Children of Alaska, I want you to think back to your earliest highway trip. You are in the backseat, heading to Homer or Anchorage or Valdez for hours, but, finally, you stop in a place that’s only a thread of a town. You know where I mean. A roadhouse. There’s a faded wooden totem pole outside and a gas station next door with only one pump. A bell rings when you open the door. You find a seat in front of a paper placemat with a photograph of a moose standing in a scenic lake. Silverware feels light in your hand. You smell pancakes, deep fried chicken strips, and, if you are my age or older, cigarette smoke.
Maybe you have a grilled cheese or an omelet, but that’s not what you’ve been thinking about since you walked in. You’ve been thinking about what’s inside the humming refrigerated case by the register. Pie. There’s always a coconut cream and a chocolate, each made with Jell-O pudding and Cool Whip. Oh, and cherry, with jewel-toned filling from a can. And maybe, if you’re lucky, there’s blueberry, with berries picked nearby, tart and inky, gelled up with cornstarch or pearls of tapioca.
I’ve been working for years on a recipe for a pie that has that roadhouse feel but with a smooth, firm blueberry custard that makes it feel also like a pudding pie. I tried making a curd and added blueberries to every sort of lemon custard recipe. I couldn’t get the pie firm enough. I tried more eggs and cornstarch. I considered gelatin sheets that I’d have to order online. Then I arrived with another soupy blueberry-lemon pie (a riff on a Chez Panisse lemon pie recipe that took me two hours) to a family gathering. My mom brought her usual lemon pie, made with pudding mix and bodacious meringue. And it hit me: What is more like a roadhouse pie than one that combines local blueberries with a shelf-stable pantry ingredient like lemon pudding? And so I invited my mom over and we tried it. And it was just right.
FOR THE CRUST
- 1 stick unsalted butter, cold
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1–3 tablespoons cold vodka, water, or apple juice
FOR THE FILLING
- 1 4.3-ounce package cook-and-serve, lemon Jell-O pudding
- 1½ cups wild Alaska blueberries, fresh or frozen
- 2 cups water
- 4 egg yolks
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
FOR THE MERINGUE
- 5 egg whites, room temperature
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 7 tablespoons sugar
- (For more dramatic meringue, add 1–3 additional whites. Per white, increase 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar and 1½ teaspoons sugar.)
Preheat the oven to 350° F. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse butter, flour, and salt until they form a fine meal. With the blade running, drizzle the cold vodka/water/juice in until the dough coalesces into a ball. Remove from the processor and roll out with a floured rolling pin on a floured piece of parchment paper until it’s roughly 12 inches in diameter. Flip the parchment onto a 9-inch pie pan and peel it off the dough. Press the dough into the pan gently and finish the edges. (If you have time, put it in the freezer for 20 minutes.) Place pie weights or a couple of handfuls of dry beans on top of a small piece of parchment in the crust and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the weight and bake an additional 10 minutes. Remove to cool. Leave the oven on.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium heat, whisk egg yolks, ½ cup water, and pudding mix until smooth; add blueberries and remaining 1½ cups of water. Stir, crushing blueberries on the side of the pan, until mixture begins to bubble and thicken. It should be dark purple-blue. Remove from heat, pour it into a sieve over a bowl, press it through to further crush the berries, and remove the solids. Stir the butter into the warm filling. Spread into the crust.
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg whites until they get foamy, then add the cream of tartar. Continue to whip on high speed. When peaks begin to form, add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue whipping until the meringue gets stiff with a texture that’s almost marshmallowy.
Gently spread the meringue on top of the warm pie filling with a small spatula, making small peaks. Spread it to the edges of the crust so it forms a seal. Bake for 10 minutes, rotating once halfway through.
Allow to cool but do not refrigerate. Serve within a few hours of baking. Cut with a buttered knife for perfect slices.
This recipe appeared in Edible Alaska magazine.