Ladies’ Night

On Friday, I was invited to a friend’s house for Ladies’ Night.  Every now and again, she graciously opens her lovely home to a great group of creative and interesting Omaha women.  Scott and I had just returned from San Francisco late Thursday night, but I knew I didn’t want to miss out on the gathering the next day.  And, as you might guess, I didn’t want to arrive empty-handed.  Yes, I could have just shown up with a bottle of wine, but I wanted to do a little something extra.

Room temperature egg whites are needed for a soft meringue. 

Ice cold butter, ice cold vodka (or water) is essential to a flaky pie dough.

Clearly, my instinct was to make a dessert, so I set out to recreate a family recipe: Vanilla Cream Pie.  Who doesn’t love a cream pie, really?  What I love so much about this particular recipe is that it isn’t overly sweet.  The entire pie, from dough to meringue, adds up to only a little over one cup of sugar.  To me, that’s perfection.

I chose to go with vanilla, rather than chocolate or buttterscotch, because I figured vanilla was a flavor met with little resistance.  I was right.  The ladies seemed to really enjoy it.  Even the small dog in attendance, Odin, appeared to enjoy his lick or two from the spatula!

The secret to this pie is timing.  It’s important to have your crust baked, cooled, and waiting when your filing is ready.  Also, the filling still needs to be hot when the meringue is finished.  It might sound complicated, but it’s really not if you have all of your components at the ready.

The flecks of butter are visible throughout the dough.  That’s what you want to see.

Back to Ladies’ Night…I feel lucky to live in a city big enough that there is always something to do, yet small enough that there is a strong sense of community present.  I feel that the people in Omaha really support each others’ endeavors, whether that means opening a new small business, showing their work at a gallery, or raising money for an important cause.  Ladies’ Night is a way for a wide variety of Omaha women (some meeting for the first time) to get together and talk about what’s happening in their lives and their city.  And I feel grateful to be a part of that.

Gently tempering the eggs is a must in order to avoid scrambling them.

Egg whites, cream of tartar, vanilla, and sugar – four ingredients for meringue!

I feel that any excuse is a good excuse to bring dessert, and Ladies’ Night was no exception.  I think every city and every community can benefit from a group of educated, hilarious, interesting, and motivated women ready to sit down and share stories.  And of course, have dessert.

Vanilla Cream Pie

For crust:

*This recipe produces enough dough for two crusts.  You’ll only use one for this pie, but you can wrap the other in plastic wrap and keep in in the fridge for up to two days, or in the freezer for up to one month.  If frozen, thaw completely on counter before rolling it out. 

1/3 cup cold vodka (or ice water), plus a extra if needed
3 tablespoons crème fraîche (I prefer crème fraîche, but you can use sour cream)
2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached, all-purpose flour, additional for dusting work surface
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes and frozen for 10 to 15 minutes

Method:

Mix 1/3 cup vodka and crème fraîche in a small bowl until combined.  Set aside.  In a food processor, pulse flour, sugar, and salt together until combined.  Scatter the butter cubes around the flour and pulse the mixture until the butter is the size of large peas, about 10 pulses.

Pour half of the crème fraîche mixture over the flour mixture and pulse just until incorporated.  Repeat with remaining crème fraîche mixture.  Pinch a small amount of dough between your fingers; if the dough feels dry and doesn’t hold together, then sprinkle 1 to 2 tablespoons of vodka over the mixture and pulse again.  You want to see large clumps and no dry flour.

Divide the dough mixture evenly in two and flatten each into a 4-inch disk.  Individually wrap tightly in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for at least an hour.  Before rolling out, allow dough to sit on the counter for about 10 minutes to soften.

To blind bake the crust:

Pre-heat oven to 375ºF.  On lightly floured surface, roll out dough into approximately 9-inch round.  Place in pie plate and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes.  When chilled, place a layer of foil or parchment paper over the pie dough and fill with pie weights (or dry beans).  Bake until dough appears dry and is light in color, about 25-30 minutes.  Remove weights and foil (or parchment) and continue to bake until crust is deep golden brown, 10-12 minutes longer.  Cool the crust to room temperature.

For filling:

2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups half-and-half
3 egg yolks, slightly beaten (reserve whites)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

For meringue:

3 room temperature egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Method:

Pre-heat oven to 400ºF.  Place egg whites for meringue in grease-free bowl.  Measure out remaining ingredients; set aside until filling is done.

Place slightly beaten egg yolks in medium bowl.

Combine the granulated sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium saucepan.  Gradually whisk in the half-and-half. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil.  Be patient, as this may take 15 minutes or more.  Boil for one minute; remove from heat.  Gradually whisk half of the hot mixture into the slightly beaten egg yolks.  Blend this mixture back into the hot half-and-half mixture.  Return to heat.

Boil for one minute, whisking constantly, then remove from heat and blend in butter and vanilla extract.  Lay a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the mixture in the saucepan.  Set aside while you prepare the meringue.

Beat egg whites with clean and dry beaters on medium speed until frothy.  Add the cream of tartar.  Continue beating on medium speed until soft peaks form, then gradually beat in the sugar, one tablespoon at a time.  Switch mixer to high speed.

Continue beating until stiff and glossy peaks form, and the sugar is dissolved.  Take care not to over beat.  Add vanilla extract and beat just until incorporated.

Pour filling into pie shell and spread evenly.  Pile meringue in soft mounds onto hot mixture and gently spread over filling, sealing to the crust edge to prevent shrinkage.  Bake in center of oven for 8-10 minutes or until delicately browned.  Watch closely!  Cool gradually on a wire rack in a slightly warm spot away from any drafts.

To cut meringue neatly, dip a knife into warm water, shake to remove excess drops, and cut.  Repeat for each cut.


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