Every year when the weather starts warming up and the kids are getting ready to get out of school my mind is flooded with fond memories of being young and free in the summertime. I started writing this post a few days ago with this in mind, and then this morning I discovered that it is National Coconut Cream Pie Day and I knew it was meant to be.
When I was a girl growing up in the southeast side of Houston, things were pretty lean for my parents. We didn’t belong to any country clubs or eat in expensive restaurants, so the simplest things were such a great treat for us.
When my sister and I were still pretty young we were left to take care of ourselves all day during summer vacation while our parents worked. In the morning before they left our mother and father would leave a few dollars on the counter and it was up to us as to how we wanted to spend it.
Our usual schedule would be to hang out at the community pool all morning before wrapping our towels around our wet, sunburned bodies, securing them with a firm tuck under our arms and walking down the street to the Chuc Wagun Drive-In for lunch before heading home.
The Chuc Wagun was one of those iconic, quintessentially American structures that are now only found in photographs. As I remember it, it was built to look like a covered wagon. It was brown on bottom with four large replicated spoked wagon wheels. On the top, its white stucco roof looked like canvas stretched over hooped supports. If you were tall enough to look inside through the small sliding glass window, you’d see an older scruffy looking man, most certainly named Cookie, busy taking orders, cooking and shooing away flies.
Not usually having enough money for cheeseburger, fries, drink and dessert each, my sister and I would often pool our resources sharing a burger and fries, but never dessert. Dessert at the Chuc Wagun was the best part of the meal because they not only had great ice cream; they had the best fried pies that I have eaten.
As I recall each day “Cookie” had a special offering. I loved most of them, especially the chocolate and cherry, and even though these were delicious, the jewel in the crown was their coconut cream. How I loved this creamy yellow custard mixed with plenty of soft angel flake coconut, wrapped in dough, deep fried to a crispy golden brown and lightly glazed while still warm.
When our number was called we would pay our tab, grab our brown paper bag and run home barefoot on pavement so hot you could fry an egg. Once home we could eat dessert first and watch every kid's favorite soap opera, Dark Shadows. Life was really good.
It has been a long time since I have been in our old neighborhood, and I’m sure that the Chuc Wagun is either long gone or worse, turned into a nail salon. On the upside, I understand that Dark Shadows comes to theaters next week, with Johnny Depp as Barnabas no less. Yep, this summer is starting to look pretty good. Oh yeah, by the way, happy National Coconut Cream Pie Day!
Coconut Cream Fried Pies
There was no way for me to get the original recipe for the Chuc Wagun’s fried pies so I had to improvise, finally coming up with this delicious version. The vodka in the crust makes it super flakey and tender. These pies would be great for picnics or lunch boxes.
For the pastry:
1/8 cup water
1/8 cup vodka (kudos to America's Test Kitchen for this delicious tip)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter
Oil for frying
Combine the water and vodka in a small container and place in the freezer to chill.
In the bowl of a food processor combine the flour, salt and sugar. Pulse three times to combine. Add the chilled butter and process until the mixture looks like cornmeal (about 5 seconds).
Remove the water and vodka mixture from the freezer once it is cold. Turn the food processor on and add the water and vodka to the flour mixture while processing. Process until the mixture comes together to make a soft dough. Remove from the bowl, form into a 5” disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Place in the refrigerator for 1 hour to chill.
Divide the chilled dough into 6 equal portions. Roll each portion into a small ball. Place each ball on a lightly floured surface and roll into a 5” diameter circle with a lightly floured rolling pin. Dampen the edges with a small amount of water. Spoon 2 slightly heaping tablespoons of the Coconut Cream Filling (recipe follows) into the middle of each circle. Carefully fold the dough in half. Press edges together with your fingertips. If desired, press edges with the tines of a fork to decorate. Repeat with all of the dough and filling; set aside.
Pour enough oil into a medium size frying pan to come up 1/2"up the side. Heat pan over medium high heat until the oil is hot and shimmering. Place as many pies as will comfortably fit into the pan without touching. Fry the pies until they are golden brown, approximately 2 – 3 minutes. Carefully turn them over and fry on the other side until they are browned. Remove the pies from the oil with a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining pies. Glaze (recipe follows) while warm.
Coconut Cream Filling:
1 cup coconut milk (not cream of coconut)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup half and half
1 large egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1 tablespoon butter
Place coconut milk, sugar and salt in a medium size non-stick sauce pan that is set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer.
While the coconut milk and sugar is heating, place the cornstarch in a small bowl. While whisking, gradually add the half and half. To this mixture add the egg and vanilla extract; set aside.
Once the coconut milk has come to a boil, gradually add 1/2 of it to the egg mixture while whisking constantly to temper it. While whisking the coconut milk mixture add the tempered egg and milk mixture back into the saucepan. While stirring constantly, bring the contents of the saucepan back up to a simmer, stirring until it thickens. Boil for 1 – 2 minutes before removing from the heat and add the shredded coconut and butter. Cover and set aside to cool before filling pastry.
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 – 2 teaspoons half and half
Place powdered sugar into a small bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of the half and half and stir well. Mixture should be thick yet still fluid. If needed add the remaining half and half just a few drops at a time to reach desired consistency.