The experiments continue.
As I mentioned to you last week, Stacy began poring through old cookbooks determined to try out the recipes for the benefit of all y’all. After all, we are all mostly stuck in our own homes with nothing to do but love and feed each other. It turns out, for us at least, that digging through these recipes and experimenting with them brings a lot of joy to our little home.
And maybe it will for yours, too.
All of which leads us to this week’s experiment, drawn — as was last week’s fruit-cocktail cobbler — from the late Ernest Matthew Mickler’s White Trash Cooking. His little spiral-bound cookbook delights me. It’s been on my shelf for 24 years now, since it was first published. Its recipes are ridiculously simple: just brief lists of ingredients and typically no more than three or four sentences of instructions. The ingredients are almost always things that the people of Mickler’s little hometown of Palm Valley could buy in their local groceries or country stores.
In other words, they are recipes that speak to the heart of a country boy like me. And that is particularly true of recipes that have the word “pie” in them. The prospect of pie, almost any pie, gets my mouth watering.
Which brings us to this week’s recipe from White Trash Cooking: Florence’s Lemon Ice-Box Pie. Three simple ingredients: a can of frozen lemonade, a can of condensed milk, and one “large container” of Cool Whip. (And remember, Cool Whip containers are Southern Tupperware.) But behind these ingredients lie uncertainty. For one, grocery stores sell two kinds of condensed milk: one sweetened, one not. Typically — at least according to my search of Kroger’s website — the word “condensed” is used for the sweetened varieties while “evaporated” is the word used for unsweetened condensed milk. Now, that’s not too big of a challenge, but what exactly is a “large container” of Cool Whip?
That uncertainty led us to two different versions of this pie. On her first trip to get the ingredients for Florence’s Lemon Ice-Box pie, Stacy grabbed what turned out to be the “small container” of Cool Whip — eight ounces. So she followed White Trash Cooking’s instructions and dumped one can of frozen pink lemonade into a bowl, then whisked in the condensed milk, and then that small container of Cool Whip. Then, she poured it all into what the book specifies only as “your pie shell.” She pre-baked a store-bought pie crust to hold it and then put it in the refrigerator, which is where the recipe says you should put it.
But it wouldn’t congeal in the refrigerator. The filling stayed liquid, so she put it in the freezer.
It’s important to note at this juncture that Stacy was trained as a scientist. Which means she does not see a mistake as a mistake, but as an opportunity to experiment. So, she decided that the first pie, minus half the prescribed Cool Whip, was just a test run. She’d make another one with a big Cool Whip later.
“I think the reason why I wanted to do both of them was because I think it's kind of fun to see the mistakes that happen,” she says. “These old recipes are just not really exact. And I think it's kind of fun to be able to see the experimentation process.”
Well, it turns out that when the Mistake Pie came out of the freezer, it was delicious anyway. If you make the pie according to Mickler, you get a creamy, fluffy, airy filling, but the Mistake Pie’s filling has the consistency of a lemon merengue or key lime pie.
It was mighty good. You just have to keep it in the freezer, grab a slice when you’re hungry, then put it back. Repeat until it’s gone. The pie just gets better over time. That same process works when the pie is made properly, except you just keep it in the refrigerator.
To make it, you follow the same process outlined above, except with 16 ounces of Cool Whip. Stacy, experimenting further, decided to dump the filling into a store-bought graham-cracker crust, which we both think results in a tastier version of this pie.
At this point, dear reader, we’ve now eaten both versions of this pie, and loved them both. And as I write, Stacy’s making another one that we’ll enjoy through the weekend.
How would we rank the pie? We’d call it a Family Favorite, something to make at home and keep there.
“Both of them are sticky,” Stacy says. “They don't travel well. It’s a home dish.”
And with the pie comes a lesson: When confronted with a cryptic recipe from an old country cookbook (or Aunt Irma’s box of recipe cards), you need not be afraid to experiment.
“The reason why I think it's fun to talk about the mistakes is that, you know, in the back of your mind, when you look at a recipe, you go like, ‘Oh, do I really want to go try that? I don't think it's going to be good or I'm not sure I understand how to make it.’’’
But what my wife proved is that you really shouldn’t give a rip. If you make mistakes, you might come up with something tasty. And if you do it “right,” you’ll come up with something tasty, too.
All I know is this: To live in a House of Pie Experiments is a beautiful thing. I love my wife, and we love all y’all. Merry Christmas.