Buttermilk Pie: An Unexpectedly Sweet Treat
Buttermilk pie is my signature dessert, and a running joke among my friends.
It's a custard pie that emerges from the oven with a golden brown, slightly caramelized top over a creamy center. With a tender consistency that almost melts on the palette, you might say it's creme brulee's culinary cousin.
But when new folks are invited to my table and I offer this delicate pie, they generally (and often not-so-politely) decline. Their faces retreat upon hearing the word buttermilk. I can almost hear them thinking, "Who would make a pie out of bitter buttermilk?"
My close pals -- who affectionately call my pies BMPs -- chuckle and welcome the rebuffs. It means more for them.
I grew up eating buttermilk pie, and baking it today is a celebration of food, family and my Southern roots. I'm from Chicago, but my grandparents hail from below the Mason-Dixon Line, second-wave black migrants who ventured up North. Growing up, my mother made the pie for our family from a recipe recorded on a well-worn index card.
Buttermilk pie is a traditional Southern delicacy. As two friends from Tennessee and South Carolina informed me, it's "nothin' but chess pie," a similar custard delight.
Buttermilk is thick, slightly paler than eggnog, and yes, it's tart. There is no butter in buttermilk: It's actually low-fat or non-fat milk that has been fermented by various bacterias, in a process similar to the way yogurt is made.
But it's good for so many things. It makes a fine batter for frying chicken and a tenderizing marinade for any chicken. Substituting buttermilk for milk will make homemade rolls and cornbread tender, mashed potatoes just faintly tangy, and of course, pancakes light and fluffy.
But nowhere is buttermilk better used than in a pie. Mixed with traditional baking ingredients -- eggs, melted butter, sugar, flour and a good splash of vanilla -- the buttermilk gives the pie a unique flavor. You just have to try it.
It's easy to make. Using my mother's recipe, I nailed the sugary taste on the first try. It did take a bit of practice to learn not to remove the pie from the oven too soon. The pie should be firm with a top boldly golden, the crust a little brown. If the pie is removed from the oven prematurely, the dessert looks like pudding spilling from a crust.
As it bakes, a warm and buttery aroma wafts from the oven, an even more wonderful scent on cold winter days.
My close friends have recently christened the dessert "Li'l Mama's Pie," a reference to my small frame. That name may sound more inviting, but for me, the buttermilk label isn't just a description: It's a proud nod to my roots.
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