“Molly’s Chocolate Pie”

by Diane Duane

Some of you will know (or guess) that I’m interested in the intersection of Sherlock Holmes and food. God knows, in canon Holmes really enjoys his meals, and one of his standard reactions to a big cheque at the end of a case is to rub his hands together with glee, grab Watson, and run straight off to a good restaurant. (For example, “…I have a box for Les Huguenots. Might I trouble you then to be ready in half an hour, and we can stop at Marcini’s for a little dinner on the way?” [HOUN]; “When we have finished at the police station I think that something nutritious at Simpson’s would not be out of place.” [DYIN])

So when the excellent  Azriona started a new fic entitled Mise en Place, and AU-cast Sherlock as a sort-of-Gordon-Ramsay, of course I was interested. In this scenario, John is the co-owner with his sister Harriet of a superannuated, deeply indebted and generally ailing family restaurant on which abrasive-celebrity-chef Sherlock descends to either fix it or put it out of its misery. During the initial assessment meal, for his dessert Sherlock’s served a piece of chocolate pie made by Molly (once waitress, now occupying the position of cook under duress) and finds it not only the only edible thing he’s been given but actually worth finishing.

Now, I enjoy baking, and really like a good cake or pie (as this might indicate). So when Azriona put up the recipe for Molly’s pie, I said, “Hmm, okay, let’s give it a shot and see how it turns out.” Obviously this was going to imply a conversion of the ingredient quantities (as well as some substitutions) for cooks on this side of the water, where — in modern times anyway — recipe measurements, at least of dry ingredients, are routinely done by weight rather than volume.

So here it is.

From the bottom up…

The crust:


The closest readily available UK/Irish equivalent is the “digestive biscuit,” a slightly sweet wholemeal / whole wheat “cookie”/ biscuit with a slightly different texture. To the right is one from one of the better-known brands, McVities.

The Food Network crumb crust recipe is as usual slanted toward the US market and uses US measurements and concepts. Well, fine, they’re playing to their major market. But here we run hard into one of the more annoying problems for the UK-Irish-European-based cook: There are no graham crackers here.  (Well, okay, there are some… in specialty stores that cater to expats… but you do NOT want to pay what they’re going to charge you.)

Overall, in terms of flavor and performance, the digestive biscuit is an OK substitute. But now we run into a problem: how many of these do you need? Because here we run into another difficulty: the Food Network recipe is calibrated in “graham cracker sheets”. This means the longer one of these, to the left:


…So we need to know what one of those “sheets” weighs. The trouble is, go Googling to find out and you get a lot of different answers, not to mention people arguing more or less fruitlessly about what constitutes a serving. I went off to the Nabisco site to try to pull data from the nutritional info panel of the brand I remember best from my US childhood, Honey Maid grahams, but they weren’t incredibly helpful. Calories? Yes. Weight of sheet? No. (“Serving Size: 31 g. Serving[s] per container: About 13.” [eyeroll] “About”? Seriously, guys, if you don’t know, who do we ask? Sheesh.) Worse, this site suggests that a serving is two sheets “weighing about 28g”. Yeah, but is that 28g per sheet, or per the whole serving? Is it too much to ask these folks to write clearly? (Other people have been having this kind of problem as well. This makes me feel slightly better. But only slightly.)

Anyway: somebody over here has actually specified weight (and also appears to have put the graham crackers through a bomb calorimeter, which is scientifically interesting if not culinarily germane). THANK YOU GUYS. A sheet weighs 14g.

Moving along: a single digestive biscuit weighs 14g on my scale. A perfect 1:1 correlation: something I’ll never need to waste time thinking about again, all Gods be praised.

Onward. The Food Network crumb crust recipe converts this way:

Makes 1 9-inch pie crust

14 digestive biscuits (196g), finely crumbed (I put mine through the food processor, but stuffing them into a Zip-Loc bag and bashing them mercilessly with a rolling pin would certainly work as well)

  • 3 tablespoons / 48g sugar (Irish cooks / cookbooks have a tendency to assume you’re rounding/heaping your spoonsful, where US cooks would routinely level. I split the difference here and rounded slightly.)
  • 6 tablespoons / 72g unsalted butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 175C. Process the biscuits and sugar together until finely crumbed. Add the melted butter and pulse until moist (or stir in well with a fork if you couldn’t be arsed to mess up the processor for this).
Press the mixture into a 9-inch pie plate and bake until firm, 18 minutes or so.

European cooks, please note! — While the original recipe says “18 to 22 minutes”, if you leave this version of the crust in for 22 minutes, it will have burnt itself black. The digestive biscuit crumbs are (I think) denser than graham cracker crumbs, and a bit more heat-absorptive. Also, if you’re using a fan oven, that will speed things up as well. I’d start checking the crust at about 14 minutes — 12 or 13 if you’ve got a fan oven — and yank the thing out as soon as the top edges start to get seriously brown.

A note in passing about making this crust: Normally I tend to fight shy of graham / crumb crusts because they can be fairly uncontrollable (not to mention difficult to make pretty). It’s like making a sandcastle, but the sand is greasy and you’re working in a pie pan. Push down in one spot, it pops up in another and tries to escape over the edge. While I was making this, I found myself muttering “Next time I’m doing this damn thing in a springform.” …Maybe I will.

Now to the filling:

Here again, the measurements are slightly less problematic than the ingredients.

Not until relatively recently have there been good dedicated baking chocolates on the UK market: and none* of the best ones are local. In particular, until quite recently there’s been nothing at all locally available that corresponds to the “Baker’s” brand cooking/baking chocolate familiar to most serious US cooks. A lot of UK-based cooks, if they don’t have access to something patissier-specific like the lovely Belgian Callebaut, will routinely reach for Cadbury’s Bourneville when baking something that calls for semisweet. But this isn’t an ideal solution, as that bar of Bourneville you get from the Tesco is a confectionery item rather than a baking ingredient. It contains additional vegetable fats, and more sugar than is strictly necessary.

Nonetheless, I went with the Bourneville (which comes in at only 40% cocoa mass or thereabouts) for this first pie, simply because it’s affordable and there’s sort of a cultural bias towards it. If as a casual cook I wanted to goose the cocoa mass percentage in this pie up to the recommended 60% or thereabouts, I would pick up a bar of Lindt Excellence 70% or something similar and split the total chocolate weight about half and half between that and the Bourneville. Or I’d look around the shops for something from Green & Black’s. (When I take another run at this, though, it’ll be an all-Lindt production, since I’m staring at two bars of the 70% Excellence at the moment.)

In any case, the cooked chocolate custard that results even when you’ve only used Bournville in this approaches a pot-de-crème-like consistency and smoothness. Very nice indeed.** (I’d also think seriously about making this pie with Green & Black’s Maya Gold instead of plain semisweet chocolate. Mmmmm.)

So, onward! The ingredients:

  • 450ml milk
  • 92g sugar
  • 30g cornflour / corn starch
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 large egg yolks (at room temperature)
  • 2 tablespoons / 30ml brewed coffee, cooled
  • 1/2 teaspoon / 2.5ml vanilla extract
  • 115g semisweet baking chocolate, chopped (21 of those little blocks in the large 200g Bourneville bar will take you just over this, to 121g. You may as well eat the rest. The angels weep if you waste chocolate.)

As per Azriona’s recipe:

1. Heat the milk in a large saucepan until hot but not boiling.

2. Whisk the sugar, cornstarch and salt in a large bowl; then whisk in the egg yolks, coffee and vanilla. Whisk half of the hot milk into the egg mixture until smooth, then gradually whisk the egg mixture into the pan with the remaining milk.

3. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture boils and thickens, 3 to 5 minutes. (If you have a thermometer, the mix should be at least 160F to ensure that the eggs are cooked and you’re not going to kill anybody. Sherlock would be disappointed, but your friends and family won’t be.) Note that this produces an extremely thick and tight custard, very very quickly. Don’t turn your back on this one, and by no means stop whisking during the cooking period or the whole business will burn. Also, turn that heat right down as soon as it starts boiling. You need to keep the cooking process gentle, as the custard’s consistency damn near approaches that of magma as it tightens.

4. Remove from the heat and whisk in the chocolate until melted. Transfer to a bowl and cool slightly, stirring a few times to prevent a skin from forming. (You might do this over cold water if you like, but just make sure you stir it quite regularly until it hits the just-before-lukewarm stage.)

5. Pour the filling into the crust; press plastic wrap directly onto the surface and chill until set, at least 4 hours. (Just because it’s something I do in these cases, I buttered the plastic wrap first.)

6. Cut, top with whipped cream and shaved chocolate, and serve.

A couple of notes in passing:

  • I left the pie alone for six hours before cutting a test slice. It had set well at that point, but it’s still a soft set. In the morning, after a total of about 14 hours, it cut more cleanly but the set was still on the soft side. If you’re one of those people who wants their cut pie to stand perfectly upright even at the pointy end, you may not get that here.
  • Softly whipped cream seems to suit this better than very stiff cream. Your mileage may vary.
  • This is a REALLY GOOD PIE. I may take another run at it in a day or two and tart it up a little. But still. REALLY GOOD. I just now had it for breakfast and I suspect I’m going to have it for lunch as well. The rest of it is going down to our local to be shared with our neighbors before we make total pigs of ourselves.

So go make this pie.

*As far as I know.

**Peter thinks that this would make a good cooked-custard-based ice cream mix. GTFO, Mr. Husband. (Actually I think it would need to be a thinner for the ice cream machine’s sake, but the flavor would certainly work.)






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P J Evans August 26, 2013 - 7:58 pm

On serving sizes and labelling: I buy ‘club sandwich’ packages of sliced turkey: three flavors, five slices of each, in a 9 ounce package. The label says: one serving = three slices; servings per package: two. WTF??!! I can do arithmetic, TYVM, and 15/3 is most definitely not 2.

I have a copy (somewhere, in one of the boxes I can’t get to) of the’ Fanny Farmer Baking Book’, by Marion Cunningham, which has a recipe for graham crackers. (Also has one for dog biscuits, and one for teething biscuits.)

baker at large October 21, 2013 - 6:34 am

On the graham cracker thing, I use Biscoff imports here in America a lot and generally pass them off as European graham crackers. I know they aren’t exactly the same, but functionally they taste the same, and in some cases are more useful (that spread stuff is awesome as an ice cream flavor).

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