Run For the Roses (to burn some calories)

Derby Pie (or reasonable facsimile therof...)

Derby Pie (or reasonable facsimile therof...)

A couple of years ago who did I find at the other end of the doorbell but the UPS man bearing an unexpected surprise. Consulting the calendar I realized that Angry April (as in, the month of rain and Tax Day) was careening on its usual collision course with Mild Mannered May (as in, flowers, seventy-degree temperatures, and Memorial Day weekend.) The box bore the return address of a concern named “A Taste of Kentucky.” Thus, like Rubik figuring out his cube, I figured out the puzzle of what was in the unexpected box without opening it: Derby Pie.

My old friend Dori, a native Kentuckian transplanted out west, had sent it. I also deduced that without opening the box. She had been telling me about Derby Pie for as long as I had known her, and now, on the eve of The Kentucky Derby, there was one in my hungry paws.

I’m not an avid horse race fan, but I doubt that I have ever missed watching The Kentucky Derby on TV. I think it has something to do with the formality of the occasion. Very little in American life – save for the odd over the top wedding here or the glitzy Senior Prom there – has retained the cheerful formality of Derby Day.

As I was researching the race I noticed that the corporate sponsor is a company named “Yum!” Foods.

Who knew food could be so funny? (Well, I laughed for you.)

Anyway, many racing seasons ago, a man named George Kern invented Derby Pie at a Prospect, Kentucky restaurant named the Melrose Inn. It was his sugary tribute to the big race.  The local success of this pie should not be underestimated. The Kern Family continues to keep the recipe a closely guarded secret, and has registered the name “DERBY-PIE®” as a trademark. They have even sued to protect the sovereignty of the pie.

Therefore, please be advised that any pies I made in connection with writing this piece are not Derby Pie. (Phew! The Butter Flour Eggs Legal Department can now rest easy.) (Kern’s pie can be purchased at many Kentucky supermarkets, and on line here. There. I’m covered.)

Any cloak and dagger is unnecessary: I come to praise Derby Pie, not to bury it.

So, with all this yadda-yadda about the history of the pie, you’re probably shifting impatiently in your seat waiting for me to describe what the heck this pie is when you bring fork to mouth. When Dori first described it to me all those years ago I thought it sounded like Pecan Pie, but with walnuts instead of pecans. But according to her there was so much more than that to Derby Pie.

Finally, that fated day – and the pie-bearing UPS man – arrived. As Dori directed, I warmed the pie gently, and served it with a dab of vanilla ice cream to, as they say, “…cut the sweet.” Cut the sweet? Too late. When it comes to sweet, this pie is unrelenting. Even a hardened old sweet tooth like me found the pie Sweet-with-a-capital-S. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it.

Okay let’s step back for a moment. I decided to make my own facsimile of Derby Pie. I used a recipe I found on the internet. (After all, what the heck do I know about Derby Pie?) The recipe, yes, bears a bit of resemblance to Pecan Pie. Did I mention that it contains three types of sugar? A stick of butter? Enough Kentucky Bourbon for me to need a designated driver? Oh, and chocolate chips? (I felt as though I’d been locked in Paula Deen’s kitchen and was cooking my way out.) As I was making the pie I literally thought, “There’s nothing redeeming in this thing.”

And yet…there’s an undeniable Southern Charm to the pie. It is crunchy where it should be crunchy. It is gooey when it should be gooey. The chocolate seems almost unnecessary but then hits you just in time to mellow the sweet boozy sting of the bourbon. The walnuts lend a slightly oilier crunch than the sweet dryness of pecans would. It is rich and too sweet, and how many Southern Belles can y’all describe with those very words? And y’all love ‘em. This pie is like that.

I know that I am usually writing in this space to advocate getting into the kitchen to cook and bake for your own enjoyment. But this is definitely one time when I wouldn’t blame you for ordering the real Kern’s “DERBY-PIE®” instead of making your own. If you decide to use the recipe I linked to above, I suggest that you use more walnuts than called for in the recipe: closer to 1 ¾ cups will give you more caramelized walnuts – I think they are the best part of this pie – and be sure to not fill the prepared pie crust any more than ¾ full, erring on the side of less. Greedily, I over filled mine, it overflowed and burned on the bottom of my oven. (There’s something particularly stinky about burning sugar.) At the very least place your filled pie on a sheet pan or cookie sheet before putting in the oven.

And don’t forget the ice cream to cut the sweet. (!)


Click here for the recipe for something very similar to Derby Pie, or here to order the real thing.


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One Response to “Run For the Roses (to burn some calories)”

  • Dori Rosenthal:

    Of course I HAD to comment on this particular piece of pie as it were… Yes, it is that time of year again and I am preparing to make my own “Derby Pie” this year as we just moved into our new home and it is not ready yet to host the standard party. Makes me sad as you know I love to have my Derby parties, but I will enjoy some mint julips, hot browns, and of course some pie. I might even dare to make some bourbon balls if I can.
    I wish you were here to partake or at least help with the cooking and eating! I thought that I passed along my friend Whitney’s Derby pie recipe that included coconut last year? I am going to try that one this year for a little something different! I will tell you how it goes! Happy Derby Day friends!

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