Butterscotch Pie is one of those pies in the chorus, one I remember well from my Southern upbringing, though not one as familiar as lemon meringue or chocolate pie. Its ingredients seemed mysterious to me, its flavors of another time and place. I knew how chocolate pie and lemon pie got their signature flavors; they made sense. But what in the world was butterscotch and how was it made?
With these questions I headed over to a website I love, Foodtimeline.org, where I always find what I’m looking for: Not THE ANSWER, but a whole slew of leads, a gathering of answers, insights, knowledge and information on all things culinary, edible, cookable, and such. < http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcandy.html#toffee> There I learned that butterscotch is pretty much kin to English toffee, both being made primarily from brown sugar and butter, with toffee being cooked to a hard-crack stage, and butterscotch getting a break at soft crack stage, making it a chewier confection. Caramel comes to mind as well, but caramel comes from cooking refined white sugar down to a rich brown syrup, caramelizing it, and lending it a depth and edge that sweet sunny butterscotch doesn’t have. Butterscotch Pie calls for cooking brown sugar with milk and a little flour or cornstarch to help it thicken up, with egg yolks stirred in partway through the cooking, and butter and vanilla added in at the very end. I’ve used both light and dark brown sugars, but today I came across a container of palm sugar which had hardened up to crunchy chunks before being used up in my Thai cooking, and I decided to try it in my butterscotch pie. Having tasted the results, I can say that it is quite wonderfully delicious, but that its unique palm sugar flavor melted away into the expected tastes of butterscotch pie, rather than standing out into a new dreamy dish to share with the world. I learned that I can substitute it in without problems, but can’t show off its magic in this context. This pie calls for three stages of cooking: you blind bake the piecrust, since the filling is cooked on the stove and poured into a ready-to-eat pie shell to cool down. You cook the filling, which is a simple stir-up of the ingredients in stages, same as you would use to make butterscotch or chocolate pudding. Then you finish up with meringue, made from the three egg whites left from the three egg yolks added to the butterscotch as it cooks, and a little sugar. Glorious egg whites beaten into sweet clouds piled on top and baked until handsomely quirkily browned. Quick? No. Easy? Not really? Onerous? Not a bit, unless someone is holding a stopwatch or waiting for you to come out and get in the car. This one is fancy, and the rewards are sweet, tasty and very rich. My daughter lauded the textural pleasures of this pie — the crisp crust, the silken filling, and the ethereal float-away egg-white cap. The flavors dance around to match — salty-neutral crust, salty-sweet filling, and delicately faintly sweetened crust. It’s a work of art, a treat, a big to-do about something. Long live butterscotch pie, worth every minute and every bite.
1`9-inch pie shell, baked
1 cup packed brown sugar, light or dark
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1¼ cups evaporated milk, half-and-half, or milk
3 egg yolks, beaten well
¼ cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 egg whites
3 tablespoons sugar
In a medium saucepan, stir together the sugar, flour and salt. Add the milk and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until thick and smooth, 10 minutes. Place the yolks in a small bowl. Slowly, add ¼ cup of the hot milk, stirring well. Add another 1/4 cup and stir well. Then pour the warmed yolks into the saucepan, stirring constantly, and cook 2-3 minutes more, until you have a thick, smooth filling. Remove from heat, add the butter and vanilla, and stir well to melt the butter and mix everything well. Pour butterscotch filling into the baked piecrust and set aside.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare the meringue. Beat the egg whites with an electric mixer at medium speed until foamy. Increase speed to high and beat until the eggwhites are thick and puffing up. Gradually add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the meringue is thick, white, shiny and holds firm but curly peaks. Scoop it onto the filling, spreading it out to the crust all around, to seal edges. Mound it up in the middle, and swirl it into curly shapes. Bake in the 350 degree oven, until the meringue has turned golden brown, 10-15 minutes. Cool to room temperature, and serve at room temperature or chilled.
Adapted from “Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan”, by Nancie McDermott, Chronicle Books, October 2010. All rights reserved.