I thought, when all these safer-at-home orders started, that I would be an absolute cooking machine. Testing three and four recipes a day, absolutely alight with creativity. And I’d make myself fantastic meals twice a day. I planned to become an expert on cooking from the pantry and the freezer. But it hasn’t happened. I still cook – it’s my job – but that burst of energy and creativity hasn’t come. I’ve conquered a couple of long delayed kitchen projects, but I haven’t written a whole new book. And my meals have tended toward the peanut butter sandwich variety more than I care to admit. As far as posting on this site, it’s been a little tricky, I generally have a store of recipes created months, sometimes years in advance, but they haven’t felt like the right thing to do. Feasts for a family Easter, fiesta meals for Cinco de Mayo or decadent ideas for special occasions. I’m just not sure about the right way to precede here.
I have been exploring some recipes and ideas for cooking with fewer, more available ingredients, and I share them on my Facebook page and Instagram feed. I’ve flipped though old cookbooks and seen what other people are creating. And I stand in my own pantry and think about ways to use things. Somewhere in the back of my mind was this niggling idea of a pie made with evaporated milk and sugar. I couldn’t remember where I’d seen it or why it was in my brain, but it just kept tapping at my memory. I thought maybe it was a Depression era recipe, so I started looking through community cookbooks from the 40s. I was thinking Southern, but when I didn’t turn anything up, I went through those resources from other regions. Then it hit me that maybe it was a wartime rationing recipe from England, so I searched through a few books I have on that era, but to no end. Then I took to the internet. It was a circuitous route, searching for “evaporated milk and sugar pie,” but eventually, through some trick if internet luck, I came across Gypsy Tart and knew that’s exactly what I had in mind. There are lots of resources for Gypsy tart, and many stories to go with it – some of which admit to being pure speculation – but it appears to be a specialty of Kent in England, and many of the articles I read said that people from Kent love it, but outside the area are not familiar with it, so how it came into my consciousness I cannot imagine.
The point is, it is a very simple and utterly delicious pie made with very few ingredients. And it is very different than what I expected, in a lovely way. Somehow, in my mind I imagined something similar to a chess pie, but it is not that at all. It is a light and airy mousse with a deep, treacly, molasses-y flavor that is a complete surprise in something so delicate. And it is not cloyingly sweet at all. Many recipes called for a sweetened pate sucree style crust, but I couldn’t see it needing any more sugar, so I went with a simple, basic crust – I even tested it with a pre-rolled, bought pie crust which works a treat. The secret here is to whip the milk and sugar more than you think you should until it is stiff, then to slip it into the oven for less than you think you should. I had some filling the first time round that I just couldn’t imagine would fit in the crust, so I put it in a ramekin and baked it along with the pie. It turned out beautifully too, so I think you could even do this without the crust if you are in a bind. I find screw top boxes of evaporated milk that are 17 ounces. A can is 12 ounces, so you will need two to make this recipe. And the milk needs to be chilled before using. Original recipes called for muscovado sugar, but I went with the readily available dark brown sugar. Don’t pack it heavily into the measure, just lightly tamp it in to fill.
1 – 9-inch pie crust (homemade or ready-rolled)
17 ounces (2 1/8 cup) evaporated milk, chilled overnight (see story above)
1 ¾ cups lightly packed dark brown sugar
- Chill the evaporated milk in the refrigerator overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350°. Fit the pastry into a 9-inch deep dish pie or tart pan sprayed with cooking spray. I prefer a removable bottom tin. Score the crust with the tines of a fork all over. Line the crust with parchment paper, then fill the paper with baking weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes then remove from the oven, cool and remove the paper and weights. The crust must be completely cool before you fill it. Place the pan on a baking sheet lined with parchment, which will make it easier to transfer to the oven and catch any drips.
- Beat the chilled milk and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment at medium high speed for 10 – 12 minutes. The filling should hold peaks that are not fully stiff but more than soft – the peaks should only flop over slightly. I hate to make this comparison, but whipped topping from the tub is about right. Scoop the filling into the prepared crust, smoothing it to the edges as you go. Fill it as much as you can without overflowing. The filling does not puff up nor deflate, so what you have here is what the finished product will look like. If you have a bit of extra filling, spoon it into a ramekin and bake and chill it alongside the pie (see story above). Slide the tart into the oven and bake for 10 minutes, just until the top is slightly golden at the edges and the filling barely wobbles. Cool the tart completely, then chill it overnight or for eight hours.
- Slice the pie, wiping the knife between cuts, and serve immediately.