This week marks the first anniversary of the passing of my friend, Marion Cunningham, an icon and champion – like her mentor, James Beard – of American home cooking. If you’re less than familiar with her body of work, it was Marion who was handpicked by Judith Jones, Beard’s friend and editor, to overhaul and rewrite The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and to write The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. Many other books followed in her own name, each the embodiment of good taste, restraint, practicality, and the sheer joy of being in the kitchen.
I first met Marion in the late 1980’s. To me – and to a legion of other young food writers and chefs – she was something of a mother figure, someone to whom you could turn for advice and a dose of good sense. No matter how busy she was, she always seemed to have time to answer my questions, talk about baking and meal making, and offer an opinion about pots, pans, and cooking tools.
Marion worried about the state of American home cooking. In a 2002 interview she observed that “No one is cooking at home anymore, so we are losing all the wonderful lessons we learn at the dinner table.”
In the preface to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook she tackled the issue head on. “Too many families seldom sit down together; it’s gobble and go…Food is more than fodder. It’s an act of giving and receiving because the experience at table is a communal sharing; talk begins to flow, feelings are expressed, and a sense of well-being takes over.”
Marion loved a good story, and I’ll never forget one she related during one of our Sunday phone chats – she at home in Walnut Creek, California and I in rural New Hampshire. A gentleman, who had tracked her down from the phone book, had recently called and wanted some baking advice. He was a bachelor, and ate out more often than he felt he should. If he could just learn to master some recipes and cook for himself, he told her, perhaps he’d be better off.
He went on to explain that he’d decided to make an apple pie and would she please clear up his confusion: how far back should he stand? Perplexed, Marion asked him to repeat what he’d said, so he clarified: after he mixed the brown sugar and cinnamon with the sliced apples, how far back should he stand when he “tossed them in the bowl” – as her recipe instructed. “He actually thought he had to stand back and toss the apple slices into the bowl from a few feet away, like some sort of carnival game,” she told me. “When I asked him why on earth he would do that, he said he thought the air swishing by might help dry them off, or something.”
Later in the 90’s, Marion paid me a visit at my home in New Hampshire, making a special trip up from Boston where she’d traveled to do a series of cooking classes. I was a little apprehensive about her visit. After all, I was a struggling writer at the time and – like many struggling writers – I lived modestly. My home was an old hunting cabin on the edge of the White Mountains. It was about as airtight and energy efficient as a sieve. The roof often leaked. We had a ground well, which often ran dry in the summer, and an outhouse for those occasions when it did. It didn’t help matters that I kept replaying my mom and dad’s first visit to my rural home in my head. Me: Well, how do you like it, dad? Has a lot of charm, doesn’t it? Dad, after a considerable pause: I’ll give you this – it’s got a lot of trees.
Long story short, Marion was perfectly charmed and gracious. We had a wonderful time, she spent the night, and before leaving the next day we chatted for hours over baked goods and coffee. I’ll never forget that, and she was kind enough to write about her visit in the foreword to my then soon-to-be-released Maple Syrup Cookbook.
As the years went by, we talked less frequently. I got busy raising a family. And we both faced the constant demands of cookbook deadlines and cooking events. But I’ll always cherish her friendship and give thanks for having been one of her friends.
And Now, How About Some Peach Custard Pie?
We’re still in the grip of peach season here in the Lowcountry, though I promise next week we’ll set off in a very promising new direction. But I couldn’t let the season pass without tipping you off to a pie that marries a trio of my favorite things: ripe peaches, rich custard, and a crumb topping. It’s something of a hybrid pie, and one you should try to finish off completely the day after you make it because the longer it sits the weepier it gets as the peach juices become increasingly unstable.
I often get emails from pie makers who want to know if they really do have to prebake their pie shell. And even though my answer is always the same – yes, you do, when I say you do – I will occasionally not prebake the shell even when I know better, just to make sure I’m not being unreasonable or copping a snobbish attitude about the whole prebaking thing.
So I went ahead and I didn’t prebake the pie shell this time. Instead, I used a mixture of 1 1/2 tablespoons each all-purpose flour and sugar and dusted the shell bottom with it. In theory, I thought this sandy mixture would absorb the juice from the peaches and perhaps allow the bottom crust to brown up and turn crisp before it became sodden and flabby. But like so many untested theories, this one was, literally, half-baked. So please, go ahead and prebake the pie shell. And if you want to help prevent the rim of the crust from getting too dark, watch this video on how best to do that. (Note: even though you see the sandy flour-sugar mixture in the photo above, this is not the way the recipe is written.)
The pie shell is covered with a thick layer of ripe peaches; over that, you pour a sour cream custard, after which your main job in life becomes making sure the custard is coddled and cajoled to the point where it is perfectly baked without overbaking it. That’s a little challenging because custards, in general, like low, slow, even cooking and yours is exposed to the heat of the oven on top, but underneath it has a thick buffer of pastry and peaches. As such, it gets a little confused about your wishes to see it bake flawlessly.
If you follow my times and temperatures pretty carefully, you should do fine. The top of the custard gets a little reprieve at the 25 minute mark, when you add the crumb topping: the topping itself cushions and protects the custard and buys enough time for the entire thing to cook up perfectly from within. Just keep a close eye on the pie, without opening the oven door if possible; constant door opening really confuses your pies. A little puffing is expected, but if the filling starts to puff up quickly around the edges, lower the heat. Generally speaking, you can rarely damage a custard by cooking it too slowly. But you can mess it up good – and make it curdle – if you bake it too fast. The flour in the custard does help to stabilize it, but it won’t protect it from the worst of your sins.
Once the topping goes on, it may or may not turn a little golden brown, depending on how much longer your pie bakes. It’s nice if it does, since it adds visual interest, but don’t use the color of your topping to gauge doneness: that’s determined by the overall movement of the filling, which should more or less jiggle as a whole. It should not seem at all soupy or loose in the middle. The pie is cooled, then refrigerated overnight so the filling tightens up to the proper texture. Don’t cover the pie when you put it in the fridge because any moisture buildup will ruin the nice crunch in your topping.
This pie is somewhat lacking in color, which is why I like to garnish it with sliced peaches. Have some friends over, slice the entire thing up, and deliver pieces to the neighbors, who will likely be shocked to see you at the door holding a slab of pie. But like I said, do try to eat the whole thing while it’s in its prime. It doesn’t freeze well, so forget that option too.
Until next time…