Martha Evanoff was an old-fashioned, lifelong homemaker of Polish decent who married a man from Russia shortly after he came to the U.S. in 1917 to escape the revolution. They raised seven children in northeast Ohio and taught them all to be self-sufficient.
She was my husband's grandmother and when we visited, she sometimes told us stories of her descendents from Poland and their amazing escapes from tyranny. My only regret was that I didn't listen better, take notes or even hold a tape recorder under her chin to have a record of those tales. But I was a teenager then and was more interested in bell-bottom pants, mini skirts and the breakup of the Beatles.
Martha must have sensed that Jerry and I would be together for a long time, so she gifted to me a book that was given to her as a newlywed. The book is titled ''Household Discoveries & Mrs. Curtis's Cookbook,'' copyright 1909, and if you should Google it, you will find there are copies still available through antique book dealers.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Kathleen Evanoff
Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie was my mother’s signature recipe. It is unknown where the recipe came from, but the desert was always requested when someone held a pot-luck family get-together.
Martha was lifelong homemaker who left handwritten notes in the margins beside favorite recipes in “Mrs. Curtis’s Cookbook.” LaVerne was an excited young girl in the 1940s and fashionable woman of the 1950’s, who worked outside the home, took care of her house and family and still managed to entertain on holidays and other occasions. “Household Discoveries & Mrs. Curtis’s Cookbook” was published in 1909. It contains what I think is the perfect pie crust recipe.
At first I only briefly perused the recipes in the more than 1,000 page volume. Instead, I spent quite a lot of time chuckling over the ''household discoveries'' that gives detailed instructions on how to blacken a stove, how to build an outhouse and the nearly horrific warnings of bottle-feeding a baby, a practice, according to the book, that admonishes ''There's death in the dirty bottle.'' The household discoveries section was written by Sidney Morse and the cookbook was written by Isabel Gordon Curtis.
LaVerne Rose Bennett Thomas was my mother. She was a popular young girl in the 1940s and a modern woman of the 1950s, decorating her home with the straight lines and varied colors of the era. She was very stylish and loved to entertain.
One of her most requested desserts, which I can only presume came from the underside of the label of a well-known cream cheese product or from a popular women's magazine, was Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie. Regardless of where she found it, I have not been able to find this recipe anywhere other than in my mother's handwriting.
LaVerne's Pineapple Cream Cheese Pie
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 nine-ounce can crushed pineapple, not drained
1/2 lb. cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1 nine-inch unbaked pie shell
Method: Blend the 1/3 cup sugar with the cornstarch and the pineapple. Cook, stirring until the mixture is thick and clear. Cool.
Blend the cream cheese with the 1/2 cup sugar and salt. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring well. Blend in the milk and vanilla.
Spread the cooled pineapple mixture over the bottom of the unbaked pie shell. Pour the cheese mixture over and sprinkle with nuts.
Bake in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for 50 minutes.
Cool before serving.
This recipe makes one pie, but can be doubled.
Flaky Pie Crust
3 cups flour
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup ice water
1/2 cup lard (I used shortening)
Sift the flour into a large bowl. Cut in the lard or shortening and the cold butter until no piece of shortening larger than a pecan can be seen. Sprinkle the mixture with the ice water while working with a fork until a soft dough begins to form. Turn the dough out on a floured surface, dust lightly with flour and begin to flatten with a rolling pin. Roll and fold the dough over on itself three times. Chill for at least an hour before rolling out to place in the pan. This recipe will make one double crust pie or two single crust pies.
For the complete original recipe in its entirety, visit my blog at www.tribtoday.com.
LaVerne would make the pie for nearly every holiday and family gathering. As for me, anything remotely called "cream cheese" sounded horrible. I avoided this dish like the plague, upon which my father would remark as he took a second serving, ''That's OK, more for me.''
And then one day when I was in my 20s with a family of my own, I gave it a try. When we grow up and have to cook for ourselves, we often cast aside our childhood aversions and realize what we have missed. I couldn't believe I had turned my nose up at my mother's signature dish all those years.
Isabel Gordon Curtis was born in Scotland in 1863 and learned to make common Scottish foods after her mother sent her to a caterer's kitchen to learn cookery. She came to the United States in 1886 where she became editor of the woman's department at various newspapers. In 1900, she worked on the editorial staff of Good Housekeeping magazine, as well as other magazines and wrote several books on cooking and homekeeping. She died at age 51 in 1915. I suspect she was the Martha Stewart of her time, without the benefit of television.
After several years of failure making piecrust, it was when I discovered Mrs. Curtis' recipe that I was finally able to make a good one of my own. I resigned myself to the fact that I was another one of those crust-making failures. Like many others, I attempted the hot water crust, the microwave crust, the butter-only, shortening-only, lard and vegetable oil crusts that may have worked for some, but always left me piecing dough together in the bottom of a pie plate like a jig-saw puzzle.
And then one winter I picked up the book and started browsing. As I leafed through the section on pie making, I realized I had never looked here for the perfect, or in my case, even a decent, piecrust recipe.
Although Mrs. Curtis' method was not intense, her directions are extensive and take up nearly an entire page in the book. While her recipe calls for equal parts lard and butter, I opted for shortening instead of lard. Another help, I'm sure, is the marble slab I managed to snag from a restaurant auction more years ago than I care to remember. Marble is consistently cooler than the air around us and cold, it seems, is the key.
The book devotes an entire section on the making of ''puff paste'' from which her flaky pie crust recipe is just a part. The ingredients were simple. Butter, lard, ice water and salt. Gently mix, roll it out and then begin the layering. Roll and fold, roll and fold three times, according to Mrs. Curtis. These directions, I find, go against all those who say don't overwork your pie crust or it will get tough. Sometimes I only roll and fold twice, sometimes not at all, it all comes out the same for me. What I believe ultimately worked was to keep the ingredients very cold. Even between rolling a top and bottom crust, I wrap the remaining dough in plastic wrap and put it on a bowl of ice.
Now I make pies with wild abandon. I make up recipes of the dough and freeze it for future pie-making. Others can keep their ready-made dough and other foolproof piecrust recipes. I have Mrs. Curtis. Mrs. Curtis' entire method is too extensive to print here, but I have compiled a brief version. If you want to see the recipe in its entirely, check out my blog at www.tribtoday.com and click on "blogs" on the left side of the page.
Putting together the pie is a two part operation. First I cooked the pineapple filling and while it cooled, I made the piecrust and the cream cheese mixture. The entire recipe didn't take much more than an hour if you don't count leaving the crust to chill a bit before rolling.