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Crawfish Pie & the Power of Cooking with Strangers

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With a little digging, we're sometimes lucky enough to unearth Heirloom Recipes, dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next. 

Today: It's peak crawfish season in Louisiana, so Jessica Bride from Belle Année is sharing a story about a quirky local dish that uses these mudbugs and a friendship that it brought to life.

There are two things that go hand-in-hand with being a New Orleanian: hospitality and crawfish. So when cookbook author, blogger, and power-Instagrammer Joy Wilson moved to New Orleans from Venice Beach, California, it was not unusual that someone she'd never met would enthusiastically welcome her to spend an afternoon drinking wine and baking Crawfish Pie. That someone was me.

Joy Wilson Crawfish Pie
Crawfish Pie, in our hand-sculpted 11" pie plate.

Long before the days of food blogs, I grew up in Southern Louisiana, splitting my time between New Orleans, where my mom lived, and a tiny town called St. Gabriel, where my dad still lives. My childhood was a happy medley of horse races at The Fairgrounds, leisurely paddleboat cruises to the zoo, dusty gravel roads, brass bands, and all the Cajun and Creole foods imaginable—from puffy fried beignets to rich, spicy gumbos.

My mom was a functional cook, and my dad can hold his own in the kitchen with recurring specialties like spaghetti sauce, hamburger steaks, and shrimp gumbo. My stepmom Debbie, however, was a staggeringly good cook (the Cajun in the family). She grew up with six siblings in the town of Plaquemine, which is famous for being where the Acadians first landed in Louisiana. Debbie's entire family was in the food business, and their gatherings were the stuff about which books are written: a tiny outdated kitchen filled with loud oversized personalities, each person working to outdo the other in number of dishes, quality of dishes, and hours dedicated to perfecting Cajun specialities. The neighbors would drop by conveniently at dinnertime. Actually, everyone would: Former classmates, business colleagues, and even former lovers were able to put quarrels behind them for a chance to share in the Blanchard family dinners.  

Crawfish Pie Joy Wilson Jessica Bride  Crawfish Pie Joy Wilson Jessica Bride

It was from Debbie that I learned how to make regional recipes like Barbecue Shrimp, Crawfish Étouffée, Roast with Rice and Gravy, Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, Spicy Potato Salad, Shrimp Stew, Stuffed Mirleton, and Crab and Brie Soup. She also taught me about the pleasure one can derive from spending an entire day planning and cooking a single meal. Most importantly, she passed onto me her legendary recipe for Crawfish Pie.

Crawfish Pie is a double shelled savory pie filled with onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic, breadcrumbs, butter, and a pound of crawfish tails mixed together with milk and a liberal helping of Cajun spices. It's a delicacy in a very small part of the South, limited mainly to Southern Louisiana and, even within that region, is only really common in the rural areas with a large preponderance of Cajun inhabitants. My theory is that Crawfish Pie came from a desire for delectable food made with really inexpensive ingredients. Crawfish themselves, native to the region, are harvested right out of muddy ponds and are colloquially known as "mudbugs"—in other words, they're cheaper than cheap.

Crawfish Pie Jessica Bride Joy Wilson
Crawfish Pie in process; baked in our 11" pie plate, set on our seersucker cloth napkin in blue.

Crawfish Pie is such a localized specialty that I figured Joy had never had it and probably hadn't even heard of it, and that it was my job—no, my duty—to educate her about it when she moved to New Orleans. I'd discovered Joy's blog a few months before she moved and knew I had to introduce myself. What kind of hospitable Southern Belle would I be without then offering to cook her—and teach her how to cook—a peculiar family specialty? To help document the process, I enlisted my friend Gabrielle, a former rock 'n' roll photographer who's also a stellar cook. When I told her I'd invited Joy the Baker over to, well, bake... Let's just say she was a willing accessory.

On an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, the doorbell rang and there stood Joy, bottle of wine in hand. I'd made the pie dough in advance (admittedly a presumptuous call with a professional baker on the way), and, naturally, it crumbled, cracked, and barely stuck together when we baked it. Joy met this bump in the road with aplomb, pinching the pieces together to shape a beautifully rustic crust. While we cooked, we drank wine and snacked on cheese, chatting about California and New Orleans and being far from home but also right where we all belonged. Much was new, but all of it felt right.

Joy the Baker  Jessica Bride
Joy styles, Gabrielle shoots, via @joythebaker; Gabrielle takes an overhead shot of crawfish pie, via @belleannee (Jessica's Instagram)

My stepmom Debbie started most meals by sweating the trinity—what we call the combination of onion, bell pepper, and celery that's central to Southern Louisiana cuisine—and making a roux, a mixture of flour and oil cooked to varying degrees of darkness depending on your needs. I instructed Joy and Gabrielle about these ways, stressing the importance of cutting the vegetables into similar sized cubes, sweating them the perfect amount (until the onions start developing a translucent edge and the peppers just soften), seasoning the pie properly, and wetting the filling only enough to hold together.

By the time we split up much later that night, pie crusts had been fixed, tears had been shed, and believers in the magic of Crawfish Pie had been made. We promised to see each other again soon, and we did: For the past year, Joy, Gabrielle, and I have found time to cook, drink, and laugh together whenever our busy schedules permit. Gabrielle tells fascinating stories from her days of rock 'n' roll photography in L.A. (and takes the most amazing pictures of whatever we cook), and Joy keeps us entertained with her life lived on, and behind, a computer screen.

Hospitality is part and parcel of living in New Orleans, the city with the most spare beds in the U.S., and this Crawfish Pie recipe is at the heart of my culinary background. Welcoming Joy to our city with this quirky dish—oh so rich, with a delicate buttery crust and the world of Cajun flavors in its filling—seemed only natural to me and Gabrielle, and the three of us can't imagine having met any other way.

Crawfish Pie
Crawfish pie serves 6 hearty portions, shown here in our hand-sculpted pie plate.

Crawfish Pie

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted, diced cold butter
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold buttermilk
8 tablespoon salted butter
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 pound pack Louisiana crawfish tails (do not rinse, so liquid is preserved)
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
2 green onions, chopped (green and white parts)
1/2 cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
1 1/2 teaspoons Tony Cachere's or Old Bay seasoning
Black pepper
Red pepper
White pepper
1 egg white whisked with 1 tablespoon water

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Both instagrams by Jessica Bride; all other photos by Gabrielle Geiselman  

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Tags: Weeknight Cooking, Bake, Photography & Styling, Food History, Heirloom Recipes, Comfort Food