We are one, I repeat, one day away from summer! We had a positively searing weekend, and I was all about it. Do you have any habits, patterns, or routines that change with the seasons? For me, summer means that, in the mornings, I have no interest in hot coffee, but instead I want iced tea or a matcha latte. I love those little changes my body insists on, without much thought, because it gets me really excited for the upcoming season.
And, speaking of iced tea, June is National Iced Tea Month. (Side note: I think people wouldn’t be so eye-rolly with national food days/months if we just knew where the hell they came from. For example, I just recently found out that National Rhubarb Day is in January. January?! But why?!)
Anyway, at least iced tea month in June makes sense. It’s a great porch-sitting drink for a great porch-sitting month.
So here’s my question: Are you a plain tea, or a sweet tea person? Have you ever even had sweet tea? I used to hear that sweet tea was especially a southern favorite, but I dismissed that as just a stereotype. But it turns out many of my friends who grew up in the south really do love sweet tea!
In Indiana, when you went to restaurants, usually the only option was sweetened tea. (When I got to Chicago and was asked if I wanted sweetened or unsweetened, I thought it was a trick.) But sweetened tea and sweet tea are two different beasts. The main difference between sweetened iced tea and sweet tea is when the sugar is added. Traditional sweet tea is sweetened while still warm or hot, while it’s brewing. In fact, in the early 2000’s, a politician in Georgia, partially as a joke, drafted a bill requiring that “sweet tea must be sweetened when brewed,” and that any restaurant serving iced tea must also serve sweet tea. The bill never went to vote, but it does give you an idea of how serious southerners are about their sweet tea.
So how did sweet tea become part of southern identity?
The very British practice of drinking hot tea first came to the colonies with the British. (Tea drinking became more commonplace in England when Catherine de Braganza, a Portuguese princess, arrived in England to marry King Charles II in 1662. The first gift of two pounds of tea were presented to Charles II by the British East India Company two years earlier–and they have never looked back.) Before the American colonies fought for their independence, disputes over the taxation of British tea lead to the Boston Tea Party, a protest by colonists against British taxation without representation, which would become one of the first steps toward the American Revolutionary War. In the years that followed, Americans generally tended to favor coffee, thought of as a more “patriotic” beverage.
By the early 1800’s, cold green tea was being served, often spiked with alcohol, as a punch. There are recipes for a cold tea punch dating back to 1839 in Kentucky. By the mid-to-late-1800’s, iced tea, sans alcohol, began making its appearance in the north. Before the days of ice production or refrigeration, iced tea was non-existent in the south. The first recipe for sweet tea came from Housekeeping in Old Virginia, a cookbook by Marion Cabell Tyree that was printed in 1879. This recipe called for the use of green tea and suggested the sugar be added after steeping. Green tea was the preferred choice for tea drinking, until lower-cost black tea from Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia was made accessible. And during the second War War, the US was almost completely cut off from its supply of green tea, which strengthened Americans’ black tea habit.
Sweet iced tea became a popular alternative to alcohol during Prohibition, and it was also during this time that it began appearing more often in Southern cookbooks, eventually turning it into a staple in the south.
To play with this ingredient–and to, you know, make a pie–I decided to make a sweet tea pie! Sweet tea pie appears not to be an old southern recipe. I can find references to sweet tea pie dating back to only the early 2000s in newspapers and, in 2010, Martha Hall Foose included a recipe for a sweet tea pie in her book Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook (which won a James Beard Award). I guess it’s not, as I hoped, very historical. Too bad, because it’s heavenly.
Sweet Tea Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie. Recipe from Taste of the South Magazine.
1-crust pie shell (I love this recipe from Epicurious, halved. You can also use store-bought, frozen.)
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp cornmeal
1/8 tsp salt
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup strongly-brewed unsweetened tea, cooled
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Whipped cream and lemon zest for serving
Roll out your pie crust to fit a 9-inch pie pan. Trim, fold, and crimp edges, then poke holes all over the bottom and sides of the crust with a fork. Trim a piece of parchment paper to fit the inside of the pie crust and fill with pie weights. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, while refrigerating your pie crust for 15 minutes.
Bake your chilled pie crust for 15 minutes, remove from oven and allow to cool at least 30 minutes as your prepare the pie filling.
In a bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cornmeal, and salt. Stir together, then add the eggs and the egg yolks. Beat together until everything is well combined.
Add the tea, melted butter, and lemon zest. Stir to combine. Pour into the pre-baked crust.
Bake for 35-45 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 35 minutes. The middle of the pie should not jiggle when done.
Allow to cool completely before serving, or refrigerate until ready to serve.
Whether you take your iced tea sweet or “unsweet,” I think you’ll love this creamy, tea-scented custard pie, reminiscent of my home state’s sugar cream pie. And, although you brew unsweetened tea for this recipe, you eventually mix it with butter and sugar–amen! It’s not a great beauty but, guys, it’s good. You will find yourself taking bites and asking, “What is that flavor?” It’s not exactly tea-flavored. For sure you will taste the lemon, while there is only a hint of tea.
Next time I really want to make it with green tea (the original tea of choice!) to see if I notice a difference. You guys will be the first to know!