Reading about regional American food makes me go all soft inside. An interesting narrative, simple ingredients, straightforward preparation - it makes for a good book and usually pretty good eats. Maybe it's because I haven't seen very much of rural America, or because much of that kind of narrative is bound up in the romantic ideals of what America used to be like, but I could curl up on my couch and read about that stuff all day long.
So when the LA Times published an article about John T. Edge, food historian and Southern Food Alliance director, my ears perked up. The reviewer, Charles Perry, was exasperated with Edge, finding his books misinformed and often overblown. But what kept Perry (and me) intrigued was the selection of recipes that Edge included. Apparently they were both "unusual and worth trying" (italics mine). I didn't need much encouraging.
In a case of total serendipity, I had volunteered to bring dessert to my book club on The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a novel about slave-owning blacks in the antebellum South. Could there be a better opportunity to make 100-year old Hypocrite Pie from North Carolina? I suppose I should have gone at the recipe a bit more gimlet-eyed and left myself more baking time when Perry noted that the recipes needed "tweaking". But I figured the LA Times test kitchen did that tweaking for me before reprinting the recipe (well, they did adjust the sugar amount, so I'll be thankful for small mercies).
I whizzed together an all-butter crust and let it chill throughout the day before coming home and throwing the pie together. After sauteeing apples in butter and sugar and cinnamon until the apartment smelled like Thanksgiving, I layered them at the bottom of a crust-lined pie dish (make sure you roll out that crust as thin as thin can be - mine was too thick). Then I beat together the buttermilk custard and poured it over the apples. The raw pie smelled divine - the creamy sourness of the custard offset the sweet, spiced apples perfectly. I slid the pie into the oven and waited. And waited. And waited.
If I hadn't had to run to book club, I would have waited longer. But I couldn't. So after an hour of baking, I pulled the pie from the oven. The crust was pale as can be, and the custard wasn't much darker. It had set, though, and the knife test came out clean. But just as I thought, when we cut into the pie later, it could have used more time in the oven. And perhaps a wee parbaking of the crust before the filling was added. The custard tasted good, but it was still a bit too jiggly, and the crust at the bottom was soggy. However, the crisp and melting edges of the crust were toasty, almost shortbread-y against the sweet filling.
I loved the homey pie's mysterious name. I loved its ease of preparation and its vanilla custard smell. I loved imagining North Carolinians eating it at the dinner table a hundred years ago. I wish I'd had more time to bake the pie properly - to a gilded, firm state. Because I think I would have enjoyed it more had it not been so... pallid. But I'm glad I made it all the same.
6 tablespoons butter, divided, at room temperature
3 tart apples, peeled, cored and sliced
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
Unbaked crust for a 9-inch, deep-dish, 1-crust pie
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet. Add the apples, 1/4 cup of sugar, and the cinnamon. Cook over medium heat until the apples are tender, 4 or 5 minutes. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, combine the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter with the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and beat until creamy. Beat in the eggs 1 at a time. Mix in the vanilla, flour and buttermilk and beat until silky.
3. Prick the bottom of the pie crust with a fork. Spoon the apples into the crust and spread them around as flat as possible. Pour in the buttermilk mixture, ensuring that it covers all the apples. Bake in the oven until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 - 55 minutes (be prepared for it to take longer).