It's only 9 a.m. on the Friday before Thanksgiving, but there's already a line at Magee's Bakery in Lexington, Ky., filled with people holding dense, sugary pies they've pulled from the bakery shelves.
Greg Higgins, the president and head baker at Magee's, says a rush for Kentucky transparent pies is pretty typical at this time of year.
"This is a standard thing for us to do because of the number of people who are from Maysville — because that's where the transparent name comes from, in that region," Higgins says.
Maysville, Ky., about 70 miles northeast of Lexington, is the home of the original Magee's Bakery, which opened in the 1930s. Magee's is known for popularizing the transparent pie.
"It's one of the most basic pies that you can make in terms of the ingredients, because it mainly consists of sugar and eggs and milk with a little bit of flour," Higgins says. "You just have a pie shell with that liquid filling that you pour off and bake off."
Higgins says most new customers are enchanted by the "transparent" name, though the pie filling is really just colorless (not totally transparent like the clear pumpkin pie from the Chicago restaurant Alinea, which has recently taken the internet by storm).
While the attention-grabbing name is unique — and first started appearing in Kentucky newspaper advertisements and articles in the 1890s — food historian Sarah Baird says the dessert actually closely resembles pies from other regions of the United States.
"When you go into Indiana you have sugar pies," Baird says. "It's kind of a kissing-cousin of shoofly pie, which is in Pennsylvania."
She also mentions chess pies, originally found in New England, and Southern buttermilk pies. All of these have the same simple sugary liquid filling that is baked down in a shell.
Baird did some in-depth research on the origin of the transparent pie for her book Kentucky Sweets.
She thinks part of its original popularity — and the popularity of similar variations — was due to its accessibility to rural families.
"What everyone in my research kept coming back to over and over is that it's a pie that doesn't require something expensive like pecans," Baird says. "They are kind of farm ingredients, right? You are going to have all those ingredients in the pantry or on the farm. You can go get the eggs, you will have the cream."
She says the actual origin of the transparent name is still kind of a mystery — but it's something that is definitely unique to the Maysville area.
Back at Magee's, Greg Higgins recalls a conversation in which he tried describing a chess pie — a dessert that has the same basic ingredients as a transparent pie — to a friend from Maysville.
"And they say, 'You mean a transparent pie?'" Higgins says. "That's just what they know."
Transparent Pie Recipe
Though Magee's prefers to keep its transparent pie recipe in-house, here's one family recipe from Sarah Baird that you can try at home.
One 9-inch pie (8 servings)
Active time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Additional tools: pie plate, rolling pin
For the crust
1 cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup of granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp water, chilled
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, chilled
For the filling
8 tbs butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup (about 8 ounces) heavy cream
4 medium eggs, beaten
2 tbs all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using a food processor, pulse together flour, salt, sugar, water and butter until the dough begins to come together (it will appear crumbly.) Remove dough from processor and knead gently, without overworking, until the dough is formed into a 1/2-inch thick disc. Cover with cling wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. After the crust has chilled, remove from the refrigerator and allow to rest for five minutes. Using a rolling pin, roll out the crust, then press into a pie plate or tin, crimping the edges and removing any excess dough. Set aside.
Using an electric hand mixer, beat together butter and sugar until fully smooth, about 3 minutes. Add cream and eggs, beating until smooth, then stir in flour and vanilla with a large spatula. Pour filling into crust. Bake until a golden brown crust forms on top and a toothpick inserted comes out clean, about 45 minutes.