One of the streets that bordered my college campus was, not-shockingly, totally packed with loud and crowded bars. But, somehow, it also housed the most magical used bookstore.
The hours were completely unpredictable. A lovely elderly couple owned and ran the shop, and whenever they felt like it, they’d unlock their itty-bitty building packed with literal piles of books. Stacks and boxes, and narrow shelves. And the owners knew where absolutely everything was.
So if I found myself walking Mill Avenue and the doors to Old Town Books were open, I went in, almost always. And one day, I stumbled into their used cookbook section.
“Inglenook Cook Book” rhymed, so I picked it up–but once I started flipping through, my curiosity was super piqued. Wait, this book is from 1911? These recipes are all crowdsourced. Are they all written by nuns? Why the “Sister” in front of all the names?
Now, this book lives happily with me, covered in Post-It notes that mark interesting (and sometimes ill-advised) recipes.
And deep in the “Pie” chapter, Sister Mary E. Crofford lays out a pie recipe that she straight-up admits is weird; “It will make a queer-looking pie to those who have never seen it, but will taste far better than it looks. Try it.”
It’s called Rich Man’s Pie, and to make it, you need five ingredients (not counting the crust): melted butter, sugar, flour, nutmeg, and milk.
About The Book
According to the title page, these “Choice Recipes” were contributed by Sisters of the Church of the Brethren, Subscribers and Friends of the Inglenook Magazine.
So the Church of the Brethren is an old Christian sect (that still exists today!) and ostensibly made its way overseas along with German settlers. It’s touted as an egalitarian faith, so “Sister” doesn’t actually mean “nun,”–members of the church just called each other Sister (or Brother) so-and-so as a “Yep, we’re all part of this community” signifier.
(I’m NOT part of the Church, but I use “Sister” in the blog post because it feels weirdly disrespectful not to. Or is it more disrespectful to use it? If you’re a member and you see this post, hit me up?)
In Elgin, Illinois in the early 20th century, the Brethren Publishing House sent out a weekly magazine called the Inglenook that cost AN ENTIRE DOLLAR for a year’s subscription. But it’s cool, because you definitely got your money’s worth with their free bonus gift–the 1901 Inglenook Cookbook (worth a whole dollar by itself, I might add).
But the early cookbooks took off, selling more than 100,000 copies, and the reasons listed are twofold–first, the recipes are from women “whose Pennsylvania Dutch tradition placed high value on culinary excellence”, and second, the recipes “appeal to common people.” They’re simple and tasty.
Quoth the editor:
“As a rule they are dishes one would expect to see on the tables of those who endeavor to practice the principles of the simple life.”
The version I have is the 1911 cookbook, which is apparently bulkier than the 1901 version, largely because of a breakthrough: the recipes were arranged so you didn’t need to turn the page to follow a recipe. Brilliant!
More specifically, I have the 1970 reprint of the 1911 version, which was reprinted when the editors noticed that there was a reference to a “Burnt Sugar Cake” recipe, but no recipe. (I doubt it took them a whole 59 years to notice, but, you know. Sometimes it takes a while to get around to things.)
Rich Man’s Pie: The Original Recipe
Take 4 tablespoonfuls of melted butter, spread on a crust, spread over top of butter 1/2 cup of sugar, grate on a little nutmeg, then spread on top of all 2 heaping tablespoonfuls of flour. Now set the pie in the oven and pour over enough sweet milk* to make it full enough, and bake. Bake with lower crust only. Put the ingredients in just as this is written, beginning with butter and ending with milk. It will make a queer-looking pie to those who have never seen it, but will taste far better than it looks. Try it. —Sister Mary E. Crofford, Martinsburg, Pa.
*Sweet milk, in this case, is just regular full-fat milk. It’s the opposite of buttermilk.
I love everything about this. The counterintuitive directions in the first sentence (Wait, spread? You don’t mix?).
The total lack of exactness anywhere– “Grate on a little nutmeg.” “Pour over enough sweet milk to make it full enough.” “Bake.”
And then how she doubles down on her bizarre directions– “Put the ingredients in just as this is written, beginning with butter and ending with milk.”
And then TRIPLES down. TRUST ME, I know this will look weird, but it tastes great. Just try it.
Okay, Sister Mary. You’ve twisted my arm. Let’s give this thing a shot.
Rich Man’s Pie: The Story
So how did we get here, anyway? Where does the name come from? And why isn’t it mixed?
I can’t answer why it’s unmixed–or, rather, why the butter, sugar, flour, and nutmeg are unmixed, because that’s the weird part.
But as far as the name goes, this is probably the only instance you’ll see of a pie like this being called “Rich Man’s Pie.” There’s a “Rich Man’s Pie” that’s actually pizza, and a “Rich Man’s Pie” that’s Cool Whip and canned fruit–but no other versions of this recipe that match the title and ingredients even vaguely.
There ARE other recipes out there similar to Sister Mary’s Rich Man’s Pie, but they’re all called…Poor Man’s Pie.
This was Poor Man’s Pie, baked by an optimist.
(Or it was baked by someone who decided that hey, regular access to fresh milk, butter, flour, sugar, and nutmeg is nothing to sneeze at.)
This might seem like a bygone recipe, and in many ways, it totally is. But contemporary recipes for Rich Man’s Pie (under the name Poor Man’s Pie) have popped up in a handful of places, with some variations.
Just A Pinch‘s recipe uses vanilla and salt instead of nutmeg, and thickens the mixture in a pan on the stove (like custard) before pouring it into an already-baked pie crust (and topping with Cool Whip!).
A Farm Wife swaps out nutmeg for cinnamon, and puts things in a slightly different order–mix the sugar and flour, pours the milk over it, dot the top with chunks of unmelted butter and cover the whole thing with cinnamon. Epicurious follows that train, but with evaporated milk.
Notice all these recipes sub out nutmeg. I’ve got some opinions on that, later. But first, pie!
Rich Man’s Pie: My 2017 Adaptation
Honestly, I was expecting a disaster. I thought the whole spreading thing would go really badly, but…it doesn’t seem like it did?
Because the recipe didn’t include a crust, I used a crust from a different Inglenook recipe.
Pie Crust (For Two Pies).–Take 1 cup of flour, ⅓ cup of lard and a little salt. Mix this with the hand, add enough water to make a dough stiff enough to roll out well. —Sister Carrie Martin, Mankato, Kans. (page 220)
Thanks, Sister Carrie. (Though, not to complain, but your recipe barely made enough dough for ONE crust for ONE pie. “Pie Crust For Two Pies”? Who are you trying to fool?)
Pie Crust Ingredients
- 1 C flour
- ⅓ cup unsalted butter (I know, I’ll get lard next time–I was on a time crunch, and my corner bodega had no lard)
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ cup water
Pie Crust Directions
- Put the flour and the salt in a mixing bowl.
- Cut up the cold unsalted butter into cubes, and add to the bowl.
- Use your hands to rub the butter into the flour/salt mixture until it looks like dry sand.
- Slowly add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and work it in with your hands. You DO NOT want it to get sticky. You might not use all of the water.
- Once there’s just enough water that the dough barely comes together, shape it into a ball, wrap it in cling wrap, and let it rest in the fridge for 30 mins.
- OPTIONAL: Skip step 5 and do what I did, which is to accidentally add a little too much water, knead it into a ball immediately, throw it in a Tupperware, and let it chill for like 10 minutes while you Google “how to blind bake a crust.”
- Sprinkle flour on your kitchen table and rub it on your rolling pin.
- Put your ball of dough on the floured surface and roll it out until it’s big enough to fit in your pie tin (or your casserole dish, if, hypothetically, you also didn’t have time to buy a pie tin, and your bodega was out of disposable pie tins).
- Gently press the dough into your pie tin and trim and crimp the edges.
- Preheat your oven to a hot temperature. This works best if your oven, like mine, is also broken and fairly unpredictable.
- Stick your crust in and check it every couple minutes until it looks vaguely tan. Take it out and let it cool while you move on to the pie filling.
Rich Man’s Pie Ingredients
- 1 crust (done!)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup sugar
- Ground nutmeg
- 2 heaping tablespoons flour
- Full-fat milk
Rich Man’s Pie Directions
- Keep your oven at a hot temperature. (If you know the temperature of your oven, somewhere between 350 and 375 Fahrenheit should do the job.)
- Melt your butter in a mug in your microwave.
- Pour the butter into your crust.
- Pour the sugar into the crust, doing your best to pour it fairly evenly. Here’s where things get cool. The sugar begins to absorb the butter. Use a spatula to gently spread the top layer of the sugar-butter so it evenly coats the crust.
- Take your ground nutmeg and…shake it across the pie, in a thin layer. Wonder if it’s too much. Wonder if it’s not enough. Move on.
- Sprinkle the flour across–again, as evenly as you can. Use the spatula to gently even it out. Get kind of excited that your pie filling is changing consistency again. Chemistry!
- Cover your crust in tin foil to keep it from burning in the oven.
- Pour milk on top of the butter-sugar-flour-nutmeg mixture until the milk is slightly below the top of the crust. The mixture bubbles up, so if the milk is level with the top, it might boil over.
- Bake for 45-50 minutes. When you take out the pie, it will still be a little soupy, but should come together as the pie cools.
Look, I’ll be the first to say it–mistakes were made, so learn from my follies, please.
I didn’t cover the pie crust, so after sticking it in the oven for a whopping 23 minutes, the pie crust was, uh, extremely done. (Read: burnt.) I took it out, hoping the pie would set as it cooled. I took a nap, fairly confident in my pie judgment.
Post-nap, I returned to the kitchen, expecting pie, only to find instead milk soup in a burnt crust. So I covered the crust in tin foil and stuck it back in for another 30 minutes. And it STILL didn’t set.
But all of this is secondary because, despite everything else, the flavor was truly amazing.
You know how all those modern adaptations were subbing out the nutmeg? That’s a bummer. Because in my opinion, the nutmeg was the hands-down best part of this recipe.
I’ve never considered myself a nutmeg fan, but I’ve also never actually tasted nutmeg as a standalone cooked flavor.
And it turns out that when the only other flavors in your pie are extremely mild (milk, flour, butter, sugar), nutmeg really has a chance to shine. It doesn’t taste like you just have one spice in your pie–it tastes like you added a few different complex spices. Like ooh, is that cinnamon with…clove? What is that? With a pinch of salt?
So maybe next time I’ll try one of the more contemporary recipes to see if it fixes the consistency. Maybe I’ll mix up the order of the ingredients, or use evaporated milk. But I’m never, ever giving up the nutmeg.