How’s summer rolling along for you? It’s the middle of July, we’ve been able to get out and roam around the city, hitting up some of our old favorite spots and finding new favorites. On top of that, I’m looking forward to Alex’s birthday next week (even if he isn’t), and we may have some exciting travel plans coming up! Summer is just the best, isn’t it?
So, you’re going to need to stick with me on this post. It’s one of those cases where I just got excited about something that’s not as exciting as I think it is, and the next thing I knew I had written about 900 words and there was a whole pie in my fridge.
A while back, I was hunting around for vintage recipes and I came across an article in the L.A. Times from over twenty years ago about a man named Monroe Boston Strause, A.K.A. the Pie King. But it was a line in the second paragraph that caught my eye, that mentioned where Strause’s father was born: Garrett, Indiana. WHERE I GREW UP!
Garrett is small. It’s basically a blip on the map. We do have more than one stop light, but the population hovered just above 6,000 last time I checked. So you can understand my surprise when I learned that a man, who eventually became known as the “Pie King,” had a link to my hometown. It’s not a huge link, but when you’re from a town with nary a claim to fame (with the exception of one tragic silent film star and a MLB player from the early 1900s), even little connections are interesting.
I’m not here to talk about my hometown, though. I’m here to talk about the man known as the Pie King. Somewhat surprisingly, there isn’t a lot known about the personal life of Monroe Boston Strause. We do know that he was born in Los Angeles on July 17, 1901, 117 years ago today. He was born to Boston Monroe Strause and Emma Studer.
(Portrait of Monroe Boston Strause, taken from his book Pie Marches On.)
It’s said that when Strause was still quite young, he became the owner of a bakery when when a relative who owned the business left it to Monroe. As a way of drumming up interest in the bakery, he began perfecting pie recipes and touring the country teaching others to make pie. By the 1930’s, he was already being written about by reporters who called him a pie expert.
It was also in the 30’s that he wrote Pie Marches On, essentially a pie bible explaining how to make the best versions of pie. He has a chapter dedicated to pie crust (if you’ve ever had a pie featuring a graham cracker crust, you can thank Monroe Boston Strause for it), as well as several variations of fruit and cream pies, black bottom pie (that he is credited with creating), and the chiffon pie, which it is said he invented in 1926.
By the 1940s, his mentions in the newspapers seem mainly to be companies promoting that their baked goods were “baked under the authority” of Strause, who may by this time have been traveling around the country less. His family situation may account for this. In the 1940 Census, he appears with his wife, Violet, and a one-year-old daughter, Marilynn. After that, I couldn’t find much information on him. He and his wife both died in 1981, a few months apart, but were living in different parts of California at the time.
Although his is no longer a household name, you can find vintage pie tins that bear his name still being sold on Ebay. He reminds me of many of our modern-day celebrity cooks. He perfected his technique, made a name for himself, and was able to profit from his celebrity status by allowing his name to be stamped on others’ products.
My search for more information on the Pie King’s later years will continue, because I usually can’t let things like this go. In the meantime, though, I’ve made a slightly updated version of his strawberry chiffon pie, which is a perfect for the dog days of summer, when the idea of turning the oven on at all is not very inviting, let alone long enough to bake a pie. It’s the perfect cool and creamy dessert for a hot and steamy day.
Strause’s original recipe called for uncooked, beaten egg whites to be mixed with a mashed berry/cornstarch concoction. The pie has a graham cracker crust base which only bakes for a short time, before being piled high with a light and airy egg-white-based filling, which is cooked for a short time over a double boiler to make the eggs safe, before it is allowed to set in the fridge.
Strawberry Chiffon Pie
For my pie, I slightly altered this recipe. Makes one 9-inch pie.
Graham cracker crust:
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs (about 9-10 sheets of graham crackers)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup strawberry sauce (basically 16 oz of strawberries–see instructions)
2/3 cup sugar
.25 oz of unflavored gelatin
4 egg whites
1/4 cup of sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp vanilla
Graham cracker crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place sheets of graham crackers into a food processor. Process into fine crumbs, but stop before they are powder.
Stir in sugar and salt. Stir in melted butter until very well combined.
Pour into the bottom of a pie pan and use a measuring cup or your fingers to press into the shape of the pan.
Bake for about 9 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature while you prepare the pie filling.
Food process about 16 ounces of strawberries (for me it took the whole carton), until quite liquefied.
Pour into a measuring cup, straining out the larger strawberry pieces and seeds from the mixture, until you get 1 cup of sauce.
In a small heat-proof bowl, big enough to hold 1 1/2 cups of liquid, add 1/4 cup of water and sprinkle .25 oz of gelatin over the top to bloom.
Add the sauce to a small pan with the 2/3 cup sugar. Heat over medium-high heat until the mixture comes to a rolling boil, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Fill a larger bowl with a little water and several ice cubes. Set aside.
Pour the strawberry mixture into the bloomed gelatin, put the bowl into the ice bath, and continually stir the gelatin mixture until it thickens slightly, about five minutes. Set the bowl in the refrigerator as you prepare the egg whites.
Over a double boiler (a heat-proof bowl over a pan of boiling water, but not touching the water), add egg whites, 1/4 cup of sugar, and cream of tartar. Whisk to combine. Heat the mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the egg mixture has reached a temperature of 165 degrees.
Remove from the double boiler, add in the vanilla, and use a mixer to beat the eggs on high speed until they are glossy, light, and fluffy.
Immediately add the gelatin mixture to the egg whites, folding in gently but thoroughly.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell and put back in the refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight to set.
Top with whipped cream and/or sliced strawberries and serve cold.
Three really good things about this pie: 1) Intense strawberry flavor. There is little getting in the way of the flavor of whatever berry you use. 2) Almost no bake time. It’s too hot, it’s too hot, etc… 3) It really is as light as air. (That’s perhaps my only gripe with it. Alex liked this recipe better than I did. I like pie with a little bite to it.)
Thanks for indulging me in this walk down pie history lane. If you decide to give this recipe a try, please let me know what you think. I want to know what kind of pie people I’m dealing with here!