Capturing the spirit of a Kansas pie queen

If Norma Grubb’s spirit could have been in my kitchen this past Thanksgiving morning (and if her spirit could be anywhere, likely last on her list would be my mad kitchen), she would have been laughing her you-know-what off. I began the day in serious distress, as it was raining, and the pie I intended to make for a holiday dessert – Norma’s famous Coconut Cream Pie – had a meringue on top. Never, EVER make meringue when it’s raining, the foodies warn. Apparently, the moisture will make the fluffy egg white concoction wilt and weep. Well, I was wilting and weeping before dawn as I consulted every possible Internet resource to find out how I could prevent a meringue mishap. I even called my mother to take advantage of her reassurance and wise advice.

“You know, I never had much luck with meringue,” she mused.

WHAT? She was supposed to be helping me out of a jam and it suddenly became all about her. How dare she…

I pondered and considered going another direction entirely, particularly after my first pie shell shrunk upon blind baking (note to self: the weight of lentils is just not weighty enough). I was going to make pumpkin ice cream (more on this in another entry), perhaps that would be enough for dessert. I’d save Norma’s pie for a sunny day. Then, an underlying thought became an overriding mission. What would Norma do? She’d bake her pie and to hell with the rain.

Let me tell you a little about Norma Grubb, as a little is all I know. She died this past year at the age of 90 and became nationally recognized three years ago by winning “Good Morning America’s Best Slice Challenge” with the aforementioned coconut cream pie. She hailed from Dover, Kansas, also the hometown of my best friend from college, Lori. I ate Norma’s pies before she became famous outside of Dover (I had her delightful apple; Lori loved the chocolate cream). She baked several kinds each morning (eight pies a day) and brought them to sell at the “Dover Store”(now called Sommerset Hall Café). The day I met Norma, I was at the café and she toddled in, a tiny white-haired woman balanced on either side by the handled Tupperware towers she carried like suitcases that were stacked with her pies. She was quiet and humble and people ate the hell out of her pies. Someone else, in fact, entered her pie recipe in the national contest and Norma did not even know about it until she learned she was a finalist. She had the typical Kansas attitude of being completely underwhelmed with anything showy or any fuss being made about her. She knew to follow her basic heart’s mission of raising eight children and turning out thousands of pies (she made 8,800 in a 10-year period, according to an article in Kansas Country Living).

I decided a long time ago that my Thanksgiving pie – truly the most significant of the year’s pies, as Thanksgiving is the true pie holiday – would be Norma’s, given her passing. It would be a way to honor a Kansas pie icon, a true standout among Kansas pie bakers (and if you need any convincing that Kansans take their pie seriously, know that a Geary County Lutheran church fundraising pie auction over the summer netted $3,000 with a mere SEVEN pies…the top selection — a strawberry-rhubarb — garnered $1,000 in bids alone!).

So here I was, on a rainy morning, with a shriveled pie crust and the threat of weeping meringue. I had 11 pies under my belt for the year and should know better! Norma died after a lifetime of making thousands of pies by hand. Norma would not let a little rain stop her. Norma was a Kansan…and so am I.

My second crust (thankfully, I had made enough pastry dough for two pie shells) turned out better (here’s a tip; try blind baking by filling your pie shell with ROCKS…between the stones and my anger, that crust wasn’t going anywhere). I turned to Norma’s recipe to make the filling. Some of her directions were rather cryptic (see recipe below with blogger’s notes to follow), but this was understandable. Norma was of my grandmother’s generation, and these ladies assumed they did not have to detail every explanation nor hold your hand while doing it. You better have some idea of what to do if your pie was going to turn out. They had their recipes memorized by heart. So, I used my semi-limited experience and tried to summon Norma a little. Would she do as I had been doing and keep running to my laptop like a ninny for advice, or would she get on with the business of baking the damn pie? What would Norma do? Be not afraid. Fear had been such a ruling factor in my life and in my pies. I let it go.

So Norma’s pie filling is a simple stovetop custard made with milk and sugar and egg yolks and cornstarch. I only made one change with ingredients and stirred in a pat of butter with the vanilla and coconut after I had taken it from the heat.

For the meringue, Norma’s recipe uses the three egg whites, saved after separating out the yolks, and a little sugar. My apprehension and Internet retreats yielded me two useful meringue tips that I followed – I whipped the egg whites in a metal bowl (plastic will impart oils, glass can work fine, but metal stabilizes better) and I added a few drops of lemon juice to balance the acidity. My meringue frothed up fine as the world outside dripped with drizzle. I heaped it atop the coconut cream, added a sprinkle of coconut and put it in the oven. It baked up to a golden lusciousness, resembling the rarity of a perfectly toasted marshmallow.

Upon tasting, it’s clear why the pie won honors. You don’t need a fancy pie with boatloads of ingredients to be a winner. The rich, creamy coconut filling is complemented in both flavor and texture by that fluff of a lightly sweet, airy topping with its own coconut touch (and no weeping to be found, folks!). People most associate meringue with lemon pies, but I have to say, it’s the perfect crown for coconut cream.

So there, Norma, my meringue and I made it through the rain, leaning in your direction for courage. Even after a year of trying out pie recipes to feel more sure-footed with this pastry, I will never be the master that you were. But that’s OK. It was your legacy, and I am thankful you shared your recipe. And I am thankful I once saw you — purposeful, humble and balanced by the weight of your creations.

Norma’s Coconut Cream Pie
From Kansas Country Living (January 2009)
3 cups milk
3 egg yolks (save whites for meringue)
Sprinkle of salt
¾ cup sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla
Approximately ¼ cup coconut flakes (I don’t measure the coconut, Norma says)
Prepared pie crust

Save out a little milk. Put the rest of the milk in a double boiler and heat. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks. Mix in the milk you saved and salt. Add sugar and stir. Add cornstarch and beat. Stir mixture into hot milk. Cook on stovetop. Add vanilla and coconut. Put coconut cream into baked and cooled pie shell. Make meringue: Beat egg whites until stiff. Add 2 tablespoons sugar. Put on top of pie and sprinkle coconut on top. Put pie in a 375-degree oven to brown meringue.

Blogger’s Note 1: For the milk, I saved out approximately 1/3 cup. I heated the rest of the milk just to the point of having a few bubbles around the edge of the pan. I whisked in a little of the heated milk with the egg yolks to temper them before adding them back into the pan of heated milk. I cooked the custard on top of the stove on low heat, whisking constantly to avoid scorching, until it reached the consistency of pudding (mine was bubbling a bit by the time I took it off the stove). As mentioned previously, I added a pat of butter with the vanilla and coconut stirred in.

Blogger’s Note 2: I know meringue is not for everyone. Once, after a night of carousing in my college town, a group of us went to The Village Inn (affectionately called “The Village Idiot” ) for a snack. I ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie. My friend Susan, ever apt at the proper description, took one look at my frothy meringue and pronounced, “It looks like calf slobbers!” I think of that every time I eat meringue, and yet I love it still. So if you’ve never tried it, I urge you to give it a go!

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