about authentic Derby Pie. It isn’t what I thought. It’s not a pecan pie-like custard concoction, though it is a little like a tollhouse pie. It starts with a creamed mixture of white sugar, brown sugar and butter. To that eggs are added for moisture, plus flour for thickening (sounds very much like a cookie, eh?). At the last moment walnuts and chocolate pieces are stirred in, and the mixture is spooned into a pie shell and baked.
What occurs in the oven is a melting of the sugars, fat and chocolate into a rich, syrupy goo. That causes the nuts to break free of the mixture and float, much like they do in pecan pie. Yet the under-layer, having a fair amount of flour in it, firms to a cookie dough-like consistency. All gooey and chocolately. And oh my brothers and sisters, is it ever good (fortunately she had a sample pie with her, strictly for illustratory purposes).
Next year I’ll make a real one. In fact she offered me her recipe. In the bargain she’s going to give me another for her mother’s salt rising bread, which she’s also a master of. And though I’m wary of culturing a foodborne pathogen in my own kitchen, I may just get up the courage to try it this summer (provided I can live with the stink). And anyway she’s live to be nearly 90. How bad can the stuff be?
For more on salt rising bread, run a site search over there on the right. It’s really interesting stuff.