The Quakers and the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie

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Happy, happy #piday, everyone!  For the first time since December, it’s snowing here in Chicago. Like, really snowing. In March. Less than a week before Spring. To remind us all where we live and that we didn’t beat the system this winter. It’s bogus. But, what an excellent day to make (and eat) pie! For this, the most special of days, I made the official pie of my home state, Indiana: The Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie.

I have mentioned that I’m from Indiana before. I haven’t lived there for over a decade now but it is, for all technical purposes, home. My family, both sides, have lived in Indiana for well over a century. My dad’s side, mostly Scottish and German, came from Pennsylvania, down through Ohio, finally settling in Indiana in the mid-1800’s. My mom’s parents were both originally from Central Indiana. My maternal grandfather’s family were Clevengers and were part of a very large group of Quakers in the area.

Originally hailing from Guilford and Randolph Counties in North Carolina, Quakers, also known as the Society of Friends, were fierce abolitionists in a southern state where slavery was a way of life for many landowners. Unable to change the laws in North Carolina, throngs of Quakers began migrating to the free states of Ohio and Indiana in the north. My particular family line settled in Randolph County, which was named after the county they left in North Carolina. And it is generally agreed that with them came a version of the sugar cream pie recipe.

The sugar cream pie falls into the category of “desperation pie.” Desperation pies could be made by cash-strapped families with low-cost ingredients that they often already had on hand. They could also be made during the winter months when fruits were less available. The sugar cream pie was traditionally favored for its simplicity (another hallmark of the Quakers), which allowed for farm wives to toss everything into the crust, stir it with a finger, and pop it into the oven to bake as they went back out to help with the farm chores. Several variations of this recipe exist, including those from the Amish and the Shakers communities. It’s likely that all three of these groups have some responsibility for the continued popularity of this old pie in Indiana. One of its more well-known purveyors, Wick’s Pies, in Randolph County, has been in business for over 60 years and makes their sugar cream pie with a recipe dating back to the 19th century. It’s not uncommon for families, especially those near Randolph County, Indiana, to have their own family version. And in 2009, the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie became the “official pie of Indiana.”

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Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie Recipe

Crust Ingredients:
For the crust, I halved this recipe from Epicurious.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp granulated sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1 stick of unsalted butter, plus 1 tbsp, chilled
1/4 cup (or more) ice water
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar

Cream Pie Filling Ingredients:
Slight variation of the Hoosier Mama Pie Company’s Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie recipe.

3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Ground nutmeg, for sprinkling
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie Instructions:

Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes and spread out on a plate. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to set in the freezer for about 10 minutes.

In the bowl of a food processor, add the flour, sugar, and salt. Set in the freezer as you get the remaining ingredients ready.

In a measuring cup, fill to just over a 1/4 cup, then add 3 ice cubes.

Remove the food processor bowl from the freezer and pulse a few times to combine the flour, sugar, and salt.

Add the butter all at once and quickly pulse until the mixture produces smaller than pea-sized pieces. Add the water and vinegar and pulse again about 5 times to combine. Grab a bit of the dough and squeeze together. If it holds its form, it’s done. If it is still dry, add 1 tbsp of ice water at a time, pulsing about 3 times in between, until the dough begins to form large clumps.

Pour the dough out onto a work surface, gathering into a ball any little pieces of dough that escape.

Form the dough into a ball and flatten into disk. Wrap the disk in plastic; refrigerate at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight. Before rolling out the dough for your pie, allow it to soften for about 5-10 minutes at room temperature.

Roll out the dough into a circle that’s large enough to allow the edges to fall over the edge of the pan. Crimp the edges of the dough, or decorate with a fork. Place the pie crust in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Blind bake your pie crust by first heating your oven to 400 degrees. Place the frozen shell on a baking sheet. Line the inside of the inside of the pie crust with parchment paper and fill to the top with uncooked beans or pie weights. Be sure they fill to the edges, to help the pie crust keep its shape. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate 180 degrees, and bake for 10 more minutes. Remove the pie shell from the oven, and remove the parchment paper and weights from the crust.

Prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork. Bake for 2-3 more minutes until the crust’s interior is golden. Allow to cool to room temperature before filling.

Combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl. Whisk to break up any clumps and to combine ingredients. Gently stir in the heavy cream and vanilla with a wooden spoon or spatula. Do not whip the cream or the pie will not set.

Pour the filling into the baked, cooled pie shell, sprinkle with nutmeg, and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pie 180° and bake for about 20 more minutes, or until the edges look as though they are beginning to set and large bubbles cover the surface. (The pie will still be jiggly in the center when you remove it from the oven.)

Allow the pie to cool to room temperature, then put it in the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours and up to overnight, before serving. When ready, dust with confectioners’ sugar before slicing and serving.

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And that’s it, you’ll have a rich pie to satisfy the masses. Traditionally, only white sugar would have been used, so if that is all you have, you can certainly use it in place of brown sugar. Your pie will be a bit sweeter than it would if you use a mix. Brown sugar adds caramel color and flavor to the custard filling, which is really nice. Cinnamon and vanilla may have also been a little over-budget for Indiana farm wives a century ago, but both add some nice depth. And I really think the sprinkle of nutmeg on top is important. To me, that’s what makes it a real Hoosier Cream Pie. The sweetness of this pie makes it a perfect pair to a strong cup of coffee. And if you can resist eating it all, do yourself a favor and freeze a piece to eat (while frozen) the next day. You’ll thank me for that later. Sweet eating!

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King Cake Paczki

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I have been lucky enough to live in two of America’s greatest cities: Chicago and New Orleans. When we lived in New Orleans, I was introduced to the holiday of Mardi Gras, the bacchic feast day before Ash Wednesday. Of course, New Orleans manages to stretch the holiday for about three weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday, which means work gets a little lighter for a month while traffic congestion gets a lot heavier (roads close, parades roll, etc.).

Well, tomorrow is Mardi Gras! Full disclosure: I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Mardi Gras. One of my first experiences was getting punched in the face when a fight broke out in a group as I passed, and then I got hit in the head by a bag of beads (why do they even throw those!), not to mention my interaction with everyone’s elbows. I’m kind of shocked that I even considered going back again. But I did, every single year. One year, we lived about two blocks away from the parade route and that was the best. When I got tired of being elbowed in the eye sockets, I just went home. Or bought a corndog. That would usually get me through the rest of the parade.

But now, being far, far from the action, seeing all of my friends posting about the 610 Stompers they saw and the floats they rode and the shoes they caught at Muses, I get nostalgic. Chicago doesn’t celebrate Mardi Gras the same way that New Orleans does (few cities do). But both have their own beloved, pre-Lenten treats: King Cake and Paczki.

Both of these desserts were born from the same necessity: to use up fats and sugars in the house before Lent begins. But they are very different.

Paczki, (pronounced punch-key, or some drawn-out-vowel variation of that if you include an authentic Chicago accent) were brought by Polish immigrants to Chicago and several other cities in the United States, and are similar to jelly-filled yeast doughnuts. Paczki traditionalists would probably punch me in the arm for reducing their beloved dessert to those terms, but it’s true. King Cake, at least the kind that is gobbled up by the millions in New Orleans around Mardi Gras, is essentially a large cinnamon roll that’s been braided into a ring, also optionally filled with cream cheese or fruit jam, and covered with icing and sprinkles.

To bring together my two favorite cities, in a way sure to blaspheme both of them (sorry, everybody!!), I made  King Cake Paczki just in time for the holiday. This paczki dough is flavored with cinnamon before it is fried, filled with sweetened cream cheese, then topped with icing and sprinkled with colored sugar in the traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras colors: purple, yellow and green, which denote, respectively, justice, power, and faith.

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King Cake Paczki
Makes approximately 1 dozen. Slightly revised version of this paczki recipe from The Spruce.

King Cake Ingredients:
3/4 cup milk
1 packet (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
3 tbsp granulated sugar
2-2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp rum or brandy
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp of salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
oil, or lard (traditionally used), for frying
Purple, yellow, and green sugar

Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients:
8 ounces of cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
3 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla

Icing Ingredients:
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cornstarch

King Cake Instructions:

In a measuring cup, mix the milk, dry yeast, and 1 tbsp of sugar. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, cinnamon, and the remaining 2 tbsp of sugar.

In a separate, larger bowl, use a hand-mixer to beat together the unsalted butter and sugar until it becomes white and fluffy.

Add in the whole egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Beat just until the egg is completely mixed in and the mixture appears consistent.

Add a little of the yeast mixture and then a bit of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir until you no longer see white streaks of flour. Continue alternately adding the yeast mixture and flour mixture to the wet ingredients, stirring until you no longer see streaks of white flour between each addition. Once you have added and stirred all ingredients, the dough should begin to form a very loose ball. If it is still quite loose and wet, add in 1 tbsp of flour at a time until it just begins to form, but no more than a 1/4 cup of flour should be added. The dough will still be quite sticky.

Grease a very large bowl, pour the dough into the greased bowl, spray the top of the dough with cooking spray, or lightly brush with vegetable oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set the bowl in a warm spot to rise for about 1 hour.

After about an hour, when the dough has doubled in size, punch down the dough, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise again for about 45 minutes.

On a lightly floured surface, pour the dough out and pat down until it’s consistently about 1/2-inch thick. Lightly flour the top of the dough and, using a 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut out rounds, placing them on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. You may need to re-roll the dough and pat down again to get 12 rounds.

Cover the baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel and allow to set in a warm spot for about 1/2 an hour.

While the rounds are rising again, add two inches of oil to a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Using a deep-fry thermometer, heat the oil to between 325 and 350 degrees.

Add two to three rounds to the hot oil at a time. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Flip the dough in the pan and allow to cook for another 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the finished paczki to a paper-towel-lined plate.

While the paczki are cooling, make your filling and icing. For the filling, use a hand beater to mix together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla. For the icing, whisk together the powdered sugar, milk, vanilla, salt, and cornstarch.

When the paczki have finished cooling, poke a hole into the side using a small, thin knife, without poking all the way through. Using a piping bag, fill each of the paczki with cream cheese. Drizzle the top with icing and sprinkle with colored sugars.

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Don’t be weirded out by these tiny plastic babies you see. Traditionally, plastic babies are baked into king cakes, and the person who gets the piece with the baby buys the next king cake.

The many breaks required in this recipe to let the dough rise are great for, say, drinking champagne, because you’ve got to make sure to get that out of your house along with all the fats and sugars. And because it’s Mardi Gras.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting

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Um, today is my birthday. My BIRTHDAY! From what I understand, there are people out there who hate celebrating their birthdays. I’m not one of those people. I can’t get enough birthdays. One a year just seems like… not enough. And, don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I like getting presents (which I actually hate), but because it’s positively the best excuse for a little self-indulgence. For example, I’m going out dancing with a group of friends tonight, if only to prove to myself that my hips still work in my 32nd year. AND, I made myself a cake. If you’ve read this blog at all, you know that my love of cake knows no bounds. I make myself a birthday cake every year. This year, it’s a Mexican hot chocolate cake with a cinnamon whipped cream frosting. I will go ahead and say that it’s now one of my favorite birthday cakes in the last 32 years. It’s not as good as when my mom made them for me. It’s not as good as the one I got when I was five that was shaped like Strawberry Shortcake. No one can top that cake for the rest of time. It’s pretty good, though.

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Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting
Makes 2 8-inch round cakes

Ingredients for Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake:
1 1/3 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp espresso powder
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup boiling water

Ingredients for Whipped Cinnamon Frosting:
Very slightly altered recipe from Food52
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cinnamon
2 1/2 tsp cornstarch
1/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp, powdered sugar

Instructions for Mexican Hot Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cinnamon Frosting:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease 2 8-inch by 2-inch round cake pans and cut out two parchment paper rounds to cover the bottom of the pans.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, brown sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cayenne, and cinnamon.

In a medium bowl, mix well the eggs and egg white, vanilla, buttermilk, vegetable oil. You want to mix until you see that the oil has been thoroughly mixed, but stop just after you no longer see droplets of oil and it is a uniform color of pale yellow.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix with a spatula until fully combined.

Quickly stir in the boiling water.

Fill each cake round slightly less than half full.

Bake for 22-25 minutes. Begin checking for doneness around 22 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake. When the toothpick comes out clean the cake is done.

Allow the cakes to cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then remove from pans, peel off the parchment paper, and allow to completely cool on a wire rack before frosting.

While the cakes are cooling, place a deep bowl and metal beaters into the freezer to chill.

In a saucepan, combine the cornstarch and powdered sugar. Fully mix both of these dry ingredients before mixing in 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Stirring constantly, place the saucepan over medium heat until the mixture begins to thicken, but not quite boil.

Remove the pan from heat and allow the mixture to cool in a separate bowl. It’s very important that the mixture is room temperature before you add to the other ingredients.

Remove the bowl and beaters from the freezer. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups of whipping cream, along with the vanilla, cinnamon, and remaining 1 tbsp of powdered sugar, to the chilled bowl. Beat until the liquid begins to come together, but stop before it’s stiff.

Add in the completely cooled cornstarch mixture a little bit at a time, mixing in as you go. Stop beating when it is just combined.

Frost your completely cooled cake, as desired, immediately.

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Oh, gosh, this cake is dynamite. Warning: it is spicy. If you like a little less spice, use less cayenne. You could also forgo the cayenne altogether, and only use cinnamon. You’ll still have a super moist and quite chocolatey cake. Also, this whipped cream frosting is so killer. I am a whipped cream frosting fanatic, but I hate how weepy it gets after only a short time. The recipe I used here stabilizes it a bit, which makes it not only last longer, but easier to use when frosting your cake.

Also, I want to give a very special shout-out to my friends Kristina and Conrad who gifted me with this bad ass wooden table for my photographs. Conrad made it with his hands from an old piling from the Chicago River. Very cool, right? I have very cool friends.