Grinchy Pie, or Christmas on July 4th
I was thinking about the concept of a July 4th picnic. In some ways, the concept is alien to me. I believe the cause for this, this sense of looking in from the outside is that my formative years were always spent working at my dad’s gas station and general store, fueling up the vehicles of others who were heading to the beaches of Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover Counties in southeastern North Carolina. July Fourth was the busiest time of the year for US 421 as it bored its way, flatly and directly to Wilmington, a kind of gateway to all the southeastern beaches.
Another factor in my distance from holiday spirit is that my dad planted a moderately large field of Seneca Chief sweet corn every year in the lot behind our house. No matter when he adjusted his planting schedule to avoid the conflict, the corn always seemed to “come in” simultaneously with the July Fourth holiday. So, once we finished our work at the store, we found ourselves shucking, silking and scrubbing dozens of dozens of ears of corn. I can still see my mother’s face, red from having spent hours in a kitchen with a boiling pot of water for blanching the corn.
Time off from the store was given during the day to go home and pull corn for about 2 hours while wading through waist-deep weeds and corn stalks that towered overhead. The effect of this foliage was two-fold. First it held in all the heat and the humidity that old Sol could create in our little pocket of the world. Worse, though, it created a deep paranoia that one’s next step would somehow involve a coiled copperhead or some slightly less dangerous serpent. The suggestion was great enough for my mom that she once had a cat wrap its tail around her calf causing her to flee in haste, high-stepping through the middle of the corn-field into Mrs. Eva and Joseph Paul’s sideyard.
So, my Fourth of July memories are of heat, humidity, gas fumes, hot oil dipsticks, overheated radiators, snakes, weeds, itching from exposure to paper-cut sharp corn blades, getting corn silk in every crevice on my body, and then ultimately, holding pint sized bags of cut and scraped corn, still warm from their blanching, to go immediately into the freezer.
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I had an opportunity at Christmas last year to revive and renew one of my mom’s old standard pie recipes from “the grill”, as we tended to call the building in which my mom ran her restaurant. She used a basic custard pie recipe, for deep dish pies, that involved a crust and custard, typically topped with meringue. As I am not able to eat raw egg products, meringue has always seemed a bit of a threat to me, so I tend to substitute with whipped cream. The ultimate flavor of these pies was really insignificant, since you simply, at the last minute, added lemon flavoring to make lemon cream pies, chocolate and cocoa to make chocolate cream pie or sweetened and dried coconut and vanilla flavoring for Coconut cream pie. All three were sold in her restaurant on Sundays, the big day for families to come out for an after-church lunch.
Anyway, I had decided to make two deep-dish custard pies, to which I added the zest and juice of one lemon and one lime. I may or may not have thrown in a bit of ground coriander, more likely that I did, and several tablespoons of lemon extract to give the perfect tart flavor that I hoped to achieve. These pies were allowed to set up in the refrigerator, to be topped with whipped cream just before serving or delivery, as the case was intended to be.
I planned to take one pie to my German neighbors in a show of appreciation for their hospitality since they have moved into the community. The other pie, I planned to take to our Christmas family gathering. When I went to deliver the pie to my neighbors, I found they were not home, and I couldn’t leave the pie without refrigeration. I had learned that my Mom was in the hospital, so I was planning to drive to Wilmington as soon as I could get my things ready to go. By the time I had packed up the truck, I realized that I could only take one of the pies with me.
About that time, my friend Steph called up. I told her about Mom and how I wasn’t sure what impact that might have on my return home. I then offered her a pie if she wanted it, but she would have to come and get it because I was in a rush. She said she had been dreading shopping for ingredients for a broccoli casserole. She was attending a pot-luck that evening and had to prepare something to take. If she were to come get the pie, she could just take it to the party instead of cooking and she could save time, money and effort. So, she did….come for the pie, that is.
After a brief visit, she headed out the door holding a pie pan with a heavy custard pie topped in whipped cream. She placed it on the front seat of her truck and started home. Meanwhile, I decided to try the pie myself and cut a slice for dessert. It would almost seem that I took my first bite about the same moment that Steph had to hit her brakes on her drive back home, causing her pie to slide forward on the seat. She reached out to catch the pie, but only succeeded in pinning it to the seat with two fingers in the custard. As I took my bite, one would argue, she suddenly found herself licking her fingers clean of the pie filling.
The flavor of the pie was exquisite and the texture of the custard was perfectly smooth, refreshing and tart. I thought that it might just have been the best pie I had had in a while. Apparently, Steph thought, “Hmmm….they are getting broccoli casserole afterall!” as she decided on the spot to take the pie home for herself.
Later, we spoke daily so I could keep her updated about Mom’s condition and the next day, we both admitted to having eaten another piece of the pie ourselves. After the second day, no one said anything about pie until about day 5 when we admitted that each of us had eaten an entire whole complete pie all alone. We laughed so hard at our confessions of culinary guilt that Steph named these confections “Grinchy Pies” in honor of the Christmas season.
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So, for my grinchy Fourth of July, I might suggest having some grinchy pie on hand. You basically take 2 9-inch deep-dish pie shells and bake them until they are golden brown. Next, make up some custard by mixing milk, egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch according to your favorite recipe. Heat it over low heat while whisking the mixture constantly. After a small eternity, the magic will begin to happen when the mixture suddenly starts to thicken. Continue stirring until you find the consistency you like, and then throw in some coriander along with the zest of one lime and one lemon and the juice from both fruits. Add about 3 tablespoons of lemon extract and then whisk the additions to the custard until they are well incorporated. Pour the custard into the baked pie shells and then refrigerate until they set up.
Sadly, as you have seen, these pies do not travel so be sure to find a pie carrier before you head off to sit in the grass with your loved ones. Or, perhaps you can just have them at home for yourself for after the picnic.
Categories: Tar+Heel+Tavern edition+71 Grinchy+Pie memories lemon+lime+and+coriander pie baking