Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mom's Onion Pie (a savory slice of home)

My parents split up just as I was preparing to leave for college. (Don't feel bad for me, concerned reader, we are still quite a happy family.) They sold our family house and have since separately moved several times to new apartments, new houses, new towns. When I hear about people "going home" for visits or for
holidays, I sometimes feel a nasty pang of jealousy in my gut; I long for that warm feeling that comes with knowing something will stay the same; the relief of the predictable, the familiar, the steadfast.

The truth is, I almost forget what that feeling is. But I realize I'm looking for it wherever I go.

In the last ten years, holidays and family get-togethers have almost exclusively taken place at my sister's house. (The shacks and shanties I've rented in Los Angeles over the years were hardly suitable for family gatherings.) Because of this, my sister's house is the closest thing I have to going home: I can raid her fridge in the middle of the night without asking, I've been known to bring massive piles of dirty laundry unapologetically, and I can wear stained pajamas in the middle of the afternoon while I eat ice cream with a spoon straight from the carton. I borrow the car, stay longer than planned, and even yell at her husband (god bless him) as if he were my own brother.

Even when she moves, as she did recently (all the way to Michigan), her house is always a version of home to me, in large part because of the familiar food, and our shared habit of obsessing over the next meal even as we're still chewing on the current one. My whole family is in love with food. In fact, most conversations we have (over the phone, via email, and whenever possible, in person) revolve around what we just ate or what we are planning on cooking. And back when we all shared a home, it seemed we spent most of our time in the kitchen or at the table, happily mmming in a harmonious love of food.

So, for me, I guess you could say home is where the food is.

This last week, I went to Michigan to see my sister and her two kids, who are at the sublime and infuriating ages of three and four. (Right now, their favorite game is pointing out road kill on the highways, much to my sister's mortification.) During my stay, there were a lot of tickle fights, a few rounds of Hide and Go Seek, some songs sung loudly in the bathtub...

...and many, many home-cooked meals.

Now I should disclose to you, dear readers(s), that the cooks in my family all seem to have an aversion to recipes. Instead of passing down hand-written recipes on 3x5 note cards, our emphasis has always been more on methods -- knowing how to build a dish with layers of flavor, understanding simple techniques and respecting the power of good ingredients. Even my dad (the most under-rated cook in our family, he makes a perfect stew, knows how to cook any fish to delicate perfection, and roasts a mean chicken, just to name a few) has always told me the secret to good cooking is to get really good ingredients, and then "don't screw them up."

What excites all of us about cooking is the adventure of it, the ideas that go into a pot, the improvisation. We love a lot of creativity in the kitchen. The down side is that dishes aren't often repeated (at least not identically, anyway), and there aren't many family recipes. But there are a few exceptions, and one of them is my mom's onion pie.

Yes, you heard me. Onion pie.

It's cheesy and delicious, and a beloved recipe in my family, despite it's deplorable name.

While I was at my sister's, we made this terribly-titled treat for my brand-new husband Paul. It was one of the few recipes my mom ever followed, and was oft-requested when we all still lived at home. These days we ask her to make it whenever we're together, but my sister and I each have a copy of the recipe to use on our own. This last week, my mom was 2,000 miles away as we made her onion pie, but as we went through the tried and true steps of the recipe, and the smell of onion sauteing in butter filled the house, it was almost as if she were with us. This recipe is one of the few things in life I can count on to stay the same. It tastes like home, no matter where I'm eating it.

For years we have threatened to give this lovely dish a better, more worthy name. We could call it Onion Quiche, but it's not quite dense enough for a quiche. Onion Tart sounds much more appetizing, but since it's cooked in a pie dish, the title would be misleading. No matter how we've debated and brainstormed in the kitchen or at the table, no one has come up with anything better than Onion Pie.

Maybe if you get to know this treasured dish a little better, you'll forgive it its name. First, red and green onions are sauteed and browned in butter so that they're sweet and almost caramelized. Then, whisking together eggs and milk and THREE CUPS OF CHEDDAR CHEESE(!), the mixture is baked in a saltine cracker crust, which is salty and soaks up all the flavor. The comforting concoction is baked until the cheese is golden and bubbly and then cooled so that each slice comes out a little sweet from the cooked onions, and a little salty from the crust and the cheddar cheese. It's savory. It's comforting. It's home, wherever you might be.

Maybe being an adult means losing that childhood definition of home. Maybe it means finding a new one. Or, maybe being an adult simply means home is a memory, a pungent nostalgia that sends us searching for some semblance of that feeling wherever we can: in the relationships we have, in the houses we live in, in the food we eat. Any way you look at it, this pie is as close to home as I can get.

One more note about home. By complete coincidence, I happened to be reading a novel called "Home" by Marilynne Robinson while I was visiting my sister. It is a spectacular book, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good read. Its pages hold most honest, accurate, heart-breaking exploration of home that I've ever read. You feel like you've been transported to their family kitchen table as you read it. Along with the recipe for Onion Pie, I'm giving you an excerpt from "Home" that I think you might particularly enjoy.

So, here's a little something to read, and my mom's onion pie. Welcome home.

(And please, PLEASE let me know if you come up with a better name.)

From Marilynne Robinson's "Home":

How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did. After every calamity of any significance, she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what. It would mean peace if they had fought, and amnesty if they had been in trouble. It had meant, You can come down to dinner now, and no one will say a thing to bother you, unless you have forgotten to wash your hands. And her father would offer the grace, inevitable with minor variations, thanking the Lord for all the wonderful faces he saw around his table.

She wished that it mattered more that the three of them loved one another. Or mattered less, since guilt and disappointment seemed so batten on love. Her father and her brother were both laid low by grief, as if it were a sickness, and she had nothing better to offer them than chicken and dumplings. But the thought that she could speak to them in their weary sleep with the memory of comfort lifted her spirits a little. There was a nice young hen in the refrigerator, and there were carrots. There were bay leaves in the cupboard. Baking powder.

So she bathed the hen and set it in water with the carrots and an onion and the bay leaves. Some salt, of course. And she turned on the heat. Poor little animal. This life on earth is a strange business.

Onion Pie

1 1/2 c. soda cracker crumbs (about one package)
1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter

2 1/2 cups red onions
5 green onions
2 tbsp salted butter
1 1/2 c. milk
3 eggs
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
3 cups grated cheddar cheese (I prefer medium or sharp)

Preheat oven to 350.

For crust: Put crackers in food processor and pulse until they are very small crumbs, almost powdery (but not so long that it becomes a fine powder). Melt butter and add to crumbs, mix well so that all crumbs are coated. Press cracker crumb mixture evenly into a 9" pie pan, forming a crust. (The crust might not reach the top of the pan, but this is fine.)

In skillet, saute 2 1/2 cups sliced red onions and five chopped green onions (green and white parts) in 2 tbsp butter, until onions are soft and slightly browned.

Meanwhile, scald 1 1/2 cup milk. Add milk very slowly to 3 slightly beaten eggs, stirring quickly while you add. Add 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper. Add 2 cups grated cheddar cheese and stir to incorporate.

Put sauteed onions in pie shell, forming an even layer. Pour in cheese and liquid, and top with additional cheese.

Bake at 350 for 40 minutes, or until pie is set and cheese is golden and bubbly.
You might want to protect your oven by placing the tie pin on a baking sheet -- it may spill over a bit as it bubbles.

My family is fond of topping each slice with a hefty glob of sour cream and a spatter of hot sauce.


  1. extraordinary how we find home, isn't it? mine is my mother's christmas breakfast casserole. it's a heart attack on a plate. but it is home just the same. thank you for posting this!

  2. that looks great! lovely writing too:)

  3. Home for me has to be scrambled eggs in sauteed tomatoes with garlic & oniions over a bed of rice. I can eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as for snack, and it beats any gourmet dish I've ever made or eaten at some fancy restaurant. It brings me comfort and childhood memories.
    Thanks for posting this. One of my favorites so far.

  4. I love hearing everyone's mom's dishes. I should start a list, a place for people to send in their favorite dishes that mom made.

    The other thing my mom made that I loved was green salad with chilled brown rice and her homemade buttermilk ranch dressing. Sounds a little funny, but it's genius. She made the best brown rice by adding Bragg to the water.

    Ahhh, moms.

  5. OK, I'm taking a stab at the name. How about Red & Green Onion Pie? The red & green is so startling it draws attention away from "onion pie." (Though frankly I don't see what's wrong with "Onion Pie!"