The Label Says “French Silk,” But This Pie is All-American

16 Jan

Chocolate Orange French Silk Pie

It was in 1951 that Betty Cooper won the third annual Pillsbury Bake-Off contest for home cooks with her now-classic recipe for the Chocolate French silk pie. I didn’t know any of this until recently, when I had to complete a research assignment on “specialty pies” for my Pies and Tarts lab at Johnson & Wales. When I first saw the words “Chocolate French Silk,” my mind was blank. Obviously it was chocolate (a good thing), but what was French silk? It sounded elegant, old, classic, and well…It had to be, it is French, right?

Wrong. This is an American pie through and through, and a young one at that. (For some reason, I can’t help but hum Yo La Tengo’s We’re an American Band.)

Nothing I found explains how the pie came to be known as “French Silk”–indeed, Betty Cooper is an elusive and mysterious past Bake-Off winner unlike others who have been featured in Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest cookbook profiles. My guess is that the texture of the pie is what prompted this descriptor. When made correctly, it is luxurious and  lustrous and, well…silky . Maybe Betty Cooper’s name for her pie was aspirational, invoking the French fashion house of Hermès and its trademark scarves.

My sole experience with French silk pie (and at the time, I wasn’t even aware of the name) involved a frozen, boxed Sara Lee rendition with chocolate curls. I had never had homemade pie (if you don’t count a friend of the family’s eerily green key lime), so at the time, it seemed perfectly adequate. Anything sweet and chocolate was enough to make me happy as a kid.

For my class, I had to adapt a recipe and then make the pie on practical day. I have to say that there aren’t as many “true to form” French silk recipes as I expected. I don’t know if this is because the recipe and name is proprietary, or if perhaps the salmonella factor has made a chocolate pie made with raw eggs unpopular (imagine that!), or some combination of the two. Mostly, I found chocolate cream pies, which aren’t the same. Cream pies contain a stove top cooked filling that is thickened with egg and/or cornstarch. Neither is this a chocolate mousse pie (which typically relies on folded in whipped egg whites, or meringue, to achieve its creamy texture). The true French silk recipes start with creamed butter and sugar, and end with beating in raw eggs until the resultant filling is smooth as…silk.

I finally decided on a pie filling recipe to adapt from Martha after briefly considering a recipe in Cindy Mushet’s The Art and Soul of Baking. This book contains a “Silk Pie” recipe, but as the author admits, her interpretation of the pie features more of a dense truffle-like filling, with three times the normal amount of chocolate, and composed by combining  melted chocolate and butter with heated eggs and sugar (the latter to address the salmonella issue). Mushet’s recipe certainly sounded delicious, but I suspected it altered too much to retain the original spirit of the recipe and to past muster for purposes of my baking practical exam.

The Martha Stewart recipe was more suitable for my purposes because it was pretty close to the original Bake-Off recipe.  I decided to use a different crust (instead of a pressed in nut crust, I would opt for a chocolate cookie crust) and also to enhance the flavor profile by adding the Grand Marnier to the pie filling as suggested in the notes to Mushet recipe. Orange and chocolate is a heavenly flavor combination in my book. Additionally, I decided to garnish the pie with candied orange zest to complement the Grand Marnier, instead of the chocolate curls traditionally used. Finally, because of salmonella concerns, I would highly advise seeking out pasteurized eggs to use for this pie. I also note that young children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system should not risk consuming raw egg products. I don’t want anyone getting sick for the love of French silk.

Before you can make the French silk filling, you have to make the pie crust. You don’t want to use flaky pie dough for this. Since this is a so-called ice box or refrigerator pie that has to chill before serving, a flaky crust is going to become a soggy crust. Cooke crusts are great because they are easy to make and don’t get soggy easily. I used some chocolate animal crackers, ground them in my food processor, and then added just enough melted butter to moisten the crumbs so that they clumped together. (You can also add a little sugar (about 1 Tbsp) to the crumbs and/or some cocoa powder (about a tsp) to enhance the flavor depending on the cookie you use.) You don’t want the crumbs to look wet though, so don’t pour all your butter in at once. Wait until you see the consistency, since different cookie crumbs will absorb at different rates.

Cookie Crumbs for Press-In Crust

When the crumbs are right, go ahead and press them into your pie pan, starting at the bottom and building up the sides. I had to use a pyrex pie pan to bake it, since I was limited by the grocery store selection, but you may want to consider using one of the aluminum disposable pie pans. These are flexible, and therefore you can use your scissors to cut slashes in them and bend them a little so that it is ultimately easier to remove the somewhat delicate pie slices.

Pressing the Cookie Crust in Before Baking

I baked the crust at 350◦F for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, or until the crust started to feel dry and set. You will be able to tell by feeling it.

Once your pie crust has cooled, you can proceed with making the filling. My first word of advice in making this pie filling is don’t attempt it if you don’t have patience. This is an easy pie to make, but also an easy pie to mess up. Although there is not much in the way of work to do, you  have to give the ingredients time to work for you. You begin by creaming softened, room temperature butter with the granulated sugar. Let this butter warm up a little. Don’t melt it, but its got to be room temperature, not refrigerator cold. Or you will never achieve that nice whipped consistency and it will take down your other ingredients–namely your chocolate, which may seize or become “grainy” because it gets cold too fast. Take out the butter in advance. You can hurry it along by cutting it into smaller pieces. To this end, I would also advise taking the eggs out of the refrigerator and setting them still (still in their shells)  in warm water. This won’t cook the egg, so don’t worry. You just don’t want to add chilly eggs to room temperature butter and room temperature chocolate, otherwise, again, problems could ensue. The best thing to do is make sure your ingredients are all around the same temperature. Melt your 3 ounces of chocolate slowly and carefully in the microwave before you start, and then let it cool down a little. Not so  much so that it sets but enough so that it doesn’t feel hot to the touch, just kind of neutral.

Once  you have all these ingredients at the right temperatures, you can start creaming your butter and sugar with a paddle attachment. It will take a couple of minutes to cream. Don’t rush it by kicking up the speed. Low speed (2 or 3) on your KitchenAid is good enough. You have reached creamed state when the butter lightens in color, and much of the sugar has dissolved. You are still going to feel grains, but you will see that the butter sugar mixture is cream colored and somewhat whipped looking.

Creamed Butter and Sugar

Once you have creamed, you are now going to quickly add in your chocolate and your Grand Marnier flavoring to taste (I add 2 Tbsp). Don’t dally because you don’t want that chocolate to have a chance to clump, so try to add it as you mix on low speed and make sure that the chocolate is warm and fluid. Once the mixture looks uniformly chocolate, you are ready for your eggs.

Mixture after Adding the Chocolate

Add your eggs one at a time, and let the mixer go on medium speed for a good 3 or 4 minutes. There is no hard or fast rule about time, but you are looking for the egg to fully incorporate. You will notice when you first add the egg that the mixture looks curdled–you will see that the mixture isn’t combined or emulsified. This will work itself out and you will notice that the mixture will start to both lighten in color and look and feel less grainy with the addition of each egg.

After First Egg is Added-Not Yet “Silken”

By the time the third egg has been incorporated, your mixture should be perfectly smooth. Taste it to make sure you don’t detect sugar grains. It should also have that characteristic silken texture at this point.

Silken Filling Goes in Crust

The filling is then heaped right into the pie crust, which you put promptly in the refrigerator for about four hours in order to set. Once the filling is sufficiently firm and you are ready to serve it, you can whip some heavy whipping cream to pipe on top, as this pie is known for its “mile high” topping. You can top the pie with just plain whipped cream, or, if you want to slightly sweeten it, you can add a little sugar as it just begins to thicken so that you make a Creme Chantilly.

I piped the Creme Chantilly onto the pie with a large star tip (Number 825) and then garnished with the candied orange zest. If you do want to make the candied orange zest topping, candy the orange peels a day in advance. You want the strips to have time to dry out before using them. It is a fairly simple process if you have a zester. Try to remove strips that wind all the way around the orange so that they are as long as possible. Combine water and sugar in a pot and stir a little bit just at the beginning when you heat it. Then let it be, and eventually, you will see a perfectly clear boiling solution. Drop in your orange peel and let them boil for a couple of minutes, then remove them from the heat and let them steep in the sugar syrup for 5 to 10 minutes.

Drain the orange peel and roll them in some sugar to lightly coat. You can do this in a plastic bag. Then take out the strips and let them dry on a foil or parchment lined baking sheet for 24 hours before using.

Candied Orange Zest Drying

For this pie, I think it adds interest to let some of the strips intertwine instead of separating them and to place these intertwined peels around the periphery of the pie rather than the center, where they will interfere with slicing.

Et voilà! With this version of the pie, you have managed to introduce a little “France” (by way of the Grand Marnier) into the “French” silk pie.

For crust

7 ounces chocolate cookies (chocolate wafer cookies or chocolate animal crackers work great)

3/4 stick (or 3 ounces by weight) of butter

To taste: you can add 1 Tbsp of granulated sugar and or 1 tsp of cocoa powder

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Pulverize cookie crumbs in food processor.If adding sugar and cocoa powder, mix into crumbs. Add melted butter carefully until mixture sticks together but is not visibly wet.

3. Press into pie pan, starting from the bottom and working up to the sides, and bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until crust begins to feel firm/crisped.

4. Remove crust from oven and let cool.


3 ounces by weight of unsweetened chocolate

1 1/2 sticks (or 6 ounces by weight) of softened butter

1 cup (or 7 ounces by weight) of granulated sugar

2 Tbsp  of Grand Marnier (or to taste)

3 eggs (pasteurized strongly recommended because of salmonella concerns)

1.Melt chocolate carefully in microwave . You don’t want to overheat it, but you want it slightly warm and fluid and when you add it into the butter/sugar mixture later.

2. Take room temperature butter and cream with sugar. This should take about 3 minutes on KitchenAid low speed (2 or 3).

3. Add chocolate and Grand Marnier while KitchenAid is on low speed (2 or 3). Make sure the chocolate is thoroughly combined.

4. Add eggs one at a time on medium speed (KitchenAid 5). Wait until fully incorporated and until you see visible lightening of mixture before adding the next egg, about 3 minutes between each egg.

5. Heap filling into pie crust and refrigerate for at least 3 to 4 hours before topping.

Creme Chantilly

2-2 1/2 cups (or 17 to 21 ounces by weight) of heavy whipping cream

3 1/2 Tbsp (or 1.5 ounces by weight) of granulated sugar

1. Pour 2 cups of heavy whipping cream into previously refrigerated bowl.

2. Whip with previously refrigerated balloon whisk. As cream begins to foam, add sugar.

3. Whip until “luxurious” in appearance. Be careful not to overwhip as cream will look grainy and start to become butter.

4. Pipe onto pie with large star tip or smooth on with offset spatula. (You may not need all of the cream if you are doing the latter, but always good to have extra.)

5. Garnish with candied orange peel if desired.

Orange Zext

Candied Orange Peel (make the day before)

Peel of 2 oranges

2 cups (or about 1 lb of water)

1 1/4 cups (or 9 ounces by weight) granulated sugar

Additional granulated sugar for coating

1. Use zester to remove long strips of orange peel from 2 oranges.

2. Combine water and sugar in sauce pan on medium heat and stir initially.

3. Wait until water appears clear and it begins to boil. Add zest strips and allow to boil for 2-3 minutes.

4. Remove pan from heat and let zest steep for 5 to 10 minutes in syrup.

5. Drain zest and place in bag with some granulated sugar. Shake to coat.

6. Place sugar-coated strips on baking sheet covered with parchment and let dry for 24 hours before using.

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