My Grandma Harrison was one of the best souls I have ever known. She worked hard, gave selflessly, and loved unconditionally. Grandma raised my Dad as a single mother, and later lived together with my parents and helped raise me and my nine siblings. After years of working hard outside the home, she spent many more years working even harder inside our home. So much of what I learned about household arts was learned under her tutelage. Grandma ironed like nobody’s business, was a fabulous cook, beautiful housekeeper, and baked as though she had been professionally trained at a culinary school.
If Grandma wasn’t hanging laundry on the backyard clothesline, or chasing after one of her grandchildren, she was in the kitchen. I remember standing just behind the tie of her apron as she pushed and pulled mounds of dough across her flour-dusted red counter top, then later getting to enjoy the fruits of her labor as she served up warm from the oven yeasted dinner rolls. Cooking and baking seemed to be effortless for her. It was nothing for her to make a Sunday brunch of fried chicken, various side dishes, biscuits from scratch, and pie. Grandma baked all kinds of pies, but none more legendary in our family than her butterscotch. The way she melted the sugar for her pie was a form of alchemy. Like a magician who produces a rabbit from a seemly empty hat, Grandma waved her magic wand and transformed a few simple ingredients into an heirloom.
For years I was under the impression that Grandma’s recipe for her butterscotch pie had been lost. Not so. When my Dad passed onto me my Grandmother’s little black book of hand-written recipes, there it was! Among its tattered, worn, and brown pages was the recipe for Butterscotch Pie. I had been presented the Holy Grail! As I went about the family proudly announcing that I had custody of her recipe, come to find out, other siblings had it too! It hadn’t been lost at all!! Well, if that were true, why wasn’t ‘the famous pie’ making an appearance at any of our family gatherings? Word had it, some had tried to replicate it, but no one had been successful. Was something missing? Maybe a secret ingredient?
I became determined to unlock the key to her pie. Like the others, my first attempt wasn’t quite successful. Oh, it was a good enough pie, it just wasn’t Grandma’s. This past Monday was National Pie Day so I decided to honor her by giving it another go-round. I made a few changes from my original attempt. I distinctly remember watching her melt the sugar in a cast iron skillet, so that is where I began. The second time around I used a different brand of dark brown sugar, one that wasn’t quite so dark. Then, and I hoped Grandma would have approved, I added an additional egg yolk. The first pie hadn’t quite set up firmly enough so I reasoned it was possible that the eggs she used back then were larger than the eggs I use today. Maybe so, because the pie set up beautifully. One last thing, I snuck in an additional tablespoon of butter, because, well, just because.
Patience! That was her secret ingredient. Her scribbled directions simply said to stir the milk mixture into the melted sugar. If one understands the principles of liquified sugar, then one knows that immediately upon the milk hitting the sugar, everything seizes up. And this is where having patience comes in. Grandma knew to ‘just keep stirring, stirring, stirring’. Eventually it will smooth out and thicken into a lovely custard.
Unfortunately, I live three thousand miles from my other siblings so I had no taste testers nearby that could confirm, or deny, that the pie I made had reached Grandma Harrison’s Butterscotch Pie status. I’m heading back home to Kentucky soon and I promised my brother I would bake a pie for him. He’s been hankering for a slice for years.
Grandma Harrison’s Butterscotch Pie
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar (lightly packed)
2 egg yolks (I used 3)
1 tablespoon butter (I added an additional tablespoon)
2 cups milk (whole milk)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla
- Melt sugar (over medium-low heat) in a (cast iron) skillet
- Add butter
- Mix together egg yolks, milk, and cornstarch
- Add mixture to melted sugar
- Mix well
- Cook till thickened
- Add vanilla
- Pour into pie crust
- Coverwith meringue if desired (or serve with whipped cream)
Note: I left Grandma’s instructions exactly how she wrote them. My changes or clarifications are in parenthesis. Remember to add the milk slowly to the melted sugar and continue to stir until all the sugar has melted back into the mixture and the custard is smooth. Continue to cook the custard until it is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Run you finger across the back of the spoon, and if a clear path is left, the custard is done. Check out this link for more information on knowing when a custard is done cooking.
Source: Mary Weinberg/Mullikin Family Recipe