“I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better, all the time….” The Beatles
This recipe for Black Bottom Lemon Pie is from the “Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book” by Emily Elsen & Melissa Elsen. It was included in one of my prior posts celebrating Joan Baez’ 75th birthday. At that time, I had cooked this custard pie for the first time. My pie failed because the lemon filling never set. I had not baked it long enough. They say the third time is the charm, but let’s see if I can be equally lucky on a second attempt at this recipe.
I began again on Valentine Day’s evening, to see if I could make this recipe more carefully, with better concentration and intent. I went back to my virtual yoga mat, grounded my feet, and began anew. For my dry ingredients, I used a coconut sugar, which lent the pie crust dough a lovely brown color.
My son told me the most important thing about making pastry is that you should never overwork the dough. If you do, the pie crust will be tough and compact, not be light and flakey as it should be. He told me a story about a pastry chef he knew, who grated the butter in a box grater prior to mixing the butter into the dry ingredients. I decided to try it that way too, to see if it would make a difference. But my first mistake was not freezing the butter first. As a result, the butter was warm and glopped together after grating it. The essential thing about making pastry is keeping it cold in order to work with it. The goal here was to mix the dry ingredients with the butter, and form pea size crumbles. Please learn from my mistake, dear reader, and remember to freeze your butter before working it into dry ingredients when forming dough.
Despite the gloppy grated butter, the dough came together. I put the dough in the refrigerator to cool and rest overnight. I thought about how I first learned to cook.
At home I was never asked to help and so did not learn how to cook at my mother’s side, as most children usually learn. They say that children often have a closer relationships with their grandparents than their own parents. This was true in my case. I learned a lot about cooking by observing my mother’s mother, my Grandma Clara, in her tiny kitchen. Some of her best dishes included chopped liver, knishes, gefilte fish, kasha varnishes, cheese and fruit blintzes, hamantashen, strudel, rugelach, pinwheel cookies, and a sheet apple pie.
Grandpa Izzy would do some of the grocery shopping for Grandma Clara. For example, it was always his job to buy the carp that would be used to make gefilte fish. There are stories about emigrant Jews keeping live carps swimming in their bathtubs on days when gefilte fish was to be prepared. When the time came to make these tasty fish balls, the carp would be hit over the head, killed, and prepared for the first step of grinding the fish. But I never saw any such live carp swimming in the white glazed tub in the bathroom. Grandpa brought his carp home from the fish monger, neatly wrapped in a neat brown paper package. My grandparents owned a metal grinder used for grinding fish and meats, and it was my grandfather’s job to attach it to the table by tightening a clamp, and to put in the correct grinding disc.
One of my grandfather’s chief jobs was cracking the walnuts and removing the meats of the nuts, which Grandma Clara used in some of her baking recipes. Sometimes Grandpa Izzy chimed in too much about how things should be done. There always came a point where he would mix in too much, give his two cents about the preparations of the foods and annoy Grandma, or just generally get underfoot and in the way. It built up and crescendoed to the point where Grandma Clara would raise her arm pointing her index finger at him and shout out in Yiddish, “gay avek!” This expression translates as “go away, get out of here!” With those words, and a meanness seldom seen, she would kick him out of her castle, the kitchen, and out of the apartment. He would then take a long walk, and come home later, brimmed felt hat in hand, after the food was almost done.
One dish Clara often made was “chicken in the pot.” On some of those occasions, I would accompany her to the chicken market. My memory of the chicken market was that it was a small shack. It may not have had any windows, in order to hide the slaughter that went on inside its walls. We would walk together through the entrance door. It was very crowded inside and I stayed close to my grandmother’s pocketbook hanging from over her arm, or her coat, or skirt of her dress. My grandma would actually pick out which live bird she wanted. A butcher would hold the squawking bird upside down by its feet, in such a way that its wings could not flap, and grandma would approve the specimen in question, or ask to see another, better bird. Eventually, off would come the bird’s head, and what I remember vividly was that they would hold the decapitated neck over a flame to cauterize the neck. The chicken would be taken to the back, and shortly reappear without any of its feathers. I don’t know if there was a chicken flicker in the back room. Perhaps they dunked the bird in scalding water, and then removed them. But the bird reappeared featherless, and had soft pink skin. Once we arrived home with the chicken in hand, if grandma noticed any remaining pin feathers, my grandpa would pull them out with a pair of needle nosed pliers. Grandma Clara and Grandpa Izzy made a good team.
There would be eggs in the cavity of the bird’s body. Grandma would remove them, and show them to me. They were the special prize. She would cook them up for me in a frying pan, right then and there. I was fascinated that eggs could be so tiny, and that there would be three or four of them in a little group. They were a special treat, just for me, the prized grand daughter and special guest.
For dessert, Grandma Clara often make apple pie. I would love to both watch and help out. Clara’s apple pie was not a round pie, as we see in bakeries and grocery stores today. It was more of a sheet pie. Pie crust was rolled out and placed onto the bottom of a big rectangular baking dish. The apples were marinated with sugar and spices, and were added as the middle layer of the pie. A top crust was laid down, and slits were cut into the top to let the steam escape. When the baked pie was removed from the oven, it cooled down in an area by the window. When it cooled down enough to be just warm, we would get to try a piece. The crust was soft, and had a wonderful mouth feel to it. The overall taste of the apple pie was oh so sweet. As chefs today like to say of really good tasting food, the food was made with love.
Grandma Clara was also well known for her pinwheel cookies. The pinwheel pattern of chocolate swirling inside the vanilla of each cookie, was as good as any magician’s magic trick. The cookies were baked to celebrate Jewish holidays, and for special occasions. Whenever grandma made cookies while I visited, she would give me a bit of dough to roll out too, and I would form the dough into shapes for baking. Being asked to join in, working together side by side, always made me very happy. I loved waiting for the bake time of the cookies to be done. Breathless for the moment when the oven door was opened, the cookie sheet was removed, and I could see the cookies that both of us made together.
As to my reprise of this black bottom lemon pie, I had left the pie crust dough to rest overnight in the refrigerator. The next morning I reported back to the kitchen. I rolled out the dough, and was ready to transfer it to the pie plate. In retrospect, here is where I made my second mistake. Still groggy with sleep, I forgot to butter the pie plate first. As a result, once the pie was baked, the crust was spackled onto the pie plate. Again, dear readers, take heed, and remember to butter the pie plate before lining the plate with dough.
I rolled the dough onto my rolling pin a bit in order to lift my round of dough and transfer it from the wooden board to the pie plate. I was pretty successful. The dough was torn in two places. I patched in the spots using some dough that overhung the edges of the pie plate. I rolled under any extra dough into the edge of the crust, pinched it together well, and set about to crimp the edges. The dough was warm and a bit moist, which made it sticky and difficult to work with. I solved this problem by dusting flour onto the wooden board and dragging my fingers through the flour before each crimp. It worked well and I got a lot more definition out of my crimps this time. I covered the pie shell with cling wrap and put it back in the refrigerator to rest for thirty minutes.
When the dough was again ready to be worked, I docked the the dough. This consists of making marks with the end of a fork, into the dough on the bottom of the pie pan. This is done in order to prevent air bubbles from forming when the dough is heated, and also to prevent the crust from shrinking. I then made my third mistake by covering the pie with aluminum foil instead of cling wrap, before putting the pie shell into the freezer to allow the crust to freeze solid. When I pressed the aluminum foil into the form of the soft shell, it caused the dough to stick to the pie plate. As a result, some of the crust would tear after pre-baking. As they say, stuff happens. But I believe that the more I practice, the more I will automatically learn to make a perfect pie crust. I will do so from experience and body memory. It will all become second nature.
While I waited for the pie shell to freeze, I set the oven to 425 degrees F, and put a rimmed baking sheet on the lowest rack. I thought about other ways I learned to cook when I was a girl.
In junior high school, which was from 7th to 9th grades, girls were required to take home economics and sewing, while boys were required to take shop, where they learned woodworking and did things like make a bird house or a small bench. As the expression goes, “never the twain shall meet.” Which is to say that in those days, boys never took cooking or sewing, and girls were never allowed to take shop. It would be years before things like that would change.
Home economics was taught by a very short, trim woman, with hair dyed so black, there was no imagining it was her real hair color. She always wore a white nurses uniform, with white shoes, and a small white nurse’s hat atop her head. I could never, for the life of me, figure out why she was dressed in such a manner. Except, that the uniform did give her an air of authority. The topper was that she would wear a whistle attached to a lanyard worn around her neck. She never hesitated to blow the whistle in order to immediately get our attention, shut all activity down, and to keep us in line. What I do appreciate about the cooking class was that this teacher did teach us how to be very organized. That method of organization would carry over into other areas of my life in the future.
In home economics class, a/k/a cooking, we girls were broken up into groups. Each team, so to speak, although they didn’t call them teams in those days, would sit around a round table in the cooking room. The cooking room was a very large room, to accommodate six tables, each with about six students, and six cooking stations, complete with oven, refrigerator, and kitchen cabinets. Unfortunately there were no dishwashing machines. We students were the dish washers. The nurse/teacher would tell us what we would be cooking that day, and proceed to dictate the recipe to us. We each had an index card upon which we would write the list of ingredients, and the directions for cooking the recipe. Developing the skills of how to work together and how to delegate tasks, we decided among ourselves which tasks would be assigned to each member of the group. Someone would sift the flour, another would measure the Crisco into a dry measuring cup, and another would measure the liquids in a glass measuring cup, and so on. We learned to be precise. The recipe would be made. Most importantly, after the recipe was made, cleanup would be done, and then an inspection of the work areas and kitchens of each group. I would day dream in class and imagine that this was what it would feel like to be in the army. I had never been part of such an organized operation, before, or since.
Back to my pie, essentially a custard pie, if you were wondering how to classify it. I took the pie shell out of the refrigerator, which as you will remember was prematurely covered in foil. I then added the pie weights to the bottom. The dish was placed on a rimmed cookie sheet in the oven, timed to bake for twenty minutes. Then I took it out and learned the consequences of my mistakes. When I removed the aluminum foil, some of the crust stuck to the foil, and I had lost a part of the crimped edge completely. I put some pieces of the crust back on the bottom of the plate, and despite the missing crimping, I decided to soldier on. It was difficult. In my head I thought to myself, Black Bottom Lemon Pie, second time is the charm, not! However, as Vivian Leigh’s character, Scarlett, said in the movie “Gone With the Wind,” my mother’s favorite movie, so I knew it well, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” I brushed the egg wash onto the shell, put the shell back into the oven to bake for another 3 minutes. Then I removed the shell from the oven and let it cool completely. Normally, I would open the window and put the dish that needed to be cooled down in that opened space. But given that it was 19 degrees outside, I decided to just let it cool on the kitchen table.
I went back to thinking about my mother’s parents who lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, my grandparents, Clara and Izzy. After I graduated college and lived in a studio apartment on Jane Street in Greenwich Village in NYC, I would visit them on a Saturday or Sunday, for lunch, at least once a month. Sometimes I would take the PATH train. Other times I would take a bus from the Port Authority. There were no water taxis at that time, as there are now, taking you across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan to a dock located near the PATH trains.
I would enter my grandparents’ apartment building and see all the bells with names of the residents. I would see their last name, Brilant, written in pencil on the paper tab next to their doorbell. I rang the bell and walked up the three flights. The door would be opened for me and I would be ushered into the apartment, down the hallway, past the same two large photographs. One was a close-up of my mother’s face, and the other, a portrait of my grandmother when she was maybe 18 years old or so. The portrait of my grandmother fascinated me and I studied it carefully every time I visited. All of my life, until much later, I could never figure out where Clara had been, when the photo had been taken. Later, when I had the photo restored, I learned that the original photo had been taken not in any special place as I had imagined. Clara’s portrait had been taken in a photographer’s studio, where they had a backdrop on a roller, and the backdrop was pulled down from the ceiling for the photo shoot. While the mystery had been solved, I was disappointed, as the truth did not match the grandness of my imagination. Clara was dressed up in what appears to be a silk dress with ever so tiny fabric buttons. I imagine Clara’s photo was taken before she was married to my grandfather.
There was always the same ritual when I visited my grandparents. I was seated at the dining table while my grandmother worked at the stove which was located toward the front of the kitchen. My Grandpa Izzy would go to the closet off of the kitchen, a very deep closet that was a cupboard and storage closet combo. He would take a bag off of a shelf from the closet that contained a large uncut pumpernickel or rye bread. While holding the bread under his arm, close to his body, he would saw off a few pieces of the bread with a knife, and put them on a serving dish on the table. The requisite butter was brought to the table as well. In my excitement of being there, I would start talking about what was new in the world and my life. I was told to “shah!”. Eat first and talk later was the rule of the house.
A combination of some or all of the following were served, all my favorites: pickled herring; kishka; kasha varnishes; kasha and potato knishes; blintzes made with cheese, blintzes with blueberry or cherry fillings; pirogies; and the wonderful apple pie or pinwheel cookies. My grandparents would sit at the table with me and sip their tea out of a glass cup. My grandfather would put cubes of sugar in his mouth and sip the tea through the sugar to make it sweet. Or he would stir a teaspoon of cherry jelly into the glass. Sometimes before the meal he would have a shot of “Slivovitz,” and enjoy the sting of the alcohol as it slid down his throat. He would offer me a shot, and I would taste it, but I would often wind up coughing and never got the whole of it down.
After the meal, I would talk. I felt like an ambassador from another world. My grandparents were getting old, and as far as I knew, they had never really left the confines of Hoboken. They never took the PATH train into the city for some pleasure, clothes shopping, or entertainment. Their world was the square mile city of Hoboken. However, my grandparents were up on politics, from watching the news on television. And my grandfather read the Jewish Newspaper, “The Forward,” every day. We would kid about it behind his back and call it “The Forwitz,” imitating his accent. Grandpa Izzy loved to discuss politics.
Sometimes, later in life, when my grandmother’s health was failing and she started having spells where she would pass out, I would visit and sit with both of them in the living room. We would settle onto the big plush sofa with flowered material, a pattern of flowers as large as cabbages, with little flowers and stems with leaves in between, on a faded material. We would watch “The Price is Right” together. My grandmother’s eyes never looked larger than when magnified by the strong lenses of her eyeglasses, the rest of her looking so much smaller to me. In later years, at my own parents’ house in a similar situation, my parents and I would watch “Wheel of Fortune” together. Huddling together like that, enjoying our last times together, felt like the wagon trains circled together for protection, before time changed us in the indelible way that it does.
My pie shell had cooled completely by now. I proceeded to the next step, prepared the ganache, and layered it onto the bottom of the pie crust and halfway up the sides. The ganache’d pie crust was returned to the refrigerator, while I went on to make the lemon filling. This time I worked with Meyer lemons and Sumo oranges, and 1/2 of a Minola orange. I found the Sumo orange sweeter and less tart than the Mineola, and would recommend using all Sumos in the future. I reversed the lemon and orange quantities and reduced the sugar as directed in the alternate version found in the sidebar to the recipe.
Once the filling was added to the pie crust, it was time to bake the pie on the middle rack of the oven. The proof would be in the filling. This time I would bake the pie for 25 to 30 minutes, and then use my judgment to see if it needed to bake any longer. I observed my pie to see if the custard set and puffed up slightly. Voila, success at last! The pie did bake for almost an hour, so the recipe should have given a more generous estimate of the time. I also protected the crimped crust edge with foil at mid way point in the baking. Wish you were here, dear reader , to taste a slice for yourself. We are one day in from Valentine’s day today, but think we will celebrate belatedly with a slice of this delicious Black Bottom Pie.
“It’s getting better all the time
(Better, better, better)
It’s getting better all the time
(Better, better, better)
Getting so much better all the time.”
“Getting Better” by The Beatles
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- 1-1/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1 stick of butter and a pat of butter for buttering the pie pan
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa), chopped into ¼-inch pieces
- 4 large eggs
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ cup fresh Meyer lemon juice (from 3 to 4 lemons)
- ¼ cup fresh orange juice
- Finely grated zest of 1 Meyer lemon
- Finely grated zest of ¼ orange
- Make an all-butter crust using 1-1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour; ½ teaspoon kosher salt; 1-1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar; ¼ pound (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces; ½ cup cold water; 2 tablespoons cider vinegar; and ½ cup ice. Stir together the dry ingredients and add the butter pieces and coat with the flour mixture using a bench scraper or spatula. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour mixture, working quickly until mostly peas-size pieces of butter email Combine the water, cider, vinegar, and ice in a large measuring cup or small bow. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the ice water mixture, over the flour mixture, and mix and cut in with a bench scraper or spatula until it is fully incorporated. Add more of the ice water mixture, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, using the bench scraper or your hands (or both) to mix until the dough comes together in a ball, with some dry bits remaining. Squeeze and pinch with your fingertips to bring all the dough together, sprinkling dry bits with more small drops of the ice water mixture, if necessary to combine. Shape the dough into a flat disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, preferably overnight, to give the crust time to mellow. Wrapped tightly, the dough can be refrigerated for 3 days or frozen for 1 month.
- Roll out the pie crust and place it in the buttered pie pan. Crimp the outside edge of your pie crust. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
- Partially pre-bake the pie crust on a preheated baking sheet in a pre-heated oven at 425 degrees F, for 20 minutes, on the middle rack of the oven. Prepare the crust by covering it completely, including the crimped edges, and put pie weights or dry beans in the pan, spread so they are concentrated more around the edge of the shell than in the center.
- Remove the pan and the baking sheet from the oven, lift out the foil and pie weights, and let the crust cool for a minute. Use a pastry brush to coat the bottom and sides with a thin layer of egg white glaze (1egg white whisked with 1 teaspoon of water) to moisture proof the crust. Return the pan, on the baking sheet, to the oven's middle rack and continue baking for 3 more minutes. Remove and cool completely before filling.
- To make the ganache layer, bring ¼ cup of the heavy cream just to a boil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Remove from the heat and pour in the chocolate pieces. Swirl the cream around to distribute and cover the chocolate. Let sit for 5 minutes, and then whisk gently to combine. Scrape the ganache into the cooled pie shell and spread evenly over the bottom and halfway up the sides. Refrigerate the shell to set the ganache while making the filling. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the eggs, egg yolk, sugar and salt, and mix on medium speed until thick and all combined. Stir in the lemon and orange juices and zests and the remaining ½ cup heavy cream and blend well.
- Place the ganache-lined pie shell on a rimmed baking sheet. Strain the filling through a fine-mesh sieve directly into the pie shell, or strain it into a separate bowl and then pour it into the shell. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating 180 degrees when the edges start to set, 15 to 20 minutes through the baking. The pie is finished when the edges are set and the center is no longer liquid but still quite wobbly. Be careful not to overbake or the custard can separate. The filling will continue to cook and set after the pie is removed from the oven. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, 2 to 3 hours. Serve slightly warm, at room temperature or cool.
- The pie will keep refrigerated for 2 days or at room temperature for 1 day.