Cooking Spree: Peanut Butter Pie

I’m not one of those people who’s in love with peanut butter … I like it, it’s okay, sometimes it hits the spot, but I don’t have to have it. I am, however, a big fan of peanut butter pie.

That love affair began back in the ’80s with the peanut butter pie at Reilley’s, an Irish pub and restaurant on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Reilley’s pie is legendary, decadent and ridiculously delicious. We still talk about it, though it’s been years, probably decades, since I’ve had a piece there.

Last week I was at Hilton Head helping Mom recover from her foot surgery. Mom, I should note, is one of those peanut butter fanatics. She eats it by spoon right from the jar. On crackers, sandwiched between Thin Mints, atop gingersnaps, in a Thai sauce on noodles. Any which way it will come, really. (Oliver thinks it’s pretty nifty as well.)

While we were out to lunch during the week, Mom and I shared slices of peanut butter pie for dessert at two restaurants. Each was a different interpretation on peanut butter pie schools of thought: one a dense, rich version covered in a layer of chocolate, so dense in fact it could almost be considered a bar, and clearly inspired by peanut butter cup candy. The second version is a more traditional pie, with a light, frothy filling of peanut butter whipped with cream or whipped topping. It’s often drizzled with chocolate sauce and plenty of whipped cream, but the filling can be so light that its flavor only distantly resembles peanut butter. I suppose there’s another category for frozen and ice cream pie concoctions, though those don’t interest me as much.

All types have their place, and their legion of fans I’m sure, but if I’m going to eat a peanut butter dessert, I need it to be thick, sticky, sinfully rich and capped by a layer of equally thick, rich chocolate fudge. None of that wimpy chocolate sauce for me. (I also totally want to make out with the genius who first mixed peanut butter and chocolate, because like they say in the Reese’s commercials, it is a marriage that was meant to be, a transcendent combination.)

I realized that I’ve never made peanut butter pie myself, but it’s definitely an item that should be in my repertoire. We’re back at the beach this week, which provides plenty of downtime and plenty of hungry mouths willing to consume anything and everything. It’s the perfect time to work on a culinary masterpiece. So, I scoured the Internet for the most peanut butter cup-like pie recipe I could find.

I’m a bit of a rebel with recipes, in that I substitute when possible, instead of following a recipe to the letter — or worst of all, not making the recipe because I don’t have the right ingredients. Throwing in what I have on hand is the creative, adventurous part that makes cooking and baking fun. For this peanut butter pie, I added crushed pretzel remnants for the crust and milk chocolate chips in the ganache topping, and it turned out just as promised — ridiculously and decadently rich. Plus, it was deemed a winner around the table.

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Peanut Butter Pie

For the crust:
1 1/2 cups crushed pretzel crumbs (you can also use graham crackers or even Oreo cookies)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

For the filling:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
14 ounces 1/3 less fat cream cheese (or neufchatel) — that’s 1 3/4 blocks, softened to room temperature
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter (I like Jif Natural)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the topping:
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
6 (up to 11.5) ounces chopped chocolate (I used Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips, but use semi-sweet or chocolate bars if you wish. Semi-sweet would cut the sweet/richness a bit.)

Oven: 350° F.

Melt the stick of butter in a medium saucepan over low heat — don’t let it burn! Meanwhile, crush the pretzels either in a food processor or by whacking them in a ziploc bag with a rolling pin or large bottle. (A great way to burn off some aggression.) Add the pretzel (or graham cracker, or cookie) crumbs and the sugar to the butter and mix well. Turn out the crumbs into a deep-dish pie plate and press them into the bottom and up the sides to form the crust. Bake at 350° F for 8 minutes, then cool on the stove top and refrigerate if you have time.

In a medium glass/metal/copper mixing bowl, pour in the heavy whipping cream. With a hand or stand mixer, whip on high until you have soft peaks. When you dip the beater blade in the cream and turn it over, a tip forms in the cream but falls over just a little bit. (If the cream tip stood straight, you’d have “stiff peaks,” the ideal stage for whipped cream topping.) Shake off the beaters and store the bowl in the fridge until the next step calls for it.

In another bowl, whip the softened cream cheese and sugar. By the way, it’s very, very important that the cream cheese is at room temperature. Otherwise, it won’t properly mix and could be lumpy. When the cream cheese and sugar are well mixed, add the peanut butter and vanilla. Mix until well incorporated. Drizzle in the melted butter slowly and beat until combined. Clean off the beaters and/or remove the bowl from the mixer. Add the whipped cream to the peanut butter and, using a spatula, carefully fold the peanut butter and cream together. To fold, you don’t really stir, since you don’t want to destroy the volume of the cream. You’ll sort of scrape around the sides, then draw the spatula through the middle, lift and turn it over, scraping along the bottom. Do that repeatedly until the peanut butter and cream mix together. That way you’ll keep the mixture really light.

Pour the peanut butter filling into the cooled pie crust, smooth the top and refrigerate for several hours.

When you’re ready to make the ganache topping, pour the heavy whipping cream into a small saucepan. Heat on medium until warm, but not boiling. Add the chocolate to a separate bowl and pour the hot cream over it, stirring constantly until all of the chocolate is melted. My chocolate had a hard time melting, which made the mix sort of soupy. So I added the rest of the bag of chips and continued to stir until it was smooth and thickened. Pour the chocolate over the top of the pie. Refrigerate again for several hours until the chocolate is set.

Adapted from Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie.

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