Buttermilk Pie: An Unexpectedly Sweet Treat

Buttermilk pie

hide captionButtermilk, eggs, melted butter, sugar, flour and a good splash of vanilla are all it takes to make this tasty Southern treat. Recipe below

Maureen Pao, NPR

Buttermilk pie is my signature dessert, and a running joke among my friends.

It's a custard pie that emerges from the oven with a golden brown, slightly caramelized top over a creamy center. With a tender consistency that almost melts on the palette, you might say it's creme brulee's culinary cousin.

About the Author

Natalie Y. Moore is a freelance journalist and adjunct instructor at Columbia College in Chicago. She is co-author of a book on black masculinity due out this fall from the Cleis Press. Her work has appeared in the Detroit News, the Pioneer (St. Paul) Press and the Chicago Tribune.

But when new folks are invited to my table and I offer this delicate pie, they generally (and often not-so-politely) decline. Their faces retreat upon hearing the word buttermilk. I can almost hear them thinking, "Who would make a pie out of bitter buttermilk?"

My close pals — who affectionately call my pies BMPs — chuckle and welcome the rebuffs. It means more for them.

What You Had to Say

This buttermilk pie looks amazingly similar to something they call Melktert in South Africa. It too is considered a delight. I lived in South Africa as an exchange student during my junior year in high school — yikes — nearly 27 years ago. That taste still holds many good memories. I haven't heard of buttermilk pie, even though I've spent a reasonable amount of time in the southern U.S. I will look for it next time I get there. Thanks for adding this to the broader world's list of tempting tastes! — Mark, who listens to KXPR in Sacramento, Calif.

Thanks for the buttermilk kudos. My mom and I also have a worn and tattered buttermilk pie recipe card. We always have a quart of buttermilk for cooking as well. And my mom loves drinking it straight up. Finally, I have fond memories of my grandma soaking cornbread in buttermilk for a late-night snack. — Leesa, from Roanoke, Va.

I grew up eating buttermilk pie, and baking it today is a celebration of food, family and my Southern roots. I'm from Chicago, but my grandparents hail from below the Mason-Dixon Line, second-wave black migrants who ventured up North. Growing up, my mother made the pie for our family from a recipe recorded on a well-worn index card.

Buttermilk pie is a traditional Southern delicacy. As two friends from Tennessee and South Carolina informed me, it's "nothin' but chess pie," a similar custard delight.

Buttermilk is thick, slightly paler than eggnog, and yes, it's tart. There is no butter in buttermilk: It's actually low-fat or non-fat milk that has been fermented by various bacterias, in a process similar to the way yogurt is made.

But it's good for so many things. It makes a fine batter for frying chicken and a tenderizing marinade for any chicken. Substituting buttermilk for milk will make homemade rolls and cornbread tender, mashed potatoes just faintly tangy, and of course, pancakes light and fluffy.

But nowhere is buttermilk better used than in a pie. Mixed with traditional baking ingredients — eggs, melted butter, sugar, flour and a good splash of vanilla — the buttermilk gives the pie a unique flavor. You just have to try it.

It's easy to make. Using my mother's recipe, I nailed the sugary taste on the first try. It did take a bit of practice to learn not to remove the pie from the oven too soon. The pie should be firm with a top boldly golden, the crust a little brown. If the pie is removed from the oven prematurely, the dessert looks like pudding spilling from a crust.

As it bakes, a warm and buttery aroma wafts from the oven, an even more wonderful scent on cold winter days.

My close friends have recently christened the dessert "Li'l Mama's Pie," a reference to my small frame. That name may sound more inviting, but for me, the buttermilk label isn't just a description: It's a proud nod to my roots.

Buttermilk Pie

This pie is a traditional Southern treat — and very sweet. The basic recipe below is from Country Cooking by the editors of Southern Living magazine (Galahad Books, 1974) and is what my mother refers to these days (the index card long gone). I've added alternate measurements for those of you who prefer a version that's not as sweet.

3 eggs (or 4 eggs for less sweet version)

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons flour, plus a little for dusting

1/2 cup melted butter

1 cup buttermilk (or 1 1/2 cups buttermilk for less sweet version)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Beat eggs slightly and add sugar and flour. Then add melted butter and mix well. Add buttermilk and vanilla and mix.

Dust the unbaked pie shell with a little bit of flour. Pour batter into shell, and then sprinkle a little more flour on top.

Bake at 325 degrees until the custard is set, approximately 1 hour.

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