Snow, eggs, and milk pie. February 10, 2010Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
Tags: bake ovens, Colonial cooking, Jamaican Me Crazy coffee, milk pie, Pennsylvania Dutch, Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine, Topton PA restaurants
Silence Dogood here. As I dismally watch my car disappear under what looks like feet of snow, my mind drifts (sorry, couldn’t resist that) back to yesterday afternoon, when I was out and about buying food for us and the critters prior to this latest blizzard.
Our friend Ben and I are both fortunate and dumbfounded to have two wonderful and very reasonably priced restaurants five minutes from our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, which as we’ve often noted is located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. This means the two restaurants are located just the other side of nowhere, in the tidy little town of Topton, PA. One, the White Palm, serves up the best spring rolls I’ve ever eaten, and their tropics-inspired menu manages to be both family-friendly and offer enough veggie-friendly fare to cause me to spend ten minutes poring over the menu trying to make up my mind (as opposed to the usual ten-second perusal while trying to find the one or two things I can eat). The other, The Market Cafe, has fantastic paninis (the three-cheese is my favorite), a huge, crisp Caesar salad (gotta offset all that cheese), and a Shiloh-friendly outdoor eating area. (The staff always makes sure Shiloh, our beautiful black German shepherd, has water, and of course she gets the hard-boiled egg and croutons from the salad.)
I mention all this because yesterday, en route to the local grocery, I had lunch with my friend Amy at White Palm and then swung by The Market Cafe to pick up some coffee. OFB’s and my favorite “adopted” nephews, Rashu and Sasha, simply fell in love with our own favorite flavored coffee, Jamaican Me Crazy, and I wanted to get some to take up to the Poconos next time we visited them and their mom (hopefully this weekend, weather permitting). The Market Cafe is locally famous for its coffee, and fortunately sells as well as brews it.
And here’s where the eggs come in. Waiting my turn at the counter, I heard the staff bantering about the storm. One was giving a second a bunch of grief about stocking up on eggs for the storm. “Hey, I got eggs,” she replied. “Yes, but you’ll make the whole carton for your husband’s breakfast tomorrow,” the first said. “No I won’t!” said the second. “Okay, how many eggs do you make him for breakfast, six?” “Uh, seven,” said the sheepish spouse. Who, mind you, had the trim figure of an olympic cyclist or marathon runner. And the worst of it is, I’ll bet her husband does, too.
Interestingly, while we’re on the subject of eggs, when last weekend’s snowstorm hit, I was pretty late getting to the (considerably larger) grocery in nearby Kutztown. I was concerned that the dairy section would be wiped out: no milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, or the half-and-half OFB insists on putting in his morning coffee. Not so. Even the bread shelves were still reasonably stocked. What had been ravaged were the eggs. I couldn’t find even one carton of brown eggs. I couldn’t find any organic eggs. In fact, every brand of eggs but the store brand had been completely wiped out, and even the store brand was pretty much down to the medium-sized white eggs. (I managed to snag the last carton of jumbo eggs.) Curious, eh? I thought so.
Yikes, I see that the 45-mph winds we’ve been promised appear to be arriving, if the snow crashing off the trees and bushes outside my home office window is any indication, so I’d better move on to those milk pies before our power cuts out. Ever heard of milk pies? I never had, at least until the arrival of this morning’s local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, which featured a story by food columnist Diane Stoneback on this regional specialty. (And what can I say about a news carrier who manages to deliver our paper in a blizzard? Bless her heart, what a courageous act!)
Like all people with an agricultural background, from France and Italy to Mexico and Greece, the original settlers of our area, the Pennsylvania Dutch (from the regional dialect, Deitsch, for Deutsch, aka German) hated to see anything go to waste. The old expression about pigs, ”we eat everything but the squeak,” certainly applies to them, and they clearly felt the same way about piecrust, too.
I can sympathise. Like my own Southern staple, biscuits, making a good piecrust is an arcane art, involving rubbing bits of cold butter into flour with one’s fingers until the dough is perfectly smooth (and God forbid that the butter warms up so the task would be easy, it has to remain chilled), rolling it out just so, somehow transferring that pillowcase-thin crust to the pie pan, and not just fitting it perfectly but crimping the edges so the pie doesn’t leak, weep, or boil over the top. Yow, this is not a task for the faint of heart. No wonder the ever-practical Penna Dutch didn’t want to waste the leftover fragments of dough after they’d shaped and trimmed the crusts. And so the milk pie was born.
At this point you may be wondering how there could possibly be enough dough fragments left over to make even one milk pie, much less several. But that would be because you’ve never had the delight of seeing an old Pennsylvania Dutch bake oven in operation, as I have. These fantastic ovens, dating to the 1700s and 1800s, were made of handmade brick and housed in their own building. Once (or perhaps twice) a week, the baker in the family (typically the housewife, though the baker our friend Ben and I saw in operation was the husband) would create an enormous wood fire in the large space beneath the oven. By the time the fire had burned to coals, the oven itself would be extremely hot. So the baker would put loaves of bread directly on the hot surface to bake—many loaves to feed the typical large family for a week—followed by all sorts of pies, cakes, and every other type of baked good in progressive succession as the oven (very) slowly cooled down.
After making the numerous fruit pies, breakfast pies, and other pies that were staples of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine, the thrifty cook would form the pie dough scraps into a few last piecrusts and fill them with a mix of flour, sugar, milk, cinnamon, and butter, then bake up these “milk pies” for casual snacking. According to Diane Stoneback, the traditional milk pie filling was barely visible in the bottom of the baked crust—basically just enough to sweeten and tenderize the crust—and was traditionally made by stirring the dry ingredients together with the fingers directly in the crust until everything was mixed well and all lumps were smooshed out, then the milk was poured on top, followed by pats of butter being floated on the milk. If one chose to mix the wet ingredients with the dry, you’d have a single layer of filling; if the cook opted not to bother with mixing, there’d be a two-layer filling.
Coming from the South as I do, pies were definitely a sometime thing, not an everyday staple as they are up here. We loved our chess pies and pecan pies and (when we could get them) banana cream pies and chocolate icebox pies. But we ate fruit cobblers, not fruit pies, and the thought of molasses crumb pies like shoofly pie were (and frankly, still are) inconceivable, not to mention the raisin-based “funeral pie.” After moving here, I discovered the pleasures of coconut cream pie, lemon sponge pie (an Amish specialty), and fruit-topped custard pies. But milk pie? Hadn’t it vanished along with the horse and buggy? (Oh, wait, we still see plenty of horses and buggies around here.)
As Diane discovered, milk pie fans are still legion in our area. The venerable tradition lives on, but with variations. You can read the article, “Memories of Milk Pie,” and find dozens of reminiscences and recipes at www.themorningcall.com. But here’s one to get you started if you’d like to try it yourself:
Marion and Susan Redline’s Milk Pie
In an unheated 9-inch pie shell, put flour in the bottom until it covers it to a depth of 1/4 inch. Top with a handful or so of light brown sugar. Mix the flour and sugar thoroughly with your fingers. Pour three circles of white corn syrup over it. Then fill the crust with whole milk until it is three-quarters full.
Dot the top with 5 pats of butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake at 400 degrees F for 10 minutes and then turn the temperature down to 350 for about another 40 minutes. Because all ovens are different, give the pie a shimmy-shake while it’s still on the oven rack. If it jiggles just a little in the center and the crust is light brown, it’s done.
Are you intrigued enough to try this Colonial-era treat? Not me, I confess. If I’m going to eat pie, I’d rather splurge on a slice of something horrifically decadent. But I love the idea that a pie with such a venerable history is still cherished and eaten to this day. Long may it wave!
And all of you poor souls who, like us, are battling the cold and snow, may you stay warm, dry, and well-fed.
‘Til next time,