Chocolate Nut Pie

One hundred and thirteen years ago, John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27. And as you know, I feel a special kinship to Steinbeck.* Thus, in honor of California's Golden Boy, last week I decided to crack open a little cookbook,The Steinbeck House Cookbook, that I picked up from Steinbeck's childhood home. One can have lunch in the parlor and afterwards wander among the rooms (where you can see in a curio cabinet a bottle labeled "Steinbeck's Whiskey." When I toured Melville's home in Massachusetts, the features to admire included "Melville's Pencil." I knew John and I would be much closer than Herman and I.  I digress.)

*(Quick recap: in 2011, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Monterey studying Steinbeck's works with some pretty darned amazing scholars as part of an NEH grant. In addition to completely falling in love with Steinbeck, I met some amazing people whom I still call my friends, and my teaching has been irrevocably altered due to my experience. If you want the longer story, go here and here, but suffice it to say, Steinbeck and I are fast friends).

Anyway, the cookbook is straight out of every Midwesterner's dream, featuring Creamy Lettuce Soup, "California Sunshine Punch" (people, that's Chablis with 7-up, lemonade, orange juice, and pineapple juice), and Taco Soup. The Turtle Pie on page 215 calls for Cool Whip and instant pudding. Such recipes, I am sure, are reflections of the 50s through the 70s and the excitement of ready-made foods. However, there are plenty of recipes that have aged better; indeed, the cookbook is certainly reminiscent of the junior-league cookbooks that were abundant during my own childhood and are the hard work of community women who served dinner every night.

Happily, in addition to the Turtle Pie on page 215 is this Chocolate Nut Pie.

And boy, did I make it wrong.

Let's go ahead an admit something important: you need to have a hankering for sugar to like this dessert. It is not for the savory of palette. And I'll be the first to charge that there was too much sugar in the crust in the original recipe (which I have promptly removed in order to counterbalance the sweet filling, so you don't need to worry your sweet-toothed heart). However, everything else that went wrong with this recipe is a function of the cook not the cookbook.

First off, I did not cook it long enough. Be patient. I kept opening up that oven, pulling it out, poking it. Further, once it's made, let it cool. As in all the way, overnight if you must. If not, a finished pie piece looks something like this:

I take full responsibility for that. 

With great shame, I will admit I served that to members of my book club. While members announced that this was, indeed, sweet, no one wanted me to take away their plates (despite that presentation). I apologized, they denied me. I apologized again, they ignored me.

Turns out they were right, which is generally the case with these smartypants. But I have to tell you, this pie is so much better the next day! A pretty little meringue forms on the top, the interior is like a flourless chocolate cake or a brownie, and the crust is crunchy and sweet. Plus, all around, it just looks better.

It took me a week.  But I ate the rest of the pie. 

(I did it for Steinbeck. Really.) 

Chocolate Nut Pie

1 pie (serves 8-10)

1 1/4 cup ground graham crackers
6 Tbsp melted butter
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup butter, cut into chunks
2 eggs
1 cup sugar*
1 cup whipping cream (optional)
1-2 Tbsp sugar (optional)
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

*If you have less of a sweet tooth, cut out 2-3 tablespoons of sugar.

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Coat a pie tin with a layer of cooking oil spray.

2. Mix together the graham cracker crumbs and 6 tablespoons melted butter. Then press evenly into a prepared pie tin--only on the bottom. Sprinkle walnuts onto the pie crust.

3.  Combine chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler and whisk over medium heat until melted. 

4.  Beat eggs and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat well. Chocolate may still be  little warm when added to egg mixture. Pour into pie shell. 

5.  Bake for 40-50 minutes. Let cool completely, preferably overnight. 

6.  Serve with whipped cream (optional)--to make whipped cream, simply use an electric mixer to whip the cream with 1-2 Tbsp of sugar and 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract until stiff peaks form.


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