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How to Make Any Kind of Cream Pie—Without a Recipe

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When summer hits its stride, there are few occasions a cream pie can’t improve: it’s really hot, the mosquitos found you, the teenagers found the beer. Maybe your neighbor just wants a cream pie at their barbecue. See it as the season’s choose-your-own-adventure dessert, sugary and ice-cold.

Okay, okay, ready? Ritz cracker crust. Butterscotch pudding. Peaches. Whipped cream.
Okay, okay, ready? Ritz cracker crust. Butterscotch pudding. Peaches. Whipped cream. Photo by James Ransom

Here’s how to play:


1. Make the crust.

To crumb or not to crumb? Well, crumbs can be made from whatever you've got on hand: fresh or stale cookies, graham crackers, gingersnaps, Nilla wafers, Oreos, saltines.

Cracker crumb crust: check!
Cracker crumb crust: check! Photo by James Ransom

Mix about 1 1/2 cups crumbs (whizzed in a food processor or whacked with a rolling pin) with 4 tablespoons melted butter, 2 tablespoons sugar, and a big pinch of salt. You want the mixture to just hold together when squeezed. (If you’re seeking more zing, sesame seeds, shredded coconut, and candied ginger are great additions.) Press the mixture into a pie tin and freeze for at least 1 hour and up to 1 month. Bake at 350° F until deeply browned so it’s good and sturdy.

If you choose not to crumb, hit up your favorite flaky pie crust. You can bake either a day in advance.


2. Make the custard.

Malted milk pudding. Coconut milk pudding. Dark, or milk, or cayenne-laced chocolate pudding. Lemon cream (or the same approach with lime or orange). Pastry cream.

If this is your first pudding (mazel tov!), here’s the gist: Warm whole milk (about 2 1/3 cups; this can be replaced with half-and-half, or cut with cream or coconut milk) in a saucepan over low heat. Meanwhile, whisk together egg yolks (2 to 4, depending on how thick and rich you want the pudding to be), sugar (1/2 cup, or a little bit more or less to taste), cornstarch (4 to 5 tablespoons—5 if you're adding fresh fruit later), and a big pinch of salt. Add the milk, splash by splash, then pour everything back into the pot. Cook, stirring constantly, until thick. Add a little hunk of butter (or more!). Press through a sieve, seal with plastic wrap, and chill.

A few more ideas to get you going:

Chocolate Stout Pudding

Chocolate Stout Pudding by mrslarkin

Jackson Pollock's Lemon Pudding

Jackson Pollock's Lemon Pudding by Food52

Kick Butt-erscotch Pudding

Kick Butt-erscotch Pudding by fiveandspice

Coffee Pudding

Coffee Pudding by Kendra Vaculin

3. Prep fruit (or not).

For something seasonal, strawberries, blackberries, and peaches are all lovely. Toss with something sweet—regular or turbinado sugar or honey—to bring out the fruit’s syrupy juices. Strain off those juice (or most of them) so there's no excess liquid swimming around the bottom of the pie. For something retro: Opt for thickly sliced bananas or toasted, shredded coconut.

4. Cream or meringue?

Both produce a dramatic, bright white, billowy look. Cream compliments sweeter pies—say, pastry cream and strawberries. You’ll want to whip a cup of cream for one pie. Leave it plain and unsweetened, or stir in a spoonful of crème fraîche. Or add a splash of bourbon or rum.

Now's your chance to show off your whipped cream swirling skills.
Now's your chance to show off your whipped cream swirling skills. Photo by James Ransom

A sugary meringue offsets sassier fillings, like spicy chocolate or tart lemon. I love The Fannie Farmer Cookbook strategy, which cooks the egg whites for stability, but isn’t as tricky as an Italian meringue: Whisk 5 egg whites, 1/2 cup sugar, and a pinch of salt over a double boiler until the whites are warm. Remove from heat and beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Torch into oblivion—just before serving, ideally tableside.

5. Top it off.

Cream pies are carefree, like guests at the end of a bonfire. Still, it’s nice to dress them up. The garnish can be as simple as a fruit teaser—for instance, a single, leafy strawberry amid the whipped cream curls. Or you could go a step further and shower the top with chocolate shavings, citrus zest, or brûléed banana slices.

Photo by James Ransom; GIF by Gabriella Mangino

6. Put it all together.

Your pie will want a half hour or so to set in the fridge before it’s served. Try to assemble as close to that point as possible. Cream pies hold for about a day, but tend to turn goopy past that.

Fill your baked crust to the brim with custard. (If you’re using fruit, schmear some custard on the bottom, cover with fruit, then add the rest.) Top with the whipped cream or meringue in loose swirls. Garnish. Chill until cold. Throw at someone’s face! (Or enjoy otherwise.)

Photo by James Ransom

A few combinations to get you started:

  • Ritz cracker crust + butterscotch pudding + peaches + whipped cream + Ritz cracker crumbs (like we did here!)
  • Nilla wafer crust + banana slices + malted milk pudding + whipped cream
  • Gingersnap crust + lime cream + meringue
  • Saltine crust + lemon cream + whipped cream (à la Bill Smith)
  • Chocolate wafer crust + cherries + pastry cream + whipped cream + chocolate shavings
  • Pastry crust + peaches + pastry cream + crème fraîche whipped cream
  • Graham cracker crust + coconut milk pudding + rum whipped cream + toasted coconut

Wax on about your favorite cream pie—or dream up a new one!—in the comments below.

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Tags: cream pie