In the age of the Google search and Barnes and Nobles stocked with enough cookbooks to fill a small town’s library, it’s easy to take for granted the value of a beloved recipe. As much as I love reading about food, experimenting with ideas I find on blogs and paging through my favorite cookbooks, the best recipes — the ones that survive generations and withstand the test of time — are those that are scribbled in old notebooks or written on a napkin, then repeated again and again until they’re remembered by heart. Yes, the very best recipes are the remembered recipes, which in itself is becoming an increasingly lost art.
According to my grandma, all of her mother’s best recipes were tucked away in her mind, easy enough for her to pull out when the occasion called for it. Getting her to communicate them out loud, however, so my grandma could write them down was a monumental task. Over the years, Grandma eventually managed to record many of her favorites — pies, cakes, entrees and sides that she remembered enjoying as a child — and today, decades later, they safely reside in the original notebook, now yellowed and stained from time and use. While we were visiting her home in Wisconsin a few weeks ago, Grandma pulled out the old notebook so I could look at the coconut pie recipe my great-grandma used to make (though I never tasted her pies, I can guess by her progeny’s that they were the kind you write home about). Call me nostalgic, but I could cook from that tattered old notebook for days. They just don’t write them like that anymore.
I did get a kick out of the spelling of “cocoanut.” Maybe we spelled it differently back them, my grandma joked. Makes sense to me. All spelling aside, this recipe is written exactly how it’s meant to be — mainly because it’s exactly how it’s always been. Ingredients are simple, instructions are brief, and the results are where it counts.
• ½ cup white granulated sugar
• 2 tablespoons cornstarch
• ½ cup coconut (heaping!)
• 2 cups milk
• 2 eggs, separated
In a small bowl, mix together cornstarch and egg yolks until combined. Add water, a tablespoon at a time, and stir until mixture reaches a pouring consistency (like a thick syrup). Set aside.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, mix sugar a milk. Stir until sugar dissolves and milk is hot (but not scalded). Add the cornstarch mixture, and stir constantly over medium heat as the mixture starts to thicken. It’ll take a little while; you’re working toward a pudding-like consistency.
Once mixture reaches desired thickness, stir in coconut and remove from heat. Pour filling into cooled, baked pie crust.
For the meringue topping, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat egg whites until soft peaks begin to form, then sprinkle in a bit of sugar to sweeten (I added about 1/8 cup). Continue beating on high speed until stiff peaks form. Carefully spread meringue across top of coconut filling (take the meringue all the way to the edges of the pie — otherwise it will fall deflate while baking), and form into pretty peaks on top. Sprinkle a bit of coconut on top of the meringue, and bake just until meringue browns to your liking (keep an eye out; this happens quickly).
Makes 1 pie
Flaky Pie Crust
Adapted from Grandma’s pie book
• 1 cup sifted flour (pastry flour works really well)
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 2 to 2 ½ tablespoons water
Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut in the cold butter until a crumbly mixture starts to form. Add the water a tablespoon at a time, and combine just until dough reaches desired consistency (I went for a Pillsbury pre-made crust sort of feel). Remember that with pie crust, the less you handle it the better.
Once all ingredients are combined, shape the dough into a smooth ball. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to about 1/8-inch thickness (making a 10-inch to 11-inch circle). Ease the crust into a pie pan, and gently press out the air pockets with your fingers. Prick the bottoms and edges of the pie crust evenly with a fork.
Bake the crust in a 450-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until browned the way you like it. Cool before filling.
Makes 1 pie crust
Ironically, the only step I missed with my coconut pie was one of four actually listed in the recipe — sprinkling the meringue with coconut. Despite my pie’s near-naked top, however, it turned out quite picturesque. I’d say Grandma and Great-Grandma earn the praises for that one.
Have you cooked up any nostalgia lately? What are your favorite family recipes? Any stories to share about parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles who’ve shared their love of cooking with you? I’d love to hear it!