The Long Story
If your family is like mine, someone’s bringing food home at least once a fortnight from a church, family or other social function. Usually the food is great … okay, I lie. Most of the time the food is yuck, a consequence of either cheap catering for lots of people or all the good stuff got swiped before the take-a-plate-home-ers got to the table.
To me, it’s no coincidence then that pineapple custard pie is often amongst the dishes we still gratefully (as in, we still eat it cause it’s a sin to waste food) receive at home.
I’ve recently learned how easy it is to make – it only needs a few ingredients – so I understand why it’s a favourite of pot-luck affairs. Judging by all the pieces of take-home pie I’ve tasted, however, it’s apparently really easy to get this recipe wrong (at least according to MY taste buds).
The crust is usually the culprit. It is often too doughy, tasteless, and sometimes even thicker than the filling itself. Speaking of which, it is because of this pie that, for a long time, I thought I hated custard. The filling is always so …gelatinous, with that kinda firm yet wobbly consistency that I only really appreciate in, well… jello.
With its usually flavourless meringue or cream topping, this pie was destined for a top spot on my list of Samoan delicacies that I just don’t get.
That is, UNTIL…
One evening I made a rare public appearance at a function held at my uncle’s church. The ipu ki afterwards was a huge and lovely spread of all kinds of desserts and light savouries to accompany the yummmiest, hot koko Samoa.
Before I even got to the table, though, I started hearing a buzz about the pineapple pie someone had brought. Oka se magaia! people were saying… and as plate after plate of this reportedly amazing pie passed by me, my culinary curiosity was ignited. I had to see what all the fuss was about – and quickly before it was all gone!
Thankfully the person had brought four large pans of this pie, and I got there just as they were cutting into the last one (the other 3 were already a wasteland by then).
The first thing I noticed was the filling. It wasn’t as translucent as the usual, more wobbly variety. Instead, it was a creamier, lighter yellow that was just firm enough to stand on its own, but soft enough to so beautifully melt in my mouth.
I would describe its flavour the same way, too: somehow creamy and light at the same time, perfectly complemented by sweet and tangy pineapple in every bite.
The real winner for me, though, was the crust. Crisp but not flaky, firm but not too crunchy, with a subtle, buttery sweetness of its own, it was just the right texture to support the smoothness of its filling.
My taste buds rejoiced! But at the same time I was confused.
If our Samoan style pineapple pie can taste this nice, why had I never experienced this before? Was it just my bad luck that all the samples I’d had till now were made wrong? (Serves me right for waiting for the take-home plates instead of actually attending the functions)…
OR did this particular baker break some of the rules of our ‘traditional’ Samoan recipe?
I had to learn more.
Imagine my excitement when I learned that the genius behind the pineapple custard pies that night was none other than Auntie Sarah, my mom’s close cousin. Apparently, it’s a recipe that she and her siblings inherited from their own mother.
As a child back in the 1950s, my mom was sent to live with Auntie Sarah and her family in Lalovaea (so that mom could go to school in town). Auntie Sarah’s mother ran a small store in those days and my mom remembers this hard-working lady making pineapple custard pie almost every day to sell there.
In the 4 or 5 years since I first tasted Auntie Sarah’s version of this pie, she’s generously offered several times to show me how to make it, but I never quite got to her place for the lesson. She has since taken very ill, so I don’t feel right anymore about bothering her with my baking education.
It turns out, though – thankfully – that my mom already has this recipe scribbled on a card in her collection. She got it long ago from Auntie Sarah’s late sister. It’s written Samoan lady style – sometimes we have exact measurements and instructions, sometimes we don’t – and assumes that the cook is already skilled in the kitchen.
I’m always game for a challenge, so over the last few weeks my mom and I have been hacking away at this recipe, trying to read between the sparsely written lines to decipher the secrets of this pineapple custard pie.
Between us we have literally made almost 20 pies in this time, arguing a lot over our interpretations of the instructions, tweaking and adjusting with every concoction… and now, at long last, I do believe we have it.
If our final creation is not exactly like Auntie Sarah’s, it’s pretty darn close. More importantly, though, I really love it! Lol…
I hope you do, too:
3 cups self rising flour, sifted
1 cup sugar
300 grams butter
In a mixing bowl, cream butter & sugar together. Add the eggs one at a time and mix it in. Fold in the flour.
Now this is going to make enough crust for at least 2 large pans. If you don’t need that much, just wrap the leftover dough in plastic and store it in the fridge.
One batch of our chilled dough still worked really nicely even after 3 weeks.
Okay, press that dough into your pie tin – make sure you have plenty up the sides of the pan to anticipate for some shrinkage – and bake till golden brown.
Let the pie crust cool.
So the instructions here get kind of vague. All it says on the recipe card is:
Use full cream or mix cream and milk, no water. Put custard as usual, not too thick, not too watery. Add 1 or 2 cans of crushed pineapple after custard is boiled. Add vanilla if required.
I’m sorry if I’m not much clearer with my own instructions – it really is a matter of tasting and adjusting until you get the consistency (and volume) just right – but this is how I make the filling now:
Vanilla extract (not essence, please)
I start with half a cup of custard powder, a quarter cup of sugar, and maybe 2 cups of milk in a saucepan. Whisk really well together then turn the stove on and bring to boil, stirring the whole time. As soon as it boils, turn the heat down and let it simmer while you continue to stir.
It should start to thicken now, and here’s where I get to tweaking: add more milk if it looks like it’s getting too thick, add more custard powder if it’s not thick enough, chuck in half a cup of cream, stir stir stir, watch watch watch, taste to see if it’s sweet enough, or if it needs more cream, stir some more.
Once the mixture stops ‘bubbling’ in the heat and starts to ‘plop’ instead, add your crushed pineapple and however much vanilla extract you want lol. (I love vanilla, so I use at least a tablespoon).
A pinch of your baker’s intuition will help you ‘feel’ when the filling is ready, at which point, remove from heat and pour into your waiting pie crust.
I know it’s not for everybody, but I LOVE me a good meringue. Auntie Sarah made her pies with cream, so this meringue is my own go-to recipe.
NOTE: If you’re going to use meringue, prepare it before you make the filling. It’s important that meringue goes on while the filling is still very hot, so: filling ready, pour into the crust, immediately top with meringue. Got it?
1/4 teaspoon cream of tarter (apparently to help hold the shape)
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Spread the meringue thickly and evenly onto the piping hot filling – right to the crust on all edges of the pan. If you like, twist little swirly shapes into the meringue with a spatula, then pop the whole pie into a warm (something like 90 degrees C in NZ, or 200 degrees F in the USA) oven until the meringue just starts to brown.
Not into meringue?
It’s also lovely to use real cream as a topping. If this is how you want to roll, after you fill the pie let it cool completely while you prepare the cream.
Throw like a cup and a half of double or whipping cream into a bowl with a quarter cup of sugar and beat till thick (firm peaks is good). Spread generously on top of the cooled filling and then stand back and marvel at your wonderful creation.
The final product
The pie is going to need at least 2 hours or so for the filling to set. I like to let that happen under a food umbrella on the dining table before chilling in the fridge for another little while.
And then it’s time to taste. The moment of truth looks something like this:
(Notice the little black vanilla seeds from the extract I used?)
And it is so mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…. according to me, anyway.
Someday, I’m going to take a pie around to Auntie Sarah for her final and conclusive verdict.
In the meantime, please let me know what you think of our version of this pie, and maybe share a few tips of your own in a comment below.