What's so fun about baking is that you can recreate a recipe from a century ago right in your modern kitchen.
Last year my son and I drove through Kentucky looking at colleges. One thing I've learned about taking kids to visit colleges is that they are always game for a detour if great local food is on the menu. Who could resist homegrown, Shaker-style cooking, since we were near Harrodsburg?
We stopped at The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, which locals call “Shakertown” and is filled with heritage, natural beauty and a kitchen that cranks out fried chicken, garden vegetables, and a dreamy buttermilk pie.
It is one of the most beautifully rustic places in the South. Old 19th century buildings are remodeled inside but look stark and original outside against the landscape. If you arrive as late in the day as we did, the deep, dusk light begs you to drop everything, pick up your paint brushes and capture this beauty on canvas. Or at least grab your walking shoes for a hike through the property.
Between 1805 and 1910, this was the home to the third largest Shaker community in America, and today this historic village is the largest restored Shaker village in the country. The Shakers were hard-working and religious people. They were also celibate, causing their numbers to dwindle, and today only a small community in Maine remains. But back when they flourished in the 1800s, they were excellent carpenters and craftsmen, self-sustaining, faithful and skilled in the kitchen.
And pies like buttermilk were baked when cooking thriftily was a way of life.
"Desperation Pie" Never Tasted So Good
Buttermilk pie was designed to be baked in the winter, when fruit was scarce, or on farms where fruit didn't grow. Thick from whole-fat buttermilk, rich from butter and egg, and flavored with sugar and vanilla, this pie is a Southern and Midwestern mainstay. And in our eyes, it was just as delicious as the more famous pie on the menu. That was the renowned Shaker lemon pie: a pie of intense lemon flavor baked with whole lemon slices inside.
You didn't order ingredients from Amazon or even drive to the supermarket; you made a pie from ingredients on-hand. And what was available on most farms? Buttermilk, cream, butter and eggs. Sugar, cane syrup or sorghum would have been the sweeteners.
The recipes weren't often printed in books. With so few ingredients you knew these recipes "in your head." But if they were printed, they might appear in farm journals like the American Agriculturalist, Farm & Home, or American Farmer.
In the late 1800s, before recipe measurements became standardized by Fannie Farmer, ingredients in these simple pies might look something like this: "2 eggs, minus 1 white, butter the size of a walnut ..." And depending on the type of pan used in baking this pie, it might be called a pie or a cake.
Buttermilk pie is a cousin to the chess pie, which has roots in England and is popular in Tennessee, where it is thickened with cornmeal and seasoned with a little vinegar to give it the acidic twang of lemon. Pies like these are often called vinegar pie, transparent pie, cream pie or just sugar pie. Served unadorned, they were the desperation pies that shaped America's heartland and fed hungry families. If company was coming, a quick meringue was piled on top. And the beauty of all these simple pies was that they needed no refrigeration, because often there wasn't any.
How to Make Buttermilk Pie Today
I was able to wrangle the buttermilk pie recipe from my server at the Shaker Village restaurant. She handed over a massive, food service-size recipe that would have fed the entire first Shaker community. But with the aid of my calculator, I took it down a bit. And with some tests in my kitchen through the recent holidays, I tried this pie in both a large 10-inch and more modest 9-inch pie pan.
It's a dead-simple recipe, but you do need to use whole fat buttermilk, if you can find it. Make your own pie crust, or use a prepared or frozen crust - your choice. I think it's best with lightly salted butter if you have it; if not, add a pinch of salt to the recipe. Start with your eggs at room temperature to make blending easier.
That's about it! I hope you can see how a slice of this pie sustained the Shakers through harsh Kentucky winters and how it pacified a teenage boy looking for colleges with his mom.
Anne Byrn's Shaker Buttermilk Pie
Hands On Time:
1 recipe for a single unbaked pie crust
1 3/4 cups sugar
2/3 cup full-fat buttermilk
4 large eggs
6 tablespoons lightly salted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Using a rolling pin, roll out the pie dough on a well-floured counter and transfer it into a 9-inch pie plate. Gently press the dough into the edges of the pan and trim off any excess. Crimp the edges as desired and prick the crust with a fork about a dozen times to vent it.
In a large bowl, combine the sugar, buttermilk, eggs, butter and vanilla. Beat with a wooden spoon until well-combined, 40 to 50 strokes total. Pour the batter into the pastry-lined pan.
Bake until the pie is well browned and mostly firm to the touch, but still a little jiggly, 40 to 45 minutes. Let rest at least 30 minutes before serving. For best results, let the pie rest for several hours.