Walk into any classic diner and you’re bound to see a big glass case filled with pies. The pies are sometimes even on a carousel and you can watch them go around – apple, peach cobbler, pumpkin, lemon meringue, blueberry – a rotating menagerie of baked temptations. But, for New York City-based writer and storyteller Jamie Brickhouse, there was always one catch – the pies in the city “sucked.”
“I gave up on pies for decades. I mean, the crust was soggy and the filling was gelatinous and ugh, the meringue might as well be shaving cream,” Brickhouse said.
Brickhouse is from Beaumont, Texas. He grew up eating pies, specifically his Cajun mawmaw’s pies. His grandmother was from Hackberry, a small community in Louisiana, and he described her as an “amazing country cook.” Gumbo, barbecued chicken, creamed corn and southern meatballs were among her specialties. But her pies were always the standout and she would bring them to every family gathering, Brickhouse said.
“Mawmaw would always show up with her three-tiered Tupperware pie container with a pecan pie… a pumpkin pie… maybe usually a lemon meringue,” he said.
But it was his mawmaw’s chocolate meringue pie that was always the standout, and later in life, Brickhouse said, he came to realize just how much the taste of it meant to him. It was a taste so ingrained on his tongue that he set out on a quest to recreate it, and that pursuit awakened creativity in him that had lain dormant for a long time.
Brickhouse said he took his mawmaw’s cooking for granted when he was growing up. He said he knew it was good, but “it was always there.” His mawmaw died in the late 1980s right after he graduated from college. Soon after he moved to New York and realized just how much he missed her cooking.
Brickhouse said he had high hopes for diner pies in New York. They often even looked better than his mawmaw’s, he said. But every time he tried one, he would feel as if he were “hoodwinked” because they tasted nothing like his mawmaw’s pies.
For Brickhouse, his mawmaw’s chocolate meringue pie had become “the holy grail.”
Her pie crust, he said, was always “light and flaky” and the chocolate filling was “Texas crude oil black.” He said her meringue was usually as high as her “Queen Elizabeth hairdo that she had done once a week.”
Like what sometimes happens in families, when his mawmaw died, Brickhouse thought her recipes went with her. But, after his father died about five years ago, he found some of her recipes in a drawer while cleaning out the house.
“I was like, ‘oh my God,’” he said.
But, alas, the recipe for his mawmaw’s chocolate meringue pie was not among the stash Brickhouse found. He said it was not until he was reminiscing about his mawmaw’s pies with a cousin in Texas that he discovered she had the recipe and sent it to him.
Brickhouse said his first attempt at making the pie was a failure. He said it was his first time ever making a pie and he took some creative liberties with the recipe, including substituting Hershey’s cocoa powder for another brand.
It wasn’t until the pandemic a few years later that Brickhouse decided to try his hand at making the pie again. He told his husband, Michael, that he wanted to “do it up for Christmas” — that meant decorating their Manhattan apartment and making mawmaw’s chocolate meringue pie. He consulted with friends who were seasoned pie bakers and succeeded in recreating his mawmaw’s pie – right down to the meringue that was as high as her “Queen Elizabeth hairdo.”
Brickhouse said that first bite of pie brought him back to his mawmaw’s Duncan Phyfe dining room table in her “little house on stilts” in Beaumont, Texas, where everything was “safe and warm.”
From that moment, Brickhouse said he became obsessed with pie making. He found some of his mawmaw’s other recipes and started baking a pie every week. But instead of putting his pies on a carousel in a glass case, Brickhouse posted photos of his pies in a kind of digital equivalent.
“I was posting them on Instagram and there was a huge outpouring of love. People love pie porn on Instagram. And I basically became the Mildred Pierce of Chelsea, where I live.”
Brickhouse was referencing “Mildred Pierce,” a 1945 film in which a housewife and mother of two, played by Joan Crawford, becomes a successful restaurateur after her wealthy husband leaves her for another woman.
To honor his grandmother’s memory, Brickhouse said he posted his pies on Instagram as coming from “Jamie’s gaymaw kitchen.”
The excitement he was getting from piemaking started to fuel his creativity as a writer, Brickhouse said. Until this point, he hadn’t touched the new memoir he had been working on for a while.
“I’d been writing it for the last few years and I would reach an impasse and then stop … not touch it for a month or several months, or sometimes even a year,” he said. “But if I can show up for myself to bake a pie, then I can show up for myself and start writing again.”
Brickhouse has since finished his memoir titled “I Favor My Daddy, A Tale of Two Sissies.” He said it even includes a few chapters about his mawmaw.
In addition to posting photos of pies on Instagram, during the pandemic Brickhouse also started posting a true story every day on TikTok wearing high heels with the handle #storiesinheels. Brickkhouse said he has never been a professional drag queen, but has done drag many times.
“I looked in my closet and there were plenty of heels in there and I put a pair on and I thought why not tell a true story in high heels … and it took off,” he said.
Brickhouse has since picked up nearly 50,000 followers and more than 600,000 likes on TikTok.
In a piemaking first for him, Brickhouse decided to wear heels to make his mawmaw’s chocolate meringue pie in a demonstration for this story. He said he felt a little like June Cleaver in the late 1950s sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.”
“Kind of like when I baked my first pie, I was afraid that it wouldn’t work out,” he said. “I was a little bit afraid of baking in heels, but I learned I could do it.”
Brickhouse said if his mawmaw were around today, she would not be nearly as flashy as he is in the kitchen or on social media.”
“Mawmaw was not a showy person,” he said. She wasn’t pie proud. I’m pie proud to tell you the truth.”
But Brickhouse said he does not think his mawmaw would frown upon his style and creativity.
“From the outside she was conservative… a churchgoing Catholic woman,” he said. “But when it came to her family, and those she loved… there was no judgment, whatsoever.”
Mawmaw Mable’s Chocolate Meringue Pie
From Jamie’s Gaymaw Kitchen
Mawmaw’s Pie Shell ingredients:
1 ½ cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup Crisco
2 tablespoons water
Jamie’s Gaymaw Pie Shell ingredients:
1 ¼ cups flour
¼ teaspoon fine salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (use butter with high fat content like Kerry’s Irish Gold), cut into cubes
4 tablespoons lard (use leaf lard for extra flaky crust)
2-4 tablespoons ice water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
¼ cup flour
1 tablespoon butter, melted and cooled
¼ teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Hershey’s cocoa
2 cups whole milk
3 eggs, separated — be sure to save the egg whites for the meringue
6 tablespoons sugar
3 egg whites at room temperature (4 egg whites for meringue as high as Mawmaw’s Queen Elizabeth hairdo)
1 tablespoon corn starch
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
A pinch of salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup water
Cream of tartar note: It stabilizes the tiny bubbles in the egg whites, by precluding the egg proteins from sticking together. This speeds up the egg white whipping process and contributes to a stable, billowy and glossy meringue.
Corn starch note: The cornstarch mixture of water and sugar added at the last step prevents meringue from weeping. It binds and stabilizes the liquid in the meringue (and keeps it from seeping out), leaving it shiny, beautiful and puddle-free. Starch is especially helpful in hot, humid weather, when a meringue is most likely to absorb extra moisture.
Pie Shell Steps:
- Chill lard and butter in freezer for 15 minutes.
- Mix flour and salt in Cuisinart.
- Add butter and lard to flour and salt and pulse 12 or so times until butter and lard are lima bean-sized.
- Add 2 tablespoons ice water one at a time and pulse until flour comes together.
- Throw mixture into large stainless steel, lightly floured mixing bowl.
- Make a well in center of dough.
- Add more ice water a bit at time until it comes together, being careful not to let it get too wet.
- Form dough into a ball and press down with heel of your hand and form a disc about ¼ to 1/8 inch thick.
- Wrap tightly with Saran wrap twice and chill for minimum of one hour and up to 3 days.
- If not using immediately, wrap twice with Saran wrap and then aluminum foil and freeze up to 3 months.
- Chill rolling pin for 15 minutes in freezer.
- Let dough disc rest for 5 minutes on counter before rolling.
- Roll out dough on lightly floured flat surface, working quickly. I roll on wax paper, so it doesn’t stick and it makes lifting the rolled out dough into the pie dish easier. Sprinkle ice water to bind or repair in cracks or tears in dough.
- Place dough in standard 9-inch pie dish (not deep dish).
- Trim and crimp dough.
- Wrap with Saran wrap and chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Parbake pie shell:
- Prick bottom of pie shell all over with fork.
- Place aluminum foil or parchment paper over pie shell and fill with pie weights, dried beans or pennies.
- Bake at 425 degrees for 15-17 minutes until lightly browned and crust appears set.
- Remove from oven and remove pie weights and foil/parchment paper.
- Return to oven for 2-3 minutes.
- Let cool while you prepare filling and meringue.
- In a heavy saucepan and using a wire whisk, combine sugar, flour, salt and cocoa.
- In another bowl, combine milk, egg yolks, vanilla and melted butter.
- Gradually add milk and egg mixture to sugar mixture, stirring until smooth.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened (like pudding) and bubbly, (about 10-18 minutes). Be patient. It will thicken.
- Pour into parbaked pie shell.
- In a small saucepan, combine water, 2 tablespoons sugar, and cornstarch. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until clear and thick. Remove from heat.
- In a large glass or metal bowl, beat egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt on medium/medium-high until mixture is foamy.
- Mix in vanilla, then gradually add the remaining 4 tablespoons sugar one tablespoon at a time, beating constantly on medium-high/high until meringue forms soft peaks.
- Gradually pour in corn starch mixture, beat on high until stiff.
- Spread over top of pie and seal to the crust.
- Flick the back of a dining spoon over the meringue to make pointy snow peaks.
- Bake pie at 325 degrees for 25 minutes or until meringue tips have lightly browned.