24 October 2023

Challenge Accepted! #KidLitChat Popcorn Pie

Whether we're real-life, in-person friends or just casual acquaintances from social media, if you're here, reading this blog, you probably know me well enough to know a few key facts about me:

1. I love KidLit! From cute and quirky picture books to heart-wrenching middle grade novels to YA books that make you think about the world in new ways (hopefully with a heavy dose of laughter swirled in)... books feed my soul and nourish me in ways that nothing else in this world can.

2. I love a challenge! Most of the diverse skills I've acquired over the years, most of my biggest accomplishments in life, most of the things I am most proud of have been the result of a challenge either explicitly or implicitly given.

3. I can make just about anything into dessert. I always laugh when I see the dieting advice that says if you are easily tempted by sweets, just don't buy them, because you can't be tempted to eat something that you don't have access to. Because I can make a pretty delicious dessert out of ingredients you wouldn't usually categorize as "sweets."

Popcorn Pie: caramel popcorn crust, with a pale yellow popcorn custard filling and piped dallops of whipped cream around the edges, in a glass pie dish on a granite countertop
So... a few weeks ago, when I joined the #KidLitChat (Tuesday nights at 9 pm Eastern on the BlueSky social media app), and someone in the chat mentioned once eating a Popcorn Pie, I was intrigued! I love popcorn! And who doesn't love pie?** Of course, we all demanded that they share the recipe, and when they didn't, I quipped that I would just have to create a Popcorn Pie recipe to share! And last Tuesday night, I had a delicious piece of Popcorn Pie to eat while talking about the business side of publishing in #KidLitChat. But just because the pie was finished and ready to eat didn't quite mean I had a recipe to share just yet.

My recipe creation process is much like my writing process for the books I write. The idea sparks with a fully-realized main character (in this case, Popcorn Pie) popping into my head to say hello. Then, I need to sit with them for a few days (or weeks...or sometimes longer) to get to know them well. Who are they? What are they made of, deep down? What surprises will they share with me if I'm patient enough to really listen? What assumptions might someone make when first introduced to them? Are any of those assumptions correct? (And how do I best help the audience to let go of their false assumptions?)

2 Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Maryland Baltimore Mission: Sister Haycock and Sister Hammer taste-testing and approving the first pieces of Popcorn Pie

When I feel like I know my main character (in this case, the Popcorn Pie) well enough to really understand what they're made of, the real work and experimentation can begin. With my manuscripts, this is when I pull out my story pencils and a notebook and begin writing the first draft of my novel or picture book. With my recipes, this is when I start pulling ingredients out of the pantry and fridge and tossing them together to create the thing I've imagined. And with both manuscripts and recipes, I am well aware that there will be mistakes and missteps along the way, plenty of opportunities to revise, and maybe even a moment or two when I tweak something in an attempt to make it better and only make it worse. (This is why I keep copies of every draft of my manuscripts--in case I need to revisit the scene I deleted twelve drafts ago--and why I always buy at least double what I think I'll need for a new recipe!)

This messy-draft approach to recipe creation usually means that by the time I have the recipe figured out well enough that I'm ready to share taste tests of the dessert, my page(s) full of notes and scribbles are illegible to most anyone but me (and my children, who all learned how to cook by helping me in the kitchen--and often acted as my scribes when I was in full recipe-creation mode and just yelled out ingredients and quantities as I tossed them into the bowl). So just like a manuscript needs a final once-over to look for typos and missing words before sending it out into the world, I usually have to make the recipe once or twice more to make sure I remember how this messy list of ingredients came together to make the final product.

Now, just in time for tonight's #KidLitChat, I finally have the recipe ready to share, with a few variations for those who might want to do some experimenting of their own!

#KidLitChat Popcorn Pie

1 1/2 c. skim milk

2 bags roasted corn tea

1/2 c. heavy cream

4 egg yolks 

3 Tbsp. sugar

1/4 c. cornstarch

1/2 tsp. buttery popcorn salt

2 tsp. vanilla

1 Tbps. butter

4 1/2 c. popcorn

1/2 c. homemade caramel sauce (recipe below will make far more than you need!)

Cooking spray (or a little bit of extra butter--to grease your pie plate)

Whipped cream (make your own, or use the stuff from a can--either way, it's delicious)

Spray your pie plate with cooking spray (I like to use the buttery-flavored spray oil for this, because it gives that tiny extra bit of butter flavor without the extra work of slathering real butter around the pie plate--but either way works. The point is to make sure your caramel corn crust doesn't stick!) 

Pop your favorite popcorn and measure approximately 4 1/2 cups into a large bowl. (Make sure to pick the fluffiest pieces! You don't want to break a tooth biting into an unpopped or half-popped kernel.) Pour 1/2 c. of your caramel sauce over the popcorn and stir to coat thoroughly, then quickly pour the whole thing into your pie plate. Spray your hands lightly with oil (or rub a tiny bit of butter in like lotion--so the caramel doesn't stick to your hands), and then press the caramel corn into the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate to form a crust. Set this aside while you make the custard filling. 

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the milk over medium-low heat, just until small bubbles start to form around the edges. (Watch it carefully and do not boil! Milk can burn quickly if left unattended.) Drop in the roasted corn teabags and set aside to steep for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, separate your eggs and place the yolks in a large mixing bowl (save the whites for a yummy omelet in the morning). Add cornstarch, sugar, and popcorn salt, and whisk together well.

Remove teabags from milk (squeeze gently to express the excess milk from the teabags back into the pot) and stir in heavy cream. Return to medium-low heat and stir gently until steam begins to rise. (You may see small bubbles around the edges of the pan, but we aren't really trying to get the milk/cream too warm at this point.)

Remove milk from heat and very slowly pour into the egg mixture (I like to use a ladle to add the milk a small amount at a time), whisking constantly so that the egg doesn't curdle. 

Once the milk is fully incorporated, pour it back into the pan and return to medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. (You'll know it's ready when the custard coats the back of a spoon.) Pour into the caramel corn crust and chill in the fridge for 3-4 hours. Garnish with whipped cream and serve.

Variation #1:
The moisture in the custard can make the bottom of the crust a bit soft. If you don't want that, you can melt 1/2 cup of dark chocolate chips and spread over the caramel corn just after forming the crust, before making the custard. Allow the chocolate to cool and set. This will act as a moisture barrier to keep the custard from soaking into the caramel corn. (If you spread the chocolate too thick, however, it makes the pie difficult to cut into!)

Variation #2: The custard filling has a pleasing buttered popcorn flavor, so if you don't want the added sugar of the caramel corn for your crust, you can use your favorite homemade or store-bought pie crust instead. Simply bake the crust in advance, as you would for any custard pie.

Variation #3: If you can't find the roasted corn tea (I bought mine at Wegman's, and I've also seen it at Korean grocery stores, but I also found it on Amazon, if your local grocer doesn't have it), you can make the custard with popped corn instead. You will need to adjust some of the ingredients for the custard recipe:

2 c. skim milk (instead of the 1 1/2 c. in the original recipe)

5 c. popped corn (instead of the roasted corn teabags)

1 Tbsp. cornstarch (instead of the 1/4 c. in the original recipe)

Place popped corn into a large bowl. (No need to pick out the partially-popped kernels for this part!) Pour the warmed milk over the corn, and stir. The white, fluffy part of the popcorn will melt away into the milk, and it's kind of fun to watch! (This is why it's important to reduce the cornstarch from the original recipe. I didn't think to do this the first time I tried this variation, and it made my custard way too thick!!) Let sit for 10 minutes, as in the original recipe, while you prepare the other ingredients.

Using a fine mesh strainer, strain the milk back into the saucepan. Press lightly with the back of a spoon to get as much of the milk out of the corn as possible. (You may see some of the starchy parts of the corn squeeze through the holes of the strainer into the pan. This is not really a problem, as they're very small and they kind of melt away into the custard anyway.)

Continue with the instructions above to finish making your Popcorn Pie.

Homemade Caramel

1 1lb. brown sugar

1 c. karo syrup

1 stick butter

1 can sweetened, condensed milk

In a heavy pot over medium heat, melt together sugar and corn syrup, stirring constantly, until it comes to a boil. Boil 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in butter, then milk. Return to medium heat and bring back to a boil. Boil 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Use 1/2 c. to make your caramel corn crust. Transfer the remaining caramel to a glass jar and store in the fridge for future desserts. Or simply make a giant bowl of popcorn and pour the caramel sauce over it all, so you have caramel corn to snack on with your pie (or tomorrow, when you're sad that the pie is all gone).

*Note! If your custard starts to curdle a bit when you're cooking it (if you mixed the hot milk mixture into the eggs too quickly, or if you forget to keep stirring while cooking it afterward...or if the kitchen gods decide to test your patience by throwing a problem into the mix when you're sure you've done everything right, and why won't this turn out the way it's supposed to???) DON'T FRET! Just pour the custard into your blender and give it a spin for a minute or so (or hit it with the immersion blender right in the pan, if you have one of those!) and the lumps will probably melt away. And if not, it will still taste good. (And mistakes just give you an excuse to make another Popcorn Pie later, right?)

**I know there are people who literally don't love pie. You might be one of those people. But honestly, you must admit that most people who have tried it enjoy pie. 

Next up: I've been challenged to create a Cilantro Lime Cookie! I've never failed a recipe challenge yet, but this one will be tricky. (I'm one of the folks with the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap.) Luckily, I have a group of taste-testers ready and willing to sample batches of cookies until I get it right

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