Cracking the Code on a Secret Family Recipe: Peanut Butter Meringue Pie
If heaven is real, then I hope it’s just a huge peanut butter pie. Not one of those over-the-top, too-rich-to-eat heavy pies that are more like a candy bar in a piecrust. No, I want heaven to be one of Lula’s Peanut Butter Pies; a flaky crust topped with sweetened peanut butter, creamy custard-like pudding, and light-as-cloud meringue. It is possibly my favorite food in the universe. I will be good to others and follow the golden rule if it will get me to a heaven full of Lula’s Peanut Butter Pie.
Growing up I got the real deal; Lula’s pies made by the family pie-master herself. Lula was my grandmother’s aunt and she could make a pie; oh could she make a pie. Her pies were always scrumptious, and the memory of them is one of many happy memories of my father’s family. Lucky for me, my grandmother also knew the recipe for my coveted peanut butter pie. She lived with us and would make it for me a few times a year. Mama Gene, my grandmother, was tight-lipped about the recipe though, and it sadly died with her. For years and years (before Internet searches) I longed for the recipe, but for some reason I never got around to trying to figure it out until now. Perhaps because the information is just too dangerous.
Image: Courtesy of It's Not Easy Eating Green
Obviously I gave in; I decided to crack the peanut butter pie code. Armed with Lula’s official piecrust recipe and all my memories of the pie, I started work on figuring out the secret recipe. My first attempt was a no-go. The pudding was too thin and flavorless and the ratio of peanut butter to powdered sugar was way off. However, I did have the right idea. A few tweaks later and I had my pie.
One aspect of the pie has always perplexed me. The meringue always weeped and broke down into a watery mess. So I read up on meringues. To make a more stable meringue, I added a little cornstarch to the recipe and poured it over the hot pudding, instead of letting the pudding cool first. This prevents the meringue from weeping as much. Click on this link from Sunset Magazine for the lowdown on making a good pie meringue.
Once you try this pie, it won’t last long. This is a good thing though since the meringue does break down in the fridge and is at it’s best for only the first 24 hours. Make it the night before you plan on serving it, or first thing in the morning because it needs to be served cold for the best flavor. I am a purist; I only want this pie in Lula’s original way. However, I will concede that there are variations that would also make tasty pies. Chocolate lovers will love this pie with a chocolate pudding as the base in place of the pudding; try this one from Cooking Light. Also, I think the pie would work with other nut butters for those with peanut allergies. Almond butter would be delicious (maybe add a few drops of almond extract to the pudding). Regardless of what you use, if you make it you will think you have died and gone to heaven. If heaven is a peanut butter pie, then you’ll be in a pretty great place. Enjoy!
1/2 recipe pie crust (see link to Lula's Piecrust above)
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 cup powdered sugar
3 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons corn starch
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 egg yolks (reserve whites for meringue)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (or 1/2 vanilla bean sliced down the middle)
3 egg whites (2 egg whites left over from pie pudding plus 1 other)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Preheat oven to 325. Roll the pie crust out and form into a 9-inch pie plate, turning the last inch of the crust over and crimping. Cover the crust with foil or parchment and fill with pie weights, dried beans or dried rice. Bake at 325 for 10 minutes, then remove the pie weights and parchment and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Combine the peanut butter and powdered sugar until the mixture is crumbly and evenly mixed. Set aside 1/4 cup of the peanut butter mixture for the topping and spread the rest of it on the bottom of the baked pie crust. Set aside.
Mix the milk, 3 tablespoons of cornstarch, sugar, egg yolk and salt in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. Mix well before turning on the heat, making sure that the cornstarch is completely dissolved. Turn the heat to medium and stir constantly with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir to make sure lumps do not form. Cook until thick and bubbles just start to appear. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla. Pour into the pie shell over the peanut butter.
To make the meringue preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix 1/3 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons cornstarch and 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar in a small bowl. Beat the egg whites in a very clean bowl on medium-low speed. When soft peaks form, slowly add the sugar/cornstarch mixture, one spoonful at a time. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Spoon onto the still-warm pie filling and spread to the edges of the pie. Top the meringue with the remaining peanut butter and powdered sugar mixture. Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the meringue is golden brown. Remove the pie from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature before refrigerating until cold, about four hours. Serve cold within 24 hours of making the pie as the meringue will weep and get sticky very quickly.