It’s been a long time, mis amores perdidos, so long that I didn’t want to show up empty-handed—I wanted to bring you a gift.
So I made a pie. I made up a pie. The current draft, several revisions in, might not be the pie I imagined in my mind before I started baking. But then no novel ever is, either. The moment you put one word on the page, and then the next, limitations set in and you will now never create the soaring masterpiece of your imagination. But that doesn’t mean you won’t create something good, in time. Just like life—every choice we make precluding other choices, fixing our path in one direction or another. I’m a big believer in the power of boundaries and limitations, real or artificially created, to stimulate creativity.
Therefore, not the pie I imagined, an elusive creature that may or may not be possible to create within the laws of physics, but a good pie, a pie I can hardly keep my nose out of when it’s warm. I just want to smell and smell and smell its faintly coffee-tinged toffee-like scent.
It needs a name, but it turns out naming a pie is as hard as naming a novel. Will the similarities between writing and baking never cease! I want to name it desert candy pie, in a nod to the blog of the same name—desert candy is the Arab name/nickname for dates. Mercedes’ recipe for coffee-simmered dates is what first got me imagining this pie. But maybe the word “candy” is misleading. This pie is sweet, but nowhere near as tooth-achingly sweet as its cousin the pecan pie. What do you think?
Of course you will never be able to recreate this pie exactly, even if unlike me you follow recipes to a T. This is another similarity between baking and novels. I might write a novel that means x, y and z to me, but when you read it, with your different sensibility, your different life history, your different loves, it will mean a, b, c, or nothing, or something in between. And your friend down the street—another story altogether. As with the pie. Your eggs will be a smaller or larger, your brown sugar won’t taste quite the same, you’ll use a different roast of coffee, your oven will burn hotter or cooler. Go in with eyes open and hope for the best.
I suppose I’m supposed to tell you something about the pie. In this draft the filling is dense and creamy, studded with pecans. Notes of coffee and orange come through, and the dates as well. Some people think it has chocolate in it, but it doesn’t.
The crust is gluten-free, tender and flavorful, mostly whole grain. If you have a crust you love, you could substitute it; I recommend adding the orange zest in any case. Even if you make the gluten-free crust, many substitutions are possible. Use flours you know and love, and as long as you keep the weight ratios the same (8 oz. flour to 4 oz. butter, etc.), you will get different results, but probably good ones. I like no more than 25-30 percent starch (potato starch, tapioca flour, arrowroot) to 70+ percent whole grains. Recipes with too much rice flour can turn out gritty or sandy in texture. In one batch I replaced the rice flour entirely with millet, but the crust came out a little on the dry side. The first batch I made was a little too crumbly. In the next batch I added one teaspoon of ground chia seed, which provided just the extra stability the crust needed. If you don’t have chia, you could probably use a teaspoon of ground flax seed (I don’t like the flavor), and maybe a teaspoon of that dried egg replacer powder (mmm-mm), or a teaspoon of xanthan gum, or another half an egg (a bantam egg)—but I haven’t tried those substitutions. What’s the worst thing that will happen? Your crust will still be crumbly but will taste good? Your crust will be a little tough, but will taste good? Your crust will be perfect but will taste like flax? First-world problems.
How this works: First you prepare the dates and preheat your oven to 350. While the simmered dates are cooling, make the crust. Toast your pecans (at 350, <10 minutes). Watch them, for heaven’s sake—they don’t take long, and I almost always overcook them, which adds bitterness to the pie. Too little is better. Now they will cool briefly while you make the pie filling. (If you really want to know, I have a toaster oven, so I toast the nuts in there and don’t turn on the main oven until the crust goes in the freezer.) Take the crust out of the freezer, scatter the pecans on the bottom, pour the filling over them, and place in preheated oven. Make sure your dish is Pyrex or something that can handle going very cold into a hot oven—that moment always scares me. I would cry if the pan cracked and my yummy filling dripped onto the bottom of the oven. Depending on your oven, the pie will probably take at least 45 minutes, maybe five or ten more, but take a look after 40. Gluten-free crusts brown more slowly than wheat crusts, so I haven’t had to cover the edges of mine with foil, but you might have to. The filling will puff up somewhat and will look dry and toffee-colored on top. Tap it or jiggle the pie—the filling should be fairly firm when you take it out. Let cool on a rack, etc. Whipped cream seems like overkill, but a tiny dollop of crème fraîche might be nice.Crust: 2 oz. each tapioca starch, brown rice flour, sorghum flour, light buckwheat flour (not the dark blue, which has a much stronger flavor, unless you want that flavor) 4 oz. butter (1 stick) 1 t. sugar ½ t. salt 1 t. ground chia seed zest of one orange 1 egg 1 T. cold water
Pulse dry ingredients in a food processor. Cut butter into chunks and pulse until butter is the size of petits pois—until the mixture is uniformly crumbly. This happens quickly. Add an egg and a tablespoon of water and pulse until mixture begins to clump together—ditto. You can test by pressing it together with your fingers to make sure it stays together. Turn the crumbly dough out onto a piece of parchment paper and form it into a disc with your hands. Cover with a second piece of parchment paper, roll out, place it in a 9” glass pie plate and do whatever you like to do with the edges. Then put it in the freezer for at least 15 minutes.Desert candy pie filling: 12 dates (Medjool, pitted) 1 c. dark roast coffee, brewed strong (we use a French press and grind the coffee more finely than they recommend) ¼ c. brown sugar 5 fat strips orange zest (I use a paring knife) 1 cinnamon stick, broken into several pieces 4 oz. butter ½ c. sugar 3 eggs 1 t. vanilla 1+ c. toasted pecans
Place dates, coffee, brown sugar, orange zest and cinnamon in small saucepan and simmer for 20 minutes. Add butter and turn heat off as soon as it’s nearly melted. Let sit for a few minutes, and then remove the pieces of cinnamon stick (suck the delicious syrup from the crevices before throwing away). Make the crust. Once the crust is in the freezer, put the dates and coffee syrup in the food processor (I don’t wash it in between, just make sure most of the flour is wiped out), puree, add sugar, vanilla and eggs, blend until smooth.
You know the rest.
While working on the orange-scented crust, I got the idea that pumpkin pie would sit well in that crust as well, so I made one of those just to see. If you don’t have a favorite pumpkin pie filling recipe, here’s one that is not too sweet, spicy, and dairy-free.Pumpkin pie filling: 1 can pumpkin or squash 1 can full-fat coconut milk 3 eggs 1/3 c. unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap, unless you want the very strong flavor) ¼ c. honey ¼ c. maple syrup 2 t. cinnamon 1 t. ground ginger ¾ t. nutmeg ¼ t. cloves ¼ t. allspice ½ t. salt
Blend all ingredients. Bake at 350 until firm enough not to jiggle in the center. Cool, etc.
Stay home. Eat pie. Preferably with a cup of hot black coffee. The line of a play I quote most often to myself, even more than Shakespeare, is from David Davalos’s brilliant and funny play Wittenberg. Faust is introducing Martin Luther to the new wonder drug he’s brought back from the east, coffee. Luther is suspicious, and then relents. “Does it go with eggs?” he asks. Faust, with glee in his voice, answers, “It goes with everything.”
Happy Thanksgiving, all y’all.