I remember paging through my mom’s recipe box as a young girl. I pulled them out, one by one, and she identified their origins by the handwriting. There was instructions for my father’s fudge – famous at Christmas – and my grandpa’s Texas sheet cake recipe. There were hundreds of recipes in that box, some of which I got to know very well during my preteen and teenage years, during which I developed a bit of a baking compulsion.
And, of course, there were the recipes I knew and loved that weren’t in the box, too. The recipe to my mamaw’s cornbread stuffing is the stuff of legends; it only existed in her mind until a few years ago when we finally convinced her to write it down.
Food is a direct link to history. The ingredients people could afford, the style of food they enjoyed and the source of their recipes are one of the easiest ways to understand the way of life in years past. Getting to know traditional local food is an easy (and delicious!) way to become a part of the cultural history of your area.
So, on that note, thank you for reading the first installment to my twice-monthly column Vintage Vittles. I plan to dig through libraries, scavenge old cookbooks at rummage sales and pry heirloom recipes from some of our beloved local chefs and, in this space, recreate them in a modern kitchen. I’ve always believed in eating dessert first. So, for my first recipe for this column, I chose a a treat integral to the history of our state: the sugar cream pie. My grandma loved it, and you will too.
This pie originated in the early 1800s in Eastern Indiana’s Shaker community; although, it’s often attributed to Northeast Indiana’s Amish community. It’s known by a variety of names: desperation pie, finger pie and Amish milk pie. But its most common name also identifies two of its ingredients, sugar and cream. What do you make when there’s no apples? A sugar cream pie.
One of the oldest recipes on record, contributed to The Hoosier Cookbook (1976) by Mrs. Kenneth D. Hahn of Miami County, is 160 years old. That dates this recipe to the year Indiana became a state, 1816.
Joanne Raetz Stuttgen, author of historic recipe book Cafe Indiana writes, “So, which came first? Indiana or sugar cream pie? The arrival of the Amish began in the 1830s, so apparently Hoosier sugar cream pie predates the Amish [to whom the recipe is traditionally attributed].”
Although the recipe is much older, many Hoosiers became aware of sugar cream pie during the Depression, when supplies were tight and families were struggling. This pie – six ingredients in all – was made of items often in the cupboard. And with no eggs, just a bit of butter and cream from your cow, this simple dessert was about as easy as it got.
One family that capitalized upon the Depression-era popularity of this pie is still the biggest producer of sugar cream pie in the world. I reached out to Michael Wickersham, the president of Winchester, Ind. pie-making company Wick’s Pies to learn a little bit more about their signature variation of the old-fashioned treat.
“Wick’s Sugar Cream Pie began on my great-grandmother’s farm where my father, Duane ‘Wick’ Wickersham, learned the recipe and process for making sugar cream pie and commercialized it in the 1940s,” Wickersham says. “Our pie became so popular that more well-established and larger pie companies were attempting to capitalize on our pie’s popularity. This lead to Wick seeking and obtaining a U.S. Patent on Wick’s Sugar Cream Pie in July of 1962.”
Of course, his pie differs a bit from the original, because of the absence of a traditional technique.
“One distinctive trait of our sugar cream pie that my great-grandmother’s pie did not have was a separation of the cream filling,” Wickersham says. “After cutting one, there seems to be two layers of filling in our pie—a solid and a creamy [layer]. When baking a pie or two, my great-grandmother was able to stir her pies with her fingers at mid-baking point; this eliminated the separation. When baking sugar cream pie [at our factory] we bake approximately 1400 pies per hour and are unable to stir the filling at mid baking point.
“Sugar cream pie has been and continues to be a Hoosier favorite because it is made with the ingredients found on the Hoosier farm—flour, lard, cream, sugar,” Wickersham says.
In 2009, Wickersham and the Indiana Foodways Alliance successfully inspired an Indiana Senate resolution to acknowledge the sugar cream pie as the official state pie of Indiana and to rename it “Hoosier Pie.” The non-binding resolution was passed on January 23, 2009, making the sugar cream our official state pie. Now, let’s make one!
1 ½ cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
½ tsp salt
2 ½ cup heavy cream
2 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp butter, melted
1 pie crust, unbaked (see below)
(adapted from The Hoosier Cookbook, published 1976. Their recipe is adapted from a recipe provided by Mrs. Kenneth D. Hahn of Miami County.)
This is one of the most simple pies I’ve ever made. Mix the dry ingredients – you can use your hand mixer or Kitchenaid (modern convenience!) but I mixed by hand with a wooden spoon – then add the rest and stir. After a minute or so of mixing, pour the filling into the crust, and then pop into your oven, pre-heated to 375 degrees, for around 35 minutes.
Historical recipe variation:
According to many traditional recipes, the ingredients are traditionally mixed inside of the pie shell with one finger. According to a recipe traced to Richmond, Ind. and provided by Sister Susan Karina Dickey, the Director of Archives for the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., this is to prevent whipping the heavy cream. To be honest, I think light mixing with a spoon prevents this without the risk of tearing the unbaked crust, but finger-stirring is the instruction provided by the oldest known recipes. It is for this reason, sugar cream pie is sometimes called Finger Pie.
As mentioned by Mike Wickersham, some traditional recipes additionally call for a mid-baking stir with one finger. I chose not to stir with my finger (ouch!), but instead stirred with the same wooden spoon. I also ended up stirring an additional time, since the 35 minute provided time was not enough for my pie. It’s a bit difficult to tell when your sugar cream pie is ready. It honestly depends on your oven, but there is nothing wrong with sticking the pie back into the oven at 375 degrees if it’s not setting up correctly. Store extra slices, if there are any, in the fridge.
A note on pie crust
There’s not much information I could find on a traditional crust for the sugar cream, so I used an old standby. I’m partial to Cook’s Illustrated Foolproof Pie Dough, which uses a liberal amount of butter and vodka. Now, hear me out. I’m not using vodka just for kicks – a liberal sprinkle (¼ cup to be exact) of the strong stuff creates a beautifully flaky crust, which is perfect for a heavy pie like a sugar cream. If you prefer to leave the crust making up to the professionals, any store-bought deep dish pie crust should work perfectly.
The Hoosier Cookbook recipe recommends baking at 450 degrees, which I did and found far too hot. My crust browned a bit too much for my liking. I would recommend baking at 375 degrees, peeking in regularly to make sure the filling is bubbling but the crust isn’t browning too much. Frequently, if I feel my crust is baking too far ahead of my filling, I’ll place a large saucepan lid on top, covering the edges. A sheet of foil works as well.
Try it yourself
The Indiana Foodways Alliance created a Hoosier Pie Trail (available here) for those looking to sample variations on the sugar cream pie all over the Hoosier State. But for those looking to grab a slice in Indianapolis, there is no better place than Locally Grown Gardens, the gourmet farmers’ market owned and operated by Chef Ron Harris, who cranks out a dozen or so sugar cream pies daily. (3.50 per slice, $16.50 for a whole pie).