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Meringue makes any Southern pie precious to me, as I adore its every aspect. Hidden away under this swirly meringue cloud is butterscotch filling, a delight to anyone for whom 'caramel' is a magic word.


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?



Butterscotch Pie, made with Thai palm sugar in place of brown sugar


With these questions I headed over to a website I love,, 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.   <>   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.

Butterscotch Pie

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.

About the Author
Nancie McDermott is a food writer and cooking teacher, and the author of ten cookbooks. Her passion is researching and celebrating traditional food in its cultural context, and her beloved subjects are two seemingly different places with much in common: the cuisines of Asia and of the American South. Nancie gained her Southern kitchen wisdom as a Piedmont North Carolina native,and her Asian culinary research commenced soon after college, when she was sent to northeastern Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer.
  1. johnAKA Reply

    “1¼ cups evaporated milk, half-and-half, or milk”
    There is quite a difference in these items. Which have your preferred, and why?

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      I prefer evaporated milk, because of its status as an old-time essential Southern baking ingredient. In recipes dating back early-to-mid 20th century, it’s often called for specifically, though referred to as pet milk, meaning a widely available brand, “pet” — “1 small can pet milk” is something I ran across many times. In that era, basic milk is referred to as “sweet milk”, defining it in contrast to buttermilk, which was a standard item and not a specialty one as it is today — findable but not found in most kitchens. (In contrast to cream as well, which rose to the top of the glass bottles of whole milk delivered to the back door during my early childhood.) Both buttermilk and evaporated were widely used in baking, to great effect, and sweet milk was reserved mostly for drinking outright. I adore evaporated milk for its rich slightly caramel flavor, and its texture, which to me is extremely close to that of half-and-half. I first encountered this in Thai restaurants in the USA, where Thai iced tea and Thai iced coffee are often topped off with half and half, rather than the standard evaporated milk used in upcountry Thailand when I lived there. Usually I offer options in the order of my preference, but in this case, I put half-and-half in second place, because it makes a good substitute for evaporated milk, works well in the recipe, and finds favor with many cooks who don’t share my fondness for evaporated milk as an ingredient. And milk is an option, works fine, not as rich and luscious, but it works, and some folks might make the pie if they didn’t have to make a trip to the store.

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  3. Beth Reply

    Hi Nancy, I also have a container of palm sugar that probably should be used in the near future. Did you sub 1 cup palm sugar for 1 cup brown? Thanks, this recipe looks divine and can’t wait to try it!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      Yes, you certainly can. I did make that substitution, and while the pie came out just fine, it did not manifest a powerful palm-sugary flavor. It did not differ significantly from the brown sugar version. I think it’s a matter of butter and eggs and sweetness all taking the big bow, with the unique characteristics of palm sugar melting away so to speak, in this kind of recipe. So using it is fine, but I am still looking for ways to bake and cook with palm sugar such that its extraordinary and fabulous flavor shines through. Keep me posted on how things come out for you. Happy cooking and thanks for stopping by!


    Hi Nancy,
    I’ve always added Cream of Tartar to my egg whites. It’s supposed to make them more stable? Is it necessary to add them?

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      I often use cream of tartar in meringue for pies, or other egg-white-sweets-centered dishes. But not always. Its value is in increasing the stability of the whipped whites, increasing volume, and improving heat tolerance. It’s considered an insurance policy of sorts — that is, it supports in those areas, but before there was cream of tartar as a back-up, there were meringues in many forms, which came out wonderfully and made people happy. I tend to like the insurance; and I have had no issues with a metallic taste, which some people report. But I love knowing and sharing that things which might be called essential are not always so. The recipes I found for this particular homespun pie did not use cream of tartar; they were from mountain cooks, and I’m wondering if being far from grocery stores and thrifty, one might focus on the most basic and not worry about support? So: cream of tartar is not necessary to a wonderful meringue. I am now intrigued and want to do some side-by-side testing of this. Does it increase volume? I’ve not had problems with stability, and heat tolerance: would it affect the color? My detective side has been activated. Thanks, Michael, and let me know if you do any tests of your own. Do you have a blog?

      • MICHAEL GATES Reply

        Hi Nancie,
        No I do not have a blog. However your site makes it easy and I am giving it some thought. Thanks for asking.

        Question: In one of your articles you excused yourself and said you were going to one of your favorite cooking websites. I did not copy it down! Guess I was far too interested in your Butterscotch Pie! It’s difficult for me to pass up pie! Wondering if you would give me the site again? Thank you. Hope to see you at the upcoming book signing at Ferrinton Village, Chapel Hill. I live in a retirement center near there and go to their fantastic bookstore! Thanks again.

        • Nancie McDermott Reply

          Hmmmmm. Given my distractibilty, I am not sure which one I headed off to visit. And there are many. Do you recall which post? That might job my memory if I took a look. Wonderful to know we’ll meet up soon. WordPress blog platform is excellent (and so are others I’m sure, but this is where I’ve started and they make it easy, even for the likes of me. Just from your comments, I see a blog poking up like a daffodil in springtime!

  5. Amanda Reply

    Hi. I was wondering if this was a deep dish or regular pie?

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      You asked about whether this Butterscotch Pie in my post was deep dish or regular. It is a regular-proportion pie. The filling would work fine in either a regular piepan or a deepdish piecrust, however, because the meringue will boost the height and heft of the pie. The piepan in the photo is a ceramic pie plate, closer to a deep dish. But I often make this pie in a standard pyrex piepan, or even a simple metal one, and it’s fine. A bit thinner in deep dish, but not a problem. Old school pies were not especially thick or full. Like cakes, they were modest height, and nowadays we have a taste for big bodacious and grand. (My apologies for taking so long to reply to you. Hope you had a sweet Thanksgiving and look forward to grand holiday with lots of pie.

  6. Brandi Meek Reply

    Thank you so much!!! My husband is Southren born and raised and finding something this city girl can make has been daunting. But with happiness I mafe this pie and he loved it!

    • Nancie McDermott Reply

      This makes me SO HAPPY !!!! (All caps to express squealing for joy and pride, not yelling). Are you in the club or WHAT? Tell him he married well, in my nosy opinion, you taking on the making of Butterscotch Pie. And you did too, picking someone who appreciates same, and you. All the best, you day-maker, you! (This is not an April Fool’s Day joke, by the way.)

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