Pie to the Nth Degree
It didn't take long for the cream pie to become an American tradition. The uncomplicated dessert, consisting of a stove-top pudding poured into a prebaked crust and smothered with whipped cream or meringue, appeared in cookbooks in the late 19th century and attained star billing by the early 20th. Countless versions of the rich, velvety fillings and billowy toppings soon showed up in home kitchens as well as on menu boards at diners and drugstore counters.
By the 1950s, the most common varieties -- banana, butterscotch, chocolate, coconut, and lemon -- were served everywhere. They were made famous in part by New York City's Schrafft's and, to the north, Brigham's, throughout Massachusetts.
About the same time, Blum's, a chic California soda shop and ladies-who-lunch destination, had as its signature dessert a coffee-toffee pie with a nutty chocolate crust piled high with coffee-infused custard, whipped cream, and shaved chocolate. The Cape Cod Room, in Chicago's Drake Hotel, featured a dark and dense double-chocolate cream pie from the locally famous Lutz Cafe & Pastry Shop.
Not to be outdone, the South boasted the legendary black-bottom pie, a gingersnap-crumb crust lavishly layered with two types of cream filling -- chocolate and rum -- that were buried beneath a blanket of whipped cream.
Despite these embellishments, the simple appeal of cream pie wasn't lost on the home cook. After mastering scrambled eggs, roast chicken, and mashed potatoes, many a young homemaker set her sights on the dessert as an extraordinarily easy yet seemingly extravagant means to impress guests -- and a surefire way to a mans heart.
The cream pie is, happily, still very much with us, retaining all its comfort-food deliciousness despite being retrofitted for contemporary tastes, proving that with a little inspired thinking, even the familiar can seem new again.
Text by Gail Monaghan