First pie I ever made, and it still delights me in every way. Scalding the milk is a technique seldom used in today’s recipe instructions; it’s gone the way of sifting flour and testing cake layers for doneness with a toothpick or a spear of broomstraw. It was part of basic cooking and baking when I took up the art and craft as a 10-year-old child, and I simply read what to do and did it. Years later, fresh out of an excellent food-writing course at UCLA’s extension division in the late 1980’s, I got to wondering about why recipes like egg custard pie traditionally called for scalding the milk before stirring it up with the eggs and sugar.
As a new member of IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals), I had access to a massive directory listing contact information for food writers, cooking teachers, and many others whose daily work centered around the kitchen and the table, and I spent at least a day wondering and fretting about whether I really could do what the organization said we could do — call up a fellow member, even a well-known highly accomplished one, and ask a question out of the blue.
A longtime fan of Marion Cunningham’s writing, both in the San Francisco Chronicle and in her books, including the Fannie Farmer Cookbooks and the recently published “The Breakfast Book”, I decided that she was person who could best address my question. To my astonishment, delight, and shock, she picked up the phone and took my call with graciousness and warmth. To my further astonishment, she entertained my question with respect and honesty, sharing my interest and then conveying the amazing fact that she didn’t know the answer either.
That’s all I remember from the conversation, and to this day, I still don’t know the answer. What I learned from her was something much more important to me as a writer, cook, and teacher than the why and wherefores of scalding milk: I learned that she was who she was and where she was, not because she knew everything there was to know about food, but because she knew a lot, and was deeply curious and forever on the road to learning more and sharing the explorations and discoveries she made with students and colleagues all along the way.
From Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, October 2010)
- 1 nine-inch unbaked piecrust
- 1¼ cups milk
- 4 eggs
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Heat the milk in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until it steams. (Look for tiny bubbles forming on the edge of the pan, and steam rising from the ceter.) Remove from heat before it comes to a boil. Set aside. In a mediium bowl, beat the eggs well Stir in the sugar, vanilla, and salt, and stir well to dissolve the sugar and combine everything well.
- Slowly pour in the milk, stirring with a whisk or a big wooden spoon. Pour the custard filling into the piecrust and sprinkle the nutmeg over the surface of the pie.
- Place on the bottom rack of the degree oven and bake at 425 degrees F for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F, and continue baking until the custard filling is puffed up a bit and mostly firm, but still wiggly in the center, 20 to 30 minutes. Place pie on a cooling rack or on a folded kitchen towel, and let cool to room temperature.