I spent this weekend at my grandparents’ house. It’s a three hour drive away from home, and I make the trip with my mom about once a month. We never went last month, so this visit we finally celebrated Father’s Day and Grandpa’s birthday (87!).
His request for his birthday dinner was salmon cakes, creamed peas, and butterscotch pie for dessert. Upon hearing this, Grandma said we might as well not bother making butterscotch pie because it will never be as good as his mother made.
I, however, have been experimenting with butterscotch pudding from scratch (because butterscotch is the new chocolate) and have been achieving increasing pudding success. I really like butterscotch, but the first time I made the pudding from scratch it did not go well.
This has just fueled my pudding ambition. Excellent homemade butterscotch pudding is my Everest right now. I’ve been talking about butterscotch pudding the way turkey farmers talk about…turkey things. You know what I mean.
Flush with the paltry pudding success I have managed to achieve, I volunteered to make the dessert. After all, butterscotch pudding and butterscotch pie should be very closely related, right? What could go wrong?
The first mistake was not making the pie when I first arrived on Friday afternoon. Butterscotch pie is a type of custard, and every schoolchild knows that custards need to set overnight to get maximum custard satisfaction. Alas, upon first arrival to my grandparents’ house I got horribly distracted.
The birthday dinner wasn’t until Saturday night, and the pie would’ve been better if it had had more time to set. I didn’t start making the pie until early Saturday afternoon.
The second mistake was the recipe I used. Grandma had found three different recipes for butterscotch pie in one of the cookbooks she owns.
It's an antique!
Let me just say that I have nothing against club cookbooks, or church cookbooks, or anything like that. I have found, however, that these cookbooks tend to be somewhat imprecise in measurements and instructions:
Rolled pecan meats? What is this, I don't even...
"Butter, size of walnut?" Was there seriously a time when "walnut" was a measurement of butter?
I picked the recipe that was closest to my favorite recipe for butterscotch pudding. The recipe for pie I used only called for one egg yolk instead of the two whole eggs that the pudding recipe I had used had called for. That’s fine, whatever. The problem was that the recipe didn’t specify when exactly the egg yolk should be added. I used my best judgement, and I know that that wasn’t solely responsible for the horror that followed but I know it didn’t help.
So I brown the butter and start adding the other ingredients. I put in the egg yolk with the brown sugar, but I think I was supposed to add it when I whisked in the bulk of the liquid (milk whisked with cornstarch). Of course the recipe didn’t specify.
It’s ok, at this point, though. Things are looking good and smelling amazing.
...if only my camera took pictures with smell....
It was at this point that things started going to hell.
After many, many minutes of careful watching, constant stirring, and fervent prayer, the butterscotch mixture would…not…thicken. I am dismayed by this, but I am lured away from the stove by Mom and Grandma, who tell me that I should just let it cool for a little while. “It’ll thicken as it cools.” they tell me.
I return after an hour or so to pour the mixture (which HAS NOT THICKENED) into the prepared pie shell. I put the whole thing in the fridge while crossing my fingers for thickening.
Spoiler alert: this did not happen.
One thing that Grandpa wanted was a layer of meringue on top of the pie. The recipe even called for it, even though it didn’t specify how to go about it. I guess a normal housewife from 1955 knows very well exactly how to make meringue.
I have never even tried to make meringue before (my friend J makes great meringues, but that’s neither here nor there). Mom said she’d make the meringue part of the pie, and I gladly let her.
Shortly before dinner was served, she was furiously applying a hand mixer to a bowl full of egg whites. They refused to peak. She kept calling for more cream of tartar like a twisted dessert surgeon. She manages to get some peaks and pours the egg whites on top of the butterscotch mixture.
Now, this is the exact point where the pie goes from bad to worse. The recipe, of course, did not specify how you were supposed to brown the meringue on top of the pie, just that you were supposed to do it. Grandma turns on the broiler and puts the pie in.
The table is set and we are all ready to eat, when we notice a burning smell. Mom runs out to the kitchen to save the pie (which we have all forgotten about) from the broiler. The picture I’m about to show you is graphic, and may be disturbing to pie-loving readers:
We, of course, being a rough-and-tumble gang of eaters peeled the burnt layer off the top and ate it anyways.
Fail pie. You will notice that the filling never properly set.
The butterscotch part tasted good, despite the fact that it was soup and not pie. Even the white part of the meringues tasted burnt. It’s been a long, long time since I failed so hard at a dessert. At least Grandpa appreciated the effort:
Grandpa holding the pie. Bless his heart.
At least it wasn’t fatal and I live to try another day. Someday I’ll get it right…