Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Kirsten's Vinegar Pie

Don't be scared off by the name: this is a pretty cool pie!

Sometimes, I go into making historical recipes sort of the way you'd go into a science experiment. After all, that's what baking is at the end of the day, right? Chemistry!

This is definitely something I decided to make more out of curiosity than genuine enthusiasm for the finished product. I mean, the name certainly isn't very appealing, is it? When I mentioned what I'd be making to my mom, she looked at my like I was insane. But as it turns out, this is actually an old family favorite of one of the most beloved authors in American history, and it's certainly something I could see Kirsten and her family giving it a try when they heard how easy and inexpensive it is!

It's also super versatile. What other recipe can you flavor with just about anything to meet the needs of any function?

Also today happens to be Kirsten's birthday! Didn't even realize that when I originally scheduled this post. Talk about a fun coincidence!

I thought I'd never heard of vinegar pie before when I stumbled upon the recipe originally, but it turns out I have! It's just been a really long time since I've read the books it's mentioned in.

My mom wasn't much of a reader as a kid, but she did love Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, and she read most of them to me when I was a kid, probably around the time I got Kirsten. Our favorite book was probably Little House in the Big Woods, and we often kid around about how they were crazy to leave such a nice place with their friends and family all around them. As I said, it's been years since I read the books, but apparently, it's mentioned in Big Woods as a treat Laura's mom made for Christmas.

Of course, it's June, so I bet you're wondering how exactly this Christmas treat came to be on our table in what is almost summer. We'll get there, I promise.

Admittedly, Laura Ingalls grew up a bit further ahead in the timeline than Kirsten, even if Kirsten probably owes her existence to the popularity of the Little House on the Prairie television show, but certain parts of their lives would have been pretty similar, making this a totally legitimate recipe for a Kirsten themed party. Life on the frontier - whether that frontier was Minnesota in 1854 or Wisconsin or Kansas in the 1870's - often meant people needed to get creative with what ingredients they had access to, which usually meant making do without much to work with. But why did vinegar become an important substitute in these pies?

Because lemons were tricky to get your hands on when you lived in the middle of nowhere! Vinegar is an acid the same way lemon juice is, so it basically works the same way when you're trying to make a curd filling in a pie. Most recipes for vinegar pie tell you to use an extract to flavor your pie, which helps mask the vinegar flavor, even though I do think some of it just gets cooked out while you're making the curd on the stove. Using an extract for flavoring also means you can choose to flavor this pie however you want, which seems like a lot of fun!

The resulting pie was supposed to have a similar texture to a custard or cream pie, without making you spend money on expensive ingredients like lemons or cream. Apparently, it remained popular until around World War II, and has since been edited out of people's cookbooks. I understand why, considering we now have access to lemons and cream basically anywhere, at any time of year for a relatively reasonable price, but it's still a little strange to me that a simple, tasty pie would just vanish completely. I guess the name doesn't really help as a selling point!

The recipe I used came from Pretty Hungry, where the author mentions her recipe came from her grandma's personal recipe book. Apparently, said book contained "about 400 recipes for pie, and about 5 recipes for non-pie". Sounds like my kind of lady!

The recipe she provides on her blog is slightly adapted, in that her grandmother used a lot more water to make the curd, which just means it takes longer to cook on the stove. Since I'm impatient, I went with the author's suggestion to use less water, and hoped it would work out okay.

You whisk together two eggs, one cup of sugar, three heaping Tablespoons flour, a pinch of salt, and three tablespoons of cold white vinegar in a bowl while you bring three cups of water to a boil on the stove. The filling ingredients get dumped into the pan, and then you cook while whisking constantly for somewhere between six to twelve minutes. You can tell it's done when it starts to coat the back of a spoon or spatula thickly.

You do smell the vinegar while cooking, but I didn't find it overpowering or especially concerning. Part of that was probably from just not minding much either way if this dish worked out or not, but part of it was also just confidence that a dish that was so popular with people couldn't possibly be that disgusting.

Once you take it off the heat, you add a teaspoon of whatever extract or spices you want to use. Carissa suggests using maple extract and a little bit of cinnamon, but since I was looking for a more summery pie flavor, I picked lemon extract and didn't add any other spices or flavorings. This all got mixed together.

You're left with enough filling for two pies, and the recipe recommends pouring it through a sieve over the prebaked pie crust to strain out any curdled bits of custard. This was a really good idea and I think I'll be stealing it for all of my custard desserts. Can't believe I'd never heard of this before, or thought of it myself!

My one snag is that my home made pie crust completely fell apart on me in the oven. Not sure why, but it did, and when I went to the grocery store to get premade pie dishes, I remembered that my local store only sells deep dish pie crusts. Although the recipe definitely makes enough custard to fill both pans, as you'll see, I think the fact that these were deep dish eventually caused us some trouble.

The recipe says this will be firm after being left to chill for about four hours, but mine was still pretty wiggly when I went to bed, and when I took it out of the fridge the following morning.

Still, it looked more or less in good shape, and definitely resembled a lemon pie!

Cutting into it was tricky, the same way it always is with pies, and the piece I wound up with definitely didn't look set. Kind of floppy, honestly!

Still, it tasted okay. I can't say I noticed the vinegar even knowing it was in there, and it honestly just tasted like a standard lemon pie. The texture - the parts that were solid, anyway - had a nice, velvety feel to it, and the lemon extract didn't bother me at all. I can definitely see why this was a popular substitute if you couldn't get your hands on an actual lemon, and could see people making an orange flavored pie as well, along with maple, vanilla or rose, or whatever else their personal tastes may be.

All that being said, I'm not really a huge fan of custard pies. I like them okay, but I'll always go for a cookie, cake or fruit cake before I pick this off a dessert menu. Because of that, I don't consider myself the pie expert, so what might taste good to me might get an upturned nose by a more experienced pie fanboy like my grandfather. Even though it didn't set up entirely, I was interested to see if he and my other pie loving taste testers liked my little experiment.

It turned out that the second pie, with less filling in it, set up better than the more appealing looking, fully filled pie. I think that might have been the issue with the deep dish pie shells. If I'd been able to get my hands on shallower ones, all my pieces might have turned out with crisp edges and no leaking like this:

So keep that in mind if you decide to give this a try yourself!

When I cut slices for my pie experts and asked them what they thought, they all thought the pie tasted like a nice, simple lemon pie. None of them said ew, this tastes like vinegar or too much lemon extract, and were surprised when I told them there wasn't any lemon juice or zest in the curd. I think that's a pretty encouraging sign, and proof that this was a tastier recipe than the name leads you to believe! The whole thing also only took about fifteen minutes to make, so while it does have to chill for a while to set up, it wasn't a huge time commitment and required minimal clean up, unlike other custard desserts I've made in the past. I can totally see why this easy, cheap, and tasty pie would have been a family favorite for pioneers and families struggling during the Depression, even if I still understand why it's fallen out of fashion with modern cooks.

Overall, even if we hit a bit of a snag with the deep dish pie dishes, I think this was a pretty successful experiment! While I'm not sure I'll be making this again any time soon - too many other things to make first! - it was a lot of fun to find out that this historic recipe was easy to make with ingredients you probably have in your pantry and fridge already, and tasted pretty good, too. Just goes to show that you can't judge a book by its cover, I guess.

Or a pie by its not very appealing name...


  1. How nice! I was actually re-reading the Little House series this week and have been making notes for the recipes. I have had plain vinegar pie (a friend of mine misunderstood the recipe) and it basically tastes like nothing, not even that tart. It was much better when flavored with wintergreen (which is a flavoring that Almanzo's mother uses in Farmer Boy, kind of a neat connection!)

    1. Ooh, a wintergreen one sounds interesting! Let me know if you find any other cool sounding recipes, I'm always on the hunt for new ideas for posts. :D

  2. The name sounds disgusting, but I am going to have to try it anyway, ha ha. My Laura Ingalls obsessions knows no limits.

    1. It's really pretty good! I think it just needs a serious rebranding, ahaha.

    2. Haha, let's get some media consultants ASAP!

  3. The name reminds me of "The Ballad of Lucy Whipple." Lucy mentions that her pie is made with cider vinegar, and supposed to be a stand in for apple pie. Maybe she used a different recipe?

    1. Ooh, that would be an interesting twist! I'll keep an eye out for any recipes like that. :D

  4. I made this yesterday! I had been wanting to ever since you posted it and finally got around to it. I figured I would like it because I am a fan of lemon-y, custard-y things, and I wasn't disappointed. It was delicious! My husband liked it too and even patiently listened to the history lesson that accompanied it. My only strange thing that happened was that I did not have enough for two pie crusts, or at least that is how it appeared, so I just dumped it all in one. It was pretty full, but it worked and it set really nicely after about 5-6 hours. My biggest curiosity would be how would this pie have firmed up without refrigeration on the frontier in the 1800s? Maybe that's why it was traditionally made in the winter? Anyway, thanks for the recipe, this is something I would definitely make again!

    1. Oh awesome, I'm so glad it worked out for you! Maybe I just didn't cook my filling long enough and that's why it didn't set up. That might be why you had less filling than I did at the end. I think you're probably right about this being a winter time treat because of the need for refrigeration/chilling. Thanks for letting me know how it went, so pleased you guys enjoyed it. :D