Peanut pie: New twist on Thanksgiving dessert

November 16, 2018

As you plan the menu for your Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll have several options for the dessert course. Growing up, apple pie was always a favorite with my family, and when I lived in New Orleans, pecan pie was the popular choice. In a recent email from America’s Test Kitchen covering food suggestions for Turkey Day, they included the recipe for a pie I’d never seen before: Virginia Peanut Pie. Of course, I had to try it.

Botanically, peanuts are not in the same family as tree nuts, such as walnuts and almonds. Instead, they are legumes, more closely related to beans and peas, valued for their ability to fix nitrogen and improve soil fertility. Their name, hypogaea, meaning “under the earth,” comes from their formation of pods underground. In the South, they earned the nicknames groundnut and goober.

Origins of the peanut plant can be traced to Peru, where archeologists have found peanut pod remains over 7,000 years old. Like many foods that came to us from South America, Spanish explorers who first discovered crops in the New World brought them back to Europe and then to Asia and Africa. Food historians believe African slaves introduced peanuts to North America in the early 1700s.

It took almost 100 years for commercial peanut cultivation to begin in Virginia, primarily for oil, and food for livestock and the poor, as well as a substitute for cocoa. Peanuts became more popular as a source of protein during and after the Civil War, and by the late 19th century, PT Barnum’s circus, baseball stadiums and street vendors began selling hot roasted peanuts. 

With the development of mechanical equipment for planting and harvesting peanuts in the early 1900s, the demand for peanuts increased dramatically. The earliest cookbooks published in America make no mention of peanuts as an ingredient until 1911. In a book called Good Things to Eat, As Suggested by Rufus, the executive chef for the Chicago Pullman Railroad Car Company, Rufus Estes, gives us Virginia Ground Nut Soup.

When George Washington Carver began his research at the Tuskegee Institute, he documented specific techniques to successfully cultivate peanuts and sweet potatoes. His 1918 bulletin was titled “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.” He gave instructions for dishes ranging from peanut cream cheese with pimento to peanut apple salad to peanut butter fudge.

Food historians generally agree that Virginia Peanut Pie can trace its roots to the roadside Virginia Diner in Wakefield, Va., which opened its doors in 1929 and began selling peanuts in 1940. It was around this time that the makers of Karo corn syrup advertised their product as the key ingredient for a Deep South Peanut Pie.            

If you search online, you’ll find some odd modern twists have been added to the basic recipe (which the folks from the Virginia Diner readily share).

Some replace the Karo syrup with molasses or golden syrup; some add a chocolate layer, and Martha Stewart adds apple cider vinegar and hot sauce (perhaps to cut the sweetness). You don’t need to do anything to this recipe for it to be wonderful.

Forget the cloying pecan pie; this combination of crunchy, salty peanuts balances perfectly with the sweet, buttery custard. You can serve it hot, warm or room temperature – just give it enough time to firm up once it leaves the oven. I’ve included the original Virginia Diner recipe, as well as Carver’s salad and Estes’ soup – you can serve peanuts for every course this Thanksgiving. 

Virginia Diner Peanut Pie* 

1 9-inch pie shell 
8 oz salted peanuts 
3  eggs 
1/2 C  flour 
1 C sugar 
1 1/2 C Karo light corn syrup 
2 T unsalted butter, melted 

Preheat oven to 250 F. Line pie plate with crust and decoratively flute the edges; set aside. Roughly crush peanuts with a rolling pin or mallet; set aside. Whisk together eggs, flour and sugar. Stir in Karo syrup and peanuts. Add melted butter and pour into pie shell. Bake at 250 degrees until center is firm, about 1 1/2 hours. Yield: 6 to 8 servings. *Recipe by the Virgina Diner restaurant in Wakefield, Va. 

Virginia Ground Nut Soup* 

3 C unsalted peanuts 
2 qts water 
2 bay leaves 
1 diced celery stalk 
1/4 C diced onion 
1/2 t mace 
1 C heavy cream 
salt & pepper, to taste 

Combine peanuts and water in a large pot and soak for 8 hours. Add bay leaves, celery, onion and mace. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.

Cook, stirring often, for 4 1/2 hours. Remove bay leaves and puree soup with an immersion blender or food mill. Add cream and cook over low until heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Yield: 6 to 8 servings. *Recipe by Rufus Estes, Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus. 

Peanut Apple Salad* 

1/2 C water 
1/2 C sugar 
2 T butter 
1/2 C vinegar 
1 T flour 
1 egg 
salt & pepper, to taste 
1 C roasted peanuts 
1 C diced apple 
lettuce leaves 

Whisk together water, sugar, butter, vinegar, flour and egg in small saucepan. Cook, stirring often until thickened. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper; allow to cool slightly. Chop the nuts and toss with diced apples in a serving bowl. Pour in dressing and toss to combine.

*Recipe by George Washington Carver.