Posted on February 28th, 2011
Pies that are named for people run the unfortunate risk of sounding as though that person has been tucked tidily away behind the crust itself—a posterity turducken of sorts, a homemade mausoleum that shows up, calling card at the ready, on your sideboard.
The Barbara Fritchie pie that we pulled from the oven didn’t fare better than this, really, on any aesthetic richter scale. Unless, of course, the goal had been to make a dessert that was a sugar embodiment of the 1862 portrait of its namesake—deep pucker and groove around a mouth built for sucking lemons.
The greatest gift of the Lost Pie experiment has been, however, the element of surprise. The foray that I took into the past for the history of Barbara Fritchie, a woman whose pie has no picture on the internet, whose face could hardly be trusted to give you the straight dope on delicious, held true to form. No small part of the surprise was that the birthplace of this pie, and the home of its creator, was a town that, in my own history, is remembered as ‘The Only Place I Would Willingly Live In Maryland’.
It was one of those uniquely sweltering, armpit-heavy days inside the beltway when my then-boyfriend and I decided to take a drive out into the western hills of Maryland, looking for something, anything, that approximated the green rises of Western Mass. I know that we took a drive on a forest service access road whose winding confines satisfied my itch to not see stripmalls around every vista, and that the air was sweetly verdant with heated summer. What I did not know, and couldn’t have known then, was that we were meandering through the town that was home to a woman who, at the age of 90, bravely stood in the way of Stonewall Jackson armed with nothing but her country’s flag. All this, AND a pie?
Legend has it that Barbara, a staunch Unionist and friend of Francis Scott Key, took to the streets with the red, white, and blue, in an effort to halt, or at least harangue, General Jackson and his troops as they came through Frederick, Maryland, during the Civil War. Her moment, and her mien, were immortalized by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, whose verses claim that Jackson blushed in the face of the woman’s bravery, and ordered his troops not to harm a hair on her head, lest they “Die(s) like a dog!”
Her house, now a museum, is joined in Frederick by a restaurant that also bears her name, and her pies. (and a sign supported by a whopper of a candy cane. The original sign, in a postcard, advertises ‘Barbara Fritchie. Pie food. Candy.’) The reviews of the items for sale are mixed (the food is hot, which is good, but, the food is mostly things like chipped beef, which is not), but, all seem to agree: don’t skip dessert, no matter how slow the service, or you’ll be sorry. If Babs was woman enough to have Churchill recite, from memory, her poem, when he was last in Frederick, you can be man or woman enough to brave the appearance of her pie in the service of sweetness
And about that pie.
Here was another cooked filling, consisting of no more than white sugar, brown sugar, two egg yolks, and a half-cup of heavy cream, whisked together to spoon-coating consistency over a double boiler. As this is going on, hopefully you, like I, will have a friend who is an egg-white whipping pro, willing to sacrifice an elbow to many minutes of bringing two whites to a firm peak. These get folded into the hot sugar mixture, poured into a prepared nine inch crust (Barbara, look away, we went with frozen this time, and now, knowing your history, I am ashamed). There’s an initial burst of heat in a 400 degree or so oven, that gets turned down to 300 after ten minutes. All was well. Smells of sugar and butter wafted into the afternoon air. Then I checked on the pie.
‘What is it?’
‘Pie-nobyl. There’s a mushroom cloud in the oven. Nuclear holopie.’
The pie, cracked with deep fissures across its tawny surface, looked like a relief map of the Grand Canyon as rendered in meringue. The dome of it had reached an impressive height, and quivered there in the heat, a mushroom of a thing, strange and….unappealing. If Ms. Fritchie had had this pie on hand, she might not’ve needed the grand sweep of our nation’s colors to stop an army with. The would’ve run in fear from this weird fungus of a confection.
But, for science, this article, and posterity, we perservered. The heat was turned down to 275, 45 minutes were added to the timer, and we waited, hoping that some Maillard miracle was going to rescue that little pile in the oven.
When the pie emerged, we gave it a minute on the stove, watching its craggy heights slowly exhale and sink down upon themselves, puckering as they went. The browned surface of the pie had a marshmallow quality—if the marshmallow were maybe bruleed while on the surface of an elephant’s skin. Our pie, with its air rapidly escaping, called to mind….medical equipment. That might be called in to serve the rear guard. The instructions we’d been following informed us that the pie should be served chilled, so, figuring we couldn’t make it look any worse at this point, we shoved it headlong into the icebox where it sat in the darkness, brooding about the current state of the Union. In an hour, it re-emerged, even more wrinkled, if that’s possible, than before, saying something about flag starch and being late for betting on the ponies. (The Barbara Fritchie Handicap is a race for thoroughbred horses, held annually in Maryland at the Laurel Park Racecourse.) In short order, it was hushed, portioned, and…lauded, for being one of the best damn things I’ve eaten recently. Those wrinkles! They weren’t hideous, they were FLAVOR. Glorious brown sugar butter airy flavor, that dissolved across your tongue, lightly, lingeringly, magically. Nothing that looks this bad has a right tasting this good, but, there you have it: Barbara Fritchie pie tastes like a heavenly marriage between a classic souffle and a brown sugar mousse. That cracked top layer, where it had melted onto the crust of the pie itself, had taken on the chewy toasted sugar taste of a marshmallow licked by gentle flame. The interior had separated itself into two layers as it had baked—the top was as light as any souffle I had conjured in pastry school, as ethereal as spun sugar. The bottom took on a slightly denser, mousse-like texture, and was all smooth butter and brown molasses flavor. I wanted to scoop it out and present it in a ramekin, accompanied by sables, to Jeffrey Steingarten, and dare him to find it lacking.
Now, there’s some debate as to the authenticity of Barbara’s flag escapade, and it’s been claimed that she was actually sick in bed at the time, hoping that nothing was looted from her house. Her face, in portrait, holds anything but Unionist zeal, to the casual gaze. But her pie, I would argue, leaves me in no doubt that its creator was capable of the sort of deception that would hide a patriotic firebrand behind a white cap and grey hair—or hide a cease-fire-worthy dessert in the puckered skin of a pastry.
Barbara Fritchie Pie (a good old “chess” pie)
1 crust for a 9″ pie
3/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. heavy cream or evaporated milk
2 egg yolks, beaten
2 TB butter
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. vanilla extract
2 egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks
nutmeg, to taste
Line pie pan with crust. Cook sugars, cream, yolks and butter in the top of a double boiler until thickened, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add vanilla & salt. Fold in egg whites. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 425 F for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 300 F and bake for 45 mintues more, or unitl a knife inserted in center comes out clean. serve chilled.