Buttermilk pie is an old-fashioned standard of Southern baking whose history rivals that of the most put-upon heroines of any soap opera or romance novel. A humble, homespun pastry, it was as taken for granted as it was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It suffered gross neglect during the "gourmet" 1970s, and in the so-called "nouvelle southern" movement 1980s, survived a tarted-up comeback (with "reinvention" that sometimes bordered on abuse), then once again faded in the early part of this century. Happily, it's lately enjoyed yet another revival, this time appreciated for what it is: a delightfully simple and economical sweet that will fit in just about anywhere it's taken.
There are many variations of this pie, but our house favorite is this one. And late last week, when cold and post-holiday let-down called for homey comforts, I dug out my recipe to make it.
Lemon Buttermilk Chess Pie
If we pay attention, there's always something new to learn (or at least old to rediscover) in the kitchen. Making it for the first time in several years, I could look at it with a fresh eye and was struck a couple of things. For one, it was far too sweet, and the process had a couple of unnecessary complications that didn't really add a thing to the finished product.
Next time I'll most likely cut the sugar even more and will probably try melting the butter and adding it along with the liquids, eliminating the creaming of the butter and sugar, which I can't think is really adding enough to be worth the extra trouble.
The one thing that is important is to let all the ingredients come to room temperature before mixing them together.
Makes 1 9-inch pie, serving 6 to 8
½ Recipe Basic Pastry (see 20 November 2012: Mastering Thanksgiving VII—The Pastry Cook)
1 large lemon
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1¼ cups sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons fine white stone-ground cornmeal
Small pinch salt
¾ cup whole milk buttermilk
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375° F. Roll out the pastry about 1/8-inch thick (see the notes in the above-reference pastry recipe). Crimp the edges and prick the bottom with a fork. Put a sheet of parchment or generously buttered foil (buttered side down) over the pastry. Gently press until it's touching the pastry all over. Top it with pie weights or about 2 cups of dried beans or raw rice and gently level them. Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes or until the edges are barely beginning to color.
2. Have ready a second pie pan or heatproof bowl. Remove the pastry from the oven, carefully lift out the parchment or foil and weights and set them in the second pan or bowl to cool. Return the pastry to the oven and bake until it's beginning to color and the bottom looks dry, about 6-10 minutes longer. If it bubbles up, gently prick the bubbles with a fork. Transfer it to a wire cooling rack and allow it to cool before filling it. Adjust the oven to 350° F.
3. Grate the zest from the lemon into a small bowl, then halve and juice it into the bowl through a strainer. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until evenly mixed and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time and then the flour, meal, and salt. Stir in the buttermilk, lemon juice, and zest and pour it into the partially baked crust. Bake in the center of the oven until the pie is set and lightly colored on top. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.