Last month, around my birthday, my sister Kim called from Seattle to let me know a package would be arriving. Kim is an amazing pastry chef, and said it was being overnighted, so I knew it was going to be something delicious. We had a bunch of friends in town for the Built to Spill show at the Wilma, and they were here when the box arrived.
"Ooooh looky here everybody!" I called. "My sister sent me a birthday package, and I bet it's something we can eat."
Everyone gathered around the big brown box while I slit the tape and opened it up. The air prickled with anticipation. I reached in between the layers of packing material, and pulled out a jar.
"Homemade cornichons!" I exclaimed.
Murmurs circulated around the room..."What the heck is a cornichon? I dunno? Me neither...Some kind of pickle I guess..."
I reached deeper into the box and found a frigid cold plastic bucket. I grasped the handle and hoisted it up, reading the label aloud for all.
"Rendered duck fat," I said. "It's an eight pound bucket of duck fat!"
Many pairs of eyes gazed at me in confusion. The room went silent.
"I get it!" I laughed, "You bring the duck fat, I'll bring the cornichons!"
More silence. More confused eyeballs.
See, Kim's girlfriend Angie and I had this inside joke going on Facebook. She's the chef at this super swanky hotel, and we're always talking shop. Angie and I had decided that she and Kim needed to come to Montana for a visit, so we could chef it up together. "I'll bring the duck fat!" she said, to which I replied, "I'll bring the cornichons." And then we both LOL'd.
I ROTFL'd, before stashing my bucket of white gold in the freezer. Nobody got it but me and Kim and Ang, but that's okay. I just explained to my pals that sometimes when you're a food person, you get birthday gifts like 8 lb. buckets of duck fat in the mail. Funny thing is, the next day I got a box of hand-crafted Michigan cheeses from my Mom, and a box of Montgomery Inn's pulled pork and baby back ribs, and Graeter's Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip ice cream from my bro. I made out like a bandit.
|Duck fat delights: Smashed potatoes with sea salt.|
I Facebooked Angie to let her know the fat had arrived and we exchanged ideas about all the things I could do with it. Duck Confit, Duck Rillettes, Duck Fat Smashed Potatoes, Duck Fat Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Duck Fat Fries, and ...Duck Fat pie crust?
Yes. Duck fat pie crust. Kim had judged some pie contests this past summer, and told me that hands down, the best crusts are made with a combo of butter and animal fat, like lard. So I thought, why not duck fat? A hasty search revealed that yes, people certainly do use duck fat for pie crusts, both sweet and savory. It has quite a bit of rich, animal flavor, so you want to use a low ratio of duck fat to butter, but apparently It makes a mean crust.
I also came across the idea of using vodka in the crust. What?!? Yes. Vodka in pie crust.
Replacing about half the water typically used in a pie crust, with vodka, apparently has two benefits. It adds enough moisture for the crumbly pie dough to stick together and roll out nicely. It also evaporates during baking, so the resulting crust is light and flaky, leaving almost no alcohol flavor. If you didn't tell anyone you used it, they'd never know it was in there. My curiosity was piqued.
It just so happened that it was Thanksgiving time and I wanted to bake a couple of pie's for the weekends festivities, one of which was this Southern Buttermilk Pie.
A college roommate had introduced me to Buttermilk Pie many years ago. I had never so much as heard of it, but one bite, and I never forgot.Think of it as a custard pie, somewhere between Creme Brulee and Flan. You can gussy it up with a fresh berry sauce, but it really doesn't need it.
Buttermilk Pie is a crowd pleaser, even among lukewarm pie eaters. If you haven't had it, you're missing out. I always wanted to make one, and was reminded of it when I heard Natalie Y. Moore talk about it on NPR's "Kitchen Window." I printed her recipe and it's been floating around in my stack of recipes to try for the last couple of years.
The recipe Moore used is identical to many of the classic Buttermilk Pie recipes available online. There are variations, but Southern reviewers almost unanimously claim that this is the one they remember from their childhoods.
I stuck to the recipe, pouring the custard into my duck fat and vodka pie crust. The consensus? Well, people pretty much freaked out. I'll admit here that I am a lukewarm pie eater myself, so the appeal of a bomber pie crust is somewhat lost on me, but all at the table, especially my friend Mona, a bona-fide pie crust queen, said it was the best she'd ever had. Noah agreed, and he doesn't make those claims lightly. As for the filling, everyone at the table loved it, and couldn't believe that Buttermilk Pie wasn't more well-known.
|Making a dent in the duck fat|
Classic Southern Buttermilk Pie
(from Natalie Y. Moore, for NPR's "Kitchen Window")
This recipe is easy as... well, you get it.
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell
Preheat oven to 325. In a medium mixing bowl combine eggs, sugar, and flour and stir to combine. Add melted butter and mix well. Add buttermilk and vanilla and stir to combine.
Dust the unbaked shell lightly with flour. Pour filling into shell, and use a fine wire mesh strainer to evenly dust top of filling with a bit more flour.
Place pie on middle-rack of preheated oven. Place a rimmed baking sheet on the rack just below the one the pie is on, to catch any drips. Bake until top is golden and custard is set, about 1 hour. Pie may be served warm, room temperature, or chilled. Store in refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Duck Fat and Vodka Pie Crust
(makes 2 single 9-inch pie crusts)
I'm going to buck pie-crust tradition here and tell you that I don't chill the butter. If that's how you make your crust, that's fine, but I'm a lazy baker, and I think it's much less cumbersome to cut the fat into the flour when it's a bit more pliable than the super cold butter most recipes prescribe. When it's a bit soft (but not mushy room temp), you can even use your finger tips to work it in. It still maintains the little bits of fat that make pie crust light, flaky, and tender, and after being chilled for an hour, it rolls out easily, especially when you use the plastic wrap method outlined below.
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cool but not chilled
1/4 cup rendered duck fat (you can substitute lard)
1/4 cup ice cold water
1/4 cup vodka
Combine flour salt and sugar in a mixing bowl and stir to combine. Slice butter into pats and add to flour along with duck fat. Cut the fat into the dry ingredients using a pastry blender, a food processor, or your finger tips. Continue working the fat in until the mixture resembles very coarse meal.
Add cold water and vodka and stir just until ingredients are moistened. Divide the dough into two balls. Place each ball on a large square of plastic wrap, and flatten into circular discs, about 1-inch thick. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour before rolling. If pressed for time, you can speed the chilling process by placing in the freezer.
When ready to roll, unwrap the plastic, and place the dough disk in the center of the sheet. Place another large sheet of plastic wrap atop the disk and use a rolling pin to roll out the crust to about 11 or 12 inches in diameter. The plastic omits the need to flour your work surface or rolling pin. Peel one sheet of plastic from the dough, and use the remaining sheet, sticking to the dough, to lay the shell into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim the edges and then crimp by pinching with your fingertips, or pressing lightly with the tines of a fork.