Sugar Cream Pie: A (belated) Valentine for the late, great Richard Sax
Your French custard with prunes makes me sigh with longing. And your sugar cream pie? I am swooning.
Richard Sax, you are dead and gone, but my love for your magnum opus, Classic Home Desserts, will never die. (Are there three more delicious words in the English language than classic home desserts? With apologies to Henry James, no.)
My crush began when I made your Chocolate Cloud Cake for my 30th birthday. Of my many birthdays before and since, it is the one I remember best. Your cake was unforgettable—a delicate pillow of flourless chocolate topped with soft drifts of whipped cream and chocolate shavings, a celebratory baking triumph! (Thank you for making me look like such a pro, Richard.)
Most of your recipes, I discovered over the years, are more subdued, though also irresistible—the stuff of Sundays at Grandma’s, not fancy-dress affairs. You knew that the best desserts are the ones our grandmas baked, or the ones we wish they did: Grandma’s Poppy Seed Crescents, Grandma’s Banana Cake, Rose’s Legendary Honey Cake. Simple, unfussy recipes that you borrowed from grandmothers, including your own, or gathered from acquaintances, or culled from old manuscripts in the rare book room of the New York Public Library.
But tucked between the bubbes and their handwritten recipe cards and the long-forgotten cookery books are friends like Thomas Keller, David Lebovitz, and Nick Malgieri—culinary icons casually blended in the mix, as if they were just some neighbors who happened to leave Molten Chocolate (or East-West Ginger Cake or Neapolitan Easter Pie) on your doorstep. (Wouldn’t that be nice?)
There too is the great Edna Lewis with her Chocolate Soufflé and the inimitable M.F.K. Fisher with her Ginger Hottendots. But right alongside them is Mary Cardola, “a superb home cook in Rhode Island,” with her Rice Pie, “one of the best recipes” in your book, and Ron Pope of Omaha, Nebraska, who gushed with pride about his family’s Christmas cookies. When it comes to classic home desserts, love and expertise, you understood, know no bounds.
This past weekend I decided to make your Indiana Sugar Cream Pie, a recipe you picked up from Mary Durbin of Rushville, Indiana. It was a test of my faith in you, Richard.
I believe that pie is one of the best desserts on the face of the Earth—but only if it is homemade. I have never had a store-bought pie that rivals the careful handcrafting of my mother-in-law’s apple pie or my friend Jessica Appelgren's deep-dish peach. Pie should be eaten not long after it comes out of the oven (though I won’t complain about a wedge for breakfast the next morning). Good ingredients are paramount—skimping won’t work. Fruit pie needs perfectly ripe fruit and a flaky crust needs real butter (and a nice dollop of quality lard, if it’s in the cupboard).
Yet against my better judgment I have been seduced by sugar cream pie at diners and restaurants on more than one occasion. Sugar. Cream. Pie. (Three more delicious words!) It just sounds so good. And it is the official state pie of Indiana. It must be good. But, inevitably, it is a disappointment: Starchy. White. Bland. Every piece of sugar cream pie I’ve eaten—until now—has been a metaphor for all the bad things people say about food from the Midwest.
Despite all this, I decided to try your recipe for this perpetually disappointing pie. Not only that, I decided against bringing your showstopper, the Chocolate Cloud Cake, to a dinner party and bet all my money instead on your sugar cream. You advise in your book, after all, that cooking “should be high adventure.”
And indeed it was: The thrill of mixing the crust, the momentary panic when the filling wouldn’t thicken (“Trust your instincts,” you said, so I did, and heated the filling over a direct flame instead of the recommended double boiler), the reckless bucking of tradition—eliminating the nutmeg and scraping in a real vanilla bean—a brilliant move, if I do say so myself.
And the end result was truly sweet. Your Indiana Sugar Cream Pie was so perfectly buttery and utterly delicious that I swelled with pride for my Hoosier homeland.
“This!” I wanted to shout, “This is our pie, and damn, it is good!”
Thank you, my dear Richard.
With love always,
Your Not-So-Secret Admirer