Happy National Pi Day!
I can’t say that I completely understand pi. I know it’s an infinite number and it holds the key to some of the magical, mathematical mysteries of our universe, but don’t ask me to explain it to our 11-year-old.
What I do know is pie! The kind you eat with a fork and sometimes a la mode.
When the folks behind the book, Modernist Cuisine at Home invited me to celebrate National Pi Day with a post of my favorite pie, I knew exactly which one I would choose.
My mother’s sister, Aunt Jeanine, was a fabulous Midwestern baker of pies, cakes, bars, fudge and sweets and she loved to share them. She and my mom would often compete (informally and with sisterly love) with each other to see who could best each other on the flakiest crust, the most crowd-pleasing taste combination, the fluffiest meringue, the most tender crumb. Sometimes my mom won, sometimes Jeanine. And they kept up the competition until my mother died in 2001.
Aunt Jeanine’s pecan pie always was a hit. She even entered it in the pie contest sponsored by the local bank in her town in southern Illinois and took home the blue ribbon. Believe it when I tell you that Midwestern ladies and gents are SERIOUS about their baking.
Every Christmas after my mom died, my Aunt Jeanine (in her late 70s and into her 80s) would make my husband 2 (count ’em, 2!) homemade pecan pies at Christmastime because he was crazy about them and pecan pie was his absolute favorite. He lavished her with praise and honest gratitude and she just loved that.
She would package the pies in small pizza boxes that she made a special trip to the pizza parlor to get (yes, she still called it the pizza parlor). Then she would carefully wrap the pies in newspaper, place the pies in the boxes with more paper, wrap the boxes in brown paper and ship them across the country to us via the U.S. Post Office.
This was an incredible effort for an elderly lady! It would be an incredible effort for anybody (god, how I hate packing and shipping at Christmas; let Amazon Prime take care of it.)
Wish I had pictures to show you, but no, we gobbled up those pies all those years. We always brought one to share with friends at parties and kept the other greedily for ourselves. All of our friends who got a slice would wax poetic over ‘Aunt Jeanine’s Pecan Pie’ – not too sweet, not too thick, lots of pecans, and a damn good flaky crust, homemade.
Aunt Jeanine passed away this January. I wrote about the pies for her eulogy and I thanked her for all the love and work she put into them and how grateful we were to receive them as a present. It was her way of showing us how much she loved us and we knew it.
The funniest thing about her handwritten recipe for pecan pie is on the flip side of the index card for the crust, she writes on the top, “I don’t use a recipe! Hope this is it, ha!”
She gives me approximations and feel – no measures. Typical! Okay, she and my mom are having a laugh.
For those of you who are searching for the perfect flaky pie crust and its many permutations, Modernist Cuisine at Home and their e-publisher, Inkling, have tested and re-tested classic pie crusts and custard fillings.
Their master pie crust is modernist in that it calls for the eggs to be cooked sous vide, a technique usually relegated to the kitchens of professional chefs.
I’m likely to try it, because I am in search of more pie crust instruction (since mom and Aunt Jeanine have left me wanting.) But I must say that Aunt Jeanine swore her flaky, not-too-sweet-crust was due to vegetable shortening (i.e. Crisco in the blue can) and a light touch of the hand with your fingers dipped in ice water.
I loved what the Modernist Cuisine at Home had to say about National Pi Day: pie and filling possibilities are as “endless as pi’s digits.”
Cheers! The world needs pie don’t you think?!
NOTE: I just love pie and wanted to tell you this story about my Aunt Jeanine (1928-2013). Modernist Cuisine at Home publishers reached out to remind me it was National Pi Day and provided me with a link to their perfect pie crust test results.