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A Slice of Pie from the Past


Last month, I was reading through the 1945 “Fireside Book of Christmas Stories” and came across a reference to a “Grandma Nadeli’s famed onion custard” pie in Jake Falstaff’s nostalgic “Merry Christmas.”

Onion Custard Pie

What exactly is that, I wondered.

The internet, of course, offered the answer. It was once an American winter favorite that predated the introduction of quiche to our culinary vocabulary. Softened onions were loaded into a prebaked pie crust and then topped with a delicious mixture of eggs, cheese and cream.

I wasn’t able to try the recipe until this week, but the end result was a rich treat, substantial enough to be a main dish, if you’re looking for a meatless alternative, one that’s perfect with a garden salad on the side. Or it could be a warming side dish with almost everything, including steak, chicken, fish and pork chops.    

I did have one problem with this recipe, which I found on Serious Eats, and it was a good reminder that recipes are guidelines, not written in stone. The original called for 4 onions without mentioning size. I somehow knew that those gargantuan yellow onions in the supermarket were too big, so I only softened three. Even that was way too much. So was the egg filling, which I made with Swiss cheese instead of Gruyere. I had enough of both left over from a deep dish pie to make a second pie.

A slice of crustless Onion Custard Pie

I did make one modification for the second pie. I omitted the pie crust and baked the remainder in a 7-by-11-inch casserole dish for a lower-carbohydrate alternative. It worked perfectly.   

What the internet did not have was a wealth of information on the author, Jake Falstaff. It seems that Falstaff was the pen name of Herman Fetzer, a Cleveland newspaperman who died in 1935. Yet the story, “Merry Christmas,” wasn’t published until 1941 as part of “The Big Snow: Christmas at Jacoby’s Corner.”

Fetzer, or Falstaff, if you will, never knew what that mere mention of Grandma Nadeli’s famed onion custard pie would result in 75 years later.

Onion Custard Pie

10 ounces pie dough or 1 pie sheet
4 tablespoons butter
4 medium onions, peeled and sliced thin
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1 1/2 cups half-and-half or heavy cream
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup grated Gruyère or Swiss cheese
Pinch of cayenne pepper

Roll the chilled pie dough into a 12-inch round. Line a 9-inch pie pan with the dough, folding the edges in to make double-thick sides. Press the sides in well and prick the bottom all over with a fork. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Crustless Onion Custard Pie

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. To keep the dough from shrinking while it bakes, line the shell with a piece of foil or parchment paper, then fill the tart with a layer of dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 15 minutes, or until lightly golden around the edge. Take the tart out of the oven; remove the foil and the weights. Return to the oven and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes, until the pastry is an even light golden brown.

In a heavy bottomed skillet, melt the butter over a medium flame. Then add the onions and cook until soft and golden, 20 to 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Taste to make sure the onions are already delicious by themselves. Cool.

Mix together the remaining ingredients. When the onions are cool, spread them in the baked tart shell, pour in the custard mixture, and bake at 375 for 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is puffed and golden brown. Let the pie sit at room temperature for 10 minutes or so to firm up before you cut into it.

Makes 1 or 2 pies.

Adapted from www.seriouseats.com

 

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