guest post: candice ransom and her mama’s southern pies

Speaking of pie, I hope you saved your forks, because today we’re serving up an extra delicious portion of Southern goodness thanks to the kindness and generosity of multi-talented, award-winning children’s author Candice Ransom!

I call Candice a human dynamo, because I’m in perpetual awe of just how much and how fast she writes. In a career spanning 25+ years, she’s published well over a hundred books in multiple genres — board book, picture book, easy reader, chapter book series, tween and middle grade fiction, biographies and nonfiction.

She has not one, but two graduate degrees: an MFA in children’s writing from Vermont College and an MA in children’s literature from Hollins University. She currently teaches in the MA/MFA children’s literature program at Hollins, is a widely sought after speaker at conferences and workshops, and can polish off a Red Velvet cupcake, blackberry bruchetta, or Devonshire cream scone with the best of them.

Impressive credentials aside, what I admire most about Candice is how completely she immerses herself in the time and place of her stories. She’s a diehard antique junkie who will travel to the ends of the earth to locate a cool artifact which might “belong” to a particular character, or a bit of ephemera that might inform a certain scene or illuminate an overriding theme. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more astute observer of human nature; Candice wholeheartedly loves and appreciates her Virginia roots, and conveys her enthusiasm in crackling prose brimming with telling detail.

Lest you think she’s a paragon of perfection, rest assured — there is at least one thing she apparently cannot do very well: bake a pie. All the more reason to read what she says about the one pie baker she admires the most. Much like what you’ll find on her fabulous blog, Under the Honeysuckle Vine, today’s essay is vintage Candice: razor-sharp, a little quirky, undeniably engaging, refreshingly candid and unpredictably funny.

Here’s her piece, warm and fresh from the oven. And yes, she’s included recipes! Enjoy!

Mama’s Wesson Oil Cook Book and rare one-handled rolling pin.

My mother was a wonderful baker but she took first prize in pies. When she was a teenager in the 30s, she spent summers at her family’s homeplace near Woodstock in the Shenandoah Valley. Her aunts baked six pies daily. Uncle John ate an entire pie with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, every single day.  

Those summers my mother learned to roll out piecrust and whip up different fillings, like the lattice-crust raisin pie that was her own father’s favorite. (Raisin pie is often called funeral pie because it travels well.) I hated her raisin pie because I despise raisins. They lurk in all kinds of desserts and, to me, it’s like biting down on a tadpole. When I was grown and married, my mother made my husband raisin pies, which he loved. Once, exasperated by my tendency to open boxes, cans, and bags and call it cooking, my mother told me to “bake that man a pie.” 

Mama (age 18) in 1936, Portner Mansion, Manassas, Virginia.

I haven’t baked a pie since ninth grade when my banana cream pie came out curdled with cooked eggs because I didn’t beat the custard properly. I served it to my sister, who nearly gagged. I turned a little green myself. After that, I hung up my rolling pin. 

Mama’s pie crust was light and flaky, though she sometimes complained it was “too short.” In later years I discovered My-T-Fine piecrust mix in her cupboards and when I teased her about it, she acted as guilty as if I’d caught her printing fifties in the basement. 

A page from the Pie Section of Mama’s Wesson Oil Cook Book (1955).

My sister loved our mother’s chocolate meringue pie, nowadays often called “French silk” and spread with commercial whipped cream. Mama’s chocolate meringue pie was a good icebox pie—we could eat it warm or cold. Her foamy meringue was delicious but barely covered the filling and only rose a half inch or so. We would beg her to make deep meringue, but she never did, forcing us to resort to such tactics as stealing meringue from the next slice of pie when we cut our own. The last piece of pie was always naked as a jaybird. 

The ultimate southern pie? Not pecan, as you might think. My sister and I were both crazy about butterscotch meringue, an old-fashioned pie Mama rarely made. Even topped with her stingy meringue, there was nothing like her buttery, rich custard. Mama made hers from scratch, no Jell-O butterscotch pudding for her. When she had one in the oven, my sister and I hovered like buzzards. 

My personal favorite was a pie Mama made a lot: egg custard. I adore egg custard in Pyrex cups, slightly grainy and dusted with nutmeg. Egg custard tenderly laid in a flaky crust was pure heaven. 

I remember the last egg custard pie she made. It was the summer of 1988. My niece Susan had moved in with my mother, bringing her naughty black cat, Gracie. Mama baked an egg custard pie, a favorite of Susan’s, too. While the pie cooled on the table, we fought over who would eat the most. Gracie ambled into the living room, her tummy tight as a drum. We ran into the kitchen and found Gracie had licked the custard from the pie shell, all but one section. I am not too embarrassed to admit that I grabbed a fork and ate that section of pie.

from the Wesson Oil Cook Book

By the next summer, Mama was gone. I still crave her egg custard pies. When I teach at Hollins University, I frequently eat at the K&W cafeteria in Roanoke because they dish up egg custard pie. But the filling is too smooth to be scratch-cooked and doesn’t taste nutmegy enough. These days I wander with a plate and fork, like Diogenes with his lamp, looking for an honest egg custard pie. Just like my mama made. 



Raisin Pie

2 cups raisins

1 cup water

1/2 cup light corn syrup

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

Pastry for 2-crust, 9-inch pie 

Place raisins and water in saucepan, simmer 10 minutes. Mix corn syrup with cornstarch and salt; add to raisins. Cook, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes. Cool. Pour into pastry-lined pie pan. Arrange top crust over raisin mixture or cut into strips for lattice.

Bake 425 degrees for 20 minutes.


Chocolate Meringue Pie

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1-3/4 cups sugar

1/4 cup cocoa

2 cups milk

4 large eggs, separated

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 baked pie crust

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Combine 1-1/4 cups sugar, flour, and cocoa in a medium saucepan. Beat milk and egg yolks together and slowly add to saucepan using a wire whisk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat and add butter and vanilla. Stir pudding until butter is melted. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar at high speed until foamy. Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar a tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Pour pudding into baked crust, top with meringue. Bake about 25 minutes. 


Butterscotch Meringue Pie

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups evaporated milk

4 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened

1-3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon butter rum extract (optional)

1 baked 9-inch pastry shell

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 baked 9-inch pastry shell

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine brown sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a heavy, medium saucepan. Stir in evaporated milk until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. Slight beat the egg yolks and stir in one-fourth of hot mixture, then blend yolk mixture into remaining hot mixture. Cook 1 minute, stirring. Remove from heat; stir in butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and butter rum extract. Pour in pastry shell.  

Beat egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy; beat in granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Beat in remaining 3/4 teaspoon vanilla, spread over hot filling, sealing to edge. Bake 15 minutes or until meringue is browned. 


Egg Custard Pie

1 unbaked 9-inch pastry shell

3 eggs, beaten

1 12-ounce can evaporated milk

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Bake pastry shell at 400 degrees for 5 minutes, cool. Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl and whisk well. Pour into pie shell and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes; reduce heat to 325 and bake 25 to 30 minutes longer, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool to room temperature.

Thanks so much for your marvelous essay, Candice! 

♥ Find out lots more about Candice and her many books at her official website.

♥ If you’re not already a regular reader of Under the Honeysuckle Vine, get thee hence and bookmark it! Treat yourself to some of the finest photo essays around.


*Raisin Pie photo by Roberta Bridget/flickr.

**Chocolate Meringue Pie photo by Snowshoe Rabbit/flickr.

***Butterscotch Meringue Pie photo by D.C. Elliott/flickr.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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