Quebec Sugar Pie
Sugarcane has an often vague and definitely checkered past.
Because there is now no wild sugarcane growing anywhere in the world,
it is hard to pinpoint its place of origin, but most scholars think it
originated in India, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. From there,
once its sweet secrets were discovered, it spread rapidly to Malaysia,
Indonesia, Indochina, and southern China.
It appears that the Dravidians, India’s denizens before the
Aryans invaded from the north, pushing them southward, were the first
to utilize sugarcane, though they were making molasses, rather than
refined sugar. When the Aryans swept in around 800 BC,
they “rediscovered“ sugarcane, and by 500 BC,
appear to have created a machine that allowed them to create
Sugar may have moved into Persia, after Darius the Great visited
India in the fifth century b.c., but if it did, it remained too costly
for commoners. It is possible that, instead of sugar, cane cuttings and
technology were what the Persians carried away, but historians disagree
on this. People in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean did not
have sugarcane at this time, but they knew about it, and the Bible
refers to “sweet cane from a distant country.“ Though
they’d heard of it, Greeks and Romans didn’t use sugar.
It is not known when or where sugarcane was introduced to the
West, but it is known that the introduction was made by Arab traders.
Our clues as to a relatively wide acquaintance with sugar are largely
anecdotal, but they are compelling. Shakespeare and other writers in
Elizabethan England were writing about sugar in the sixteenth century,
using it in ways that suggest common knowledge. Marco Polo was familiar
with sugar when he encountered it in China during the thirteenth
century, and indeed, during the Middle Ages, Polo’s home town of
Venice, the acknowledged queen of the spice trade, had made this new
“spice“ part of her lucrative trade monopoly.
Once sugar was commonly available, Italians became the first
major addicts. Because sugar was expensive, it was another way the
wealthy could show off, and soon every part of the meal was being
sweetened, including the pasta dishes. France was a little more
restrained, but still took to sugar wholeheartedly. Household accounts
began to list “white sugar“ in the 1300s, and Charles V was
known to sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on his toasted cheese. The first
book about cooking with sugar was published in Venice in 1541 and had
been translated into French by the following year. The first book on
sugar written in French was published (rather surprisingly) by
Nostradamus in 1555.
The Age of Exploration brought about the next big jump in
sugar’s history. Once Vasco da Gama reached India, Portugal was
able to break Venice’s monopoly on the sugar trade. And gosh,
hadn’t Europeans just discovered the best possible places to
introduce sugarcane. Soon, fields of cane were waving beneath the
bright sun of South America and the Caribbean (or West Indies, as the
islands were then known). Coffee, tea, and chocolate were gaining in
popularity in Europe, and that meant the demand for sugar was
skyrocketing. Unfortunately, the solution hit upon for growing the
increasing amount of sugarcane needed was the slave trade. The West
Indies and sugar became an important part of the notorious Triangle
Trade and were major players in the early economy of the New World.
Sugar is still big business. With slavery ended, we can eat sugar
without pains of conscience, but there is an increasing concern over
the health effects of eating too much sugar. Interestingly, while too
much sugar is a health hazard, sugar itself is less damaging than some
of the alternatives now being widely used in the U.S., most especially
high fructose corn sweetener. In small quantities, sugar is a soothing
and pleasant treat that is now one of life’s cheapest thrills.
The recipe below is for a pie I discovered years ago in Montreal.
This traditional confection is almost as old as Quebec itself, and
there are myriad versions. The version I have developed incorporates
the most widely documented ingredients and produces a pie that mimics
the best sugar pies I had in Canada. Despite its name, it is not overly
sweet. It might be described as something like pecan pie without the
Quebec Sugar Pie
9-inch pie crust, unbaked
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
2 Tbs. flour
1 cup evaporated milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbs. melted butter
Preheat oven to 400°F.
In a bowl, combine the sugar, flour, and salt, blending
thoroughly. In another bowl, whisk eggs until frothy. Whisk in milk and
vanilla. Add egg mixture into sugar mixture, stirring until smooth.
Whisk in the melted butter. Pour into pie crust.
Bake in center of oven. Bake at 400°F for 10 minutes, then
reduce to 350°F, and continue to bake for an additional 30 minutes,
or until crust is golden brown and filling is set. Let cool on rack.
Great plain, but especially nice served with unsweetened or lightly
sweetened whipped cream.
The filling is heavy and fluid. If you are going
to make this in a foil pie pan, put the pan on a cookie sheet before
you fill it. Otherwise, the weight of the filling will cause the foil
to buckle when you lift the pan, and a lot of the filling will pour
out. The other advantage to using the cookie sheet is, if some does
boil over during initial heating, it won’t goop up your oven.
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